White Ribbon uses a dad’s love for his baby girl to deliver a message about masculinity

Who: White Ribbon, with Tadiem (Bensimon Byrne, Narrative, OneMethod and Folk) for strategy and creative, directed by Hubert Davis.

What: “I Knew All Along,” a short film PSA campaign to end violence against women, with a message that men shouldn’t wait until they become the fathers of little girls to consider how they treat all girls and women.

When & Where: The campaign launched on Monday (Nov. 28) with a media event, the release of the film, and a section of the White Ribbon website with data. The film is the communications anchor supported by cutdowns for social ads, all driving to the site to view the full film.

Why: Since 1991, White Ribbon has been working to end violence against women and girls, promote gender equity and healthier notions of masculinity.

The goal of this PSA campaign is to encourage men to think about how they’ve acted toward women in the past, consider how they’ve reinforced toxic norms, and act now to change them.

The insight is that new fathers of baby girls often worry about the dangers they’ll face as they grow up. That’s an important realization, but men shouldn’t wait until they have a daughter for that kind of introspection.

“Displays of harmful gender norms and stereotypes are so ingrained within our culture that it often takes personal experience, such as having a daughter, for many men to recognize these unhealthy behaviours,” said Humberto Carolo, White Ribbon’s executive director, in a release. “’I Knew All Along’ sheds light on the gender-based aggressions that men may have engaged in, whether verbal or behavioural, intentional, or unintentional, and reveals why they should not be ignored or minimized.”

How: This is the third time since 2019 that White Ribbon and Bensimon Byrne worked with Hubert Davis to create a highly evocative short film, following “Boys Don’t Cry” in 2019 and “Day after Day” in 2021. The intent is to break through with a raw story that asks viewers (and mainly men) to consider their own lives and identify the structures and learned behaviours that reinforce inequality and can lead to violence.

In this case, the film opens on a young man staring lovingly at the new daughter he’s holding in his arms, gently rocking her back and forth. “My little girl. From the moment we met, everything changed,” he says in a voiceover. ”I’ve never felt so much love. And so much fear.”

The film cuts to scenes of a young girl growing up and facing some of the many uncomfortable and often frightening interactions with boys and young men that girls and women face. “I didn’t know what could happen to you,” he says as the perspective changes, and viewers learn that some of those scary moments of male masculinity weren’t him imagining his daughter’s future, but remembering his own past. “Looking back at my life, and the things that I’ve done, I did know,” he says. “I knew all along.”

A super appears beside the man still holding his baby girl, only now his look of love is replaced with regret: “For some men, everything changes when they have a daughter. Women and girls can’t wait that long.”

“This was the most powerful insight we’ve worked with yet,” said Tadiem’s chief creative officer, Joseph Bonnici. “That last line—women and girls can’t wait that long—is what really lands the whole thing. We need men to be more introspective sooner.”

For the “not all men” contingent: “I mean every man like myself included,” said Bonnici. “Wherever you fall in your expression of masculinity, we all have—at one point or another—most definitely exhibited a masculinity which is damaging to women.” All men are brought up in a society that has normalized toxic behaviours, so yeah, all men have to consider how those structures affected them in ways potentially harmful to women.

“It’s literally a behaviour every man has,” said Bonnici. “You can’t help it because that’s the gender normative way we were all raised.”

The power of film: Each of the films has been relatively long because they’re delivering a nuanced message about self-interrogation to an audience that can be defensive about these things. “What we aim to do every year is not blame men for anything, because what we know is that usually results in complete rejection of the message,” said Bonnici. “If you simplify toxic masculinity into one behaviour, one type of guy, one type of thing, then it gets rejected: ‘Well, I’m not that guy.’”

Instead, the goal for the agency and Davis is to deliver an honest story, well told, that hopefully will lead men to ask questions of themselves.

“Film has the power to present complex social issues in a way that is both compelling and universal,” said Davis in the release. “To make an emotional impact, it was important for us to highlight a profound personal experience—like becoming a new parent. While not everyone may be a parent, many understand what it feels like to want to protect a loved one.”

Film as a teaching aid: While the film can be viewed as a PSA ad, and will be promoted through social ads, White Ribbon uses them as a teaching tool in its training and education programs. “They’re able to structure workshops around this content, which allows for men to watch it and react to something,” said Bonnici. “What film does is it becomes a mirror for yourself. It allows you to maybe see yourself in the film in some way.”

David Brown