By Sohini Bhattacharya (below) & Urvashi Gandhi (above), Breakthrough India
Gillette’s new 2019 ad might make it to the Cannes Glass Lion entries this year – an award celebrating culture-shifting creativity. The ad has addressed subjects like toxic masculinity, violence against women and the #MeToo movement in a high budget short film titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can be” which was rolled out to both praise and brickbats. The company also promised to promote “positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”
In the last four years since Cannes Lions announced a New Glass Lion Award: The Lion for Change, specifically to recognise work that challenges gender bias and shatters stereotypical images of men and women, we didn’t see any ads focussing on alternate masculinity or new norms in masculinity take the lion home. Clearly, men were not a focus on the re-norming of culture in these precincts at least.
This ad, though an outlier, comes as the #MeToo movement continues to force a cultural reckoning over unchecked sexual abuse and harassment by men in positions of power. Of course, the fact that it is using the #MeToo movement to sell razor blades has, itself, been a source of criticism. Most ads professing to be “different” either celebrate tropes of masculinity while appearing to simultaneously mock them (thereby ‘appearing to be’ progressive), or they elevate and simultaneously lay the blame on the woman for not bringing up a more “sensitive” man. I mention advertising because this is something we are constantly consuming and it paints a certain picture of society, thus shaping how we view ourselves and what many aspire to.
The amount of attention this ad received brings us to the discussion at hand – masculinity in the #MeToo era. The #MeToo movement has clearly shown masculinity in a way it has never been targeted before – when you have high-profile reminders of unhealthy masculinity daily, clearly something is not right with the concept. To say women have found the #MeToo movement exciting, necessary, liberating and men have found it focussing on a certain type of masculinity that is corrupt, dysfunctional and a little limiting, will not be far from the truth. With the defensiveness around masculinity due to #MeToo, clearly, something needs to shift. The backlash that the Gillette ad received from men is proof in itself.
We at Breakthrough in India have also been swamped with messages around #MeToo ever since the campaign blew up on social media. We realised it was important for us to keep the momentum going and as a part of our various conversations, we also wanted to include men and boys in it. For while it was heartening for women to step forward and support other women in such conversation, it was impossible for them to do it alone. The silence from men were not helping much either and the responses revalidated patriarchy in every way. So what we tried to do was to start a conversation to break some of the myths and build a common ground.
One of the common responses post #MeToo that women often get to hear are along the lines of – “Women are too sensitive!”, “We didn’t mean it like that, but she took it that way.” etc. To address this, we took out a series of creatives as part of our post-#MeToo conversations, which we put out with the hashtag #WhatNow. It called on people to examine the intent behind their statements and the impact (intended or unintended) they might have.
Introspection starts at home and that’s exactly what we decided to do. We did a Facebook live with a few of the men in our office to ask them exactly how they perceived #MeToo, whether it made them re-examine their daily interactions with those around them and how it did (or didn’t) change their way of thinking going forward.
We also created a #MeToo video – “Why Is It So Difficult For Us To Believe Women”, decoding one of the important aspects of #MeToo (and with the feminist movement in recent years). Here we sought to question the mindset that leads to questioning, ridiculing and sometimes outright dismissing women’s accusations. This is especially around the barrage of suggestions many survivors often get, such as “Why is she coming forward now”, “Why didn’t she go to the authorities then” etc. The simple answer is, because of the public’s overwhelming bias against women’s stories, it becomes difficult for women to come out with their own accusations especially when their assaulters are powerful men.
In the end of 2018, we decided to talk about the way forward for men and boys, collaborating with Pixel Project’s ‘16 for 16’: an article for 16 days of activism where we address the question of what men and boys can do going forward. We came up with 16 steps which asked men to question their internalised sexism and understand how to be a good ally, while also addressing the question of how patriarchy itself victimises men. Based on this we created a pictorial version of the same that got released over a period of 16 weeks.
The deafening silence from men in India around the #MeToo movement has spoken volumes. It shows how this is being perceived as women’s issues and not being related to the power plays around men and workplaces. We have not heard them speak out in support of women who have come out with their experiences of sexual harassment, or look at masculine behaviours in a new light rather than shifting the problem to the woman herself. It is only when these conversations or introspection happens will it then lead to a pathway for creating a new narrative around the issue.
Sohini Bhattacharya & Urvashi Gandhi work for a New Delhi and New York-based global human rights organization Breakthrough, with a mission to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable.