In its most recent commercial, Gillette dared to make the apparently controversial claim that men can do better at being virtuous, strong, and kind. In the swirling conversation about the video online, two prominent negative reactions have emerged. The first has been touted by Piers Morgan, Brian Kilmeade, and other political commentators largely on the right, who say that Gillette’s commercial is anti-men, that “toxic masculinity” is not real, and that we should let “boys be boys.” They believe the commercial does not target the wrongs of a particular type of man, but men as a whole. And in many ways, they’re right.
Gillette decided not to pick an easy target for the commercial — it took on the bullies, harassers, and predators, certainly — but it also took on the bystanders, the excusers, and the disregard woven into the very fabric of our culture. At the same time, it correctly identified that there are still good men out there, and that not every man is irreparably lost to evil and lust. It challenged these good men not to stand for bad behavior, from its potential source in childhood to the established norms of individual men and society as a whole. Yet it is the commercial’s association of these predatory, intimidating, and complacent behaviors with masculinity itself that makes many on the right so angry. Is this because many of them do not want to believe in the inherent sinfulness of human nature as a whole, or is it simply the “male” attribution of the sin that bothers them?
Many on the right gladly tout that there are inherent differences between men and women — so if we can broadly differentiate the genders’ respective virtues, is it so hard to believe that they also broadly have their respective sins? This is not to say that women are sinless and that every problem in society exists because of men. It is simply to say that the facts — that 1 in 3 women experience sexual assault, 91 percent of rape victims are female, and boys are more prone to physical violence than girls — tell us that these particular problems addressed by the commercial are found in something inherently male. And yet despite providing positive models of great-hearted men who choose to do better, the commercial still gets slammed for recognizing that all of this is more widespread and innate in our sinful nature than many want to believe. It isn’t saying that, irrevocably and universally, all men are the problem. It’s saying that this problem is male.
Making even less sense is the second response to the commercial: that as a corporation, Gillette has no right to make moral claims or to pretend that its motives are anything other than financial gain. As Piers Morgan himself identifies, however, Gillette has come out against the very people who buy its products. This marketing tactic is bold and financially risky, and studies have shown that the commercial actually resonated far more with women than with its more targeted audience of men.
And yet, even if Gillette is simply a money-hungry corporation, should we really care? For any source in our postmodern world to promote something as shocking and groundbreaking as virtue is a win we should be celebrating. Truth is truth no matter who says it, and if we genuinely want to move toward a society that eliminates sexual assault and bullying, we shouldn’t quash the effort to encourage men to be the best version of themselves.
At the end of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, a wise character named Lee tells a girl named Abra, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” That’s a lesson for men as men, but also women as women and human beings as human beings. Paradoxically, it is only when we recognize that sin is inherent in our nature and woven into our society, and that as long as we pretend that there is no problem we can only make it worse, can we humble ourselves enough to choose to become “the best a man can get.”
Haley Hauprich is a senior studying English.