By now, you’ve probably seen Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” ad. Launched last week online, the ad depicts several examples of toxic masculinity, including bullying, harassment, mansplaining, and the notion that “boys will be boys.” For those that may not know, toxic masculinity refers to masculinity that encourages aggressive and violent behavior and discourages emotion and self-control. In other words, masculinity that is both dangerous for women and harmful to men. It's also crucial to note that toxic masculinity does not mean that all masculinity is toxic. The ad ends by exhorting men to embrace a healthy vision for masculinity, with text that reads: “it’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best.”
Of course one goal for any commercial is to be noticed, and, in this case, mission accomplished. The ad has garnered a number of reactions, ranging from appreciation to rebuke. For instance, one week after its unveiling, the YouTube version of the ad had been viewed more than 25 million times, and had accrued almost 700,000 likes and more than 1.2 million dislikes.
I’d like to offer three reflections on Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad, as one who has done a lot of thinking about how our concepts of masculinity—both in the church and in the wider culture—connect (or not) with Jesus’ vision for men.
First, I want to say kudos to the folks at Gillette for choosing to spend their ad money to call out toxic masculinity. While I experience some degree of dissonance with how this ad monetizes pushback against the social malady that is toxic masculinity, I think we should welcome any message that critiques the worst versions of manhood in our culture.
That’s true because there is a lot to be concerned about. For instance, we live in a world where one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes, and we know that 90% of perpetrators of sexual violence against women are men. Because of these statistics and more, I invite a message that identifies and thoughtfully critiques toxic masculinity, no matter the source.
Second, we should be thankful for the conversations that the ad has generated, both online and in our relational circles. Without question, Gillette’s decision to publicly critique toxic masculinity has sparked a debate, and cultural notions of masculinity are being litigated right before our eyes. As the ad’s YouTube evaluation tally suggests, some agree with Gillette’s approach and others do not.
On one hand, there has certainly been a backlash against the ad. One person in my relational networks decried how the ad represents one more battle in a war against men. My friend is not alone, as Newsweek notes that, “some men have further vowed to boycott Gillette over what they consider to be an ‘assault on masculinity.’”
On the other hand, Gillette has been lauded for encouraging men to invite their brothers to live out a different type of masculinity. Writing in USA Today, Kirsten Powers concludes: “When a man speaks up about sexual harassment, it carries a different kind of weight than when a woman says it. If men feel they are risking the respect of their colleagues and fellow men, they are more likely to alter their behavior than if they are confronted by the office feminist. The ad was simply asking men to risk some of their comfort and take a stand when necessary.”
As followers of Jesus who value the full dignity and worth of women, we should embrace this cultural conversation. I firmly believe that Gillette has given us a gift: an opportunity to talk about where we as the church have erred in our teachings on masculinity and in our treatment of women. What if we used time in our home group meetings, or in our Sunday school classes, or, indeed, in our Sunday sermons to show the ad and host open dialogue on the topic of toxic masculinity?
Third, while I’m grateful in many ways for this ad and the conversations that it is provoking, I also find myself lamenting. Why?
Because it’s God’s church—far more than a company like Gillette—that should be on the leading edge in the battle against toxic masculinity. Spurred on by the masculinity modeled by Jesus, Christians should be the ones challenging both ourselves and our culture to reject any version of masculinity that oppresses, marginalizes, and threatens women.
Jesus was incarnated into a world where women were permanently and solidly on the cultural margins. The toxic masculinity critiqued in the Gillette ad pales in comparison to the first century version, where women were little more than objects, voiceless and largely defined by their relationships to the men in their lives.
This makes Jesus’ treatment of women so remarkable. Jesus’ brand of masculinity was one where women were, among other things, honored (Matthew 26:6-13), listened to (Mark 7:24-30), and embraced as evangelists (John 4:1-42). For Jesus, women could be disciples (Luke 10:38-42), they could travel with him (Matthew 27:52), and they were worthy of serving as positive examples in his stories (Luke 21:1-4). In perhaps his single most revolutionary act around gender, in a world where the testimony of a woman was not allowed in court, Jesus entrusted the message of his resurrection to Mary, the first person in history to bear the gospel (Matthew 28:1-10). Indeed, scholar Walter Wink notes that “Jesus violated the mores of his time in every single encounter with women recorded in the four Gospels.”
In light of Jesus’ counter cultural (then, and now) example, I’ll offer two thoughts for our faith communities to consider in the midst of this cultural moment.
To begin with, we should reevaluate how we talk about and model masculinity in our faith communities. To be sure, toxic masculinity must be rooted out. As the #churchtoo movement reminds us, too many church-going men have perpetuated violence against their sisters. There can be no room in God’s church for gender violence of any kind.
In addition, our church communities should consider how the masculinity we are presenting aligns (or not) with Jesus’. For much of its history, the church has privileged men over women, and, in many cases, men continue to hold most of the power in our faith communities. Are we open to a vision for masculinity that, like Jesus, honors, empowers, and advocates for women, even if it means losing power and control?
Next, we should offer a healthy vision for masculinity, one that embraces the complexity of what it can mean to be a man. The stereotypical definition of masculinity has run its course, and it is time to broaden our view. Some men are assertive, while others are collaborative. Some are “the strong silent type,” but others are loud and expressive. And some want to take the proverbial hill, while others would rather wait and see what happens.
In the masculinity embodied by Jesus, there is room for every man except for the toxic ones. Does your faith community allow for a fuller definition of masculinity? I recommend furthering this conversation by reading books like Man Enough or Malestrom, ideally in groups.
Ultimately, any public critique of toxic masculinity is a good thing, even if it comes in the context of a 90 second commercial put out by a shaving company, and we should welcome anything that catalyzes a conversation that envisions a better vision for masculinity.
The question is, can the church become that catalyst?
 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, 129, quoted in The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey.
Rob Dixon will be speaking at CBE's 2019 conference in Houston on August 2-4. If you like what you read here, come see Rob speak this summer.