The now infamous Gillette commercial addressing the issue of “toxic masculinity” has sparked a lot of controversy throughout the internet such that it has already become a cliche’ in the blogosphere and web articles. No doubt many are wondering where a self-professed “confessing millennial” stands on the matter. And so it’s with a bit of a sigh that I begin typing this (a sigh that says “here we go” under my breath).
On the one side are conservative traditionalists convinced that the advertisement is a wholesale assault on masculinity in general. On the other side are left-swinging activists that have appropriated the ad’s message and have more or less made it that way. And in typical “CM” fashion, I find both visceral reactions wanting and lacking nuance. In place of constructive dialogue are polemics in which all sides automatically assume the worst of one another.
But before I offer my own commentary on the matter, I want to begin where all of our discourse as Christians should begin: the Bible.
“In the Beginning”
The opening chapter of Genesis features a beautifully poetic version of the creation account which ultimately culminates in the creation of the sexes. God creates both male and female in His image and declares it to be “very good!”. Here, masculinity is portrayed as a good thing, just as femininity is portrayed as a good thing. They are things to be celebrated, not rid of. This is especially salient (and antithetical) in a culture that often wants to blur the distinctions between the sexes to a meaningless blob.
But the story doesn’t end there. The first humans decide to rebel and introduce the curse of Sin on the world. The result? Adam immediately starts pointing the finger at Eve, his wife, and their relationship automatically begins to break down and deteriorate. We are told that as a consequence of the Curse, from that point on the man will “rule over” the woman (biblical language that was originally used earlier for their shared dominion over the beasts), and that the woman will always yearn for her husband’s position in life.
The breakdown in gender relationships continues as the biblical narrative unfolds and mankind spirals down into chaos. Critics of the Bible claim that it is misogynistic. But they don’t know how to read! The Bible is being descriptive, not prescriptive. As biblical scholars point out, in all instances when misogyny and abuse occur, it always leads to disastrous consequences. For example, when Abraham impregnates his slave, Hagar, and then kicks her out, it leads to a bloody feud that lasts for centuries when their descendants grow to become nations (for the record, God was the one that looked after Hagar and her son, Ishmael, after their banishment). And don’t even get me started on Jacob. His polygamous lifestyle would ultimately lead to family conflicts between his multiple wives and their sons that would have repercussions for years to come.
Stories like these continue even up to the book of Judges, when we are told that “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) in the nation of Israel. When God finally establishes David as His King, a “man after His own heart”, David starts out well but then ends up abusing his God-given position of privilege and power to take advantage of Bathsheba and murder her husband. David’s family likewise falls apart. His son and successor, Solomon, is no better. We are told that he had up to 800 wives and multiple concubines. As a consequence, he runs the nation of Israel straight into the ground, and his people suffer as a result.
In these narratives, the biblical authors are teaching us an important and valuable lesson: the effect of sin on our humanity. “Toxic masculinity” exists. But not because masculinity is toxic. But because it has often been twisted and perverted throughout the history of the human race, in every culture and every time period, due to our sin. It is this power that made our biblical patriarchs regress into patriarchy, and led kings (and eventually presidents) to take advantage of young impressionable women under the sway of their power.
See the unique nuance that the Bible holds? It’s understanding of gender and sexuality can be described as “traditional” and conservative. Yet its painfully honest observations on gender relationships–and abuse–is far ahead of its time (one might almost say ‘progressive’ for its time). It serves as a much need look in the mirror for humanity. It is a diagnosis for our current problems. And yet this is the book that much of our society wants to throw in the garbage bin. (True to form, biblical Christianity doesn’t fit neatly into our existing modern categories, and it resists the temptation to make things overly simplistic.)
So where are we to look for a model of masculinity? The answer should be no surprise, really. If you want to see true masculinity, look to Jesus. He used his platform and his position to speak up for those disadvantaged, marginalized, and even oppressed. He spoke to a woman (a Samaritan woman, at that) in public at a time when such an act was deemed socially unacceptable and improper for a Jewish man. He spoke up for many women in general in the face of the Pharisees. He included women as his followers, students, and even disciples (though not among the Twelve). And this is the same “mild and meek” Jesus that, when Gentiles were being taken advantage of in the temple courts, drove out the money changers in a fury.
Jesus embodied strength, but not a strength that was used for his own gain or ambition. He used that strength for others—to serve, to love, and to protect others. It is this God-given strength that enabled him to stumble up Calvary—Golgotha—while clinging onto the cross that was the seal of his fate, after already having already endured several beatings which left him barely alive, so that he could bear the punishment for our sins. The same sins that include the failure of every man to be the men that God created us to be.
After all, it was about Jesus that Paul said that “he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7).
We are called to reflect Christ in our lives.
