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Can Gillette’s New Ad Turn Minds as Well as Heads?

Even as 'virtue schooling' widens the political divide, a new discussion space is up for grabs

When I started seeing headlines about the Gillette ad backlash, I assumed that the online reverberations came from feminists frustrated that the new advertisement was not “new” enough: too generic, too vague, too still-just-selling-razors. As it turned out, most of the online anger came from men who felt that the advertisement’s call to stop making excuses for violence was going to turn the entire male population into negligible wimps. Confronted by the possibility of having to take responsibility for their actions rather than hide behind convenient adages such as “boys will be boys,” this audience not only demanded that men be entitled to continue acting in toxic ways, but insisted on their right to remain the only ones allowed to interpret reality. From the vantage point of my feminist culture bubble in young and queer Berlin, I was shocked to be reminded of just how many men held this position and by how much air time major media gave them, despite the incongruity of much of their response. While Gillette’s main intention may well have been to rebrand capitalism for young Americans, their advertisement went further. Rather than suggesting, as usual, that women’s internalized self-hatred can be instantly resolved by shaving their entire bodies — apparently in an effort to become delicate goddesses worthy of a man’s loving touch in a heteroromantic scenario  — Gillette presented its male consumers an ethics of recognition makeover. To be a modern man, the ad suggests, you need to shave off the stubble of toxicity. (Presumably, votes in support of this virtue are to be cast with our purchasing power.)

One cause for celebration is that the reactions to the ad have managed to break through the segregation between two major hegemonies: politically correct discourse, in which the only acceptable norm is to be feminist (or, at least, pretending well-enough to be one); and the dark side of conservative “community” and their violently pro-patriarchal positions, in which feminist discourse is banned as a matter of course. Far from having realized Gillette’s supposed aspiration to “better” mankind, the advertisement (and its backlash) has increased the visibility of those men who not only do not wish to get “better,” but who violently oppose this demand being made of them in the public forum. Feminists, in turn, are not just covering the ad, but trying to understand what is it that these angry men saw, and criticizing those who were upset by it. In this way, these groups — and more, their discourses — have become mutually visible to one another. These groups have come into contact not just in the form of the usual memes of political opposition, but through detailed, often frame-by-frame reactions to particular actions and narratives presented by the ad, and are often ready to answer questions in the comments too.

While many respondents have expressed agreement that violence or mobbing are bad, the overwhelming bulk of online anger is directed at what is perceived as Gillette’s attempt to normalize a feminist agenda while“masculine” virtues get bad press. So when one millennial threatens the loss of a customer base, accusing Gillette of showing him “the exact opposite of what I want to hear from a company that sells me something extraordinarily interchangeable,” it becomes clear that his and others’ problem is not with a company “signaling virtue.” The problem is that he wants the signaling done so inconspicuously that he does not feel alienated by its implications.

By aiming at what they may have perceived to be a generational consensus, Gillette has put themselves at the center of a political conflict. That young people occupy conflicting sides shows that the clash over condemning male violence is not along generational lines. By giving millennials the ad Gillette thought young consumers wanted, worlds were brought into contact. Rather than a clash between young and old, the division spot-lit by the Gillette ad backlash is that of conflicting movements. Each commentator names one perceived opponent: feminists, corporations, perpetrators of male violence, the left, the right, etcetera. Most seem to be satisfied with vehement denial of their opponents’ claims to truth, but simply re-creating the straw man and shouting at them not only recreates the false binary implied by Gillette, but exasperates it.

On The ViewWhoopi Goldberg summarized the ad neatly: “What they are basically saying is don’t be a jerk.” What Goldberg didn’t account for was the significance of the larger patterns drawn out by the divergent interpretations made by her fellow panelists. The relationship between the movements colliding in response to the ad is antagonistic because what is at stake is not just a battle over ethical ideals of right and wrong, but the bodily integrity of those involved: how we recognize a man, and a person; whose concerns are valid; who is entitled to speak.

Where does Gillette fit in the ongoing discourse? While we might thank the company for reminding us that, outside our bubbles, there is no consensus on how to be “better” man, and neither have we reached one when it comes to male violence, we cannot look to corporate ads to win a political issue. If we generally agree that violence is a problem and that “toxic masculinity” is a particular expression of that problem, characteristic of the sexist societies we live in, this conversation cannot remain within the extremely careful framework of “toxic masculinity” depicted by Gillette. The fact that the media has deemed consumers ready for male responsibility as a form of product branding is a testament to political struggle (including the #MeToo movement), and a sign that the society Gillette is purportedly “reaching out to” has, in fact, already shifted. Indeed, if we (feminists) agree with the general message of this ad, which also does not equal to trusting the corporations that present them, we must take this problem beyond the themes of the ad. Let’s keep the discussion alive, while working towards actually bringing to trial the violence perpetrated by men. The left are no less entitled to smuggle more problems into this discussion than those who use it to talk about men’s rights. To fail to use this chance for interchange would be the kind of self-censorship that erases radical movements even as it attempts to make them “accessible” — that is, digestible by the establishment.

This virtual clash is an opportunity of international proportions. While coverage may have focused on how Gillette’s advertisement underscored political divisions in the United States, the reach of Procter & Gamble — the corporation that owns Gillette — is global. An American Gillette ad can trigger a review article on a Russian/Ukrainian leftist site; Gillette factories operate in RussiaChina, and 33 other countries. It is not news that, besides natural resources and humans, corporate power is reproduced through the appropriation of political movements as soon as they are normalized enough to have become profitable. Companies with such mass outreach as Procter & Gamble deliver information to people who, as we have seen, differ from one another. This difference does not get resolved through the rhetorical “schooling” of an advertisement. When an anti-feminist delivers an academic definition of toxic masculinity to her viewers and continues to deny that violence can be gendered, we are yet again confronted with the fact that it is not a lack of information per se that makes people negligent about specific issues. At the end of a day of watching Youtube videos, we stand before the imminent political task: having been put in contact with our opponents, we need to decide whether to treat them as victims, adversaries, or enemies. This responsibility cannot be displaced onto a corporation, or anybody else who claims to represent us when we know that this representation is not adequate. If we intend to share a world with people who use their privilege to perpetrate violence against us, it’s them our message (the one co-opted by Gillette) needs to reach: not the representations of “bad men” we now see in advertising, but those men who continue to serve as the Gillette ad’s living proof.

Vira Sachenko is a researcher working in the fields of Anglophone literature, ethics, and psychoanalysis, based at the University of Potsdam.

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