Disclaimer: This article does not pertain to all males, rather those who engage in toxic behaviour.
What is the first word that comes into your head when you think of what it means to be a man? Immediately, many may think of adjectives such as strong, confident or courageous. In contrast, when we think of words to describe women we often think of sensitive, warm or gentle.
Justin Baldoni is an actor, speaker, and author who has struggled throughout his life fitting into Western society’s expectations for what it means to be ‘a man.’ He speaks about his experiences globally in hopes that other people can relate and continue the conversation. Baldoni states, “all our lives we have been given a script passed down from generation to generation which tells men that in order to be accepted and liked by other men, one must reject and separate himself from any feminine traits, or otherwise face rejection”. Similarly, according to Johnathan McIntosh, speaker on the deconstruction of social issues, there seems to be “this overwhelming fear of emasculation” by some men in Western society. “The fear of being perceived by others as feminine and therefore unmanly,” McIntosh notes.
This belief, according to Baldoni, implies that since men are thought of as strong and women are thought of as weak, in order to be a ‘real’ man, one must separate himself from the two and reject all stereotypical ‘feminine’ traits. Baldoni notes that this idea is something we have subconsciously projected towards millions of men globally. It is something we can see in the media or TV shows; the “good” guy is often someone who is powerful and can save a damsel in distress.
This message is called toxic masculinity and it needs to change.
According to the Oxford dictionary, toxic masculinity is defined as “a set of attitudes and ways of behaving stereotypically associated with or expected of men, regarded as having a negative impact on men and on society as a whole.”
McIntosh states that these behaviours are often destructive and harmful and are related to competitiveness, sexual objectification of women, aggression, or emotional detachment. Also according to McIntosh, there is a belief that everything about masculinity is “toxic,” but that is not the case. It is important to note that these behaviours are not biological traits of men, but instead something that is learned and accepted within Western society. However, McIntosh adds that there needs to be a differentiation between learned, destructive male behaviors compared to positive ones.
The popular teen drama Euphoria (spoiler alert) largely touches on toxic masculinity and the differentiation from destructive behaviors compared to positive ones. The characters Cal Jacobs and his son Nate demonstrate these toxic behaviors. They both degrade women and suppress their emotions when it comes to their sexuality, leading to acts of violence, aggression, and ultimately Cal’s downfall. On the other hand, there are other male characters who stay true to themselves meaning they are not afraid to express who they are and show their emotions. Ethan is a prime example of a character who expresses how he feels in a healthy manner and is respectful of women. Additionally, Elliot is not afraid to express his sexual identity even if it goes against the ‘norms’ of Western society.
Interestingly, toxic masculinity is not anything new. Author Jennifer Galvan writes that “the origins of toxic masculinity began thousands of years ago when homo sapiens would use physical strength, dominance, and aggression to fight and hunt.” While now we can just go to the supermarket and purchase that steak we want for dinner without fighting the cashier, these aggressive behaviors are still shown today. Why might this be?
A study in Australia was conducted on the father-son relationship and the development of the previously mentioned toxic traits; however, there was not a strong correlation between a son’s relationship with his father and the toxic masculine traits one is told to idealize. This was also the same with the mother-son relationship. Instead, the quality of a man’s relationship with his friends seemed to dominate the development of these traits. Cliff Leek a sociologist at the University of Northern Colorado said, “Belief in hegemonic masculinity is most likely to come from our social circles while we’re growing up, especially gender-segregated ones, such as sports teams or fraternities, that unquestioningly reinforce stereotypes of what a ‘real man’ is.” Men may want to fit in with a specific group, thereby passing off or disregarding certain behaviours such as sexual assault or aggression with the phrase “boys will be boys.” In their mind, it may be better to not speak up and risk losing a friend or perhaps this behavior may be so normalized that they might not think anything more of it. Further, some may not speak up and risk conflict regarding situations like sexual assault if none of their friends do so. Ultimately however, by engaging in or ignoring this behaviour we are accepting the problems that are associated with it allowing these actions to progress and possibly worsen.
The study also found that “as hegemonic masculinity went up, the number and quality of friendships plummeted.” According to author Tanner Garrity, this could be because some men have fewer friends to provide empathy and patience and therefore “try to fill the holes in their heart with acts of aggression.” Or, as Leek noted, these toxic traits are the very traits (competitiveness, detachment, etc.) that “prevent [one] from forming strong [friendships] in the first place” because there is no deeper connection being formed.
It is no wonder that there are higher rates of suicide among men than women. In 2019, men died by suicide 3.63 times as often as women in the United States and white males accounted for 69.38% of these deaths. More than one in ten men are lonely in the United Kingdom but would not admit to it. It is shown that women are more likely than men to receive mental health treatment, in the United States including medication and counseling from a mental health professional, whereas men are more likely to misuse alcohol or drugs.
David Brockway who created “the Great Men project,” which teaches young men about masculinity and what it means, notes that rates of mental illness and suicide are higher among men because they have a lot of difficulties expressing their emotions, accepting emotional vulnerability and admitting to any form of weakness. Brockway adds that men are always told to “man up” and do things themselves and figure out their problems on their own, but this is an unhealthy way to cope with heavy emotions. Therefore, Brockway notes that men may turn to substances like alcohol or drugs as a way of coping and hiding their feelings, but this is damaging and dangerous in the long run.
Justin Baldoni claims that when it comes to topics surrounding work, sports, politics or women, men seem to have no problem sharing their thoughts. On the contrary, conversations about their insecurities, struggles or their fear of failure can make them uncomfortable and unsure of how to respond because they may be afraid to be seen as ‘weak’ when this is not the case at all.
David Brockway notes that men need to start questioning these toxic behaviors and create their own version of what it means to be a man. Can you be strong enough to receive help when you are feeling down? Can you be brave enough to speak up when you hear stories that degrade women? Can you be confident enough to gain advice from the women in your life? Toxic masculinity is not something one is born with, but instead what someone develops from the world around them. Do you have what it takes to change this toxicity?