“Toxic masculinity” in advertising: keeping women scared and men shamed
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.
The New York Times endorsement of both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for president has been lauded and critiqued, but no take is quite as inane and Lauren Duca’s. Writing for The Independent, Duca takes an essential tack linking womanhood with virtuosity, love, nurturing, and maternal values. These are what Duca believes we need in the highest office, and apparently qualities which are the purview of women at large.
Duca believes that women will bring “unconditional love” to the conference table. She thinks women have less greed and avarice, and that while “the divine feminine is beyond that binary, best understood as the force of nurturing,” gender is a social construct.
It’s surprising that both of these views can exist concurrently within one cohesive ethos. Gender isn’t real, apparently, because it’s made up by society to sell us prescribed notions for what men and women are, but femininity brings with it a form of divinity that is localized within women and those who believe they are women, even though womanhood isn’t really anything specific. Are we all clear? No?
Duca opines: “America, as it stands, is not even pretending to be a free country. We are living in an oligarchy structured by the hierarchy of the white, supremacist patriarchy, and this is where toxic masculinity has led us.”
How can a person of such privilege, who gets to write for fancy platforms, teach adjunct classes, and traipse around the world on tour for a book that doesn’t even sell any copies, claim that America is not a free country? How can a person who has benefited so greatly precisely because of her status as an identitarian grievance monger make the assertion that we live in a white supramacist oligarchy? Isn’t this all getting a little old?
Under the guise of elevating women, Duca puts them right back in their place. Probably she thinks she’s lifting women up by saying that they can achieve world peace and stop World War 3 before it’s begun in a way that men, with their penchant toward toxicity, haven’t been able to do. If men aren’t better suited to office on the basis of their sex, then neither are women. Sex isn’t a characteristic upon which votes should be based.
If a woman were elected on the basis of her sex, and she didn’t magically fix all the social ills with one SCOTUS nom and a few passes of her magical bill signing pen under the light of the full moon in the Rose Garden, how could the US ever justify electing another? Women are fallible, not magical. Y’know, just like other people.
Women are people, with aspirations, faults, wishes, wills, and a drive to succeed. To count them as anything other does their humanity a disservice. Duca writes: “I think it makes a difference if the person at the helm of this transformation is a woman, because of the lessons learned by anyone who has a female perspective on our crisis of toxic masculinity.”
But that doesn’t actually mean anything.
Duca, of course, has been a longtime culture warrior on the woke side—a true believer who has offered up hot take after hot take espousing the most incoherent of woke talking points like “Sean Spicer’s Emmys Cameo Wasn’t a Joke—It’s Dangerous,” or “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.”
Duca then had her own turn in the barrel, when her entire NYU class revolted because she was not woke enough. Apparently she hasn’t learned the lessons that you can never be woke enough, and that the woke will devour themselves in the end.
The word “woke” has been bandied around in progressive circles since the early 2010s. Ironically, “woke” has become a pejorative term used to denigrate those who signal their virtue without doing much to advance any progressive cause. Woke individuals are, as the rule (that I just invented) goes, more concerned with making themselves look good and using their platform (or building a platform) to abuse others under the guise of combating social injustice.
None of this has, of course, gone unnoticed by the woke progressives who use the term without any sense of irony whatsoever. In an op-ed for the Guardian, writer Steve Rose opines that the word “woke” has been “weaponized by the right.” But whose fault is that, exactly? It’s certainly not the fault of those tired of being moralized and lectured to that they might repurpose the term to mock those who engage in cancel campaigns against any celebrity or public figure guilty of perceived unwokeness.
Citing the Merriam-Webster, Rose says that the term “woke” refers to anyone “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” And much like the term “political correctness,” the term has come to mean the opposite of what it means—or so he claims.
But is that truly the case? Those who elevate themselves through wokeness have little interest in combating social injustices and simply use it as a shield for their own bigotry, and to shut down dissenting opinions. Their wokeness, if it exists at all, is performative.
