Gillette, a subsidiary of the multi-national corporation, Procter and Gamble (P&G), has released a controversial new ad ostensibly exercising the new ethos of corporate responsibility to instruct men as to what genuine masculinity is and how they ought to behave. If the intent of the ad was to stir debate, it has been successful. There are varieties of advertisements but we may fairly lump them into two categories: sales and branding. This ad clearly belongs to the latter category. It is intended to position Gillette as a socially aware, sexually enlightened, up-to-date company.
Before I criticize the ad—and there is much to criticize—let me assure you gentle reader that this no brief for bullies or brutes. I have mostly avoided engaging with the “biblical masculinity” movement. At least some of the more public advocates of (e.g., Mark Driscoll) have demonstrated that they have not a clue as to what Scripture requires of men. I have no sympathy whatever for the “biblical patriarchy” movement nor for a theologically and historically sloppy “Eternal Subordination” arguments of some complementarians. The “Biblical patriarchy” movement is typically attached to the theonomic ethic, i.e., the unbiblical and un-Reformed view that the civil laws and punishments instituted under Moses are still in force and ought to be executed by the civil magistrate. That is a flat contradiction of Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4:
To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
“Patriarchalism” is a loaded term that signifies different things to different people but by it I mean the mistake of not accounting for the progress of redemptive history. There was a divinely instituted patriarchy under the period of types and shadows (the Old Testament), which expired with the rest of the types and shadows. Jesus is the federal head of all believers. There is a “headship” principle to be observed in the church and family but there is no longer a divinely sanctioned state-church or a theocratic state. In 1 Timothy 2:11–15, Paul grounds his principle in creation and in Ephesians 5:22–33 in grace. We will return to the latter passage next time.
A video commercial, even a long one (1:49), is a series of evocative images intended to connect with the viewer at an emotional, visceral level. This is what video does. Oral and written communication tends to reach the hearer and reader first via the intellect and then, perhaps, in the affections. This is why interpreting films is so different from interpreting written texts. There is a degree of ambiguity inherent in visual communication that does not quite exist in oral or written communication. Because the images are inherently emotive, the viewer interprets them in light of his (or her) experience. Women who have been the target of sexual harassment identify with the ad’s repudiation of it. My entirely unscientific survey of responses suggests that female viewers tend to interpret the commercial sympathetically while male viewers tend to be more negative toward the ad. This is interesting because ostensibly the commercial is a message, a mini-sermon, to men exhorting them not to be brutes and bullies. It is quite likely, however, that this slick, expensive commercial was certainly tested in “focus groups” (small groups of consumers selected according to age, sex, ethnicity, gender identity etc) to determine how people would respond. P&G knew what sort of response this ad would bring before they released it and its real target was mostly likely not males but females. Hence it begins with the “me too’ phenomenon and proceeds to portray males in a mostly negative light.
To be sure, men are capable of being brutes and bullies. However culturally incorrect it may be say it, as a sex we do need to be civilized. I write this of a man of some experience. My vocation as a teacher allows me to observe the transformation of young bachelors into young married men. There is a civilizing process that takes place. My wife civilized me. It is the way things are. So, all civilized males affirm with the commercial that sexual harassment is wrong. Christians further affirm their duty in Christ to love their female neighbors as themselves and to love their sisters in Christ as Christ loved the church.
Still, the ad is offensive for a variety of reasons. We need to view advertisement critically (in the sense of evaluating its message and methods). Like nearly all ads, this ad is manipulative. It ties images of ugly behavior, patronizing behavior (the corporate male places his hand on the shoulder of a corporate female thereby symbolically subordinating her and proceeds to “mansplain” her point for her) which grab the emotions, to a message intended to brand a product as allied with a socially progressive movement aimed at eradicating the ugly behavior. In short, the company wants to create the impression, rooted in the emotions and even the psyche, that buying Gillette razors is a way of turning back brutish behavior in men.
Perhaps the most offensive portion of the commercial features two little boys who are momentarily shown tussling. The commercial jumps to men saying, “boys will be boys,” at which point the narrator solemnly intones, “but something finally changed.” The visual cuts to a newscaster talking about “sexual harassment.” Here, the ad turns on an equivocation. “Boys will be boys” becomes code for “men are brutes and sometimes sexually harass women but they excuse it by saying ‘boys will be boys.’” Visually, verbally, visererally it equates two boys doing what boys do—rough housing—with sexual harrassment.
