Ev­ery­thing is po­lit­i­cal

When a Gil­lette ad im­plored men to be de­cent, the back­lash was swift

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Tim San­doval

Last month, Gil­lette, the ma­jor shav­ing brand owned by Proc­ter and Gam­ble, re­leased a com­mer­cial on­line call­ing on men to be de­cent to women and to each other. It said fa­thers shouldn’t ex­cuse their sons’ bul­ly­ing and other bad be­hav­ior by us­ing tropes like “boys will be boys.”

Then lots of men freaked out, mostly on­line.

The episode was strange, but not un­ex­pected. The ad was ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal at a time when any­thing re­motely par­ti­san is at­tacked.

And, as seems to hap­pen a lot these days, a set of com­plain­ers emerged. These whin­ers’ mantra seems to be: “Why does

have to be po­lit­i­cal?”

With Gil­lette, they were an­gry that a shav­ing brand (a shav­ing brand!) made a so­cial state­ment. “Don’t tell me how to raise my boys,” said one Fox News con­trib­u­tor. “I can raise them just fine, thanks. I’ll use your ra­zor to shave my face. That’s all I re­ally want from Gil­lette.”

He added: “Since when did cap­i­tal­ism be­come about com­pa­nies preach­ing to us?”

A sim­i­lar com­plaint was made when NFL play­ers kneeled dur­ing the na­tional an­them (“Pol­i­tics? Be­fore a foot­ball game?!”).

There’s also an an­nual whine-fest when ac­tors make po­lit­i­cal speeches at the Os­cars (“These rich ac­tors are preach­ing to me? What gives them the right?!”)

Grimly, sim­i­lar crit­ics have emerged af­ter each re­cent mass shoot­ing (“How can we talk about gun con­trol when fam­i­lies are griev­ing?!”).

These folks seem to agree that there are times and places where po­lit­i­cal is­sues should be dis­cussed, and cer­tain peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions who should be al­lowed to dis­cuss them. Ev­ery­one else: Please shut it.

My re­sponse to these com­plaints is one that many un­der­grad­u­ate hu­man­i­ties ma­jors will rec­og­nize: Ev­ery­thing po­lit­i­cal; there are no non-po­lit­i­cal spa­ces. So to say “please do not talk pol­i­tics right now” is to say noth­ing.

The aca­demic Stan­ley Fish has de­scribed the “ev­ery­thing is po­lit­i­cal” idea suc­cinctly (even though he’s crit­i­cal of the phrase): “Ev­ery­thing is po­lit­i­cal in the sense that any ac­tion we take or de­ci­sion we make or con­clu­sion we reach rests on as­sump­tions, norms, and val­ues not ev­ery­one would af­firm. That is, ev­ery­thing we do is rooted in a con­testable point of ori­gin; and since the realm of the con­testable is the realm of pol­i­tics, ev­ery­thing is po­lit­i­cal.”

Given that, it’s not un­rea­son­able to say that vir­tu­ally all of Gil­lette’s ads have been po­lit­i­cal — in­clud­ing ones that haven’t pro­voked back­lash. Gil­lette’s ads (and other brands’ ads, for that mat­ter) pro­mote sets of at­ti­tudes and val­ues. And to pro­mote at­ti­tudes and val­ues — even if they re­in­force what so­ci­ety ex­pects — is po­lit­i­cal.

For ex­am­ple, a 1989 Gil­lette com­mer­cial I found on­line is a mon­tage of Amer­i­can men do­ing what we ex­pect: get­ting mar­ried; kick­ing butt at sports; flirt­ing with ladies on the street; teach­ing their sons var­i­ous things, like how to comb their hair; par­tic­i­pat­ing in mil­i­tary ser­vice; do­ing well in cap­i­tal­ism (sev­eral of the char­ac­ters in the com­mer­cial work on Wall Street; one cheers af­ter, pre­sum­ably, clos­ing a deal on the phone). Spliced through­out are clips of sexy men shav­ing with Gil­lette ra­zors. A jin­gle plays in the back­ground: “On so many faces, it’s plain to see; we [Gil­lette] give you all we have to give, for all a man can be!”

But “all a man can be,” the ad sug­gests, is hand­some, ath­letic and busi­ness-ori­ented; a fam­ily man with a nice-look­ing wife. Con­sider who’s not rep­re­sented: gay men, trans­gen­der men, sin­gle men, child­less men, men in open mar­riages or re­la­tion­ships, men of color (there are a few in the com­mer­cial, but white men are cen­tered). Also ab­sent are artists, in­tel­lec­tu­als, men who are so­cially ac­tive, or any­one who might re­sem­ble a lefty ac­tivist. (I don’t think they’d fit in with a pro-Wall Street, pro-mil­i­tary crowd.)

The 1989 ad is not ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal, but it does send a mes­sage about what the ideal man is. And like the Fox News con­trib­u­tor, I might ask about it: Who the heck is Gil­lette to tell me what a man can be?

The “stop be­ing po­lit­i­cal” cry is a very handy rhetor­i­cal move for con­ser­va­tives, which is why they tend to use it more than lib­er­als. When lib­er­als and left­ists ad­vo­cate for change, con­ser­va­tives can tar them as “po­lit­i­cal” — peo­ple try­ing to al­ter tra­di­tions, which con­ser­va­tives po­si­tion as apo­lit­i­cal. But op­pos­ing change is ev­ery bit as po­lit­i­cal as propos­ing change. And no one should get spe­cial points for claim­ing to be above it all.

The episode was strange, but not un­ex­pected. The ad was ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal at a time when any­thing re­motely par­ti­san is at­tacked.

Tim San­doval (tsan­[email protected]) is a writer liv­ing in Bal­ti­more.


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