Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Reading Racist Books To My Kid

I ran in to a hiccup at bedtime. It wasn’t actually the first time I’ve run into this particular hiccup, but it got me thinking.

Almost every night, I read to my son. It’s great, for all the usual reasons. He gets to discover characters and worlds I loved as a kid, or we discover wonderful new ones. He hears the stories that helped teach me things about bravery, honesty, loyalty, determination, or silliness. We’ve heard from some titans of children’s literature: Roald Dahl is wonderful to read out loud. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles are better than I remember them: the moral choices children make in his stories are valuable discussion starters for father-son talks about responsibility, consequences, kindness, and listening to your conscience.

But then… at bedtime… there are passages like this.

Cover art from the version I read as a kid.
Turbans and scimitars. Source
From The Horse and His Boy:
"This boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote North [meaning Narnia].” (Chapter 1) C. S. Lewis. The Horse and his Boy (Kindle Locations 79-80). HarperCollins. HOLD ON! So... C.S. Lewis believes dark people are ugly? Am I reading this right?

"The next thing was that these men were not the fair-haired men of Narnia: they were dark, bearded men from Calormen, that great and cruel country that lies beyond Archenland across the desert to the south." C. S. Lewis. Last Battle (Kindle Locations 263-264). San Val, Incorporated.

Yes, the Calormenes, from Calormen, across the desert south of Narnia, worship the cruel god Tash (with hints of human sacrifice). They feature in The Last Battle and The Horse and His Boy and they are clearly coded as Muslims: they are dark-faced, wear turbans, and wield scimitars. They are also described as cruel and exploitative. Oh... and some Dwarves mock them by calling them "Darkie.” And in case you thought you could omit a few details and remove the racial coding... they're drawn on the cover of the version I read as a kid. No getting around it.

The Silver Chair's treatment of the character Jill Pole in particular falls into many old tropes about what girls are and aren't, can and can't do.

Cover art of the version I read as a kid.
Roald Dahl, whom we’d been reading before reading Narnia, had this buried in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator:

'It is very difficult to phone people in China, Mr President,' said the Postmaster General. 'The country's so full of Wings and Wongs, every time you wing you get the wong number.' (Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Kindle Locations 302-303).

When they do call someone in China... their names are Chu-On-Dat and How-Yu-Bin, and they address the president as Mr. Plesident. Yeah. Roald Dahl went there. Just skip Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, folks. As sequel letdowns go, it gives Jaws: The Revenge and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a run for their money.

So what do we do about this?

Friday, 25 January 2019

Gillette: The Best A Man Can Get Ad: U Mad about This?

Gillette ruffled some feathers last week with an ad about masculinity, pointing out things that happen, like bullying, casual violence, and casual sexism - some obviously shitty things - suggesting that the excuse, "Boys will be boys" is not a good excuse, and encouraging men to 1. be less shitty, and 2. encourage other men to be less shitty, and 3. stop making excuses for shitty behavior by other men and boys. It ends with close-ups of some kids watching their dads stop other men and boys from being shitty, pointing out today's men are models for the men of the future, so our behavior teaches our kids to be shitty, or not shitty.

It has been hotly discussed in a number of places I frequent online, so I thought I'd put my thoughts in one place.

The ad itself... viewed on its own terms, without having it framed by someone who wants to rant about "SJWs" and the North American culture wars, or by someone who wants to rant about "Toxic masculinity"... isn't that controversial, really.

It's true that people make excuses for boys and men's bad behavior. It's true that some boys and men do shitty things. Among the behaviors identified, it's not controversial to identify these behaviors as shitty:
Groping women
Interrupting women
Patronizing or stealing ideas of female colleagues
Bullying smaller or weaker people with physical violence or verbal harassment
Treating women like trophies or toys

If someone is mad about the Gillette ad because they think the above behaviors shouldn't be criticized, they have much bigger problems than a men's grooming company telling them how to be decent human beings (most urgent: they aren't decent human beings).

