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WHAT'S SO TOXIC ABOUT MASCULINITY?
During my last year of college, I decided it would be a good idea to get an internship in a primate lab. It did turn out to be a good idea; I didn't have to poke, stab, shock, or trap any primates and it rounded out my anthropology education quite nicely. The lab, with the typical mix of professors, grad students, and undergrads, had weekly meetings to discuss progress and watch presentations. It was as people were assembling for one such meeting that I overheard a conversation that I still haven't forgotten.
A female grad student had a rather large tome of feminist literature in front of her on the conference table. Another grad student - a male student I never particularly liked because of his arrogant penchant for belittling others - picked up her book and asked if she was a feminist. He said "feminist" as if it were a dirty word, spat out like a rotten seed. She recoiled, insisting that, no, she wasn't a feminist! It was only a book she needed for class, she defended, as if she had to justify the incriminating volume, as if to distance herself as far from the dirty word as possible.
It still irks me to this day and, if I'm honest, that's because I didn't step in and say anything. I certainly consider myself a feminist - proudly, in fact. But feminism is often misconstrued as an anti-male movement, not an equality movement. To be fair, there are different types of feminism, different styles of expressing feminism, and feminism can be practiced by both men and women (and non-binary persons). Just like any other civil rights movement, feminism can be a touchy topic. Many men see feminism as a threat and respond to it defensively. Many women associate feminism with extremism and want to distance themselves from that description. It's miscommunication and misrepresentation (some intentional, some innocent) that adds fuel to the fire of an already hot-button women's rights issue.
One frequently misunderstood term that's been popping up more and more is 'toxic masculinity.' It's a phrase that was coined, arguably (see Longreads article below), in the 1980s. So, although we've been living with it for around 40 years, it's only recently that it's been in popular focus. The call to end 'toxic masculinity' has less to do with how men treat women and more to do with how all of us treat men. In fact, it rears its ugly head even in environments where women are absent, like prisons. Women are only the tangential victims of - and sometimes even perpetrators of - 'toxic masculinity'; the primary victims are men themselves.
It's important to remember that 'toxic masculinity' does not mean that men are toxic or that masculinity is toxic. It's only when expectations and presentations of masculinity become harmful that toxicity comes into play. It's when males in our society are taught that, in order for their "maleness" to be valid, they must achieve certain criteria. "Real Men" are tough, are providers, are tall, strong, muscular, good with women, financially successful, and strict carnivores. But what if they're not? Toxic masculinity teaches that if males don't fit that mold, then they must strive to achieve it or they're not worth anything as men.
Toxic masculinity says that men can't be fashion designers unless they're gay. Toxic masculinity says that the only emotion a man should show is anger. It says that boys should play with trucks and guns and not dolls and dresses. It frowns on yoga and veganism and champions brewskis and beef. It implies that if a man shows any inclination toward activities traditionally thought of as feminine (sewing, ballet, hairdressing, wearing pink), then that man must be gay and therefore not really a man. Hopefully, you can see how these things are problematic.
The effects of toxic masculinity are widespread and sometimes tragic. An article published in Salon (see below) reports that 80% of completed suicides are men, men commit 90.5% of all murders, and 76.8% of murder victims are men. The article also suggests that the reason men have shorter lifespans (by about 10 years) than women is that they are less likely to visit a doctor and less likely to comply with treatment when they do get it. Men are pressured to be macho and independent, not to ask for help. Abuse of men and boys is also less likely to be reported because they fear being seen as helpless victims. I'd even venture to guess that suppressed emotions, feelings of shame, and reluctance to seek help sometimes lead to more serious disorders. Serial killers, for example, often suffer childhood trauma such as being shamed for expressing traditionally feminine traits or being victims of sexual abuse they don't feel they can talk to anyone about.
Men are often shortchanged when it comes to things like parenting. Toxic masculinity perpetuates the myth that men are unsuited to being single parents or uninterested in raising children. It leads to the expectation that a man would leave his pregnant girlfriend, feeling no attachment to his unborn child. There's also the expectation that men should be interested in sex all the time and ready to have sex at the drop of hat. It's the supposition that men are only beasts who cannot control their urges (i.e. boys will be boys).
In short, toxic masculinity is a set of unrealistic expectations that our society puts on men. It furthers harmful stereotypes that hurt men and women alike. Rather than recognize that men are complex individuals with a range of interests, emotions, and depth of character and reduces them to machismo tropes and one-dimensional, sex-hungry morons. While many people misinterpret toxic masculinity as an attack on men as universally toxic, therefore causing some to feel defensive and retaliatory, it's really a comment on how we treat men and boys and a call to change the dialog.
As always, don't just take my word for it. Here are some resources for more information on this topic:
Toxic Masculinity is Killing Men: The roots of male trauma (Salon)
What Is Toxic Masculinity? (NYTimes)
The Problem with a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity (The Atlantic)
Toxic Masculinity (Geek Feminism Wiki)
The Classroom Origins of Toxic Masculinity (Longreads)
'Toxic Masculinity':The Problem with the Phrase (The Book of Man)
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