THERE are a lot of seemingly minor things that upset people these days. In recent weeks we’ve seen a ruckus erupt over vegan sausage rolls, driving princes, and – most notably – razorblades. The backlash following Gillette’s “toxic masculinity” advert, pictured, has proven one thing: that asking men to consider not being assholes is a surefire way to provoke that reaction.

The reactions have been split down the middle. Some love it, but others have taken it as a slight against their person. Nothing says “I’m coping with this perspective” like a man posing for a photo with his three young children – with guns. Well, only the sons had guns. His daughter, seemingly too delicate for such things, got to wear a pretty dress, a hairband, and smile for the camera. Though I’m sure his intention was merely to “own the libs”, ironically, this picture is the perfect example of Gillette’s subject matter. The idea that boys should be macho and girls should be feminine is past its sell-by date.

No – you don’t have to throw out your razor blades, or burn them, or flush them down the loo as others did. No, you don’t have to take up sewing or binge Gilmore Girls to be the “right” kind of man. That’s not what the advert is about because there is no right way to be.

There is no single template for masculinity. Toxic masculinity (singular) is something of a misnomer. The way each man practices being a man is as varied as, well, a snowflake, actually. The problem – where the word toxic applies – is that in social terms men are “ranked” based on their conformity to this typical picture of manliness. There is a hierarchy here, where the alpha male who is physically strong, confident, independent, unfeeling and part of the dominant sex class suborns all the other ways that men can be.

It’s the reason that we imbue things like guns with masculine traits, and flowers with feminine ones. Think of that line Billy Elliot’s dad spits at him when he drags him out of a dance class: “Lads do football ... or boxing ... or wrestling. Not friggin’ ballet.”

This is the standard representation for what it means to be a man.

I think most of us can agree that it’s pretty limiting. Not only does it curtail all the things a man might want to be or do with his life, but the consequences also ripple outwards. This sort of persona increases the likelihood of risk-taking behaviour, violence, poor health outcomes and suicide, affecting others around them. Men tend to “power through” or “man-up” instead of asking for help, ergo, admitting “weakness”.

Taking on alpha male characteristics will open doors for you socially, economically, politically – it’s why even women are coached to be more like men in business if they want to get ahead – but the price is high. Thanks to the power that comes from this way of being, even men who don’t practice it benefit in some ways from those who do.

The thing is, none of this is real. It’s not a tangible, inbuilt thing that all boys and girls are born with. Contrary to what some will tell you about biology, and hormones, and genetic tendencies, masculinity and femininity are socially constructed.

That means they’re the product of our actions. We, humans, have created them, accept them and reinforce them. What that also means is that we have the power to change what those templates are. This is what Gillette was trying to get across. Not that you need to be some kind of New Man. That’s just another box to fit into, and boxes are the problem. Their advert was a reminder that if men aren’t happy with the cost of being “a manly man”, then they can choose a different path. It’s not offensive, outrageous, or lefty. It’s freeing.

And there is, of course, the little bit of me that leans towards cynicism over potential profiteering from women’s trauma. However – the message, whatever the motive, is on the money: “the boys of today are the men of tomorrow”.

Our culture is saturated in stale “boys will be boys” rhetoric. Shouldn’t we be aiming for something a little less default, a little more aspirational? Gillette got one thing right at least – the next generation of men is watching. What they see, learn from and become is in our hands.