An ad from Gillette blew up the Internet earlier this month. You've seen it. The one that says men need to do better. It strikes against bullying and sexual harassment…you know, toxic masculinity.
The usual vetflakes and emotionally fragile reactionaries immediately went into spasms of rage over the idea that a company was telling them that they shouldn't catcall women or let a kid get beaten by an unruly mob chasing him.
Some people are legitimately outraged by the idea that young men shouldn't be giving each other beatdowns. A not insignificant group feels seriously threatened by being told to be better.
To them, showing a parent correcting two boys having a fistfight in the middle of a barbecue is an attack against masculinity itself. If the behaviors depicted as negative in the ad are what you think masculinity is, then the issue isn't with the ad, it's with you.
We Believe: The Best Men Can Be | Gillette (Short Film)
The Gillette ad only says the phrase “toxic masculinity” briefly in background audio, but that's clearly its target and the subject of the ensuing controversy.
Is attacking toxic masculinity the same as an attack on masculinity itself?
This is one of those instances when the popular military phrase “breaking it down Barney-style” seems appropriate. Yes, there are such things as masculinity and femininity, even today. Men and women are different, and thank God or whoever or whatever made it that way. Evolution gave us the thousands of objective biological differences that define masculinity and femininity.
Those aren't what triggered people about the Gillette ad. Our social definitions did.
There are hundreds of social rituals and signifiers of masculinity and femininity, from who does what in the home to who opens doors to who wears lacy underwear. Some of them are benign, some aren't, and they all change over time. They form our mental concepts of what masculine and feminine mean, giving structure and context to relationships between men and women. While some people accept that and others reject it, it's the world we live in.
Men are expected to show physical strength and take the initiative in approaching women. Men who do those things are regarded as more masculine, and are generally respected more for it. That's not right or wrong, it just is.
A problem comes when people think that if some of that behavior is good, more is better.
Being physically strong and standing up to bullies are positive examples of classic masculinity. Using that strength to bully others is toxic masculinity.
Taking the initiative and asking a woman to dance is masculine. Taking that initiative to catcall a woman is toxic masculinity.
Saying that those behaviors are toxic masculinity makes some people uncomfortable, or even angry. Those people are fools, liars, or both.
They say deliberately obtuse things like “So now it's toxic masculinity to compliment a woman?” That question is so inane that answering it sounds like explaining things to a slow child. Saying “You're so sexy” to your girlfriend is masculinity. Saying “You're so sexy” to a coworker is toxic masculinity.
The difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity isn't hard to understand, but many people conflate the two, and say that criticizing the worst men is the same as criticizing men generally.
If you feel that criticizing objectively bad behavior or telling men to do better is attacking you, then that's a comment on you, not on Gillette. If you know you don't behave like that, it's not directed at you. Move on.
But if you feel uncomfortable or resentful about that ad, you need to think long and hard about what you're doing and what you're teaching your children.
Don't wrap your guilt and dysfunction in some higher purpose by wrapping it in traditional values or patriotism, especially through stupid memes. The real male heroes of today and yesteryear aren't respected because of their masculinity, but because of the strong traits underlying it: courage and honor. When the strength that allows a man to stand up for others is used to degrade and exploit them instead, that's when it becomes weakness, and when positive masculinity becomes toxic.
While masculinity is an expression of strength, toxic masculinity is a symptom of weakness. No person of strong character is a bully or harasser. Maybe Gillette was trying to create social change. Maybe it was just trying to hock razors.
Either way, it separated the men from the boys pretending to be men.
Carl Forsling is a senior columnist for Task & Purpose. He is a Marine MV-22B pilot and former CH-46E pilot who retired from the military after 20 years of service. He is the father of two children and a graduate of Boston University and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @CarlForsling