Gillette’s call to men might be a sign of the times, but one corporate voice is not nearly enough

A collage of three photos of the three people interviewed for this article

We hear three perspectives on Gillette’s ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ advert, the backlash, and the broader trends in the public discourse around men and masculinities.

Many men “find themselves at a crossroads, caught between the past and a new era of masculinity”, suggests Gillette on their #BestAManCanBe campaign webpage. The much-talked-about campaign, released in January this year, was the latest cultural phenomenon to shine a spotlight on the changing public discourse around masculinity – especially in the post-MeToo era.

On the one hand, the advert can be seen as a sign of progress towards elevating critical reflections on men’s engagement in gender equality into the mainstream public narrative. On the other hand, the backlash sparked by the advert suggests a growing sense of polarity in the discourse, with many men expressing that they are feeling demonized and vilified.

Stepping back from the arguments surrounding the advert – and to hear different perspectives on the Gillette campaign and the broader context in which it exists – we spoke to three members of the Alliance: Festus Kisa, a social worker and program coordinator for Q-Initiative Eldoret in Kenya focussing on LGBTQI+ rights; Tonya Lovelace, Chief Executive Officer of the Women of Color Network, USA; and Sé Franklin, a workshop facilitator and gender & policy researcher at Men’s Development Network in Ireland, who previously worked in the advertising sector for three decades.

 

Are we experiencing an unprecedented time of public discussion on men and masculinities?

Festus Kisa, Program Coordinator, Q-Initiative Eldoret, Kenya:

“I think the MeToo campaign has created a focus on men and masculinities. More specifically, it has highlighted the role men and boys play in perpetuating inequalities.

“So I believe we are experiencing a time of unprecedented public discussion on masculinities, and we have feminist movements to thank for that. They changed the conversation around accountability which led to men being asked to be responsible. This did not just happen in the global sphere, but locally too.

“In Kenya, we have had women’s rights movement and feminist movements asking men to be responsible and talk to their friends who are reinforcing and reproducing inequalities. This is critical as it has also led to men talking amongst themselves about gender. Those who have been honest enough have talked about how performing certain expressions of masculinity has hurt them and the people around them.

“The heightened public conversations on men and masculinities have brought about a lot of introspection – both from an organizational point of view, and for me personally as an activist. I have had to search question myself and my thoughts around masculinities before I could have this conversation with other young men.

“I have also had to take into account the context that we work in. We have trans men in our organization and we have had to think of what these conversations would be like among the trans men and non-binary persons, and whether we are having these conversations for the betterment of the women and girls in our lives or for ‘selfish’ personal reasons.

“We also realize that it is not just about thinking and reflecting. The power is in the doing, and we are committed to making changes in our personal lives. But above all, our organizational mandate is to prioritize the safety of women, girls and non-binary persons at the center of our conversations around men and masculinities.”

 

Tonya Lovelace, Women of Color Network, USA:

Tonya Lovelace speaking with purpose while other people listen and smile

“I do think things are changing. In particular I’m seeing a lot of men trying to figure out what are the boundaries, what are their roles. overall, #MeToo has changed how women are treated in the workplace and treated by men in general. It is no longer a cursory topic. People are still trying to figure out what to do following #MeToo and #TimesUp.

“On the other hand, I see some people poking fun at these kinds of discussions. I also see some people going to the other extreme, and enacting a kind of ‘respectability politics’ – when men think there is a particular way to be ‘woke’ and end up policing other men’s behavior as a means of being seen as progressive, rather than being attentive to their own blind spots, and the critical self-reflection and work they need to do on themselves. There seems to be an idea that there is only a certain way to be respectable on issues of gender equality and masculinities; that a certain group gets to define how that is, which is linked to class and race.

“Men are not given a lot of room sometimes for genuine mistakes and genuine opportunities to improve. The very people who are doing that policing are often culpable for their own problematic behaviors and attitudes.”

 

 

Was the Gillette advert a positive step for engaging men and boys in gender equality?

Tonya Lovelace, Women of Color Network, USA:

“If we are talking specifically about the Gillette ad, I have not seen the change we hope for. Instead, I have seen continued disdain for its message around men stepping up. The voices speaking about men’s accountability are the same groups and the same men who have always spoken about men’s accountability. I feel like many ‘everyday’ men feel like Gillette took the message too far.

 

Festus Kisa, the Q-initiative, Kenya:

Festus Kisa in white shirt and tie smiling

“I’m involved in a monthly ‘Gender Forum’ that provides a space to talk to young people of diverse gender identities on what gender is to them and how we will promote inclusion and understanding as a community.

“For our session in January, we gathered 30 young people and we used the Gillette advert to spark conversations on healthy versus unhealthy masculinities. It led to a very heated and sometimes polarising debate, with one half of the room feeling that ‘masculinity is under attack’, and the other half fully agreeing that men need to do better.

“We had not anticipated the reactions would be intense, but we are glad that the advert gave us the opportunity to hear people’s real views on masculinities. We clearly have a lot of work to do to deepen the conversation with these young men and gender non-conforming youth, to help unpack the topic of masculinities, how it impacts them, and the changes they may want to make for themselves and the people around them.”

