‘Toxic masculinity’ is society’s invention. We need to recognise the things we do that promote it.
When we talk about systemic violence against women, we often consider a culture of ‘toxic masculinity’ to be the issue at hand. But what exactly is ‘toxic masculinity’?
At times, people have taken offence at the term, seeing it as a descriptor which appears to imply that ‘masculinity’ in and of itself is toxic. But this isn’t what the term is supposed to mean. In fact, ‘toxic masculinity’ refers to a version of masculinity that emphasises negative stereotypes around what it is to be male. Instead of reinforcing positive behaviours, a culture of ‘toxic masculinity’ puts more traditional ideals of what men should be like on a pedestal and places an undue emphasis on the negative behaviours that these ideals can perpetuate.
For example, we may see that men who display characteristics of strength and dominance are idealised in society; this in turn can lead to men internalising the more negative aspects of those ideals (like violence and aggression) as standard ‘manly’ behaviour.
While ‘toxic masculinity’ might not be the best term to use, we must admit that global societies often perpetuate and promote ideals about how a man should behave that have negative consequences for gender relations and ultimately hurt men themselves. A more free and fluid definition of masculinity helps people of all genders to express themselves and reduces the negative impacts that a rigid definition of masculinity can have.
So what are some of the stereotypes associated with ‘toxic masculinity’? And how do these lead to weakened or unhealthy relationships between men and women?
1. Men can’t show emotion
This is a huge one, and there has been a lot of work in recent years to try to challenge this stereotype. But it sets in very early on.
Emotion is not something that we cultivate in young boys. Whereas young girls are often given a lot of licence to feel the way they feel, emotional responses in boys are generally discouraged. A study found that when mothers were talking to daughters aged between two and three, they used a lot of emotional language, covering a wide range of often positive feelings. But when talking to boys of the same age, mothers tended to focus heavily on the emotion of anger – something that they never seemed to discuss with their girls.
This indicates that boys and girls are socialised to feel differently about emotion from a very young age. Now it’s not that boys can’t connect emotionally in the same way as girls – it’s just that they are often discouraged from doing so.
And if boys are discouraged from being emotional, then this means that as men, these same boys will struggle with expressing their emotions.
In fact, if anger is the only emotion heavily emphasised to boys as they grow up, they will become capable of acutely feeling anger but not be able to summon other emotions to counterbalance that anger. This kind of emotional range can breed communication problems in a relationship, and even violence.
We also know that the suicide rate for men is higher than the rate for women. Could this be partly due to men feeling pressure not to talk about their emotions?
2. Some things are ‘unmanly’
This is an interesting one. Have you ever noticed how girls are encouraged to do things that were traditionally ‘male’, but boys are not really encouraged to do traditionally female things?
A simple example of this is the wearing of trousers. The vast majority of girls and women across the UK wear trousers, and no-one bats an eyelid or sees trousers as intrinsically male. But how many boys and men do you see wearing skirts and dresses? Not many. And when we do see a man in traditionally ‘female’ dress, it’s seen as a big deal. For men to even break into the first frontier of women’s clothing is far more difficult than the other way round – that first frontier has already been well and truly broken.
And in the world of work, we see a similar pattern. Women have broken in to some traditionally male industries, like medicine, with extraordinary success. But male nurses, early years teachers and carers are not so commonly found. In the 1980s, a rather dubious paper was actually published which suggested that men in more traditionally female professions had more ‘tender-minded’ emotions and were likely to have a distant relationship with their fathers. The implication here is that some types of work make men less manly – an implication that is only felt because of the rigid way in which we perceive maleness.
Why is this the case? Well in Ian McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden, one of the characters actually touches on this issue while arguing with her brother:
“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”
Perhaps the reason we are more likely to embrace non-traditional roles for girls but remain suspicious of things which fall outside of a traditional conception of masculinity is because we still believe that to be a girl or a woman is to be less than a man. Perhaps that is an underlying thought which informs our perceptions of gender.
This is a huge problem for society. If men see anything which might be described as ‘feminising’ as ‘degrading’ then they are less likely to respond well to displays of emotion or to their female partners full stop. Ultimately, a relationship dynamic which sees gender and gender norms as rigid is unlikely to be healthy as it will force both partners to remain confined in modes of behaviour that do not truly allow for self-expression. And when this is the case, communications and behaviour in a relationship can break down.
3. Men should be strong
This negative stereotype relates both to physical and mental strength and while this might not necessarily seem like a bad thing, conceptions of specifically male strength are often very narrow in terms of the type of strength they promote.
Men’s physical strength is often seen as something they should use to ‘protect’ their partners; tropes like the ‘damsel in distress’ and the ‘knight in shining armour’, while cliched, definitely further this perception. Many women take issue with these tropes as they reinforce a link between femaleness and passivity – but they are also really damaging to men.
If men are supposed to be protectors of their female partners, this sort of protection is undoubtedly realised by shows of physical strength. But if men are to be able to physically ‘rescue’ the women in their lives then they will need to have a significant amount of strength and usually body mass in excess of that of their partner.
Biology often makes such disparities between females and males a natural thing, but the pressure on men to be strong often leads to conceptions that they should dwarf or dominate their female partners.
This again, leads to not only unhealthy and rigid expectations of what men and women should be like, but also often sours the dynamic of certain relationships.
If men believe that their manliness is defined by physical strength, then they may equate physical strength with aggression or violence – something which can then bring about negative behaviours in a relationship. Even the idea of mental ‘strength’ in relation to men is often a stereotype; men feel pressured into displaying a hardened exterior at the expense of being able to be open and honest about their feelings. And we’re not able to be open and honest about who we are, we instead find our outlet in expressing frustration – a behaviour type that can take its toll on relationships and even translate into physical violence.
A society without violence against women is also a society that is safer and happier for men. It is a society where men can be open about who they are, how they feel, and where they are not constrained by rigid conceptions of gender identity. When men feel compelled to lash out because they cannot express their anxiety, or feel unable to do things they want because those things are seen as ‘feminine’, this undermines their ability to live life to the full. We shouldn’t want that for anyone. Our girls and boys growing up now need to be socialised differently, so that they don’t consider the world through a gendered lens. Then and only then will they be able to be humans and fellow-beings first and foremost.