This isn’t to say that one can simply go about spouting racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise bigoted remarks without pushback from any decent and reasonable person. Decent and reasonable people don’t care about being “woke.” “Woke” individuals, as it were, cultivate their entire personalities around the fight for social justice without much to show for it besides preening at everyone else on Twitter.
Wokeness has become a social status symbol more than anything else, and the “Right,” or the “unwoke,” or whatever you want to call us continue to be reasonable people while rubbing our lack of wokeness in the face of those who rally around the hollow symbol.
Case in point: Guardian writer, Steve Rose, attacks actor Laurence Fox for—you guessed it, unwokeness. He writes:
“Laurence Fox nailed his colours to the latter mast this weekend, doubling down on his defence of the privileged white male on last week’s Question Time to a Sunday Times article under the banner ‘Why I won’t date ‘woke’ women’. Toby Young piled in, applauding how Fox was ‘terrorising the Wokerati’, while the Sun last weekend branded Harry and Meghan ‘the oppressive King and Queen of Woke’.”
Rose argues that rather than simply rejecting the concept of wokeness, detractors of the term, like Fox, only criticize wokeness as “way of claiming victim status for yourself rather than acknowledging that more deserving others hold that status. It has gone from a virtue signal to dog whistle.”
On the contrary, any individual who makes claims to wokeness isn’t so much of a victim as they are a participant in the race for social status. Being unwoke doesn’t give you an entry pass into a separate league of oppression.
Laurence Fox has been outspoken in his lack of wokeness, simply speaking his mind and saying it like it is with no regard for how supposedly offensive it is to not be mindful to those who hold wokeness up as a virtue in and of itself. He isn’t claiming to be a victim—like any decent and reasonable person, he’s rejecting victimhood entirely. And it’s working.
We live in a politically correct, “woke” time and it doesn’t seem like anyone will let us forget it—not even for a split second, not even for just enough time for us to enjoy our morning cup of coffee.
Douwe Egberts Belgium is a coffee company who just joined the Team Woke.
More and more, companies don’t try to sell us their brand, quality or even their product, but instead they sell us on their “wokeness.”
A recent ad for the coffee shows two young teenagers, one clearly a girl and the other in a hoodie so you can’t discern their gender, kissing on the couch who then get interrupted by the girl’s dad. They run upstairs but the daughter stops to give her father a dirty look.
An obvious, “I hate you. You’ve ruined my life,” teenage-girl look.
Then the dad makes coffee and the two teenagers come down to share a cup. The hooded teen is revealed to be a girl. They all sit around smiling and laughing—with tones of acceptance and growth, which is exactly what you want from your coffee.
The ad ends with the father putting his daughter’s glasses back on her face and smiling. The glasses that the girlfriend took off her earlier while making out on the couch.
Yes, a very wholesome moment, and don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this hypothetical dad accepts his hypothetical daughter. That’s the way it should be.
Belgium was even ranked the second-best country in Europe to live for LGBT people, according to Rainbow Europe poll. Belgians already seem to be plenty accepting.
This ad has already been seen over 12 million times on Twitter and has some users in tears.
The 2019 Brussels Pride Parade had around 100,000 marchers. It’s clear Belgians—and most sane people—aren’t homophobic today, so why are these types of commercials pretending we are?
The ad also reminds me of a recent Sprite ad that you needed to watch twice before noticing the Spite logo. The ad showed LGBT members getting ready for the Pride Parade and their family members smiling and accepting them.
Because again, that’s what you need from your drink choice.
Movies, television and branding have become a competition of who is more woke rather than convincing us to consume their products. Everything out there has to have a political message or statement.
The quality of the product doesn’t matter anymore as long as you’re scoring points with the woke crowd.
Pandering to a rather small portion of the population may not seem like the most business-savvy but they may also overlap with another crowd. The cancel culture crowd.
