Monica Hesse: How should conversations about toxic masculinity deal with the toxic women who also perpetuate it?

This Pat Bagley cartoon, titled “Toxic Masculinity,” appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.

So, Gillette, the razor and shaving conglomerate, has released a commercial that is either Oscar-worthy or the devil's own butthole, depending on your view of masculinity.

This happened while I was home sick and by the time I dragged myself to a screen and actually watched the thing, it didn’t seem as revolutionary or inspirational as it had been described. Mostly, it felt ad-spirational — that weird sweet spot where a company wants to convince you that you can Mach-3 your way to gender equality. But still, Gillette was trying. “It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture,” the company posted on its website, vowing to “challenge gender expectations.”

Sure. Praise be. But, from my sick bed, I had just one thought experiment for Gillette: Should an ad about toxic culture have included toxic women?

If you haven't seen the commercial, here's a recap. In a series of vignettes, men harass women, and boys bully each other until a voice-over intones, "We believe in the best in men." Then, suddenly, the vignettes have heroes: A man tells his friend that harassing is "not cool," a father instructs two fighting boys, "that's not how we treat each other."

The heroes of the commercial are men, the villains are also men, and women are present mostly as set pieces. I appreciate why: the overarching message is that men can and should mentor other men. It's not a woman's responsibility to avoid harassment; it's the responsibility of men to not harass her. Women shouldn't have to educate men; men are capable of educating themselves.

But if we're really going to talk about culture, then is there a way to acknowledge that culture is vast, insidious, with roots that go deep and end up producing some misogynist women?

A few days before the Gillette ad came out, I'd written a column about some new guidelines released by the American Psychological Association, which said that an overreliance on traditionally masculine traits, like stoicism and dominance, could be harmful to men. Shortly after the column published, reader emails started pouring in.

One wrote that it wasn't his father who told him that boys don't cry. It was his mother. A full childhood, the reader said, of being told to suck it up and brush it off, to take it all in but never let any of it out.

Another man wrote about his wife. How he loved her. How she often cried in front of him. How the one time he'd cried in front of her, she'd uneasily left the room. How he'd made sure to never cry again. How he didn't know if his tear ducts even worked anymore.

"How about your write a column with complete 'frankness' on how women influence the men in their lives?" a third man chided me. "This is the ultimate 'I dare you.' "

I don't know why he thought he had to dare me. I don't know why he thought I wouldn't agree with him. Of course I agree with him. Of course I don't believe most men, individually, are bad. I believe the system is bad, and the system includes a history of patriarchy, and its adherents have included both men and women. Some of us created the poison, but damned if there aren't plenty of others who've volunteered to dole it out by the spoonful.

One of the great things about the popularity of "The Handmaid's Tale" last year was the arrival of a useful shorthand term: "Aunt Lydias" are women who willingly, harmfully participate in a terrible misogynistic society. Aunt Lydias are real. Aunt Lydias are why toxic masculinity is a societal problem, not just an XY chromosome problem.

And I wonder if one or two of them should have been in the commercial.

There could have been a woman chanting, "Boys will be boys," right alongside the men. "Boys will be boys" is something some mothers say, too, when their sons attack other boys or lift up girls' skirts.

There could have been a woman intoning, "He's just pulling your hair because he likes you!" because that's something female grade-school teachers have been repeating for years, and it harms girls by making them think unwanted attention is their fault, and it harms boys by making them think that harassment and affection are the same thing.

There could have been women in the catcalling scene, because the first person to tell me I was "asking for it" wasn't a man, but the aunt of a friend. My friend and I were 11, we'd gone for a walk, we'd been followed by three grown men in military fatigues, catcalling us for several blocks. Back at home we were terrified, and her aunt was withering. What did you expect? she asked. You're wearing shorts.

Even at 11, I knew something was wrong with that statement. It didn't stop me from wearing long pants all through high school.

She should have been in that Gillette ad. If the company — if we all — really want to “challenge gender expectations,” we have to figure out a way to deal with both the men and the women propping them up.

Monica Hesse | The Washington Post

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”