“Toxic masculinity” in advertising: keeping women scared and men shamed

Frightening women out of their wits for no good reason and arousing shame in male viewers as both films are designed to do, serves no purpose other than to demonize men collectively.

Barbara Kay Montreal QC

Some students of human nature believe that, because our ancestors could only survive as a species human through a constant awareness of danger, we are endowed with an inherent need to be in a “state of fear” about something or other, even if the objective danger is neither existential nor widespread. It’s certainly true that political movements often encourage a state of fear to enhance their image of indispensability.

Feminism is the reigning orthodoxy of our era, and for feminists, men (almost invariably white heterosexual men) are a favourite target for fear mongering.  Short film/ads make excellent promotional vehicles for ideas and attitudes. I wrote about the now-infamous, feminism-inspired Gillette short film in these pages last week, a semi-humorous riff on the corporate cynicism behind its conception. But I knew my off-the-cuff riposte had not really addressed my deeper concerns about it, so the film continued to nag at me.

It reminded me of another social-messaging film I had seen and written about. In 2012, to mark the annual commemoration of the 1989 Montreal Polytechnic massacre of 14 women engineering students, the Canadian Women’s Foundation put out a short but effective little film addressing the problem of male violence—in particular sexual violence—against women. To me it symbolized what I most dislike about feminists’ marketing campaigns: their utter contempt for men, and their willingness to distort evidence in order to demonize them while creating an unnecessary state of fear in women.

The scenario is a baby shower (“It’s a girl!” banner close-up tells us the unborn baby is female). Gifts are being opened by the young mother, as a doting circle of friends and relatives of diverse ages looks on. Notably, every one of the shower guests is beautifully groomed and fashionably kitted out. A gift is passed to the expectant mother. She opens it and holds the unwrapped object up, puzzled. “What is it?” someone asks. An older woman solemnly and sadly responds, “It’s a rape whistle.” The mother looks stricken. A young child at her shoulder smiles at the whistle, clearly uncomprehending. Cut to a black screen with the words, “1 in 2 girls will be physically or sexually abused.”

Pardon? Fifty percent of women will be beaten or raped? Um, well since you asked—and I was the only journalist in Canada who did, to my knowledge—the answer is no. As it turns out, that figure is derived not from an academic study, but, as I was informed by a spokesperson from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, from a poll (20 years old at the time, a point of high inflection for misandry and promotion of #rapeculture amongst influential feminists) surveying women’s perception of abuse.

This poll would not have checked out police reports or official statistics, but would have posed a range of questions, such as, “Has your partner ever yelled at you in anger?” or “Have you ever had sex with a man after consuming alcohol he gave you?” Any affirmative answer would then be added to the “statistics” of abuse risk in the eyes of the poll creators, who would have been, naturally, feminists keen to elicit a conclusion indicating high-risk probabilities. Had even a bias-skewed poll discovered a low probability, it would doubtless not have seen the light of day.

The actual intimate partner violence rates in Canada in 2011 were 18.8% for women and 19.8% for men. That is, about one in five women suffered abuse from a partner, and about one in five men suffered abuse from a partner in that year. There has been no upward surge since then. These figures are consistent with figures in other western countries, as confirmed by multiple bona fide studies, like this one from 2010.

It can be definitively stated, whatever metrics one chooses for investigation, that far fewer women than the figures cited above for partner violence will be at risk of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, though the film blurs those lines. This film is further misleading in that the kind of women one sees at baby showers of this kind—middle or upper middle-class women who live in nice neighbourhoods, go to university, marry before having children, have self-respect and confidence, practice bourgeois (i.e. prudent, security-conscious) habits, and who are unlikely to have seen violence as a means of conflict resolution modelled in their homes—and I could go on—are far less at risk for abuse than women who are, say, prostitutes, alcoholic or drug-addicted, from a dysfunctional family and surrounded by a wider circle of cultural dysfunction, used to violence as a response to frustration - and I could go on there too.

That said, the rape-whistle ad is admirable from a marketing point of view in the efficiency—33 seconds total!—with which it promotes several messages: the essential goodness and cooperativeness of women; the sanctity of motherhood (the situation allows for the complete absence of men, so fatherhood does not arise); and the contrast between the coziness and safety of women’s spaces and the menacing world of “toxic masculinity” (before the phrase was popularized) lurking in wait outside this circle, something a female child is threatened with before she is even born!

To return to the Gillette ad, I understand now why I reacted so strongly to it. Like the Canadian Women’s Foundation ad, it drove its theme home by encouraging a state of fear in women and a state of shame in men. In the Gillette film (in which women are largely absent, apart from those who feel threatened by men), the presenting incident had two boys wrestling in a yard. None of the men witnessing it were troubled by it, symbolized in the repeated trope, “Boys will be boys.” It was that central image—the row of middle-class men lined up behind their barbecues, portrayed as indifferent to male violence—that I found disturbing.

