The Boys Are Watching

Men who are offended by Gillette’s moralizing new ad don’t realize why we need its message now more than ever.

Boys fighting in a Gillette ad

The Kids is Slate’s science-based parenting column, assessing the latest research around children’s health, development, and well-being.

No one who saw the new Gillette ad “The Best Men Can Be” thought it would be universally embraced. It establishes the state of masculinity today with various scenes of men acting sexist, boys physically and mentally terrorizing each other, and dads accepting a “Boys will be boys” mentality, before dramatically pivoting.

The wide range of reactions was, of course, the point: to create a conversation starter. To rile people and get them talking about Gillette. To increase brand recognition amid Gillette’s declining market share and, ultimately, make Procter & Gamble more money. Much of the criticism of the ad has revolved around the company’s motives.

Yet P&G can have financial incentives and still make an ad worth lauding. These two things are not mutually exclusive. And this ad is a step in the right direction, because the more we collectively hear the message that sexual harassment is unacceptable, that bullying is wrong, and that helping victims is noble, the more this message will shape our—and our children’s—everyday choices. We need to get messages like this from our leaders, teachers, parents—and from television shows, movies, books, songs, and advertisements. Cultural shifts happen when every aspect of culture embraces and normalizes a change.

This argument, of course, rests on the assumption that we need this message at all. Many of the ad’s critics think we don’t. But let me tell you: We do. The centerpiece of this ad isn’t grown men; it’s kids. The ad climaxes with footage of sweet-faced lads and the lesson “The boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.” Gillette’s argument is that we need to be careful with the choices we make as adults because children learn decency and morality from us. As Slate’s science-based parenting columnist for the past six years—a job that has given me the opportunity to interview dozens of psychologists, social scientists, and pediatricians about the factors that shape child behavior and character—I agree passionately with this idea. Kids learn by watching what we do, not by listening to what we say, and boys in particular absorb a lot from their fathers as well as from male public figures. They watch prominent men in their lives stick up, or not, for victims of bullying or sexual harassment. They watch how men treat their girlfriends and wives and interact with women in public. Many boys watched one man, the president of the United States, publicly mock a woman who testified to Congress that she was a victim of sexual assault. Many also heard him brag about grabbing women “by the pussy.”

And right now, kids are learning bad things from what they see and hear. Soon after the 2016 election, the Human Rights Campaign surveyed 50,000 American middle and high schoolers, and 79 percent of them said bullying incidents had increased since the start of Trump’s campaign. At around the same time, researchers reported that 43 percent of middle school students have been victims of verbal sexual harassment.

In 2018, educational psychologists Dewey Cornell and Francis Huang analyzed teasing and bullying patterns in Virginia schools before and after the 2016 election, using results from school surveys. They found that in schools in pro-Trump districts, teasing and bullying were much worse than they were in schools located in pro-Clinton districts. The discrepancies between these districts were new—bullying rates between the districts hadn’t been any different in 2013 and 2015.

Hate crimes among children and teens seem to be increasing too. As part of its Teaching Tolerance project, the Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking hate-related incidents in schools since the 2016 election. September 2018 was particularly harrowing: In Monroe, Louisiana, a white student put a noose around a black classmate’s neck; in Louisville, Kentucky, a student choked a 10-year-old schoolmate after calling him the N-word; in Orange County, California, high school football fans chanted, “Build the wall” to students from a rival, majority Latino high school. Then, in November, a photo went viral showing a group of 60 high school boys from Baraboo, Wisconsin, doing Nazi salutes in a prom portrait.

There’s considerable research showing that, among kids, teens, and college students, other concerning personality traits have been increasing too. Research by San Diego State psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues has shown that, over the past several decades, students have become significantly more narcissistic—they are more self-absorbed and vain than they used to be in that they are more likely to agree with statements like “I like to look at myself in the mirror” and “I expect a great deal from other people.” Research has also shown a corresponding decline in empathy among kids: They are now less likely to agree with sentences like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.” Twenge’s work has shown, too, that young people today are motivated more by money, image, and fame than older generations were, and they are less concerned with helping others and solving social problems.

So it seems kids are increasingly getting the message that they can be nasty, selfish, and cruel and get away with it. Part of this trend may stem too from the growing backlash against the #MeToo movement, a reaction that is itself trendy and has incited its own hashtag based on the idea that men are the real victims. On Tuesday, Fox News host Greg Gutfeld wrote that the Gillette ad was unfair because it “didn’t just condemn bad behavior, something most men do whenever they see it—it suggested the behavior represents the norm. It sold you out, and judged you.”

Yet research suggests that men don’t often speak up to condemn sexist behavior, in part because they rarely recognize it. And it’s absolutely fair to consider bad behavior the norm—or at least something common and visible enough to matter—when our president exhibits inappropriate conduct all the time and it’s becoming more and more common among kids. The hostile reactions to this ad illustrate its very point: We clearly have more work to do. When the message that we should try our best to raise compassionate, empathetic children offends a large swath of America, there’s a sickness spreading that we desperately need to cure.