Only slightly less slam-dunk obvious is the ad's emphasis on the excuse made for bad behavior: "Boys will be boys" (which is repeated by a whole lineup of men: this is pretty emphatic). I would guess that a lot of people who regularly say "Boys will be boys" will be surprised to hear it pointed out as troublesome. The ad posits a better response for men's shitty behavior than excuses: men stepping in to stop the shittiness.

But remove this from the "somebody is telling men how to behave" pearl-clutching, and again, it's not very controversial. Given a choice, I think most people would say that it's better to stop bad behavior than to make excuses for it.

Anyone disputing 1. that the behaviors above are bad, and 2. that correcting them is better than making excuses for them, definitely carries the burden of proof.

The most common complaint I've heard about the ad is that it's somehow claiming that ALL men are shitty... yet the ad clearly ALSO clearly shows men stopping all the behaviors pointed out (except the man interrupting his female colleague while putting hand on her shoulder and restating her idea in his own words - he seems to get away with it).

So... not seeing that.

The "Woke Ad" thing

The ad is the latest in a string of ads by brands positioning themselves "on the right side of history" by positing progressive and sometimes politically tinged views in their ads. The earliest example of this that comes to my mind (at least in the social media era) is Dove's ads promoting body positivity. The most striking one of those, to me, was this one, where they employed a sketch artist to draw how a person sees themselves, and then how other people see them. That piece faced its own critiques, but it also sure made the rounds. By showing instead of telling, they didn't make much commentary at all on cultural perceptions, the value of women, objectification, or the harm done by images of women in advertising... but as a conversation starter it got people talking about those things, at least.

The history of advertising companies pretending to want to save the world goes back much farther than that, of course. In 1971 we saw the "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony... I'd like to buy the world a Coke." This ad was successful enough that I learned the tune from a wind-up toy in my church's nursery, a decade and a half later.

Since the age of Twitter began, we've seen Cheerios (perhaps) surprised by the reaction to their heart health ad, which committed the "crime" of featuring an interracial couple.

General Mills stood by this ad despite the backlash by racists... but really, that's the absolute minimum courage a brand could possibly have, when interracial marriage has been legal in the US since 1967 (where did those haters come from, like really!)

I liked the other response to the Cheerios ad, and while preparing this piece was a bit sad to learn it wasn't made by Cheerios. But it's still a nice parody.

Procter & Gamble (who own Gillette) had "The Talk" ad, which led to calls for boycotts from people who thought the way to fix racism was to not talk about it (that doesn't work). This Medium marketing article mentions the Always "Like a girl" ads.

And Nike, earlier this year, had their Colin Kaepernick ad which led to haters setting their Nike shoes on fire. Nike recorded a big sales bump after that ad, by the way. The Medium article mentions that most of the companies reported spikes in brand awareness and/or sales after their "progressive" ads.

I have three reservations about "woke" ads. The first one is that I just don't think the desire to do social good is really that high on the priority list of advertisers.

When I imagine a company's PR and branding people deciding on their next campaign, I do not imagine them making inspiring speeches about moral leadership and social contribution.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington it ain't. (source)
I imagine them looking at spreadsheets and demographic charts, doing the calculus, and concluding that, for example, the benefit gained by appealing to the 62% of Americans who now support gay marriage... plus the brand awareness caused by the buzz of grumpy right-wing culture-war hot takes spreading across twitter and Fox News... far outweighs the harm done by losing the much smaller number of customers actually willing to change their shopping habits because they are just that mad about an ad supporting gay marriage. In fact, the backlash leads to a whole bunch of free buzz from the branding perspective: few ads manage to actually inspire a hashtag trend, but pissing off the right does so reliably. I am not quite willing to set aside my suspicion that profit motivation is enough for these brands to make "woke" ads, especially now that the numbers are in and it's generally worked, and they generally take on issues where public opinion is mostly on their side. It's not as brave as they want it to appear.

