In early 2019, the razor brand Gillette sparked an internet firestorm after it challenged notions of toxic masculinity through its ad, "The Best Men Can Be," which was a play on the company's long-held motto, "The best a man can get." The media and the public's reactions to it ranged from applause and praise to backlash and even boycotting.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, toxic masculinity has become an explosive topic, both in the real world and in marketing. But what it means is often misunderstood.
Many people feel attacked by the term, see it as an insult, or immediately resort to saying #NotAllMen.
I decided to interview a few people to ask them how they feel about toxic masculinity, and whether marketing has a role in combating it.
When it comes to the definition of the term, I noticed many recurring aspects brought up by each person that I interviewed. The word that kept reappearing was "expectation." Mostly, society's mainstream expectations of what it means to be a man, both in looks and personality traits.
For looks, it means the expectation of being a strong, muscular man, like the average cover model for “Men's Health.” For personality traits, it's the idea that men should be tough, powerful, devoid of emotions, assertive, and courageous. On the other hand, stereotypically feminine traits, such as softness or being emotionally vulnerable, are seen in a negative light for men.
Marco, a 23-year-old student from London, defined “toxic masculinity” as a weakness in self. “It's about being preoccupied with what others think of you, and whether you're aligning with the prescribed societal expectations of masculinity," he told me. He also highlighted the "fake" aspect of toxic masculinity. He said that, often, those who prescribe to its principles aren't expressing themselves naturally.
For Hana, a 23-year-old student living in Amsterdam, "When we think about toxic masculinity, we often have that image of an angry muscular guy." Yet, "it can be a lot more subtle, and it doesn't have one face." For her, toxic masculinity’s overall manifestation stems from "how we deal with the expectations that are set on us and how we’re taught to deal with feelings of disappointment or inadequacy."
Everyone I talked to experienced the effects of toxic masculinity in different ways. The media’s portrayal of men was a strong influence. But relatives, friends, and romantic partners also played a part.
For Tom*, 25, a lot of it came from his former partner, who he stayed with for years. "I'm a very sensitive person and I get hurt quite easily,'' he said. "I've been told many times to just 'man up' or 'suck it up' whenever I tried to express these feelings, and that just gave me even more anxiety." He added that, because of this, he started to repress his own feelings and became more closed off than how he used to be.
This scenario, which might sound familiar to many, shows that men aren't the only ones perpetuating toxic masculinity—women can enable it as well.
However, Tom noted that although anyone can enable it, men hold an important part of the responsibility. Thus, they should not use that as a deflection to blame others for their actions.
When I asked whether each person thought that marketing has any role in changing the culture of toxic masculinity, the reactions I observed were a mixture of positive and skeptical.
Moreover, from what I have read online, many of the negative reactions to the Gillette ad were because some did not appreciate that a profit-motivated corporation was telling them what to do or how to behave.
Hana, for example, appreciated the message of the ad, but felt skeptical about what marketing and capitalism can do for these causes in the long term. "[Marketing] did play a part in upholding many of these stereotypes for decades, and maybe they can also try to undo them, but I don't think that's enough," she said.
On the other hand, Chloe*, 27, from Los Angeles, believes that marketing can definitely have an impact. When we talked about this, it reminded us about how many corporations were trying extremely hard to be LGBTQI+ friendly during Pride Month, although it was clear that they just wanted to get more of the market share and revenue. "We all know that corporations are profit-motivated above all,'' said Chloe. She added: "However, I think that if we move past that, [the Gillette ad] still increases visibility for toxic masculinity, normalizes certain stances that should be taken, and brings it in front of people."
Marco agreed that it was positive that a company marketed toward men was pushing the conversation about toxic masculinity. He added that "marketing, especially toward children, is important because all the gendered toys play an immense role in reinforcing stereotypes." Many of these stereotypes stay with us for life, so the sooner they're broken down, the better.
According to recent studies, Millennials and Gen Z overwhelmingly believe that brands should commit to a set of values and take stances on important issues.
For Tom, brands today have to do more than just sell products if they want loyal customers. "I'm definitely a brand-loyal person, and if the company's values align with mine, I will definitely continue buying from them,” he said.
Ten months and over thirty-million views later, I had to scroll through pages of YouTube comments underneath the Gillette ad to find a positive one. Most of the negative comments only proved that many of those who felt attacked by the message didn't understand its meaning.
Or perhaps they felt insulted because they recognized themselves in some of the aspects that were called out.
This only serves to prove that the discussions on the issue are far from over. In fact, since the term has finally made it to the mainstream, it is only the beginning.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity as requested.