So even though, Dali Research finds that only about 6 percent of people identify as LGBT in all of Europe, companies choose to target a rather small demographic.
Why go after such a small group? Possibly the fear of the backlash of the outrage culture.
It’s possible companies and business think their public relations will go more smoothly if they go with the trends—even if that means ignoring the larger population.
They’re taking the easy way through—pandering and bending the knee for a small but very loud and demanding group. Woke people are hard to please. You can never be woke enough.
For regular people who don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation, it gets tiring for them to be constantly lectured about something they already agree with.
You see, us unwoke people, who want our ads to be about the products and our commercials to be selling us something without a moral lesson or a guilt trip attached—we see right through the cynical pandering.
A New York Times book reviewer called herself out as unqualified to review the book she was reviewing, and then said the author shouldn’t have written it. The charge against the author is cultural appropriation, the charge the reviewer levels at herself is the maintenance of the white gaze. The weirdest part? She seems to have liked the book. Lauren Groff wrote about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a novel about mother and son refugees from a violent Mexican drug cartel.
It is frankly mind-boggling to see this in print. It should fill us with hope, not anxiety, that the wealth and breadth of human experience allow us to understand the experience of others. People are not as different as we have conditioned ourselves to believe they are. The most imperialist thing of all is to assume that we can’t understand one another because our backgrounds and skin colours are different. The Civil Rights movement fought against objectification based on skin colour, and now The New York Times and their cadre of anxious writers are bringing it back.
Groff found the narrative to be powerful, notes that she felt afraid for the danger the main characters faced but then states this absurd concern:
“But another, different, fear had also crept in as I was reading: I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant. In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant. I was further sunk into anxiety when I discovered that, although Cummins does have a personal stake in stories of migration, she herself is neither Mexican nor a migrant.”
American Dirt made The New York Times list for highly anticipated books, but even the author questions her own authority to write the book. In the afterword, per a contrasting review from Parul Seghal, Cummins wrote “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” Seghal didn’t like the book, because she didn’t think it achieved its aims. That’s fair. What isn’t fair is judging a work of fiction by the colour of the author’s skin.
It is a nauseating inclination to question her own inspiration. The colour of her skin has nothing to do with the story she felt compelled to write. Once she had the idea, should she have shopped it around to writers who were “slightly browner” to see if they wanted to tell it instead? Writers have their own stories that they want to tell. Cummins had this one. She told it. Groff had a review to write. She wrote it, but she questioned the validity of her voice, and the author’s, the entire time.
Groff ties herself up in knots, chastising herself for liking a book she thinks she shouldn’t have written about because her skin colour doesn’t give her the authority to do so. To put that in perspective, a New York Times writer, an author, an intelligent, educated, intellectual person, believes that there is more authority in the perceived experience of her skin colour than in her own voice.
Cummins did exactly what social justice rhetoric would say she ought to do—use her place of privilege to speak of the social ills affecting underrepresented voices in our culture. In using her voice to elevate the plight of Mexican refugees, she brings Groff, for one, a greater understanding of that horror.
If authors can’t call attention to anything other than their own experience, if authors have to colour within the lines of their own skin tone, then their only other option is to stop writing, to give it up, to do something else. But ideology cannot dictate our life choices, and the odds are that if Cummins didn’t write this book, no one else would have. Is there no value in telling the story of a mother and child forced to flee their home under threat of death? The story itself is more essential than who wrote it. And for sure it gave Groff some new perspective, even if she thinks it’s poisoned by her white gaze.
Cultural appropriation is a term best levelled at basic girls and boys in madras bikinis wearing native headdresses and platform Tevas at Coachella, not well-researched novels that give insight to the plight of refugees traversing America’s southern border.
This hand-wringing over whether or not we can think for ourselves or have to think in accordance with a mob mentality that diminishes our intellect in favour of social justice norms has got to stop. An author’s lived experience is not their only palette. Skin colour is not authoritative.