Have you watched Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch? It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story that (spoiler alert) has no real happy ending. Of the multiple paths a watcher can choose to send the protagonist down, the negative outcomes range from failure and disappointment to murder, jail and suicide. For a closet optimist like me, I found it increasingly frustrating that choosing ‘better’ did not lead to better outcomes for my unwitting avatar.
The experience resonated with me and was something I ultimately came back to after I recently watched a commercial by Gillette. Gillette is a razor company that I grew up with. Just hearing the name brings to mind a barrage of images from their commercials over the years depicting ideal men (models) doing ‘manly’ Bond-like things, like sailing boats and wooing ideal (model) women, all set to a terribly catchy, 80’s pop rock anthem jingle about being ‘the best around’ that is bound to get stuck in your head, though you only know about four words of it. Their recent commercial calls out toxic masculinity and challenges men to be ‘the best a man can be.’
‘Toxic masculinity’ has become a buzz word in recent years to describe the culturally reinforced idea that to be a man you are often told by society in many subtle and overt ways that you must be violent unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth. Toxic masculinity is bad for all members of society, including the men who are constantly made to feel that they must fit this mold.
The new commercial by Gillette demonstrates that men can choose to do better with little decisions like breaking up a fight among young boys, or stopping bullying and catcalling. It feels good, hopeful, empowering… until the moment you realize it’s all a bit of Bandersnatch.
No one here is arguing that bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination in the workplace (or any other form of the toxic masculinity) is not bad and should not stop. Nor am I saying that people shouldn’t be responsible for and held accountable for their own behavior, but before we jump on this bandwagon, let’s take a look at where it is going.
First of all, let’s look at who is driving. Let’s acknowledge that there’s something disingenuous about Gillette being the driver. It is a rather convenient sidestepping of their own role in reinforcing or, at the very least, preying upon the image of an ideal man with hyper-masculine messaging in their marketing for years. It lets them come out smelling like roses, playing the role of social advocate for change for a problem they helped perpetuate. It is also using a ploy that marketing has been using for decades that distracts from the root causes and so always fails to solve the real problem.
As someone in marketing, this commercial brought to mind the many examples of ways that marketing has manipulated the beliefs of society throughout history so that, rather than addressing the root of the problem (often a systemic one), companies shift the burden onto the individual by implying their individual choices are the problem.
For example, look at the propaganda campaign against Jaywalking used by automobile companies in the 1920’s. At the time, when the automobile was still in its early days, roads were meant for everyone. When deaths of people hit by cars began to threaten a backlash against car owners and the auto industry, the auto industry launched a campaign to shift the blame for pedestrian casualties from drivers to walkers. ‘Jay’ is a derogatory term that was actually used to shame victims and all those that didn’t comply with new restrictions.
The roads were eventually given over to cars, laws were made, and people were fined for not walking in very restricted patterns. Though, as an automobile driver, you may ultimately be glad that you don’t have to deal with troves of people meandering down the road on your morning commute, the campaign that was waged to make American’s roads hostile towards those that walk or bike was in no way selfless on the auto industry’s part, it didn’t solve the root problem and it, arguably, hasn’t made pedestrians safer. The UK, which does not have Jaywalking laws, has less than half the incidents of pedestrian deaths that America does.
This same approach was taken by companies when anger began to rise against them for switching from biodegradable material to cheaper plastics. They started a campaign to condemn “litter bugs,” blaming and shaming the individual for not acting in socially responsible ways with disposal of trash. Yes, people should pick up their trash, but that sort of self-serving deflection ended with landfills full of plastic bottles that will be the burden of our children, and children’s children. The negative impact of such marketing campaigns can be irreversible.
So, it pays to be a bit skeptical about Gillette setting itself up as a social change advocate and the one to solve the problem of toxic masculinity by calling on individuals to take responsibility.
The problem with letting those that create the problem be the ones to solve it is that Gillette gets to define the problem and, in doing so, decides what is and isn’t part of the problem. They also define what the solutions can be. Putting the cure for toxic masculinity back on the individual and their choices is a tidy way to avoid the deeper problem and deflect the blame from corporate cultures that were the bastion of these toxic masculinity cultures and sheltered the worst offenders from accountability.
Ultimately, Gillette’s new definition of the problem fails to get at the root of the problem. It turns a blind eye to everything that goes into the problem of toxic masculinity; how it is systematically reinforced, the unfair demands and pressures of society on men, how men themselves are at times victims of the toxic masculinity ideal, the risk and danger to men in bucking norms, and many things that make the problem (and, therefore, the solution) complex.
The other half of the problem with Gillette taking ownership of this social change movement is in allowing them to outline what was and what should be the definition of a man; and they leave us with an either/or proposition. Either you are the outdated, toxic masculine male or you are this shiny, new, enlightened man.
What about men that don’t fit that new definition? What about men that are effeminate or transgender, or non-binary, or gender fluid, or simply not comfortable physically fighting every other man that doesn’t conform the recently redefined code of behavior after a lifetime of being told that they are only men if they act a certain way? Because, let’s be honest, that’s not a good solution. One enlightened dude going around fighting every drunk frat boy that tells a girl to smile is not going to change toxic masculinity culture. Chasing off the bullies today doesn’t mean they aren’t going to catch up with that boy tomorrow. Pulling two kids apart and saying ‘that’s not how we treat each other’ doesn’t teach them how to resolve conflict with another male without resorting to violence.
Furthermore, this commercial is tone deaf to the way it is perpetuating the same problem. It actually reinforces the same ideals it seems to rail against. It still depicts men as the epitome of strength and as the protectors that are physically intervening – pulling children apart, physically putting hands on another man to stop him from walking after a woman, nearly starting a physical fight over a guy telling a girl to smile.
Isn’t this more of the same? Isn’t that reinforcing harmful ideals about being a man? Isn’t this still saying that men have to be tough and physically threatening but now they should use it to police other men? If we want real change, why are we still clinging to the idea that to be ‘a man’ is to be aggressive?
I find myself wondering if men feel, as I did in that moment staring at the Bandersnatch screen displaying the choices ‘dump tea on computer’ or ‘destroy computer’ as time dwindles down, that this isn’t really ‘choice’. I likely wouldn’t choose either of those options if I had real choice.
There are cases when men can and should hold each other accountable, and any person should always intervene if another person or child is physically threatened but, after decades of hammering a certain image of masculinity into men (and selling those traits as ideal to women), the problem is bigger than ‘be better’ and the solution needs to be too.
So, while I applaud the sentiment where it comes to making social change, when we let corporate America define the problem of toxic masculinity, they limit and over simplify the solutions and we are all, especially men, get stuck in Bandersnatch hell where, no matter the choice, the outcome isn’t good.
Article by: Drew McKay
Drew has over a decade experience in marketing in the government and non-profit field. She consults internationally on quality supports for people with disabilities and is a public speaker for disability rights and on topics such as mindfullness, vulnerability, stress management and conflict resolution.