The second thing is that these companies don't always demonstrate a commitment to making the world a better place in every way they can. A company is big and complex enough that they could be making progress on multiple fronts, and executives and branding experts are subtle enough to know the value of a good distraction: It's great that Nike has come down in support of Colin Kaepernick and endorsed his courageous stance against racist police violence. Awesome!

But (Nirvana Fallacy ahead) while Nike is on that high horse in America, what's happening farther up the supply chain? Are their shoes still being manufactured in deathtrap/sweatshops? Why did Nike cut ties with the Workers Rights Consortium that runs inspections on factory working conditions? It's nice that Gillette's parent company Procter & Gamble is raising awareness of racism and sexism. But... it'd be nicer if they also weren't supporting deforestation of the Indonesian rainforest (and chasing orangutans toward extinction) to obtain palm oil. Let's make sure Chevrolet is praised for normalizing representations of gay marriage in their ads, but also held accountable for sticking with gasoline powered cars (and some real gas-guzzlers) even as evidence of fossil fuels' environmental impact piled up starting in the 70s.

The third thing is that these ads do not actually push the envelope very far.
Even the "progressive ads" are not planting their flags in very risky territory. The edgy thing about these ads is not the contents of the message, but who is saying it. That a brand would risk annoying people with a vaguely political ad seems to shock people, perhaps because we've been conditioned by Michael "Republicans buy sneakers too" Jordan and his ilk to think that companies should never be openly political or controversial (despite living in a world where companies can openly lobby politicians). Look at the contents of these messages.

The "Like a Girl" ads have the message "Girls should be confident." If you want to organize a backlash against that, you're clearly placing yourself in the asshole column. "Girls should have toys that are intellectually stimulating" and "We should stop marketing science toys as exclusively for boys" (Goldie Blox ad below) are also two positions that are utterly noncontroversial... unless you have a real vested interest in keeping the old boys' club alive, or have been told it is bad by someone in the media who does, or are either willfully or unintentionally ignorant.

All the way back to the 1971 coke ad, during the 70s -- a time of the cold war, mutually assured destruction, despots and dictators, apartheid, racial tension (the Black Liberation Army was on the move)... Coke makes a vague, middle-of-the-road, as-nonspecific-as-possible, mushy-minded statement that "Boy, gee, wouldn't harmony be nice!"

The Nike Kaepernick ad which is held up as the apotheosis of woke advertising doesn't say anything about police violence or racial bias. It just says that it was brave of Colin Kaepernick to take the stand he did. The rest is inferred. It's subtext, not text. (more analysis) Given our cultural moment, the subtext is pretty obvious, but it's not explicitly stated. The closest we get to actual, explicit text might be "The Talk," which clearly and unambiguously (and devastatingly) tackles racial injustice in the way black parents talk to their kids about racism. It clearly says, "we need to talk about race" and shows that black Americans experience America differently than white Americans.

Again, I don't think many would dispute that difference in experiences, but everyone was surprised when a company made that statement. Other than "The Talk," most of these ads stay comfortably non-specific. This is common in advertising -- it allows viewers to fill in the blanks with their own experience, making it more relatable. But it also dances away from the opportunity to make a more powerful statement, because most people fill in those blanks with something that is comfortable for them. None of these ads are specifically made to make people uncomfortable. Even "The Talk" gives parents talking to kids, worried about their kids, coaching and counseling their kids: something anyone can relate to, even if they're ignorant or backwards in their views about race.

The value of these ads tends not to be that they are saying something new: most of them articulate ideas that have been circulating for a while. The value in them is that, through controversy, they pull those conversations squarely into the mainstream in a way that doesn't happen when athletes or politicians or academics talk about them (not everyone follows sports, politics, or academia). Yes, that is value, but look again at the Gillette ad:

Who would disagree that groping women, catcalling, or treating women like objects isn't cool?
Who would disagree that using physical strength to dominate someone smaller is a shitty thing to do?
Who would disagree that making excuses for bad behavior contributes to the problem?

Who would disagree that the world would be better if men participated more in ending those behaviors in other men? Nobody. The ad even gives men an "out" from the pointing fingers: each one of us can get on our #NotAllMen tip and smugly assure ourselves that we are the good ones who would definitely be the ones helping others and stopping shitty male behavior! The ad itself provides a way for men to let themselves off the hook (in a way the "The Talk" ad, for example, didn't).

Gillette is trying to look brave, but making a statement that is pretty middle-of-the-road, if you actually look at it. They flirt with going harder -- the words "Toxic Masculinity" float across the soundtrack about six seconds in during the voiceover montage -- but then they dance away from a stronger statement of what that is and why it's harmful, sticking with open-and-shut examples of shitty male behavior instead.

But Toxic Masculinity tho...

Yeah. Let's talk about toxic masculinity.

The words are said once in the ad, and the examples of bad male behavior are all examples of toxic masculinity, but so little else is said that the concept isn't clarified. This has led to tweets and facebook comments and whatnot claiming that the ad is saying all masculinity is toxic, and allowing people to assert all kinds of definitions of toxic masculinity.

Now the internet is really bad about taking useful terms invented in academia, or political science, or wherever, and using it so cavalierly that soon it could mean just plain anything. Fake news, microaggression, virtue signaling, soft power, mansplaining, privilege, not to mention terms like freedom of expression, freedom, justice, racism - all these terms have been used so much, in so many different ways, on the internet that (accidentally or otherwise) their original meaning has been stretched and mangled perhaps beyond recognition, but definitely to the point it helps to take a moment to clarify what someone means when they use them.

Masculinity is a set of ideas, traditions, behaviors, attitudes, that are culturally specific, and help men understand what is culturally expected of them as men, and give them instructions on what kind of roles they can have, and how to go about filling them. It starts from childhood, and in advertising, TV, comments made by people around, and role models, kids get ideas of what it means to be a man.

Here is a refresher of what masculinity means in North America. In rap form. Because of course.

Toxic masculinity is a specific subset of masculinity: it's a group of ideas and behaviors about being a man that are harmful or destructive. There's a set of ideas about how a man can act, look, and talk, that are very strict and narrow, and anyone who goes outside that is at risk of having their "man card" taken away. This group of ideas paints a picture of a man that is macho, tough and usually uncommunicative, it is very very heterosexual and also homophobic. It takes every trait that is associated with masculinity and stretches it as far as it can go. It thinks of anything feminine as lesser, therefore uses feminine words as insults. It considers part of manhood to be having heterosexual sex (as much as possible), so it also uses homosexuality as an insult. If, as a man, you've ever been called a f*g or a p***y as an insult, you've encountered toxic masculinity.

toxic masculinity in a single image macro

Some of these ideas hurt women -- "Men think with their penises" (subtext: and that's normal and OK and actually kind of cute) "It's normal for a man to pursue sex" has been twisted into "Women are taught to say 'no' to sex, so it's a man's job to turn that 'no' into a yes" - an idea I've heard repeated by characters in movies, men my own age, and men old enough to be in mentorship positions to me. (see also: rape culture)

Jackson Katz did a TED talk about violence against women that is a must-see on this:

Some of these ideas hurt everybody -- "Men have a capacity for violence" is a small step sideways from "It's OK and normal for men to solve problems with violence" which gets twisted into justifications for domestic violence, street violence and so forth. The homophobic undertones in toxic masculinity often lead to cruel bullying of sexual minorities as well as discriminatory language. The idea of always appearing strong leads to bullying of all different kinds, as well as cruelty.

Some of the ideas hurt men -- "Men are supposed to be tough and independent" and "Boys don't cry" gets twisted into "Men shouldn't show their feelings" which then gets twisted further into "It's unmanly to ask for help" -- this leads to funny stereotyped situations like men refusing to ask for directions, but it also connects to male suicide, because men don't seek mental health help when they ought to, because that would be "unmanly," or men refusing to go to the doctor, trying to "tough it out" with sicknesses where early diagnosis might make all the difference. "Men shouldn't show feelings other than anger" (especially not fear) leads to reckless behavior in men, which can lead to injuries, accidents, neglect of workplace safety procedures. It can also lead to unchecked rage, bullying, and verbal abuse.

