In the right light, my 15-year-old son is on the fuzzy cusp of a glorious mustache. The spacing is natural, the length manageable and the hue a perfect complement to the golden bangs sweeping across his forehead. It is as thick as shadows allow.
However, chance seems to find him sitting on the countertop every time I get the itch to run sharp, hot metal along my steam-soaked cheeks. Conversations tend to fall easier there, first with the grain and then against it. The topics are ever changing, from school to movies, politics and charity, serious and funny, with an occasional dip into the awkward unknown. The faucet is fairly intermittent.
Such was the scene a few days ago when, inspired by the moment, I had him watch a video on his phone. It was the new Gillette ad, a short film titled, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” which is stoking the fires of social media, burning unchecked in the collective furnace of the Internet’s bro-filled basement.
In the spot, Gillette addresses the negative aspects most associated with hyper-masculinity: bullying, violence, sexual harassment and barbecuing without an apron. Then, it dares to suggest men need not behave in such a manner.
The message is not subtle, to the point that some claim it too heavy-handed and overtly preachy. Others counter that such tactics are necessary, for when it comes to breaking the glass shell surrounding male privilege, subtle isn’t working.
“What do you think?” I asked my son as the video ended.
“Men are expected to be strong,” he replied. “Society says real men are powerful.”
He was right of course. Society does say that, and more. Masculinity, they claim, is measured through conflict, aggression and problems we can solve with our fists. Kindness is weak, the stuff of snowflakes and sissies.
“I think it’s better when people define themselves,” he continued. “Who wants to be a stereotype?”
Apparently, lots of people.
Twitter, Facebook and comment sections are all overflowing with anger from those who believe the ad is anti-men, pummeling us with the patriarchy, and lots of it.
The implications are many, stitched tightly into a “boys will be boys” blanket of absolution, draped on the broad shoulders of men who find it acceptable to objectify women for conquest or laughs, encouraging their sons to overreact for resolution and letting victims learn their lessons the hard way. These are the jokes. This is how it used to be, and how it was always meant to stay.
What is lost is that strength isn’t measured by dumbbells alone, but also in the ability to care when caring proves difficult, and to find common ground not in the lowest denominator, but the highest peak possible.
It takes far more strength to be a good role model than a bad example. After all, getting mad is easy. Taking swift and sudden offense rather than reflecting on the issues at hand is even easier.
Masculinity, like any attribute, should be open to interpretation, a constant work in progress that allows room for growth. And should doing so benefit those around you? That’s growth in the right direction.
Masculinity, contrary to popular belief, is not all chest-pounding and survival of the fittest. It is the giving and receiving of love and understanding. It is knowing that kindness is a muscle, and having the courage to flex it often.
“Boys will be boys,” I said, “doesn’t need to mean what they think it does.” Boys deserve better than that.
We all do.
The mirror began to lose its fog. My son traced his finger through it, our reflections melting in a smiley face.
“I think it’s good to want to be better,” he said. “Why would anyone get mad about that?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
He shook his head and laughed a bit. His lip curled slightly, lifting the weight of endless whiskers.
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