It’s relatively apparent in the New Testament that husbands are called to be leaders in the family. But what kind of leaders? We are told that husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church”—that is, to love our wives self-sacrificially. This means putting our wives before ourselves—putting her good before our own self-interests. Jesus Himself tells us that leadership is not about “lording over” people with your power, but being a servant—something we call “servant leadership”.
Unfortunately, many of our conceptions of masculine roles owe more to cultural values than to biblical ones, and have opened the door for all sorts of abuse. Just a couple of weeks before the premier of this advertisement, Karen Swallow Prior (herself a conservative evangelical professor at Liberty University—one of the largest Christian universities) commented that, “So much of what we think is Biblical Christianity [in regards to how gender roles play out] is really Victorian” and the product of 1800’s Europe. It is these notions that discourages men from being vulnerable and tells women to “stay in the kitchen”. Such stereotypes have no room for the unabashed emotionalism of King David or the strong, commanding military leadership of Deborah in the Bible.
History has proven time and time again that we try to fit our conceptions of gender roles into the molds cast by our cultures. We impose our own meanings of “leadership”, “headship”, and masculinity (and what we think it looks like) onto the biblical text, such that the precious and infallible Word of God is abused and mistreated just as countless women have been throughout history.
Bible passages have similarly been misused to justify slavery and segregation, deceiving Christians into falling in line with cultural expectations. It is this same blindness that kept these social structures going for decades and centuries. It is this same type of blindness that recently led a seminary president to tell an abused wife to go back to her husband as an act of “submission”. It is this same blindness that allowed Bill Hybels to follow in King David’s footsteps and get away with abusing his position of power for years. It is this same blindness that has continued to make men ignore or overlook how women have often been mistreated because of our historically privileged place in human society.
One part of the commercial portrays a line of men at grills mindlessly droning the mantra “boys will be boys”. This aspect has been an easy target for dissenters. Yet as a trained counselor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of “boys being boys” as an excuse to justify all sorts of behavior. But we don’t need more excuses. We don’t need to point the finger back at women. That’s what Adam did, in his weakness. We need to take responsibility for ourselves, for our own actions, and make sure that we do our job. We don’t need boys to simply be boys, and to use that as an excuse. We need to teach them to be men, real men. And boys learn to be men from other men (more on that in a bit).
To deny the unique differences—and complementarity—of men to women (and their respective contributions) is an affront to the goodness of God’s original design. But to ignore the history of abuse wielded by unchecked men throughout time is to deny the brokenness of our shared humanity, and is equally dangerous. Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Some Practical Considerations and Closing Comments
Just as there are unique differences between male and female, there are also unique differences between males. Men are called to be leaders, that much is true. But leadership will look different depending on the man. And it will also depend on your partner’s personality. There’s no exact “one size fits all”. Some of the meekest, quietest men I know are also men of the strongest character and noblest conviction, and that’s what matters. Sometimes men obsess over the question, “What does it mean to be a man?”, instead of first turning our eyes to God and asking instead, “What does it mean to be the man that God has called me to be?”.
As for me, I wasn’t offended by the commercial. I discovered long ago that if I was ever offended on account of my masculinity, it was because I wasn’t secure enough about my own masculinity to begin with. Sure, I don’t have an impressive frame or imposing stature like some men do, but that does not make me any less of a man. That comes from God alone, not some alpha-male caricature or stereotype.
But I’ll tell you what I got out of the commercial. I saw and heard the split-second clip of actor Terry Crews, himself a self-professed Christian, saying, “Men need to hold other men accountable.” There’s nothing to disagree with there. I saw a millennial, just like me, stop his drooling friend from aggressively pursuing a girl that he saw as more of an object. I saw two fathers using their strength to break up a fight, telling their sons “That’s not how we treat each other.” In other words, I saw men acting more like how Jesus would want us to act.
But the person that came to my mind when I first watched the controversial commercial was not Jesus. The person that first came to mind was my own dad. Because my dad exemplified what I saw in the dads in the commercial, with his quiet strength and steadfast conviction. My dad was the one who taught me what it truly means to be a man.
If you think that the Gillette add is an attack on masculinity and traditional values, watch it again. Notice the starry, wide-eyed gaze that the sons’ in the ad give to their fathers when they see them in action, and it should ring a distant, familiar bell. It’s the same gaze that my brothers and I would give to our father–the same gaze that led me as an innocent three-year old to wonder if he was a superhero. That is nothing to disparage, but to praise. As the advertisement put it, our society needs men to “say the right thing, to act the right way. Some already are, in ways big and small.” These things are altogether praiseworthy. Because the ad is right in this: “The boys of today will be the men of tomorrow.”
One of the commercials main messages has been lost in all the hubbub and stir it has created: “We believe in the best in men.” Not necessarily because of what we are, but what we can be. And as a Christian, that confidence is not based on ourselves, but on the One who can make us more that way.
To close, I would like to offer a verse or two that men like me can meditate on:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Men…millennial men…let’s strive for that.