Here's more about how toxic masculinity hurts men.

Along with these kinds of ideas, the media presents us with a steady diet of toxic masculinity, and makes it look tough, cool, or heroic. Neo the stoic hero who never makes facial expressions but kills without compunction. Or John Wick the stoic hero who never makes facial expressions but kills without compunction. Or John McClane the... you get it. And James Bond and Shaft, who are the same, but also make sex.

For example: "The Ten Manliest Men In Movies."

The long and short of it is, Western media has given us a really, really narrow definition of what men are. What men do, how they think, what kinds of hobbies, habits, and jobs are "manly," and anything outside that is not. Man wants to cook? He'd better swear like Gordon Ramsey to make sure everyone knows he's a man. Man doesn't act like a typical man? Make it a running joke how unmanly he is! For a great example, look at how Bruce Willis' masculinity is contrasted with Chris Tucker's character in The Fifth Element.

So all masculinity is toxic?

Well, no. That idea is out there, but I don't think it holds much water: you have to define masculinity really narrowly to make the argument that all masculinity is toxic, and then we're just playing "No True Scotsman" games and moving goalposts around to make a point. Not to mention... anything is toxic if you take it to an extreme.

We have to be honest and admit that there is enough toxic masculinity out there that people-especially the victims of toxic masculine behaviors - are constantly wary of it. The hashtag "Yesallwomen" is a good reminder of this too -- it came up as a response to the defensive #NotAllMen. When people want to talk about shitty male behavior, a common refrain is "But NOT ALL MEN do that!" And #YesAllWomen responds to that by saying "No, all men don't do it, but ENOUGH men do it that YES all women (take these precautions) (worry about these situations) (seriously, read this one) -- it doesn't require all men to be predators or creeps. Only enough that every woman you've met knows someone whose life was affected by a predator or creep's unacceptable behavior. Toxic masculinity doesn't have to be the only kind of masculinity. It doesn't have to be exhibited by every single man, to matter. It only needs to be common enough that everyone can think of an example of it from their own lives (and that bar is well cleared) for us to need to talk about it.

That said... it is also true that there are loads of good men out there, who are good, respectful, gentle, uplifting, caring, who make their family, community, or world better, and each one of them gives another model of non-toxic masculinity.  Sure, the media gives us a steady diet of toxic masculine ideas and behaviors and every gangster movie does its best to make them look cool. But if we look a little closer, we can see other models of masculinity as well. We don't even have to look far.

On Facebook, I discussed this a lot with people who thought the ad was saying all men are shitty, all masculinity is toxic, but I just don't see it. The Gillette ad itself gives examples of men intervening and defending the weak and helpless. I reject the idea that of all the things men do, the ugly gross and rude ones (catcalling, etc.) are the ones that define manhood, and that is the argument of "all masculinity is toxic" as well as the straw man that all the Gillette ad haters are arguing against.

What are some great, non-toxic masculinities?

Mr. Rogers is gentle, empathetic, caring, nurturing, and honest.
Atticus Finch (from To Kill a Mockingbird) is honorable, truthful, articulate, kind, just, and caring.
Barack Obama is decent, dignified, devoted to his family, intelligent, charismatic, funny and thoughtful.
Terry Crews is strong, willing to speak truth to power, vulnerable, and honest. And he's doing this. That's a broad sampling of good examples of men who are manly, but who do not use masculinity to hurt others or make them feel small.

This video talks about some other examples, and gives a good definition of toxic masculinity, and what the alternative would look like:

The guy in the video above makes the great point (about 2:00) that "The point of positive masculinity isn't to just switch out one set of definitions for another. It's to expand what it means to be a man."

