Toxic masculinity is a socially constructed, authoritative version of masculinity centered around ideas of physical strength, violence, aggressive sexuality, social dominance, gender binary heterosexuality, and stoicism.
In January, after years spent featuring the same hyper-masculine stereotypes in their ads, Gillette released “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” on Youtube. This somewhat clumsily executed, arguably superficial attempt to monetise a social cause nonetheless had an important message: toxic masculinity is harmful, and it’s time to do better. A message that, when it comes down to it, I’m sure more men would agree with than the response to the ad would suggest.
As it is, the backlash was immediate and severe. To this date, it’s been voted down more than 1.4 million times on Youtube. Men have expressed anger at this supposed “attack on manhood”, or become defensive, because, of course, “not all men!” One can’t help but wonder how much positive change could have been achieved if these millions of men had mobilised against toxic masculinity, instead of rallying behind #BoycottGillette.
But hey, I get it. Not all men are abusive, violent, or deliberately sexist.
I’m fortunate enough to know many decent, kind and respectful men. The ad itself features several of these men doing the right thing. So why can’t “not all men” be the end of the conversation?
The truth of the matter is that yes, all men, live in a patriarchal society which normalises harmful male behaviour. A straight, cis man accused of sexual assault by at least 19 women can still become President of the United States, while his victims receive death threats. Behaviour that is harmful to men has been normalised too. Toxic masculinity has become so ingrained that before Gillette, few men questioned it, let alone knew the term.
Sticking to the safe, socially sanctioned path is also easy. Letting “boys be boys” is a lot simpler than questioning what that means, and what the repercussions are.
That’s part of what makes toxic masculinity so enduringly powerful. Though progress has been made, for the most part, society’s painfully narrow definition of “alpha” manhood stubbornly remains. The manliest man is the one perceived by others to have the most muscle, the most sex (with women), the highest perceived social status or financial success, who can solve all problems on his own, and only openly expresses an extreme emotion if it is anger. There are variations, of course, when it comes to country, race, and class. But the underlying theme remains the same in all patriarchal societies. And there are serious consequences.
Globally, 96% of homicides are committed by men, and 80% of the victims are male. 95% of prison inmates around the world are men. Men are more likely to commit violent crime, and there are also more men than women in the army.
It’s not that men have some sort of biological predisposition for violence or murder. But the way they are socialised has a lot to do with it. As always, the fact that our patriarchal society tells men to be one thing and women to be another is a double-edged sword.
It starts in childhood, when boys are encouraged to play rough as girls are encouraged to be careful. Mass-media furthers this idea by glorifying predominantly male violence. Things like Deadpool or Call of Duty – both examples of gratuitously violent genres targeted at men – are ubiquitous. Small things, like whenever a man loses his temper on television and breaks something, contribute too. The effects of being continuously exposed to messaging like this are subtle, and cumulative. Shooting someone on Call of Duty doesn’t make you want to go out and shoot someone in real life. But what all of this combined messaging can do, over time, is normalise the idea that for men, becoming physical is an acceptable way to solve problems or respond to emotions.
Physical strength and ability as a primary indicator of “manliness” is ableist.
When you reduce the worth of a man to his physical ability, it becomes particularly limiting for those who have physical disabilities. To be disabled is, by this narrow definition, to automatically be a “lesser” man. Struggling to assert one’s masculinity has been linked to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem in non-disabled men – when you add this to the discrimination a disabled person already faces and suddenly the mental health risks become even more acute. Which leads me to the next point:
64% of global suicides are male.
The patriarchy teaches us that being female means being vulnerable, emotional, and helpless. Being male, on the other hand, means strength, stoicism and self-sufficiency. What makes this toxic instead of just harmlessly masculine is this: as women are considered inferior, so emotional expression and vulnerability become inferior by association. Being told to “man up,” or stop “being a pussy” or are examples of this. Asking for help becomes a sign of weakness instead of the life-saving act of strength and courage it is. And weakness, for men, is strictly policed.
Crying during a film or taking an interest in something associated with being conventionally “feminine” – like ballett, or rom-coms – are punished, from childhood to adulthood, by both men and women. In the best cases, punishment comes in the form of a light-spirited joke. In the worst cases, it can mean exclusion and physical harm. The underlying sentiment, however, is the same: this is the line, and you should stick to it. The fervent defence of “masculinity” after Gillette’s ad expressed much the same thing. Because of this, being a man means constantly having to re-assert, justify and defend your masculinity. Sadly, this often happens at the cost of others: because when you take away someone else’s power first, they are in no position to take yours.
Homosexual relationships are criminalized in 72 countries and carry the death penalty in 8. Only 22 countries legally recognise those that identify as transgender.
Toxic masculinity is heteronormative. If you are trans, non-binary, and/or not heterosexual, you stand in direct contradiction to the binary patriarchal standard and are immediately classed as lesser beings because of it. Depending on where you live, your race and your social class, this means you are likely to have or will experience psychological and physical violence at the hands of both individuals and the state, perhaps even death. Extreme homophobia and transphobia are one of the most painful manifestations of toxic masculinity, and the policing thereof, taken to extremes.
Male sexual assault is so heavily stigmatised that it remains largely unreported (the rate is estimated at 4% in the UK) and no global studies have been done. In a study that examined child rape laws in 40 countries, over half lacked protection for boys.
Toxic masculinity is aggressively sexual. Men are alleged to have no control over their desires and always be “up for it”. This is problematic not only because it encourages victim shaming when women are raped, but also because it shapes myths like the fact that women can’t rape men, and when they do, it must have meant the men wanted it. It also says that men, even as children, cannot be victims. Which makes speaking up and acknowledging that you are, in fact, a victim, becomes even more difficult.
Men’s contribution as parents is valued less by society and they are less likely to gain custody of their children in the event of a divorce.
Toxic masculinity is socially and financially successful. When the careers that enable this success are allocated as the domain of men, raising children is left to women. Not only does this discrimination result in the glass ceilings and the gender pay gap, it also means that short of the financial (which brings significant pressures of its own), the contribution men can make to raising children is grossly undervalued. The fact male CEOs are rarely asked about how difficult it is to “have it all” reflects and reinforces a social climate where, much like for women, it is difficult for the men who take on a more egalitarian role in parenting to retain the respect required from their colleagues to continue having a successful career.
When we allow each other to exist outside of harmful stereotypes, masculinity and femininity can be freeing instead of narrow and repressive.
That’s why men need feminism too: an equal society is a society that is free from toxic masculinity. Instead of policing and enforcing a narrow, repressive form of masculinity consisting mainly of harmful stereotypes, an equal society means free choice without judgement.
No longer separating interests and forms of expression into “masculine” and “feminine” would relieve men of the pressure of having to achieve a certain level of muscularity while making it socially acceptable for all other genders to pursue strength as a goal too. It would allow men to openly express all emotions without having to worry about repercussions, because doing so would no longer be considered a weakness. It would give everyone the freedom to be sexually assertive but also make it okay if they aren’t. Existing outside the binary and heterosexual norm would no longer be questioned or punished. Work and childcare would see a more egalitarian split.