What is Toxic Masculinity and How to Fight it
“The crisis our boys face today is not masculinity, rather it is toxic patriarchal hyper-masculinity. In many ways, our boys are constantly clashing within themselves between who they really are and who they are expected to be. The stress of guarding and protecting a false self creates a deep wound in the male psyche.” (Melia Keeton Digby, The Hero’s Heart)
For decades, we used terms like “macho,” “red-blooded” or “machismo” to describe the kind of hulking masculinity that men were, on some level, expected to aspire to.
Masculinity can indeed be destructive. But both conservative and liberal stances on this issue commonly misunderstand how the term toxic masculinity functions. When people use it, they tend to diagnose the problem of masculine aggression and entitlement as a cultural or spiritual illness—something that has infected today’s men and leads them to reproachable acts. But toxic masculinity itself is not a cause. Over the past 30 years, as the concept has morphed and changed, it has served more as a barometer for the gender politics of its day—and as an arrow toward the subtler, shifting causes of violence and sexism.
While gender identity is a deeply held feeling of being male, female or another gender, people of different genders often act differently, not because of biological characteristics but because of rigid societal norms created around femininity and masculinity. Laying this groundwork requires effort, but in an age when breaking news alerts make us want to look away from our phones, the term “toxic masculinity” provides a useful tool for engaging with students, families and anyone else trying to make sense of the onslaught of news.
The phrase is derived from studies that focus on violent behaviour perpetrated by men, and—this key—is designed to describe not masculinity itself, but a form of gendered behaviour that results when expectations of “what it means to be a man” go wrong.
For centuries, male violence and acts of aggression were often the way that power was understood and patriarchy upheld. In contemporary times, in more moderate societies, this has become somewhat tempered, yet it still exists in different forms and has now been given the name “toxic masculinity”.
This phrase has long been used by academics to define regular acts of aggression used by men in positions of power to dominate people around them.
How to Fight Toxic Masculinity
Toxic masculinity is best described as a box. It’s narrow, rigid, and men have to contort themselves to fit inside it.
To fit in the man box of toxic masculinity, a man must live by a particular set of beliefs and behaviours:
Suffer pain in silence
Have no needs
Show no emotions other than bravado or rage
Don’t depend on anyone
Don’t do anything that could be construed as weakness
The man box also requires that men buy into a rigid hierarchy in which straight men are dominant over everybody else. Furthermore, among straight men, the man box decrees that hyper-masculine men are dominant over men who reject or find themselves outside the box.
If you don’t fit in the man box, you pay the price. At best, you risk invisibility. At worst, you risk disrespect, bullying, or even violence.
But this scramble for dominance and denial of emotion comes at great cost. It blunts men’s awareness of other people’s needs and emotions, drives domestic and sexual violence, makes aggression look like a reasonable way to solve the conflict, forbids seeking health care (and even thinking about seeking mental health care), and pours fuel on the fire of drug and alcohol abuse.
Now, there is a difference between traditional masculinity and toxic masculinity: There is nothing toxic about working hard, providing for one’s family, winning at sports, or being loyal to friends. Most importantly, there’s nothing toxic about wanting to be respected. All humans want to feel respected—we all want to know we are valued, recognized, and affirmed.
While there’s nothing toxic about needing respect, taking desperate and extreme measures to force what looks like respect (but is actually fear) is a direct result of toxic masculinity. Men who don’t feel respected may make up for it by dominating others.
Can we finally do away with the phrase “toxic masculinity”? In 2020, it should be evident: Masculinity is not toxic. What can be toxic is the mainstream culture of masculinity: the rigid set of expectations, perceptions, and definitions of “manly” behaviour, aka the man box.
Positive steps men can take to challenge our norms and help create a better, healthier and more inclusive culture of masculinity:
Examine your unconscious biases
Take a genuine interest in the experience of others.
Take a stand.
Be public about your flexible working.
Be transparent about your health with other men
“it is not what men keep but what they can discard that makes them kings
Writer - Hrishita Dev
Editor - Priyam Kusundal
Illustrator - Shaina Rahman
Graphics - Thea Sinsin