This montage (starting at about :31) essentially shames boys for being different from girls and as potential, even likely, sexual predators. Well, boys are different from girls. Our bodies are different. Our minds are different. We experience things differently. We relate to the world differently. The notion that all such differences are due entirely to nurture and not to nature is contrary to the entirety to human history, human experience, and sound, unbiased investigation. “Boys will be boys” is no excuse for sin, for crimes, or for offensive behavior but boys will be boys. Raised properly they grow up to be gentlemen, strong, and brave. They don’t wolf-whistle at or molest women but they are not Caspar Milquetoasts either. The commercial shamed boys for being boys. This is the ethos of cotton-wooling children, of the State of Nebraska (my home state) now requiring children up to age 8 to be in a car seat and further that “children ages eight to eighteen must ride secured in a safety belt or child safety seat (booster seat).” The way the law is written it suggests that teens might be in a booster seat. This is as stupid as the old Nebraska law forbidding the teaching of German in schools. One can only hope that there are still family farms where children are taught to operate safely motor vehicles by age 10 (let them try to drive the pickup in a booster seat) and tractors by age 12.
We must stop telling boys that they are wrong for being boys, for rough housing, for challenging themselves and others. That is how boys are made and that is a good thing. Sin is real and natural male aggression is corrupted in this fallen world but by nature male aggression is not wrong. Because of the fall it does need to be channeled. It is the role of fathers to teach their sons how to control themselves and to channel that energy productively. It used to be the role of organizations like the Boys Scouts of America to help boys become men. Fighting is not a good way to solve a problem but a boy (and his sister) needs to learn to defend himself (and herself) and others. That is part of his role in this world, to defend the innocent and the helpless.
Here I think of the 1952 film, High Noon starring Gary Cooper as Will Kane, a lonely sheriff who stands up for a town that refuses to stand up for itself or for him. Kane is no Superman. He was just a man determined to do his duty when others would not. His masculinity was not about brawn but about the determination to do the right thing, even at his own expense.
Before we turn to what Scripture says about what a man is and does we should note the changing role of corporations in the shaping of later-modern American culture. Some are intentionally seeking to take the place of the existing mediating institutions in society. They are deliberately catechising consumers via ads. We do not need multi-national corporations to teach us how to raise our children or what the nature of the family is or should be. We did not elect them to be the conscience of the nation. The only thing we expect from businesses large and small is to make a good product and sell it at a fair market price. P&G is no one’s parent. They are no one’s church. They are no one’s voluntary social organization.
We do have biblical pictures of masculinity. 1 Samuel 17 tells the story of David and Goliath. The point of the story is not David’s masculinity. His confidence to confront Goliath was not in his skill nor in his strength but in Yahweh, the covenant-making and covenant-keeping God of Israel.
Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, since he has taunted the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you” (1 Sam 17:36–37; NASB)
The battle-hardened Goliath, the pagan, taunted David because of his youth and inexperience. David went to war without armor and inadequately armed. He took the 11th-century BC equivalent of a knife to a gun fight. He did so because the Lord was with him and because Yahweh was with him, he conquered the giant. That is the point of the narrative: God has his anointed King, who will act contrary to expectations to conquer the great Evil One. Christians realize that David was a type of Christ, who conquered Satan in a most unexpected way indeed.
Still, the narrator of 1 Samuel (and 2 Samuel and Kings) simply and rightly assumes that it is the job of men to train for war, to put on armor, and to do battle with evil. That is what (relatively) good men do. They lay down their lives for others. They protect those who cannot protect themselves. Scripture is most realistic about sin and evil in this world. It will remain until Christ comes again and shall always have to be resisted, in the civil sphere, with force. This is why police officers, men and women, train in academy in “defensive tactics” how to subdue criminals and to protect innocent citizens. They study how to fight and win. They must go the gun range regularly to keep their skills sharp. They do all that because they know (or quickly learn) the realities of a sinful, fallen world.
Paul has much to say about and to men that gives us a rather different perspective from that of P&G on masculinity. We will consider that next time.