Should Gillette ad challenging toxic masculinity be made in an African setting?

The International Women’s Day observed Friday last week was couched in one message repeated every year though many of us are aware of it:  That, the demand for women’s rights and dignity as human beings is universal and incumbent upon each and every one of us to ensure it.

This is emphasised at the subsequent meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the largest UN gathering on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The two-week meet, in which almost every country in the world including Rwanda is well represented, is currently ongoing and ends Friday next week.

The lengthy fortnight duration and regularity of the annual meet, now in its 63rd session, points to the depth of the inequality problem.

Given CSW’s more than six decades of existence tackling the issue, it is still apparent the journey to attain gender equality is nowhere close to the end.

At the current pace of change, it is estimated it will take 108 years to close the global gender gap, according to last year’s Global Gender Gap Index.

More than a century’s wait to right a wrong is a long time. Urgent solutions must be found to shorten the time.

The urgency demands solutions from any quarter, even if some of the solutions may raise a few hackles in the #MeToo era.

Here, I have in mind the Gillette commercial released in January this year urging men to be “the best a man can be”.

There is no gainsaying the razor company’s ploy is inspired more by profit than by a humanitarian motive. But the ad makes a point, challenging the image of often “toxic” masculinity.

The commercial was received amid accusations of cultural appropriation in the gender debate, that Gillette is unduly taking advantage of ideas about family and relationships to sell its razor.

It, however, was also received with some praise for being “woke”, with many, especially on social media, hailing the commercial for its call to action.

Woke is a slang term derived from the word awake that is increasingly being used to show social awareness.

But some men view the ad as “condescending” and have slammed it for “gender shaming” men. Among the loudest of them that even threatened boycotting the razor is Piers Morgan, the English journalist and television presenter that many in the region will recall as having been a judge on the popular show America's Got Talent.

Never shy to court controversy, he twitted bashing the commercial with a predictable threat: “This absurd virtue-signalling PC guff may drive me away to a company less eager to fuel the current pathetic global assault on masculinity.”

One commentator thought the tweet as exhibiting an undercurrent of excusing poor behaviour, objectification, and assault of women.

But comments by such a personality as Morgan can only drive the interest. And, as I write this, the ad has been viewed more than 29.7 million times on YouTube, indicating the measure of the interest it has generated.

It, however, is more telling with the “likes” and “dislikes” of the commercial on the platform. While it has received more than 779 thousand “likes”, the “dislikes” are nearly double at 1.4 million. This has been the trend since the launch of the ad on YouTube.

That it should generate such interest was the whole point. The ad provoked some debate.

“Masculinity is a complex and layered topic, so we definitely expected debate and conversations,” Gillette brand director Pankaj Bhalla was quoted explaining.

Though it is about selling the razor, the point being made is that it is also about “respecting women through gender equality–and more importantly, role modelling this behaviour for the next generation of men.”

With this, another personality worth mentioning is the women tennis great, Billie Jean King who tweeted in full agreement with the ad: Thank you, @Gillette, for sparking important conversations, for championing the best in men (and indeed, in all of us), and for using your tremendous influence to encourage all people to stand up and speak out.

Though accessible through platforms such as YouTube, I have not seen the commercial featuring in the local TV fare in Rwanda or the region. Nor do I recall mention of it in the local media.

It is possible I might have missed it, but given the advert appears a bit Western, should a similar one be made in an African setting?

What is certain is that the opportunity for debate such as the ad has creatively provided, whether it is for Gillette’s profit, is socially valuable and should be encouraged to keep the conversation going.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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