 

Sé Franklin, Men’s Development Network, Ireland:

“Even if we understand the advert only as serving the business interests of Gillette, it can still be seen as a positive sign for how public attitudes – including among men and boys – are changing for the better.

“Advertising is not about changing the world. Advertising is about building brands and getting return on investment. On the whole, advertisers do not do that by being ‘out there’ at the edge. They want to be slightly ahead of the latest trends – somewhere near the front – but not right at the edge, which is too risky for a brand. So a key question about the recent Gillette campaign is, ‘is it a fair reflection of how many men see themselves, and how they see their manhood?’.

“As someone who worked in advertising for 30 years, I am confident Gillette – a multi-billion dollar brand – would have done extensive research to discover how its ‘Best a Man Can Be’ campaign would resonate with a variety of different segments of men.

“In my experience, major corporations – and especially US corporations – are conservative in any changes to their brand positioning; big businesses prefer to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. In this case, the Gillette advert can be seen as representing the research they will have done into their target audience.

“Perhaps they are seen as the ‘older man’s’ brand in a changing market. So they appear to be making a really strong statement to younger men saying ‘we’re part of your world’. In that sense it is encouraging, because Gillette would not have come out with a bold message around transforming harmful masculine attitudes and behaviours if they were not confident the benefits outweighed the risk.”

 

What should we make of the backlash against the Gillette advert?

Tonya Lovelace, Women of Color Network, USA:

“The backlash against the Gillette advert has amplified this harmful idea that men should not police other men’s behaviour. There is a feeling that – in a discussion in which men are being questioned in general – ‘men should stick with men’.

“We have seen one powerful corporate brand come out with a message around men holding themselves and each other responsible. But for there to be a more positive impact – talking specifically about what the private sector can do – it would take other companies to come out to support the same message.

“If other brands traditionally aligned with men and masculinity – and their CEOs – had come out and said we stand with Gillette, then that might have been really powerful. There has to be another corporate entity that men respect so that Gillette is not an outlier. Otherwise the backlash just reinforces the idea that Gillette went too far, and just leaves the public conversation in a more negative place than before the advert was released.

“After Trump’s 2016 election, it became clear that market research is fallible. It is clear to me now we are not always talking to the right people. So even if an advert performs well in tests and focus groups, there is a whole set of people out there who are silent – or holding back their honest opinion in public. But they simply do not agree with the messages Gillette chose to use in its advert.

“There is a lot of work to be done. I have been thinking a lot about how to counter the backlash that has been happening in the wake of #MeToo, and how to harness this time of public attention on this topic. We have to move forward. We have to think like those folks who have been able to make lots of headway. We have to get other corporate groups and powerful individuals come out in support of this message. That is what regressive counter groups would do.”

 

Festus Kisa, Q-Initiative Eldoret, Kenya:

“I think the backlash has revealed and continues to reveal people’s actual thoughts and beliefs on what a man should or should not be.

“We have seen backlash from women, men and non-binary folk, which is basically telling us that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done to transforms masculinities and transform societies attitudes towards power and masculinities at the grassroots level.”

 

Sé Franklin, Men’s Development Network, Ireland:

Sé Franklin with arm out making a point

“I do not think Gillette would be too concerned about the backlash – it seems to be an attack from the usual suspects. Likewise, those working in the field of engaging men and boys in gender equality should also not be too pessimistic.

“We also have to be mindful that the corporate world operates in a profit-oriented way. Of course, if a civil society actor comes out with a positive message, which becomes the object of harmful attacks and backlash, we would hope allies would come in to show support. I think the corporate world is different. They do not see themselves as part of the ‘community’. They see themselves as owning their beliefs for their purposes. They would want to avoid revealing their reaction or corporate stance to a campaign or the world-at-large, because that is sensitive and valuable proprietary knowledge.

“Because of that, I remain optimistic about the fact Gillette produced this campaign, and see it as an encouraging step in the right direction. Gillette, as a brand, is finding its way into an emotional space on this topic. If we are to change boys’ and men’s lives for the betterment of themselves and the people around them, we have to step into the emotional space. We need to help men and boys identify with our messages on an emotional level. In that regard, I think Gillette is on the mark.”

 

Festus Kisa is a social worker and program coordinator for the Q-initiative in Eldoret, Kenya. As an activist, Festus focuses on HIV prevention, ending GBV and sexual reproductive health and rights programming for LGBTQI+ communities and individuals. (Portrait of Festus, above right, taken by Kijiji Photography)

Sé Franklin is a workshop facilitator and gender & policy researcher at Men’s Development Network in Ireland. He worked in the advertising sector in Ireland from 1975 to 2004. He now facilitates workshops giving older men space to reflect on masculinity and how it relates to them. (Photo by Tom Hornbrook)

Tonya Lovelace is the Chief Executive Officer of the Women of Color Network, which focuses on supporting the leadership of women of color – particularly in the USA context – in efforts to respond to and prevent all forms of gender-based violence. Tonya represents her organization on the Steering Committee of the North America MenEngage Network (NAMEN). (Photo by Tom Hornbrook)

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