For what does a neatly-dressed man standing behind a barbecue signify? Think of every Father’s Day ad you have ever seen. How many of them feature barbecue tools? Maybe 50%? Why? Because when men barbecue, they are usually in a back yard. If men have a back yard, it means they live in a house. If they have a house, they are generally married with children. When men barbecue, they are usually feeding their families and friends and having fun doing it. In other words, barbecue men are deeply invested in family life.

They are, in short, fathers. And what is the easiest way to produce boys who do not understand or respect the boundaries between positive and negative masculinity? Take away their fathers. I won’t rehearse yet again the statistics around fatherlessness and the deleterious effect it has on both boys and girls, but especially boys. There are entire neighbourhoods in America that are essentially control studies in demonstrating that fatherlessness is the single greatest predictor for school dropout, juvenile criminality, gang adhesion, failure to form healthy intimate relationships, and a litany of other poor social outcomes.

I therefore cannot think of a more ironic and damaging disconnect between imagery and reality than the barbecue men, chosen by feminist film director Kim Gehrig, to represent the source of toxic masculinity. She could not have gotten it more ass backward.

It is not the indifference of fathers to boys’ getting too physical that is the problem in our society. Boys do fight sometimes. And it is barbecue fathers who in real life are the most likely men to break up a boys’ fight without getting hysterical about boys fighting in general. They aren’t alarmed by boys fighting, because many of them have been there themselves, and know that when two boys of equal age and size (as the boys in the film were) mix it up physically to settle a quarrel, it may not be the best way to handle a conflict, but it also doesn’t mean those boys will end up as violent offenders if the fight isn’t stopped within the first five seconds.

These dads don’t have to be taught by a “good” man—as they are in the film—that boys shouldn’t fight physically (although one could argue—and many smart people do—that a physical fight that ends without serious consequences and no lingering bitterness is preferable to the kind of verbal bullying inflicted on girls by other girls that can go on and on). They know when to intervene instinctively. Waiting a few minutes to see if the boys’ own internalized rules kick in first isn’t always a bad thing.

Because there is a certain truth to “boys will be boys,” in that aggression and competitiveness are masculine traits. Unless you are an ideological purist who believes any form of male aggression is toxic, you understand that for boys, occasional testing of the boundaries of aggression is normal and nothing to be alarmed about. The barbecue men are the reason most boys with loving fathers grow up to be strong, productive men: men who will never be a threat to anyone—except to bad guys who never learned the boundaries for—or how to positively channel—aggression, because so many of them had no fathers to teach them.

Of course male sexual violence against women must be considered a serious problem, but “serious” is not the same as ubiquitous. Frightening women out of their wits for no good reason  and arousing shame in male viewers as both films are designed to do, serves no purpose other than to demonize men collectively, arouse resentment in the majority of men, who are decent and non-violent, and erect walls of distrust between the sexes.

No discussion of “state of fear” ads would be complete without mention of the amazing rebuttal film, “What is a man? A response to Gillette,” mounted just two days after the Gillette ad appeared, created by Ilan Srulovicz, CEO of Ergard Watches (and, by the way, a Canadian originally from Montreal, who divides his time between Atlanta and Toronto).

Short, just shy of two minutes, simple and poignant, the film portrays men positively and sympathetically: as brave, protective, self-sacrificing, passionately parental, vulnerable … and socially “disposable.” It’s one of the best social “message” films I’ve ever seen. Many other viewers agree. Today, several days after speaking to Srulovicz, the film has garnered almost 3,000,000 views, with over 300,000 upvotes on YouTube. And speaking of irony: Gillette paid big bucks for its film; Srulovicz created his in a few hours for nothing.

If the film evoked negative reaction, his watch business could have suffered. But Srulovicz took the risk because Ergard is a father-son business and he wanted to “celebrate my relationship with my dad,” which he says is exemplary. Besides, Srulovicz himself is in a solid relationship with a woman he loves, and it struck him: “What woman would want negative messaging for men? [My girlfriend and I] want to embrace each other. My girlfriend lifts me up. It hurts her when something tears men down.”

As he wrote in an op ed about his motives, “My belief is that if you want to ‘make men better,’ as Gillette claims it wants to do, then the best way to do that is to show the best of us, not the worst. When I see a man risking his life running into a burning building, it makes me want to be better. When I see a father who will stand by his kids no matter what, it makes me want to be better. When I see a soldier putting everything on the line to preserve my freedom, I want to be better. That’s what a man is to me and they represent a far greater majority of men than what Gillette portrayed a man to be.” He ended with, “I wish the video I made was the norm from companies, not the exception.”

We must hope that the positive response to Srulovicz’s film will set exactly such a trend in motion.


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