The first time I heard the phrase “boys will be boys” was on an episode of “Friends.” They didn’t give much attention to it, so neither did I. To me, it was just a couple of words that made a sentence that I didn’t exactly understand and that, as a woman, didn’t apply to me. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I heard the phrase used as an excuse for all types of male behavior, from little boys fighting on a playground to a grown man catcalling a woman he doesn’t know on the street. They can’t help it, they’re just boys.
On Jan. 13, the shaving company Gillette released an ad called, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” The first half of the ad shows men sexually harassing women, bullying, fighting and mansplaining. “We can’t hide from it. It’s been going on for far too long. We can’t laugh it off, making the same old excuses,” the narrator says as a never ending line of fathers continues to repeat “boys will be boys” over and over. The second half focuses on men doing “the right thing” and acting “the right way” as they stop other men from catcalling, bullying and fighting. “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best,” the ad concludes.
The ad has over 200 thousand retweets and over 500 thousand likes on Twitter. Despite this success, it has received major backlash from—you guessed it—men. “Real men… will not buy Gillette anymore!,” tweets one user. “Hope it was worth losing thousands of customers for your stupid identity politics calling all men bad,” writes another. “If this is what you think of men (me) I will never use your product again!” another tweet reads.
Gillette’s video isn’t saying that all men are responsible for perpetuating toxic masculinity. The fact that people are assuming that it is and use the classic “not all men” response is the problem. Obviously not all men are sexual predators, but toxic masculinity is negatively affecting society as a whole. The world in which women and minorities exist is unsafe and unequal regardless of whether “all men” cause it or not. When men say “not all men,” it’s often used in defense, but the problem is that the stories they’re defending themselves from are not theirs. These stories are coming from groups that have been discriminated, diminished and marginalized that should be able to tell their own stories without having to worry about hurting the feelings of people that are part of privileged groups. In this case, men.
What Gillette is doing, as a company who mainly targets men and whose slogan is “the best a man can get,” is being aware of its privilege and using it to call attention to issues that are usually foreign to men. It’s saying that men can and should want to be better. That if a guy sees a random woman on the street, he doesn’t have any right to tell her what he thinks of her; that if a woman is explaining herself, she can do it better than a man can; that aggressiveness should not be targeted at another human being; that boys don’t always have to be boys.
A while ago, a male friend was telling me about how him and his other guy friends whistled at a woman on the street; he was laughing as he told me the story. I asked if he knew what it felt like to be in the woman’s position and he said that he didn’t know. I asked him why he whistled at the woman and he said that it was fun to do it around his guy friends.
I told him that, personally, I have been dealing with catcalls since I was 13. When I was 14, I was walking on the street by myself and a man felt the need to invade my personal space and blow me a kiss right next to my cheek. I hated and blamed myself for wearing shorts that day. I cried to my mom afterwards and I asked her if it was ever going to stop and she looked at me and said that even though she wishes she could tell me it will, it won’t.
I told my guy friend that being a woman in that situation is terrifying and that, although I know that he’s a good person, women can’t assume that “not all men” are bad and do something about it. We’ve been taught to deal with it for our own defense because “boys will be boys” and we don’t know what boys will do if we fight back.
I hate the fact that it took a major company to put this message in an ad to get attention and that this is likely also a marketing plan. But nowadays, we need big voices to communicate the challenges that certain societal groups have to face, challenges that affect people regardless of where they stand in the political spectrum. I don’t care that Gillette’s sales may increase because of this ad or that the company is appealing to millenials by being “woke.” What I care about is that people are getting informed and that issues created by toxic masculinity are under the spotlight.
I now know what “boys will be boys” means. At this point, I can only hope that this discussion of men’s role in society continues because I would like to believe that boys can learn to be better boys.
Oriana Gonzalez is a third year literary journalism major and gender and sexuality studies minor. She can be reached at email@example.com.