My own thoughts about masculinity, and especially toxic masculinity, boil down to that idea of expanding what it means to be a man. In this article by The Guardian, responding to one of those right-wing fellas who frames everything he sees through the lens of the culture war (Yay for right wing snowflakes!), the author writes, "Feminism has endlessly opened up horizons for girls, giving them permission to be anything they want to be.... That paves the way for girls who never fitted the pink princess stereotype to be far more comfortable in their skins. But expectations of boys have remained more rigid, to the detriment both of those who don’t fit the macho stereotype and of those who will grow up to be the victims of insecure male rage."

When I think about masculinity (and femininity) I think it all boils down to kids, and the messages they're given. This is where the pattern is set for the next generation. Little girls have been getting intentional messages that they can do anything when they grow up. That's good. We aren't doing this perfectly yet...

but at the same time as there has been a long-term effort to break glass ceilings and other barriers for women, there has been a parallel effort to tell little girls that they can be president, they can go into STEM, they can climb trees, they can be tomboys, they can hate the color pink and like to play with robots and train sets instead of dolls. We haven't done this perfectly yet, but we, as a society, generally recognize that it is something we need to do, and we are taking steps. Meanwhile, female heroes are held up as role models for little girls to aspire to (another ad from Godlieblox gives good examples).

Now, men (white men, at least) don't lack for role models presented in the media, but too many of them fit that narrow definition of manhood... or are laughed at/belittled for not fitting it. This lack of variety in role models is even worse for men of color. That sustained, intentional effort to tell little girls about Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and Marie Curie and Katherine Johnson is great. Let's have a similar sustained, intentional effort to put good, gentle, caring, respectful men in front of little boys' eyeballs. Atticus Finch, Jonathan and Clark Kent, Bob Parr, Guido Orefices, and Sam Gamgee are good, decent men who are caring, protecting, teaching, supporting and empowering people around them. The article "In Praise of Tender Masculinity" gives more examples. Let's also put men in front of our boys' eyes who don't fit the macho image: Let's stop joking about how Justin Bieber and male Kpop singers look like girls (to diminish them) and talk about how awesome Prince and David Bowie were for introducing new ways for a man to be manly. Let's remember mentors, like John Keating, Juan in "Moonlight," or Professor Xavier.

We can point boys to real life characters like Terry Crews, Mr. Rogers, Daniel Craig, or Barack Obama as great examples of men who are good and decent, who are fathers and supporters and willing to speak truth to power, or demonstrate their commitment to their families. Let's talk about these people specifically as examples of ways to be men who are good and positive, and let's talk about the different ways a man can look, dress and sound, so our boys don't feel like they need to prove anything, or shut off the part of themselves that wants to wear pink.

My own takeaway from this tempest in a Tweetpot: I'd be really happy if this Gillette ad marks the death of "boys will be boys" as a valid excuse for bad male behavior. I'd love to hear people shot down next time they use that to pass off something violent or mean or creepy as innocent. This ad is not going to change our entire society. Toxic masculinity is too fraught and poorly understood an idea for one men's grooming ad to fix the public discussion around it. But more men willing to say "Hey bro... not cool" would in itself would be a meaningful but also plausible upshot from all this. I won't be expecting more than that from a corporate branding campaign, but that'd be a welcome addition to the conversation.

And just to say it again... NOT groping, catcalling, or dehumanizing women by treating them as trophies or pieces of meat or idiots, and NOT bullying the weaker or smaller is a pretty fucking low bar to clear to be a "good man" as defined by this ad, and stopping other people from doing those things is not that much higher, so if you're a man who really got mad about this ad, it might be time to take a look in the mirror.

More stuff I've been reading while I wrote this:
The Good Men Project: Why the Resistance?
Troll Farms are Involved in the Pushback against the Gillette Ad
Unlearning Toxic Masculinity
Why Nike's Woke Ad Campaign Works and Gillette's Doesn't
New Masculinity, New Rules
Men after #MeToo
Tough Guise (video)

Also: this.