Earlier this year, the billion dollar grooming company Gillette released a viral ad called We Believe: The best men can be, a play on the razor brand’s long-held motto, “The best a man can get.”
The ad featured an emotional and carefully-spun narrative about the role models young boys see in their daily lives. It exposed bullying, sexual harassment on the streets and in the workplace, and even sexism on the big screen, by “promoting kindness, humility, and responsibility.” The emotional clips were woven together with a sombre, albeit hopeful, music track. The ad was supposed to demonstrate that these sexist behaviours make up a complicated and toxic form of masculinity.
The ad thus aimed to revise and resolve all the normalised manifestations of masculinity that are both created and reinforced by media representation, by asking men to be constantly improving, and self-reflective. Gillette, perhaps in a faux pas, shared this ad in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and the ad itself was met with support from progressives and backlash from conservatives. As of July 2019, the ad has over 31 million views on YouTube, with less than 800, 000 likes, and more than 1.5 million dislikes.
The Gillette ad, among other campaigns, is just one of many instances of the current interest in toxic masculinity. From men wearing bright pink nail polish and putting flowers behind their ears, to the ‘camp’ theme of the Met Gala this year, the last few years have seen a trend in straight men wanting to destroy toxic masculinity, often citing abuse, and emotional repression as fuelling it.
As a young woman of colour, I find myself personally fascinated by the discourse surrounding emotions and masculinity. To define masculinity can be quite reductionist. Often people think masculinity is that which men do, or how men act. This implies that women cannot inhabit aspects of masculinity, or that masculinity and maleness are one and the same.
A single definition of masculinity is limiting, and the concept is best understood by looking into patriarchal structures and the context-specific aspects of gender. Toxic masculinity, however, is defined by an adherence to traditional male gender roles and actions. This often translates to heterosexuality, alongside social expectations in which men seek to be dominant and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger.
The Good Men Project, an online platform that explores the world of men and manhood, defines toxic masculinity as:
“A narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured…”
Toxic masculinity is seen as the sole reasoning behind emotional repression in boys, impacting them even as they go into adulthood. Many commentators have framed the problem of violence against women perpetrated by men as being the result of toxic masculinity, defined by male entitlement and abuse of power. While this goes some way to identifying and labelling the problem, comparatively less work has been done to explore the way this affects women.
Several problems with the discourse around toxic masculinity appear obvious.
In discussions of the repression of emotions there is this idea that straight men are not allowed to be emotional in contrast to women. This comparison is not only unfair but also unequal in that it somehow assumes that women are allowed to be emotional without question or concern.
This is clearly untrue, specifically in instances of the emotions of women of colour. Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed says that “the angry Black woman can be described as a killjoy; she may even kill feminist joy, for example, by pointing out forms of racism within feminist politics. She might not even have to make any such point to kill joy.” Ahmed points out that the emotions of women, specifically of Black women, are often racialised in that they are grossly exaggerated, ignored or misunderstood.
Discussions on straight men having repressed emotions has always been linked to domestic violence, with ideas like, “And then the boys who never cried became the men that beat their wives” often circulating. The implication that women are allowed to be emotional is amplified in discourse surrounding domestic violence — the repressed emotions of men are somehow linked to excusing domestic violence and abuse, while women continue to overly emote everything, including shock and trauma sustained from abuse.
The inverse is true in that generations of women have carried trauma and pain while still carrying on and living. They do not necessarily externalise these suppressed emotions in abusive ways. So, the idea that women are allowed to be emotional in comparison to men falls flat in that yes, it can be socially acceptable for women to cry.
But men, who aren’t ‘allowed’ to cry, are then taught to project their feelings into violence.
It’s no surprise, then, that the discourse around toxic masculinity, and the way men adhere to traditional gendered expectations of emotions, still places a burden on women.
Indeed, this new found interest in destroying toxic masculinity and allowing men to express themselves still instrumentalises women, who are expected to facilitate the social and emotional renewal processes of men. As the very nature of toxic masculinity necessitates that straight men are unable to forge intimate relationships with other men, the women in their lives are burdened by both their initial lack of emotional intelligence, as well as their evolution in unlearning emotional repression.
At best, this is a form of emotional labour. But one could go so far as to say that women are somehow expected to become ad-hoc therapists.
Though ads like Gillette’s We Believe, alongside the trend of straight men wanting to destroy toxic masculinity, are well intentioned, there still remains a quagmire of problems.
Somehow, in their plight to break traditional gender roles and standards of masculinity — as a stepping stone to making the world a more equal place for all genders — men still seem to be placing the burden on women.