What the backlash to the recent Gillette advertisement has demonstrated more than anything is that challenging deeply held cultural beliefs is not easy.
Having spent 25 years on the front line working with men who use violence, my organisation No to Violence has heard similar pushbacks in our Men’s Referral Phone Service. Questioning the underlying beliefs and attitudes that fuel men’s violence elicits the same reaction whether it’s a Gillette ad addressing broad messages about a more positive version of masculinity or talking to men about their particular issues.
Defensiveness is expected and should be (to some degree) welcomed as a necessary starting point to exploring these issues. These ideas are necessarily challenging, they are necessarily confronting, and they are certain to arouse discomfort. If dislodging an identifier as fundamental a construct as gendered socialisation didn’t provoke some discomfort, we would be doing something wrong. This is particularly difficult where that identifier carries with it the allure of social and material privilege.
We speak every day with men who use violence. These are ordinary men who often don’t see themselves as violent. They live and work among us. These men hold the very same sexist and disrespectful attitudes and beliefs that the Gillette campaign addresses as harmful. When challenged they often respond with the same language we have seen from men across media commentary and social media since the Gillette ad was released. The ad stands out and has such a polarising reaction because it mainstreams opposition to a culture that normalises, reflects and reaffirms existing concepts of masculinity.
Just days after the tragic murder of Aya Maasarwe, a man in Redfern, NSW, was arrested for throwing a woman off a balcony. This comes on the back of a year where 69 women were murdered by men in Australia. Despite this, we do not see the same level of backlash for sexist ads on heavy rotation, or cultural figures like writer Yann Moix exhibiting toxic behaviour, because this is the cultural water in which we swim. These attitudes are pervasive and expected. Men who use violence are enabled by a culture that remains apathetic to, or at worst celebrates, this toxic model of masculinity. The project of challenging that culture comes from a starting point of recognising that none of us exist above and beyond our culture.
As a society, we are challenging this from within. In that sense we are certain to witness these violence supporting attitudes in our social groups, at work, or in wider society. It makes little sense then, to talk of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ men. It is the underlying culture that needs to be challenged. Working with men who use violence, we hear similar responses to the omnipresent defence of ‘not all men’. We often hear “I’m not a violent guy” or hear him speak about her actions or his inability to make another choice in that moment (“I just lost it”). This is socially justified by a culture that often victim blames and that reaffirms that men are men and that boys will be boys.
These justifications signal to men who use violence that their behaviour is consistent with their self-image as good men.
When a company like Gillette mainstream an existing idea that perhaps there is a better way, and broadcast it to a large, mainly male audience, it naturally leads to discomfort, backlash and issues around masculinity and identity. We have never spoken to a man who has changed his behaviour without a level of discomfort. Empathetic self-reflection starts with accountability and holding ourselves accountable is not comfortable or easy work. The visceral reaction of so many towards the Gillette campaign may for some plant a seed, but we need to push forward together to ensure it can flower.
This means holding the system to account when it comes to the wider conversation about men’s violence against women. This includes an integrated approach that focuses on longer term solutions, from extending the length of men’s behaviour change programs to 20 weeks, which No to Violence has successfully advocated for in Victoria, to educating young boys about respectful relationships, to creating a culture of accountability in the workplace whereby violence supporting attitudes aren’t acceptable in any forms. We speak to and provide training to police, courts, service providers and family violence hubs, but we need to be supported to integrate with our partners to provide an all-of-society approach to tackling this ongoing problem.
If we didn’t believe that men can change their beliefs and behaviour we wouldn’t do the work we do. We know change is possible and we know it is uncomfortable, difficult work. We recognise the discomfort this elicits in the men we speak with and in wider cultural conversations. Given that police are called to a domestic violence incident almost every two minutes on average across Australia, it’s likely the perpetrators of this violence are all people we know. This is another uncomfortable reality that highlights the urgency in facing this issue head-on. We should not fear the backlash from the Gillette campaign, nor from hearing pangs of discomfort: we should welcome it as a watershed moment in mainstreaming a necessary conversation. But now the hard work needs to be done.
Men’s Referral Service is available every day on 1300 766 491
CEO No to Violence
This op ed was also published on the Mamamia website here.