“Hey, can I just take a picture with these guys real quick?” Matt McGorry asked me. I said yes, and he walked over to two men waiting eagerly and very politely for pictures.
We were at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University for a screening of The Mask You Live In, a documentary by Jennifer Siegel Newsom, the director of Miss Representation. The screening was hosted by The Representation Project, a non-profit founded by Newsom in partnership with Axe.
Yes—Axe, as in the deodorant, which I received in my swag bag tote along with Iced Mint and Ginger Body Wash and some other thing I don’t remember.
The Mask You Live In dissects the way harmful ideas of masculinity proliferate in our culture, and the profound effect that it can have on young men, who see higher rates of suicide and depression than young women. It features interviews with sociologists, psychologists, men’s health experts, educators, regular men, and focus groups of middle school and high school-age boys, shedding light on the real struggles men go through.
The movie is very broad, very ambitious, and very accessible—a mix that results in the oversimplification of a few correlations and some pieces of media culture being taken out of context. It’s nonetheless a moving film and a great starting point for a few different conversations about masculinity, and is particularly strong in equipping people with the language to discuss these complicated topics.
And what better person to make these topics more approachable and tangible than TV personality and activist celebrity Matt McGorry? Luckily, McGorry has been officially, and emotionally, partnering with Axe for about a year, lending his impeccably conscious credentials to that wokest of causes, a corporate rebranding campaign.
It’s easy to see why Axe thought a new image might be needed. As little as two years ago, the company was happily running wildly sexist ads: A man being felt up by a sexy TSA worker because he wore Axe; women in bikinis running down beaches, through the jungle, emerging from the ocean all completely unable to resist themselves, lunging towards this man because he sprayed himself with Axe; a campaign in Mexico that mocked and emasculated men who tried to be friends with women by portraying them with braids.
A quick read of the gender dynamics of an Axe commercial: women are idiot sex varmints who also won’t be attracted to you, let alone notice you, unless you roofie their olfactory organs.
But recently, Axe took it upon itself to rebrand as a very socially conscious, dare I say woke, brand. They cleaned up their image, partnered up with the Representation Project, funded a study called “The Man Box”—which analyzed over 3,000 young men from 18–30 in the U.S., U.K., and Mexico about mental health, social pressures, confidence, and other tenets of being a young man—and, of course, brought McGorry onboard.
So it was only natural that he would show up to the Mask We Live In event and discuss all the pitfalls of manhood with a ready and eager crowd.
I got the impression that, because the night was centered around men, McGorry wanted to connect with his male fans and make sure they feel welcome. I offered to take the photo for one of the men, but he said he just wanted to take a selfie. You can see the two of them in this tweet.
While they took pictures, I glanced around feeling a bit awkward. After McGorry was done, we talked about what toxic masculinity looked like.
“Donald Trump,” he said, without skipping a beat. “He is what we think of as the most traditional masculinity taken to the extreme.” McGorry explained that Trump is the perfect example of the most narrow confines of traditional gender roles, and that, speaking of masks and everything, Trump wears a mask, which allows him to refuse any accountability, and it’s made of “adamantium.”
“Which, for anyone who doesn’t know, is—”
“Wolverine,” I interjected, a kind of knee-jerk reaction from having men continually explain comics I’m fairly familiar with to me.
“Right, what his claws are made of, thank you,” he said, with a nod. (For the uninitiated, adamantium is impenetrable, and apparently Trump’s mask is too.)
“And then we have that idea of success, I think, in our culture,” he continued. American culture is so tied to financial success at any cost, it’s sort of the perfect human embodiment of free market capitalism, which is essentially the idea that everyone can figure it out for themselves and ‘I’ll just do me’ without any recognition that ‘I’ll just do me is’ very different when you are white and a man and come from a family with a significant head start.” (Axe, whose parent company, Unilever, is one of the top-five largest consumer goods companies in the world, would surely agree with this critique of capitalism.)
It’s very difficult to edit a Matt McGorry quote because he includes a bibliography and an acknowledgments section for every point he makes. He speaks in caveats: “As a white man,” “Because of my privilege,” “For me.” He also constantly references others, like a verbal version of his Instagram (“I’m re-reading The Will to Change by bell hooks,” “a white friend told me to read The New Jim Crow,” “a tweet I saw from a while ago”) in a way where you’re not sure if he’s being a little aggressive in establishing his credentials or he really wants you to know that he, as a straight cis white man, takes no ownership over the ideas he’s citing.
As he spoke, I found myself having every feminist’s suspicion of a seemingly charming ally—thumbs-up for acknowledging inequality and the systems that create it, but also, what’s in it for you? That question felt especially pertinent since McGorry was literally shilling for a body wash company even as he was saying all of the right things.
“I’m here because of Representation Project,” McGorry maintained when I asked him about teaming up with Axe for the event. “I think [Axe’s] old version was really problematic, but I’m appreciative of what they’re trying to do now.”
“It’s funny,” he continued. “Feminism has been co-opted in so many ways. In a way it is an established idea and in many ways this conversation is so new to the public sphere that it’s interesting to consider if just having the signal-boost of having it out there and making an event like this possible is just a win.”
The dissonance between his thoughts on the free market and his praise for Axe for simply rebranding notwithstanding, McGorry’s desire to have a genuine, open, and vulnerable discussion about masculinity did seem sincere. And the audience—which the organizers told me was somewhat more male than they usually get—was very into it, even when he veered into self-parody. When someone asked about his status as a“woke bae,” he informed everyone that white people shouldn’t call each other “woke” because it’s appropriation, and then paused.
“You’re never really woke,” he said. “You’re always awaking.”
I thought he was kidding. But the audience responded with snaps and a resounding, affirmative, “Mhm.” He was their ally, the man who got what they were saying, the man they looked up to, the man fighting beside them—like if Drake was a Planned Parenthood street canvasser (but without all the good girl/bad girl rhetoric, of course).
But there was one elephant in the room: Axe. Over and over again, I heard audience members expressing their excitement about the event, only to add, “but the Axe thing is weird!”
The McGorry event functioned as a way for Axe to stress its new image. The panel solemnly paused for a moment to screen a new, improved Axe commercial from last year.
When pressed about Axe’s history by an audience member, Carlos J. Gil, who is listed as “Vice President, Global Male Grooming” for Axe, explained that the company has always championed the development and confidence of young guys, but that the terms of that have changed. “Every five years, culture makes changes that forces us to look at it in a different way,” Gil explained. “What we are seeing with young guys today is not what we were seeing with young teenagers five years ago.”
It was, at least, an honest answer. Social responsibility is just a brand trend, and who knows what cultural shift will take place in five years that Axe will inevitably have to hop on if it wants to see any kind of profit.
A man in the audience told me he didn’t care about how or why Axe shifted gears, he was just pleased that they were embracing a spectrum of gender. His partner, a woman, wasn’t quite as impressed and questioned the ethics behind Axe’s new look.
What is the payoff for addressing injustice and inequality when it comes to brands and celebrities? How much is a signal-boost worth? At the event, it seemed people wanted to be positive and feel good about criticizing the narrow definitions of masculinity and the way it negatively impacts men and women. Which is fine! But the message appeared to be progress by any means necessary. Even if that means teaming up with a company that has directly damaged our views of gender and is presumably only playing ball because they can make money off of it, it’s progress nonetheless.
I guess if I must be bombarded by advertisements, yes, I’d rather see positive images of a wider spectrum of masculinity, but I just don’t know if Axe trying making a cute mosaic out of an image it spent years purposefully shattering warrants such applause—no matter how much Matt McGorry tries to convince me otherwise.
As I made my way to the exits, I was greeted by ushers, their arms full of Axe products, encouraging me to take some of their male body wash and deodorant on my way out. I thanked them and held up my new tote bag. I’d had enough, thanks.