The Best Men Can Be: Reflecting on the Infamous Gillette Ad

On January 13th 2019, Gillette released its already famous commercial, “The Best Men Can Be,” which garnered an immediate and emphatic backlash. The commercial juxtaposed men engaging in bullying behaviors with men performing acts of decency.

The nerve the ad hit is prominently on display, if you go to Twitter #BoycottGillette. Here’s a typical example: “Feminists made up toxic masculinity its (sic) not a real thing. They will not be happy until men act like women. Female supremacy is their true goal and bigotry! (sic)” A favorite and powerful trope of the right is this vision of “feminazis” hellbent on gaining supremacy and undoing masculinity, turning healthy men into…well, women. “Gillette,” one tweet reads, “the best a trans can get.”

This trope hits home because it resonates with the core dilemma of masculinity itself. How many grown women do you know who fret that their presumably unstable femininity will somehow be undone? But men seem to live in perennial fear that a dress with their name on it sits right around the corner. Is that really what women want of us?

It’s time for more of us men to stand up to the traditions of masculinity we’ve been handed, to sort through which elements are worthy and which toxic. We should do so not just for the sake of the women we care about and for the children in our charge, but for our own health and wellbeing.

Moving from a patriarchal paradigm to a relational one means leaving a linear, hierarchical world of “power over” others, as Riane Eisler describes it, and stepping into an ecological world of “power with.” It means moving away from a dominance model placing man above nature – whether the nature one lords over is a wife or child, an assistant, or one’s own body – to a collaborative model in which we see ourselves as situated within nature, rather than ruling over it.

Our relationships are our biospheres; we live within them, not above them. You may choose to pollute your biosphere in the living room with your temper, but you may well pay for it in the bedroom when your partner withdraws. 

As a couples therapist, I have worked for over thirty years helping men resolve emotional stress and interpersonal difficulties by moving beyond the confines of our traditional role. I’ve taught men, for example, to respond to a hurt or angry partner non-defensively, but rather with compassion. 

The relational answer to the question, who’s right and who’s wrong, is who cares? Your partner is unhappy. You don’t want that. You love her, for one thing, and you have to live with her, for another.

I call this non-defensive response “listening with an open heart” or “learning to be a generous gentleman.”

I want all of us men to listen to the hurt and dissatisfaction of women with compassion, not defensiveness. And I would like women, and in particular feminism, to more explicitly embrace men as potential allies. We are your husbands, your fathers, your sons.

Let’s have a totally different conversation, one commodious enough to empower good people of both sexes to move past the constraints of patriarchy, which damages both women and men and renders the relationship between us pointlessly difficult.

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