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Gillette: Changing the game

Anyone in any doubt as to the need for the new Gillette campaign need look Gillette no further than the foaming outrage which has greeted it all over the Twittersphere and other media platforms.

The reaction from many in its (clearly target) audience was instant and visceral, branding the ad part of the ‘current pathetic global assault on masculinity’ ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘belittling or emotionally manipulating men’ as they tossed their razors into the bin, like so many toys out of a pram. Yet a moment’s reflection on the actual content of the ad shows that the range of male behaviour it showcases is not confined to stereotypical displays of bullying, physical assault, groping, sexist mansplaining & demeaning language – also featured are thoughtful intervention, kindness, caring concern, peaceful resolution – bravery, in short, in the form of stepping in when it might be so much easier not to.

The howls of indignation from its detractors at the affront they perceive to the former behaviours clearly demonstrates that these are the ones with which they identify their own masculinity: physical intimidation, bullying, abuse of power, sexual harassment. In a world in which the US President can freely speak of ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’ and the behaviour/demeanour and dress of sexual assault victims is routinely scrutinised as a possible justification for assault while their perpetrators remain invisible, it’s hardly reasonable to ask how this has come about. And for many men, this kind of entitled aggression, and acting out daily the impulses and behaviours which stem from it without being questioned or challenged – exemplify what it means to be a man.

The point is – it’s time to redefine that – this is a norm that serves no one – not even those it (superficially) privileges by holding them unaccountable – and the anger that has greeted Gillette is a barometer showing exactly the extent to which their ad is challenging harmful stereotypical behaviour by confounding expectations with an alternative notion of what it means to be a man.

The Gillette campaign is also crystal clear on the impact on boys of every single one of the cultural messages to which they are exposed through mass and social media – and through the behaviour of male role models that surround them.
This matters. In a piece published yesterday in Time magazine, Laurie Halse Anderson, a survivor/educator who has spoken to thousands of young people in American schools explains that her interactions with these children have shown to her time and again that as victims or friends of victims of physical or sexual assault young men can find the expectations of them as males make it difficult to speak out in order to seek help for themselves or others close to them. In this and other ways, boys and men are every bit as much the victims of toxic masculinity as everyone else.

‘‘The empathetic boys searching for ways to help survivors and the boys who believe that rape only counts if it is committed by an armed stranger have more in common than you’d think. They struggle in the absence of information. They are looking for leadership and models of behavior. They share a desire to learn more…How do we reduce the horrifying amount of sexual violence in this country?
We talk to our boys. Parents, family members, educators, clergy and other leaders have the opportunity and responsibility to model and teach consent from the time kids are old enough to walk’

A report from the Samaritans on Men and suicide says:

‘The masculine ideal requires that men should never be depressed, anxious or unable to cope, and if they are, they should never admit it. So the very experience of being distressed, or having a mental health problem, can be psychologically difficult for men because they are ‘not supposed’ to be vulnerable in this way.’

Anderson’s piece also highlights that it was clear that many of the boys she spoke to were extremely hazy about what constituted sexually abusive behaviour – and what the impact of that could be on others: ‘They see his violence as a reasonable outcome. Many of them have clearly been in the same situation. They say this openly. They are not ashamed; they are ill-informed. These boys have been raised to believe that a rapist is a bad guy in the bushes with a gun. They aren’t that guy, they figure, so they can’t be rapists.’

This knowledge gap: the deficit in information and models of behaviour so badly needed by boys and young men are exactly why sexual violence prevention work with young people, like that undertaken in schools across Scotland by RCS, is so vital.

It is why campaigns like ‘The Best A Man Can Get’, currently a mightily refreshing blast of fresh air in the mainstream advertising wilderness must be shared and celebrated at every opportunity.

For make no mistake – culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum – and where men who might - and who could - step up, intervene and make change are reluctant or refuse to do so, others bent on reinforcing the status quo, and taking it to new extremes, will capitalize, and market a very different message. And many of these dangerous opportunists really do seem to be acting on the assumption that the cultural climate is such that their messages promoting predatory behaviour can be advertised with impunity. Fortunately, increasingly, this is not the case. A furious backlash in 2016 prevented self-styled ‘pick-up artist’ Roosh V from visiting Glasgow and Edinburgh (a response which, apparently oblivious to irony, he claimed made the streets unsafe for men who planned to attend his ‘workshops’), and in the past week a man in Glasgow was remanded in custody following revelations of videos posted online.

Also this week, news emerged from the US of ‘Real Social Dynamics’, another group of so-called ‘pick-up artists’ who apparently plan to visit Edinburgh in April in order to run ‘workshops’ and ‘bootcamps’ for men who want to learn to attract women. This polarising of the sexes, and reduction of women to objects of sporting conquest, whose resistance must be overcome, is extremely damaging. At Rape Crisis Scotland we hear from many, many women and girls who’ve been targeted and abused by predatory individuals – the impact of these crimes can be devastating and sometimes have a lifelong impact. We’ve been working for years to inform and educate young people - to reduce as far as possible their vulnerability – or the possibility that they might choose to behave in a way that could be sexually harmful to someone else.

The incitement sent out by self-publicising menaces like those mentioned above must be rejected wholesale – and replaced with comprehensive education on consent, respect, equality and human rights.

The message sent out by Gillette this week offers a powerful, welcome and vital invitation to men to commit to being allies in making this a reality.

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