In recent years, the term “Toxic Masculinity” has spread beyond the academic discussions of sociology and gender studies and into the wider public. But what exactly does it mean, and what can you learn from it? This is what we hope to clear up today.
To fully understand the term, a good grounding in sociological and feminist literature is needed. But in essence, toxic masculinity is essentially the adherence to harmful normalised and gendered conceptions of what a man is supposed to do, feel, be and look like.
Since childhood, you have likely be socialised by many different groups (family, friends, school, media, culture and religion to name a few) into following what are termed “gender norms” or “gender rules.” These “rules” (as policed and enforced by these groups, consciously and subconsciously) are intended to shape you into a rigid stereotype of “masculine” or “feminine.” The origins of these stereotypes often lie within religious traditions and gendered divisions of labour.
Our contemporary understandings of human physical and emotional development (combined with decades of feminist and sociological research) have discovered that there is no basis for these gender stereotypes. In fact, it can be very damaging to one’s mental health when they devote themselves to trying to fit the rigid stereotypes and expectations that are expected of them.
When we speak of the harmful effects of masculine stereotypes (in relation to all sexes and genders alike), this is what we mean by “Toxic Masculinity.” This is not to say that men are inherently toxic, but rather that they are socialised to learn these behaviours and attitudes as a default. Critical self-reflection and conscious efforts made to confront said behaviours and attitudes will help to eliminate toxic masculinity.
So, what does toxic masculinity look like in practice? It’s a very far reaching phenomenon, but two common examples have been highlighted below:
- Men are expected to suppress their emotions and mask their distress. Men are thus encouraged to bottle up their feelings and to avoid positive outlets for emotional release. This often results in men experiencing severe difficulties when electing to seek help for mental health issues. Violence and aggression are seen as the primary “acceptable” masculine expressions of emotion. Thus, men’s strongest emotions felt are expected to be expressed through some kind of aggressive, assertive, or violent act: fighting, yelling, asserting dominance, making threats, scowling, or taking up a large physical space and presence to intimidate others. Consequently, men will often have a higher risk of academic failure and school discipline, find themselves overrepresented in prisons (being more likely to lash out to commit violent crimes as a result of this toxic build up of emotions), are at a much higher risk of suicide, and are more prone to drug and alcohol abuse.
- Men are expected to maintain an appearance of “Hardness” or “Manliness.” This often involves other men policing each other for behaviours they deride as “feminine” or “weak” which only further damages their mental health. Men are also more likely to be encouraged to catcall, harass or denigrate women in an attempt to reinforce their status as “Manly.” Men are also more likely to perform risky or dangerous behaviours and/or succumb to peer pressure, putting themselves at even greater risk. Men who don’t conform to masculine stereotypes will also typically find themselves bullied or attacked by their male peers.
So what can you do to help?
- First of all, it’s important to help each other realise that the “norms” surrounding masculinity aren’t actually “normal” at all. There’s no inherent predisposition or link between the “Male” sex and “Masculinity.” We take for granted that these thoughts, beliefs, and ways-of-acting are a natural product of the male sex, but in reality these have been socially constructed and taught to us since birth. The same can equally be said for “Female” and “Femininity.”
- Don’t be afraid to seek help. The challenges men may face are more important to resolve than stereotypes imply. There’s nothing “unmanly” about wanting to change yourself to become a better person.
- Men need to be encouraged to critically challenge their preconceptions about themselves and other men. They need to think: “Is this how I really feel/want to act, or is this how I’ve been taught to feel/act?” Men should learn to shape their own ideas of manhood and masculinity, and learn to feel comfortable in their own skin; not conforming to a stereotype.
- Men should not be afraid to call out the toxic behaviours of other men. Too often, men are encouraged to immediately dismiss or deflect criticism of toxic or negative conceptions of masculinity that come from women. As such, it will likely make a larger impact upon men engaging in toxic behaviours to be called out by other men.