Gillette and Toxic Masculinity

By now pretty much everyone with a phone or computer has seen the latest advertisement by Gillette which targets “toxic masculinity.” As expected, there was an uproar of people either supporting the ad or throwing their over-priced Gillette razors into the toilet. Some people I spoke to found the ad “immensely patronizing” and “very offensive” (and that was from a woman I spoke to regarding the ad). Some men I know just found it stupid. I have heard from both men and women that the ad is encouraging and simply calling men to higher standards.

I for one did not find the ad offensive. The ad portrays men encouraging other men to do the right thing. It denounces the crude and vulgar tendencies men have (especially when they are in groups). My favorite part of the ad was when the one man stopped the other from cat-calling at a lady. We find (I think) these particular acts of virtue to be inspiring and admirable. One man, one person, stepping up to do the right thing. This is why I find describing men behaving badly as “toxic masculinity” to be such a weak description.

Talking about “toxic masculinity” casts the problem in a certain a light, where the “toxicity” arises from excessive “masculinity.” It presents the problem as if the social infraction or injustice arises from men being too manly. But if we are to regard masculinity and femininity to be complementary, then suggesting excessive masculinity is toxic seems rather odd. It treats masculinity as though it were an acquired virtue, where it is possible to be deficient on one side and excessive on the other, and we all ought to strive for the “golden mean” between the two extremes. I do not think masculinity or femininity are what Aristotle would call an acquired habitus. Masculinity and femininity are very abstract words to use; however, John Paul II offers a more concrete approach that considers masculinity and femininity to be all the physical characteristics that imply complementarity between the two sexes. Hence, talking about masculinity as liking barbeque, fishing, and beer is totally superfluous. These associations are socially constructed. What is not socially constructed, however, is that the experience of masculinity and femininity in one’s own body points to the complementarity realized in conjugal union.

The inability of pop culture to distinguish between what is “accidental” and “essential” reaps a myriad of moral consequences. In the case of the trendy phrase “toxic masculinity,” it grounds toxic behavior in manhood, as if being a man is the source of evil behavior. When I first saw the Gillette ad, I thought to myself: “this is very interesting—what they consider ‘toxic masculinity’ is what I consider sin (especially regarding the portrayals of lust).” Sin is portrayed in many forms throughout the ad: pride, lust, anger, &c. So why consider these things the byproduct of excessive masculinity?

It seems the collective consciousness that pervades public discourse can only conceive of “sin” in broad social categories, where individual agency is secondary to all else. This perspective reduces man to his material condition—whether it be his economic circumstances, skin color, or sex. Of course the role of culture in the formation of human personality cannot be completely ignored—all that man is, his ability to reason and make moral decisions, is largely founded in his cultural inheritance. However, talking about culture as its own autonomous order solely determined by nature and materialism is not enough to account for the complexity of human agency. Culture is first formed by man’s religious experience, rooted in the fact that he possesses an immaterial soul. To neglect this dimension is to confuse the very nature of man and how he relates to culture.

This tendency to wrap individuality up in an autonomous social order is nothing new. Romano Guardini, an influential Catholic intellectual and priest of the early twentieth century, predicted many of these developments in his book, The End of the Modern World. In it, he notes how the time of “modern man” is coming to an end and a new man is emerging. He calls this man “Mass Man.” He calls him this because the Mass Man is formed by the “masses”—whether it be the “masses” of human culture or the “mass” amount of technology and industrialization that isolates him from the world. Guardini describes Mass Man as the “Man Without Personality” because the “regimented instincts” of this man “forbid him to appear distinctive, compel him to appear anonymous. Mass Man acts almost as if he felt that to be one’s self was both the source of all injustice and even a sign of peril.” Individual personality and agency are destroyed for Mass Man. Man as an individual is left to be subsumed in the masses which arbitrate the new standards of morality, which today are consent-based sexual ethics, limitless human rights created ex nihilo, and in our case, the social sin of “toxic masculinity.”

The Most Reverend Fulton J. Sheen observes this tendency on a more pastoral note in his forward to St. Maximlian Kolbe’s Will to LoveHe sees how “for many decades past [in Catholicism], emphasis was put on individual sanctification but with little stress on social justice.” However, now there is a “reaction to the other extreme, when if one carries the banner for racial justice or marches in a protest parade against the building of an atomic reactor, he will find so-called theologians who will deny any guilt to fornicators and those who violate the natural laws of God.” The paradigm shifted from seeing sin primarily as a personal harm against God or neighbor, to sin being primarily a corporate reality where lack of concern for global issues is the primary cause for contrition. Clearly tropes like “toxic masculinity” fall into the latter category as a very broad, corporate sin which is contingent upon your material/social conditions, e.g., being a man.

What is needed now is a return to acknowledging personal, private sins. Pride, lust, and anger are not symptoms of excessive masculinity; rather, they are vices. And what causes these vices is something the latest PC-bandwagon will not address: sin, such as divorce (which leads to fatherless homes), contraception, pornography, and consumerism. These things will always be ignored because they do not mitigate personal responsibility, unlike the broad social categories the media and political elite love to divide us into. It is far too easy to look at the world and demarcate everyone into a group based on ideological persuasion. It is much harder to go and make a good confession for your own sins. It is even harder to do penance in reparation for the sins of others. But both these things are the only solution to a hurting world that has lost its way. So although it is fashionable to talk about the social ails of “toxic masculinity,” it is best we stick to our common Christian parlance, and call sin what it truly is.

~Zachary Nelson

Cover photo: Karol Wojtyla (a.k.a., Pope John Paul II) shaving in the great outdoors.

Zachary Nelson is the husband of Ciara Nelson and is pursuing his M.A. in theology at the University of Scranton. He loves history, philosophy, theology, and classics. He rarely blogs at 

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