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Is the new Gillette razor ad a radical feminist attack on masculinity – the commercial embodiment of a woke sensibility? I was prepared to think so. But having watched it twice, I find a lot to like. The ad has been panned by some conservative commentators. With all due respect, I think they are falling into a trap. They seem to have accepted the feminist framing. Feminists see culture as a Manichean struggle. It’s women versus men. Women are benign and men are malign. For society to progress, men must change. We must extirpate “toxic masculinity.”
Understandably, this rubs conservatives the wrong way. I’ve risen to the defense of masculinity many times myself. But is the Gillette ad really “the product of mainstream radicalized feminism—and emblematic of Cultural Marxism,” as Turning Point USA’s Candace Owen put it? Is it part of “a war on masculinity in America,” as Todd Starnes argued on Fox News?
Conservatives stripping off their coats to get into this brawl are like the man who, seeing a barfight unfold, asks “Is this a private quarrel or can anyone join in?”
Let’s figure out what the fight is about before taking sides.
There were a couple of undercurrents in the Gillette ad that suggested feminist influence – the term “toxic masculinity” should itself be toxic – but overall, the ad is pretty tame, even valuable. I have no idea if it’s the best way to sell razors, but as social commentary, it’s not offensive. “The Best Men Can Be” begins by showing men looking the other way as boys fight, shrugging “boys will be boys.” It shows men laughing at a comedy portraying a lout pantomiming a lunge at a woman’s behind. It shows kids teasing a boy for being a “freak” or a “sissy.” These are followed by more uplifting images of men breaking up fights, interfering with men who are harassing women, and being loving fathers to daughters. We hear a quote from former NFL star Terry Crews, saying “Men need to hold other men accountable.” These images didn’t strike me as a reproof of masculinity per se, but rather as a critique of bullying, boorishness, and sexual misconduct.
By reflexively rushing to defend men in this context, some conservatives have run smack into an irony. Imaging themselves to be men’s champions, they are actually defending behavior, like sexual harassment and bullying, that a generation or two ago conservatives were the ones condemning. Sexual license, crude language, and retreat from personal responsibility were the hallmarks of the left. It was to epate la bourgeoisie that leftists chanted “Up against the wall, [expletive]” on college campuses. Liberals were the crowd saying “Let it all hang out,” “If it feels good, do it,” and “chaste makes waste.” Feminists were the ones eyeing daggers at men who held chairs or doors for them, and insisting that a “woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
The left won that cultural battle. Standards of conduct for both sexes went out the window. Whereas men had once been raised to behave themselves in front of women — “Watch your language, there are ladies present” – they were instead invited to believe that women deserved no special consideration at all.
As I’ve written many times, the MeToo movement may conceive of itself as a protest of “traditional masculinity,” but that’s only because memories are short. It’s actually a protest against the libertine culture the sexual revolution ushered in. Some men are behaving really badly – harassing women, bullying each other, and failing in their family responsibilities. Some women are too, though the MeToo movement doesn’t acknowledge that aspect of things. But these behaviors are not “traditional.” They’ve always existed, of course, but they went mainstream with the counterculture, which is now the culture. In any case, everyone, left and right, who values decent behavior should be able to agree that encouraging men to be non-violent, polite, and respectful is not anti-male. It’s just civilized.
Conservatives should applaud that aspect of the Gillette message. Progressives, in turn, should grapple with the overwhelming evidence that the best way to raise honorable men is with two parents. We may wish it were otherwise, but fathers — as disciplinarians, role models, and loving husbands — are key to rearing happy, healthy, and responsible sons, as well as self-confident, happy, and high-achieving daughters.
That’s the cultural reform we so badly need. Any corporate volunteers? Apple? Google?