How Much Profit is in Your Pain? On Masculinity and Outrage

I finally watched the Gillette ad everyone is talking about. What’s immediately striking to me is how basic it is– and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just a simple, straightforward affirmation that men can do better. Bullying is bad. Harassment is bad. Holding each other accountable is good. Cool.

As a post-#MeToo battlecry, it isn’t exactly radical. But note how a certain subgroup of men respond:

“It’s saying that all men are toxic and that’s not fair!”

“It’s PC SJW propaganda trying to emasculate men; we can’t even be men anymore!”

“The feminist movement has gone TOO FAR and we need to organize a boycott!”

To reiterate: this was an ad for razors. It showed scenes like a dad breaking up a fight between two little boys, and a guy stopping his friend from shouting at a woman on the street. It featured Terry Crews saying “men need to hold other men accountable.” Again, this isn’t exactly burn-the-patriarchy-to-the-ground territory.

I’m also not convinced that the outrage directed at the ad is really representative of the population. Angry men are always loud on the internet, and counting YouTube likes and dislikes isn’t exactly scientific. Whatever the specific numbers though, we know that these responses are out there in some capacity. We know that whenever there’s a battle in the culture war (whether real or rumored), a certain subgroup of men are going to come out of the woodwork and form ranks. And yeah, their attitude is pretty emblematic of what people talk about when they talk about “toxic masculinity.”

I don’t love that term; not because it isn’t accurate (it’s super accurate), but because it’s evolved into a distraction. We don’t all have to constantly be in educator/outreach mode, but that is a mode that I often find myself in. When I work with boys and young men, we always talk about toxic masculinity, but we rarely use that specific phrase. Instead, we ask questions:

“Why do so many of us feel attacked when specific elements of masculinity get critiqued? Is it because we don’t identify with those elements (#NotAllMen)… or because we do and would rather not think about it?”

“Why are so many of us so defensive in the first place? Why do we feel like we have to “win” the conversation rather than just listen and reflect?”

“Who benefits from this outrage? Who benefits from the bigger picture, this constant pressure on men to be tough, strong, in control, dominant, and aggressive? Is it us, or someone else?”

There are a million things we could talk about with regards to these questions, the Gillette ad, and masculinity (as a lot of my work explores)– but for this piece, I want to focus on that last question. Because we can and should talk about what toxic masculinity is, the harm it can cause, and how we can move beyond it. But we don’t always get a chance to explore why that’s become the default script for men, the role to which we’re supposed to aspire.

On the last Guante & Big Cats album, I wrote a song called “Dog People.” The song looks at some of the qualities we project onto dogs (loyalty, unconditional love, obedience, etc.) and then explores how those qualities aren’t always good things when applied to humans.

That’s framed by a larger question about anger: where does the anger that so many men feel come from? At whom do we aim it? Who benefits from it? The key verse is this one:

I’ve seen anger like a loaded shotgun, a weapon 
Just pointed in the wrong direction 
Yeah we’re dog people: Chasing our own tails 
Look at who we blame when we fail: 
Scapegoats and bogeymen, always on the outside lookin’ in 
And mad about the taste of the soup that we’ve been cookin’ in 
but never mad at the cook, 
That man is a crook, who’s rich off the labor and the land that he took 
‘Cause look feminists didn’t close the factory 
that family on foodstamps didn’t eat your lunch 
Immigrants never offshored opportunity 
The pc police never shot anyone (so who’s your real enemy?) 
…and still we howl at that moon 
Whimper in a kennel hopin’ our master is back soon 
With that choke chain, shock collar love ‘til we break 
‘Til he’s trained us to hate everything that he hates, It’s a scam

That last line was important for me to include, because it points to something I’ve observed, doing this kind of critical masculinity work over the past decade: so much of male identity (especially white male identity) revolves around a profound fear of being taken advantage of. You see this in common political tropes: the mythical welfare queen, the undocumented immigrant, the affirmative action hire– speechwriters and political commentators know that these tropes are powerful because they tap into that fear. “Those people think they can game the system, steal my hard-earned tax dollars, and get something I never got? That’s not fair!”

The great irony, of course, is that men ARE being taken advantage of– just not by feminists, immigrants, or any other culture war bogeyman.

We’re scammed by advertisers that play off of our insecurities in order to sell us trucks, cologne, or beer. We’re scammed by corporations that underpay us for our labor, or lay us off, while shareholders and CEOs accumulate grotesque amounts of wealth. We’re scammed by politicians who promise that if we vote for them, they’ll get rid of all the leeches and make our country great again, while rigging the tax system to benefit those already at the top. We’re scammed by propagandists who tell us exactly what we want to hear, making growth/learning impossible. We’re scammed by YouTubers and social media snake-oil salesman making controversial statements and then monetizing our clicks. We’re scammed by a culture that says “if you work hard, you too can be a millionaire,” while systematically eliminating opportunities and resources that can lead to financial security.

These are the people who benefit from men’s outrage: the conmen, the corrupt, the rich. As long as men keep directing our anger at scapegoats like political correctness, feminism, or whatever SJWs-run-amok-of-the-day pops up on social media, we’re not seeing the real villains of this story– and those villains are very much aware of that fact.

“Dog People” ends, again, not with bold proclamations, but with questions:

How much profit is in your pain?
Who really benefits from your hate?

I don’t think a significant amount of the men who are mad at the Gillette commercial read my blog. I’m more interested in these questions as tools for those of us who do education work. We know that values-based appeals are generally more effective than statistics or big “here’s my powerpoint on toxic masculinity” presentations. Fairness, justice, a fear of being taken advantage of– all of these are values that make that “certain subgroup of men” so resistant to critical thinking about toxic/violent/hegemonic masculinity. These same values, though, can be pivot points for growth.

How can we facilitate a shift? I don’t think there’s any one strategy, but I’m thinking about how outrage about a scholarship that is only open to women students can become outrage about student loan debt and the increasing inaccessibility of higher ed in general. Outrage about gendered conscription laws can be become outrage about militarism and imperialism. Outrage about a commercial addressing toxic masculinity can become outrage about a culture that has taught us that rage is the only emotion we’re allowed to feel.

Of course, that reframing won’t always work. Some men are just misogynists, or just want to argue for their “team” on the internet. Others, sometimes because of other identities they hold, already understand this power dynamic stuff and are ready to move into more radical places. But in my experience, the much larger group is made up of those in the middle, those men who maybe just haven’t had this conversation yet, and are therefore open to toxic ideas about gender and dominance… but also open to other possibilities. We can’t expect any corporation to do that work via cools ads, but I think the fact that this ad exists points to a culture that really is shifting in a positive direction. It’s on us now– especially those of us who are men– to keep pushing.

A few other things I’ve written that pull together tools for anyone looking to cultivate more dialogue about these issues: