White Ribbon explores the roots of toxic masculinity

Launched on national anti-bullying day, the organization's new campaign draws attention to the negative socialization of boys.

Today is Pink Shirt Day, a national day against bullying in Canada, and non-profit White Ribbon is using it as an opportunity to educate Canadians about the roots of toxic masculinity.

A three-minute film called “Boys Don’t Cry” follows the life of a boy from infancy to adulthood, showing the myriad influences that have shaped his life, including episodes of bullying. The video details how those instances, as well as how boys are taught to cope and deal with them, can eventually lead to gender-based violence.

National anti-bullying day on Feb. 27 (sometimes referred to as “Pink Shirt Day” in Canada) felt like an appropriate time to launch the educational campaign, even though its message extends beyond the issue of bullying, says Humberto Carolo, executive director at White Ribbon, which work towards trying to end male violence against women and girls.

“This is about looking at how young men and boys are socialized from an early age, and looking at the kinds of impacts that gender stereotypes have on young people’s lives,” says Carolo. “Those stereotypes have impacts on the lives of boys and young men, but on the lives of women as well.”

The campaign lands as people pay greater attention to gender roles and nefarious forms of masculinity, following a year focused on the “Me Too” movement and ads exploring the issue, including Gillette’s recent “A Best a Man Can Be” commercial.

Joseph Bonnici, partner and ECD at Bensimon Byrne, which led the campaign, says the agency felt it was best to tell the story through the eyes of a single boy, because it felt more authentic. “It’s a one boy story, as opposed to painting everyone in the same vein,” he says. While the long-form format made it possible to delve into “the thousands of moments that lead to toxic masculinity,” people will not necessarily relate to every scenario in the story, he says.

While working with the non-profit organization, Bonnici says it became evident how much education remains an issue. “There’s been so much awareness about the problem of toxic masculinity, but no one’s really talking about the root causes,” he says. “White Ribbon is an organization that really wants to spark a conversation about what some of those causes are.”

With next-to-no media budget, White Ribbon had to be strategic about its media strategy, says Bonnici. Through Bensimon Byrne’s PR agency, Narrative, it has recruited a coalition of influencers who agreed to share the video on their own channels, including members of the Toronto Maple Leafs, several Canadian mayors, American anti-bullying advocate Monica Lewinsky, as well as Canadian parenting experts who are doing additional media with some of the film’s cast.

Carolo says White Ribbon has been doing social campaigns as far back as the early 2000s. Previous efforts have included a hockey-themed push about ending violence against women, a “Be a Man” campaign aimed at turning the expression on its head by encouraging men to be more gentle and respectful, and a more recent “Men of Quality” effort featuring several players from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“The PSA is about helping audiences that process of socialization and promote discussion and thinking about these issues and ultimately helping men, in particular, understanding that they can play a positive role in influencing people around them,” Carolo says. While the organization relies on donations and fundraising, he says that was not the primary focus of “Boys Don’t Cry.”