Meet the Toronto trans artist who stars in the stereotype-busting new Gillette ad
The commercial features a father teaching his trans son to shave for the first time
Update October 15, 2020: Gillette was a partner in a sponsored content program within the CBC. This article is in no way connected to that program; it was pursued because it reflected an important push for trans visibility in Canada, and ran in conjunction with Pride Month. This is not sponsored content.
For young men around the globe, learning how to shave is a rite of passage — but last week, Gillette made waves with an ad featuring a young man going through an even more substantial transition.
Titled First Shave, the commercial features Toronto-based transgender artist and activist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown as he learns how to shave under the tender guidance of his father.
"Growing up, I was always trying to figure out what kind of man I wanted to become — and I'm still trying to figure out what kind of man that I want to become," says Brown in the new spot.
"I always knew I was different. I didn't know that there was a term for the type of person that I was. I went into my transition just wanting to be happy. I'm glad I'm at the point where I'm able to shave."
The ad cuts to Brown in front of the bathroom mirror as his father guides him through the steps of shaving. "Don't be scared," Brown's father encourages. "Shaving is about being confident."
The ad is thought to be the first commercial by a major brand that not only features a transgender person, but centres around their transition and their loved ones' responses to it.
Brown first became involved when he saw a casting call looking for trans men, and decided it was a way to share a message of love, and to inspire others.
"It's important to champion visibility for the community. Gillette allowed me to do this, and also share what love and acceptance within a family can look like," says Brown, who refers to himself as Jamal Of All Hustles, and uses acting, dance, playwriting, and stage and production managing to draw attention to trans people and issues. "I also want to share a message of hope to inspire all people to find and share love in their lives with people that matter to them most."
At first, Brown's dad was reluctant to participate because, as Brown puts it, "he's not one for cameras," but he eventually said yes because he wanted to show support for his son. What's more, neither of them was acting, and the shave was actually Brown's first.
"The moments in the Gillette film are very real, and the moment where my dad teaches me how to shave was very special and very touching," he says. "I get that same feeling watching the film back."
Brown says showing that bond is especially important because men of colour are often stereotyped as transphobic.
"I hope that my story inspires hope in others that it's possible to have your family accept you for who you are. As a trans man of colour, I see misconceptions with the idea of fathers of colour being innately transphobic," he explains. "This film challenges that stereotype and encourages love not just for yourself, but for your community."
A Different Story
Tiq Milan agrees. The high-profile writer, public speaker, media consultant and LGBTQ advocate says it's important to show trans men being celebrated and being accepted and loved as men — not only within the LGBTQ community, but also within family circles.
"Too often the dominant narrative around trans people is that we aren't loved, and that a lot of our identity as transgender people is around being resilient in the face of opposition and lovelessness. And that is just not the case for all of us," says Milan in a phone interview with q.
"I think it's so, so important to be able to show a trans man with his dad, having this conversation, and showing him being loved and accepted and celebrated," he says. "I know me and my dad have bonded over these little things about manhood that I never really got to think about growing up as a girl — how to tie a tie, how to hold a razor, little things like that. So I think it's great."
Milan also points out that the effects of ads like these can be profound. When he worked as a senior media strategist with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), he saw that the more people saw LGBTQ people in TV shows and advertising, the more likely they were to be open and compassionate with them in real life. What's more, the ads present trans people as more than their gender identities.
"It's not just about our trans-ness. You know what I'm saying? And that's what things like this do," says Milan. "I hate to use this term, but it humanizes us to people who would 'other' us. And I think that is actually really important."
I think it's so, so important to be able to show a trans man with his dad, having this conversation, and showing him being loved and accepted and celebrated.- Tiq Milan
Of course, some view the ad with scepticism, arguing that the company is trying to cash in on a popular issue. Milan says it's a fair critique because major corporations are far from perfect, but he gives them points for at least making the effort.
"Who am I to spit in the face of someone trying to do this? Maybe it is about their bottom line and maybe part of it is opportunistic, but it's also a testament to how our culture is shifting. And people who are gatekeepers to our corporate culture are starting to recognize that it's important for them to be inclusive," says Milan, who hopes the ad will lead other companies to start following suit.
"We're being invited into people's living rooms through these conversations. And I don't think that anything bad can come from that. I think the impact is going to be great whether the intention was just to make money or not. The impact outweighs the intent."
Brands Are Taking a Stand
UBC Sauder School of Business professor Darren Dahl says that more and more companies are being pushed to make social statements, or they risk getting left out of the conversation altogether — especially in a market segment like shaving, where new upstarts are pushing out the older brands.
"They're taking a social stand, and we've seen this from way back in the day — from 30 years ago with Benetton to more recently by Nike," says Dahl, referring to the recent Nike ad featuring NFL star Colin Kaepernick.
"It's not unusual in today's world for Dove, for example, to take a stand on a social issue or at least hint at it because that gets them in the conversation. It's interesting and people discuss it."
"They're also trying to shape the brand at a second level, to make it seem more progressive, a younger brand. Because we know once you start using Crest toothpaste, you probably stick with Crest toothpaste most of your life. So to appeal to a younger generation who is much more open to these conversations and to this type of messaging has to be part of what they're thinking about."
Dahl adds that Gillette recently released an ad about toxic masculinity, which also generated a great deal of conversation — and controversy.
"It was very polarizing. Some people loved the ad. Some people did not. And that's good marketing because they're breaking through the clutter, they're part of the conversation, they're identifying the customer group that is excited about their brand — the younger population that's more open to this," explains Dahl. "That being said, they are probably going to upset some people."
Dahl says another risk that brands run is being called out publicly if anything seems inaccurate or inauthentic (the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad was seen as a catastrophic flop — watch below), so it's especially important that they get the messages right. He says the Gillette ad is being seen as a success because it's subtle and raises positive emotions.
"It shows love between the father and the son, which I think is nice. And it shows support, which is a big part of the message with that specific group," says Dahl. "There are a lot of little metaphoric undertones, which is clearly what they're trying to do here."
Samson says the response from the trans community has been entirely positive, and as he puts it, "that is the community that matters to me most."
"Everyone around me has been so supportive – I'm getting all of these messages from friends and family letting me know they've seen the Gillette film, and I'm grateful," he says, adding that his father has also been one of his biggest advocates — and his best teachers.
"My dad is one of my best friends. He has supported me throughout my transition and has only ever wanted me to be the best at anything I set my mind to," says Brown.
"And thanks to my dad's tutorial — 'South, South, North, North, East, West' and 'Never in a hurry' — I haven't cut myself shaving yet."