We Need To Talk About Masculinity

The boycott in reaction to the Gillette’s ‘We Believe’ campaign shows that we have a long way to go when it comes to addressing toxic masculinity.

Reading the comments on twitter, I cannot help but be reminded of the term ‘gender traitor’ coined in the Handmaid’s Tale. Many male commentators across social and traditional media are calling it an outrage and a betrayal on Gillette’s part.

But here is the real outrage; that we cannot talk about toxic masculinity and some of its root causes without it being viewed as an attack on all men. The behaviours that Gillette are calling out are behaviours that have traditionally been associated with the masculine. It is sad that harassment, intimidation and violence have been viewed as typically masculine traits and that they have often been passed off as the resulting actions of ‘boys being boys’. The broad community acceptance of these actions and the typical view that to be masculine is to be brutal, callous and violent, is something that we need to talk about. Urgently.

The exploration of toxic masculinity continues to gain greater traction. As it does, the idea of addressing it also faces greater resistance from some men who believe that any questioning of masculinity is a personal affront. This is exactly what we are seeing with the negative reaction to Gillette’s latest campaign. However, addressing toxic masculinity by looking at its drivers is absolutely critical because toxic masculinity is becoming lethal to men and to the broader community.

The idea of toxic masculinity was first explored by American sociologist Michael Kimmel in his 2013 book ‘Angry White Men’. Kimmel looked at what happens to men when their ideas of dominance are not met. In short, it can lead to deadly situations. Take for instance Elliott Rodger, a 22-year-old son of a Hollywood filmmaker who killed six people in a shooting and stabbing frenzy in Toronto Canada last year. Rodger blamed women for his virginity and in a 141-page manifesto claiming that “I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy”. Rodger was part of the ‘involuntary celibate’ or ‘incel’ movement. It’s a violent, sexist movement that is the very definition of toxic masculinity.

In 2018 the Jesuit Social Services Men’s Project surveyed 1,000 young Australian men on their attitudes toward traditional manhood. The survey explored the issues of self-sufficiency, toughness, physical attractiveness, rigid gender roles, heterosexuality and homophobia, hypersexuality and aggression and control over women. The survey found that younger men who conform to traditional ideas of manhood are more likely to harm themselves and harm others. Of those surveyed, 69% agreed that society expected them to act strong, 60% believed that when pushed they should fight back and worryingly 56% believed they should never say no to sex.

The hypermasculinity that has been such a hallmark of advertising for decades is creating so many problems in our society. A 2013 study of hypermasculinity in advertising revealed that it leads to significant public health problems including violence towards women, drug abuse and reckless driving. What these hypermasculine images are portraying is, by and large, unattainable, and this is driving frustration and toxic masculinity.

It is important to note that Gillette is a brand that has built its profile on hypermasculinity so it is understandable that their latest campaign is met by some as being hypocritical. However, I fully support them being part of the conversation and part of the movement to address toxic masculinity. If we are to address the root causes of toxic masculinity, then brands like Gillette need to reflect on their role and what they can do differently.

As a society, we call on all brands who have built their success on hypermasculinity to stop profiteering from driving toxic masculinity and start addressing it instead.

Michelle Thompson is CEO of Marie Stopes Australia, a national not-for-profit provider of sexual and reproductive health and advocacy.

You can find Michelle on Twitter at @MichelleT_MSA

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MSI Australia is the leading, accredited, national provider for abortion, contraception and vasectomy.

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MSI Australia

MSI Australia is the leading, accredited, national provider for abortion, contraception and vasectomy.