The best an ad can be

Published: Jan 20, 2019, 06:02 IST | Paromita Vohra

We praise certain kinds of idealised dudes as unconventional, who defeat existing power, bend it to their will. Think of the names that have come up in various phases of #MeToo: Weinstein, Pachauri, Tejpal

The best an ad can be
Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

Paromita VohraGillette's new advertisement, about masculinity in a time of #MeToo, has done what all media is now required to do in order to be seen as effective: polarised opinion. On one side, we have lofty liberal approval because the advert is right on. On the other, conservative backlash to a message seen as demonising and emasculating men and a call to boycott Gillette products because you know, boys-cott will be boys-cott (sorry, could not resist).

The commercial begins nicely enough with typical examples of aggressive masculine behaviour, and the suggestion that we stop excusing this with an attitude of 'boys will be boys'. So far, so okay. While it's no news flash, there is a basic truth in that all parts of gendered conditioning are harmful to us all. But, after this, the film starts to deflate. Men should hold other men accountable it says, and presents scenarios in which 'good' men intervene and — control 'bad' men's behaviour. But, isn't that how society is already structured? We praise certain kinds of idealised dudes as unconventional, who defeat existing power, bend it to their will. Think of the names that have come up in various phases of #MeToo: Weinstein, Pachauri, Tejpal.

All men who have been idolised for fighting 'the good fight', defeating some establishment or established norms to represent something considered better, morally superior: yaniki, telling others how to be. That didn't go so well, did it? Not only does this concentrate judgement in the hands of men, rather than spread it across genders in a shared conversation, but it also gives men a bit of an out.

It makes it easy to say you're one of the good ones, and it depicts behaviour not so much about questioning yourself, as questioning other men. An activity in which you judge others, rather than reflect on your own choices. Consider the work of All India Bakchod: it was all about separating the 'woke' men from the creeps, or, why mince words, liberal urban elites from provincial males, assuming one knows, and is, better than the other.

That is poorly understood feminism. Feminism is not about replacing one template of power with another. It is about re-imagining structures so that power does not accumulate into rigidity but keeps flowing, allowing for fluidity, inclusiveness and egalitarianism in roles, choices and understanding. Like many such works, this film, too, while fairly condemning toxic behaviour, does not quite question the masculine hierarchies that allow power, and those who hold it (in this context, men), to become toxic.

It might have been quite potent and clutter-breaking if the film had presented scenarios in which men paused at the threshold of sanctioned bad behaviour, and then made a choice to act differently, rather than enforce moral authority on other men. Such narratives are rooted in an idea of shame or shaming and can feel accusatory or create a sense of inadequacy, rather than propel us to make thoughtful choices. Cue the chorus of — it's an ad, yaar, at least it tried. Kya kahoon yaar, that's like saying ads will be ads. Why be grateful for a little when you can be thrilled with a lot? I'm just replaying the tag line when I say — it would have been awesome if this had been the best an ad can be.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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