The Gillette ad that broke the internet is what women have been taught their whole lives
It was the advertisement that spurred a million Twitter threads. In early January, between public outrage over the stupid things that disgraced YouTuber Jake Paul said and the disrespectful behaviour of students at Covington Catholic School, people on social media got very riled up about a two-minute Gillette commercial that suggested men can be better. From bemoaning the use of “boys will be boys” as a blanket excuse, to invoking the #MeToo movement, the ad argued that men will only be the best they can be when they hold each other accountable and, you know, show basic decency to women and each other.
Of course, this caused men on the internet to go absolutely bananas. The ad was called leftist propaganda by some, and opportunistic corporate virtue-signalling by others. I have no desire to debate either of these stances—it should be painfully obvious that toxic masculinity is very much a real and prevalent issue, and that corporations will never stand for progress if they truly believe it will hurt their profit margins. But one idea that gained particular traction from the more misogynistic corners of social media is interesting: the Gillette ad could not exist if the gender roles were reversed. If a brand urged women to correct their behaviour, we would not celebrate it or even tolerate it. This opinion has been posed (almost solely by men) on subreddits and angry blog posts, with even right-wing favourites like Piers Morgan agreeing that a gender reversal would lead to “all hell[…] break[ing] loose.”
The only problem with Morgan’s opinion is that it’s completely untrue. On the contrary, from a very young age, women and girls are explicitly taught to address the issues of bullying, respect, and self-esteem from a gendered lens.
From Disney Channel special episodes to sleepover go-to movies such as Mean Girls, Clueless, and Legally Blonde, plenty of media targeted towards young women includes the not-so-subtle message that women should be lifting other women up, not tearing each other down. Advertising for everything from skincare products to tampons focus on the need for girls to love their bodies and believe in themselves. As positive and important as this message is, these discussions of body image and empowerment rarely focus on any social—dare I say patriarchal—factors that contribute to these issues in the first place, instead treating insecurity as a behavioural shortcoming that women can overcome with the right encouragement.
That’s not even beginning to touch all the brands that don’t even bother trying to capitalize on self-love, and instead encourage women to just change everything about themselves. If men are truly upset about being discouraged from schoolyard fights and workplace sexual harassment, they should spend a day being told that their weight, hair, skin, teeth, face, fashion sense, and personality (in no particular order) need a makeover. Although the intentions of chick flicks and airbrushed advertisements are very different, one thing is clear: women and girls spend their whole lives being told how they can and should be better.
It’s even being incorporated into public school curriculum. When I was in middle school, the girls in my class and I spent one recess per week in “Go Girls,” a program run by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada. Highlights included naming things we liked about ourselves and making a pact that we would never let one of our fellow girls sit alone at lunch. Although this program runs nationally, it has a lot of competition with non-profits like Girls Inc., Girl Guides of Canada, and Young Women on the Move offering similar services.
The names may vary, but most of my female peers remember participating in similar programs in public school, and being taught specifically about women-centered issues, like catfighting and body image as part of their health curriculum. Very few of my male friends, however, can remember anything comparable. They never had to invest free time each week to participate in all-boys programs or make a pact to not get into physical altercations with their friends—some cannot even remember learning about consent in school.
I frequently hear people speak about how, while men tend to fight physically, women fight with words. I can’t speak to how accurate this is universally, although in my own experiences, it would seem to be true. So why are we teaching girls that female catfights are an unhealthy way to handle conflict, but not teaching our boys the same for roughhousing? Gender indisputably affects where we stand in this world, and girls have been taught that their entire lives. The tragedy is that men have not, leaving them woefully unprepared to reflect and grow in the age of #MeToo.
Ultimately, the problem here is not that Gillette took a gendered approach when exploring violence and bullying. The problem is that it’s easy for men to see this ad as an attack on their entire gender because, in the past, they’ve never had to see bullying for what it is: a gendered issue.
The solution might not be any more Gillette ads. After all, it would be hard to argue that a major corporation like Procter and Gamble saw their own ad as anything more than a smart marketing move. But we are definitely one step closer to finding a solution when we stop being afraid to discuss how our gender affects the ways in which we need to grow and improve. After all, women and girls have already been doing it for years.
Graphic by @spooky_soda