Gillette released its Believe video last weekend, stirring up much controversy. The video takes a bold stand against toxic masculinity, calling out aggression, fisticuffs, bullying, sexual harassment and other manifestations of the unhealthy boys-will-be-boys and men-will-be-men behaviours. As I was brushing away my tears and wondering if Gillette made women’s razors that I could start buying (oh, I already do but they’re called Venus, so I didn’t realize they were Gillette), there was wild pushback from men vowing to never shave with a Gillette razor again, claiming the right to be “real men” and to let the “soy boys be soy boys”. An aside: Among a certain quite large cadre of men, being vegetarian, as in, eating soy products, is considered emasculating. The word “hegan” was invented to create social permission for men to be vegans. Even in a world where men are embarrassed not to eat meat, the scale of the blowback over Gillette’s advert is disturbing.
Yet, as the initial zazz of the video loses its fizz, I think about how we should respond when corporations make bids for the moral high ground.
Here’s a fable that’s helping me frame my thoughts:
A baby mouse, so very young he had seen nothing of the world, almost lost his life without further ado. Here is how he recounted the adventure to his mother:
I climbed the mountains that border this country and I was trotting along like a young rat ready to embark on his career, when two animals caught my eye. One was soft, gentle and gracious, the other turbulent and full of anxiety. His voice was nasty and grating. On his head he had a piece of flesh; an arm-like appendage he lifted in the air, as if he were going to fly; and a multicolored fantail.
Our little mouse was painting a portrait of a young rooster for his mother, as if it was an animal from distant America.
The little mouse continued:
He was beating his flanks with his arms, making so much noise and such a racket that even I who, thank goodness, have some pluck, turned tail and ran in fear, cursing him from the bottom of my heart. If he hadn’t been there, I’d have had a chance to meet that other animal who seemed so sweet. That one had soft fur, like us, but inlaid with a pattern, a long tail, humble demeanor, modest gaze, yet with a twinkle in his eye. I think he is very friendly with those gentlemen, the rats, because he has ears that are much the same shape as ours. I was just about to introduce myself, whenwith a blaring sound, that other one made me run away.
My son, said mother mouse, this sweet one was a cat, who, beneath his hypocritical mien, nurtures his sly designs on all your kin. The other animal, far from wishing us ill, might be the source of a meal for us someday. Whereas the cat, well, his cuisine begins with us.
As long as you live, guard against judging people by their appearance.
Is Gillette a cat or a young rooster? When it comes to understanding the motives behind any corporate activity, we are certainly baby mice who must take care to consult our mother—that is, our common sense. One well-intentioned-seeming video does not define an entire corporate brand. We will never grow up, if we don’t test the information and analysis available to us against our existing knowledge and intuition (aka common sense), before coming to our own conclusions.
This is just a small sample of the insights circulating:
On hotair.com—The Gillette Ad Backlash Is International News.
This (and other) reading coupled with my common sense suggests some answers to a few of the questions the video provokes.
1) Is it the corporation’s role to take social-political positions? Yes. It is impossible to “be” in the world without one’s actions implicitly taking a position, even if that position is I-don’t-care-enough-to-mix-in. Think about Gillette and you’re thinking about masculinity. How it portrays men in its ad is always a social-political statement. In the same way beer ads with fully-clothed men and bikini-clad women, or women’s clothing companies using sickly skinny models, are making statements about women. For Gillette to confront the fundamentals of its own image is unusual.
2) Is Gillette whitewashing other bad actions with this video? In other words, is Gillette sincere? Possibly and yes. To be a big, global corporation (Gillette’s parent is P&G) and not have some dirty laundry may be almost (not completely!) impossible. But whatever Gillette’s misdeeds may be, they haven’t been front page news of late. This is not a case of look-over-here-at-the-shiny-pretty-thing-so-I-can-distract-you-from-the-mess-you-were-complaining-about. So, until proven otherwise, I accept Gillette’s sincerity. In fact, the risks associated with the advert are exactly what makes it more powerful. The video’s moving images are not just words in fancy packaging. They are an act of courage. Gillette has sparked controversy. The company is losing customers. The company must have known the filthy spew it would unleash. Good. Let’s get the bile out in the open, instead of letting it flow underground, poisoning our environment in insidious ways.
3) Does Gillette get a pass now for anything else it does? No. Obviously.
The young rooster blares in Gillette’s new video. Tomorrow the same corporation might trade in a fantail for soft fur and a twinkling eye. As responsible adult citizens of the world we need to stay alert, not judge a corporation by appearance, but look instead at a company’s actions. Only then can we distinguish feathers from fur, so we can address the fears beneath the hatred sparked by Gillette’s video.
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