‘Toxic’, ‘traditional’, thorny masculinity?

Saga Jaubert is a final year War Studies & History student, particularly interested in how national security, intelligence, and nationalist politics shape international conflicts. In terms of non war-related interests, she also enjoys literature, theatre, and music, but hates the occasional small talk about Brexit.

[Featured image: The painting shows group of men and one woman sitting around a table in a jury room. The men are smoking and leaning over the woman, seemingly trying to explain the jury decision.]

In January 2019, men’s razor brand Gillette’s advertisement clip made a bold statement against extreme, aggressive types of masculinity by showing the burden of ‘toxic’ social and cultural expectations placed on boys’ and men’s shoulders. The commercial pleased as many people as it shocked, and relit debates about the ‘toxicity’ of masculinity. These had previously re-emerged following the American Psychological Association’s (APA) issue of ‘Guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men’ in August 2018. The APA’s guidelines were assembled as a tool for psychologists to better understand why certain boys and men experienced such high levels of insecurity and distress. It pointed to specific deep-seated values such as resilience, strength, and stoicism, as the core traits of ‘toxic masculinity’ to which men must abide. Despite an increasing emphasis on mental health to combat high male suicide and drug abuse levels, ‘toxic masculinity’ forbids weakness and men are less likely to seek help and express emotions. Yet these alarming signals do not clear up the general confusion surrounding the meaning of the term ‘toxic masculinity’, sometimes referred to as ‘traditional masculinity’, precisely what the APA concluded was one paramount reason behind male insecurity; instead, the term falls victim to the classic case of misunderstanding and misuse by journalists and politicians. But what ‘toxic’ traits are we referring to? In what ways are they specifically ‘male’? What are their ‘healthy’ equivalents? As I was looking for adjectives to fit my title’s nice little alliteration, I found plenty that could have easily done the job: troublesome, terrifying, tricky, tiresome, tough, trying, … Yet we are still beating around the bush regarding what kind of ‘toxic’ behaviour we are referring to.

Today, the term is widely used by psychologists and sociologists to label certain ‘masculine’ traits, behaviours, and beliefs revolving around ‘suppressing emotions or masking distress, maintaining an appearance of hardness’, and using ‘violence as an indicator of power’. These fit into the common ‘tough guy’ ideals of physical strength, dominance and endurance. Psychologists have given great attention to the deliberate blocking of emotions and the pressure to be aggressive, which studies have shown make men more vulnerable to certain health problems, substance abuse and academic challenges. While masculinity is not toxic in itself, its extreme forms hurt both men who do not identify with this macho persona as well as those who feel as though they do not measure up to what is required of them, and therefore seek to compensate for this perceived gap by acting in extremely aggressive ways.

In political discussions, ‘toxic masculinity’ is often branded as a feminist invention, but history tells a very different story. The term was first used by the mythopoetic men’s movement, a ‘masculine spirituality’ community which in the 1980s and 1990s aimed to restore the non‑toxic ‘deep masculine’, or the so-called true and innate identity of men. Formed partly as a reaction to second‑wave feminism, they argued that ‘toxic masculinity’ was a response to the feminisation of boys and the rejection of their ‘protective warrior’ nature. (It is therefore very ironic that some conservatives would portray this as yet another feminist ploy to destroy manhood.) Nevertheless, cultural environments and political trends were already acknowledged as greatly influencing our perceptions of masculinity. ‘Toxic masculinity’ was thus born in the context of objection to the blurring of lines between pre‑established gender roles.

It may seem as though I am talking about things and experiences I know nothing about ‑ in fact much like the men who legislate on women’s reproductive rights ‑ but toxic masculinity concerns us all. Defining one end of the spectrum means stigmatising the opposite, the latter being of course femininity and what is expected of a woman. If men are strong, virile, stoic, aggressive, resourceful, and dominant, then women are weak, kind, naïve, docile, and sensitive, but most of all submissive to men. Opposing male stereotypes to conventional feminine attributes pinpoints the serious entrenchment of our social and cultural norms. Women are granted certain ‘liberties’ deemed to fit their feminine side, while men associate those same behaviours with weakness. The pressure to constantly hide emotions and uphold values of ‘extreme’ masculinity is toxic for society in its entirety, and ties back to displays of violence and domination such as rape and domestic abuse. It’s all fun and games in the locker room, but is reality that much different? 

Questions remain regarding how to address this problem, and the use of the term ‘toxic’ may not be the best solution. Reforms such as the APA guidelines could encourage men who feel oppressed by the cultural expectations of masculinity to seek help; but they will not reach those taking ‘toxic masculinity’ values for granted, given that they would not deem there to be a problem in the first place. Instead, psychologist Joseph Vandello discards labels and advises to adopt a more nuanced approach: by looking at ‘precarious masculinity’, we can better tackle the sense of insecurity linked to the idea of ‘manhood having to be earned’. 

‘Toxic’ is a tough, tricky and troublesome term, and one that has been stripped of its meaning. It has been used arbitrarily to justify a plethora of societal and political problems, ranging from sexual assault and murder to climate change and Brexit. Not only is the term too loosely defined, but it fails to take into account how ideals of manhood vary depending on culture and origin. Just like the mythopoetic men’s movement stated, ‘toxic masculinity’ is not a cause but a consequence. Sociologist Raewyn Connell speaks of ‘multiple masculinities’, influenced by various factors such as culture, class, origin, sexuality, etc. There is no ‘original man’; rather, each culture and socio‑political environment has prescribed the attributes of its ‘ideal man’ and the expectations he ought to comply with. The violence we ascribe to masculinity is not innate: it stems from men’s frustration and feelings of inadequacy when compelled to attain society’s unrealistic standards of masculinity. We should therefore target the roots of ‘toxic masculinity’, namely the toxic social, political and cultural settings in which we live, and seek to identify the institutions perpetuating them. 

I cannot claim to be able to bring any solutions to this issue. Whether it be through legislation, psychological training, or popular protests, changing an entrenched set of social and cultural values requires efforts to be made at the individual level. In order to foster a healthier social environment for the next generations, let us deconstruct the burden of ‘toxic’ expectations for men, and teach boys from an early age that they need not conform to any predetermined character matrix. Teach boys that they need not build their own identity around a fundamentally flawed conception of gender relations. And maybe then we can hope to free ourselves from the toxic social norms that put us in this situation in the first place.

Bibliography

Mahdawi, Arwa, ‘Seriously, Meryl Streep? “Toxic masculinity” doesn’t hurt men – it kills them’, The Guardian, 1 June 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/01/seriously-meryl-streep-toxic-masculinity-doesnt-hurt-men-it-kills-them.

Mull, Amanda, ‘Psychology Has a New Approach to Building Healthier Men’, The Atlantic, 10 January 2019: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/01/traditional-masculinity-american-psychological-association/580006/.

Salam, Maya, ‘What is Toxic Masculinity?’, The New York Times, 22 January 2019: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/us/toxic-masculinity.html.

Salter, Michael, ‘The Problem With a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity’, The Atlantic, 27 February 2019: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/02/toxic-masculinity-history/583411/.

Schumacher, Helene, ‘Why more men than women die by suicide’, BBC Future, 18 March 2019: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190313-why-more-men-kill-themselves-than-women

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