From the time we’re kids, boys are pitted against girls. In my elementary school classrooms, teachers sat us in a pattern of boy-girl-boy-girl, as if everyone in the room were cisgender and straight (spoiler alert: I’m neither, and neither were many of my friends, even if we didn’t know it at the time). We had boys vs. girls soccer and dodgeball matches. Boys and girls were pitted against each other in subtle ways and exposed to different language.
Toxic masculinity starts young. It starts with boys and male-presenting children being told they shouldn’t cry. Don’t be weak. If a girl runs away, chase her. Girls and female-presenting kids are told that if a boy teases you, that means he likes you, not that he’s being rude or gross. But what happens when these kids grow up?
These are the formative teachings of who you’re supposed to be and what you learn about the world. If these are the messages kids are getting, they’re the ones they’ll carry for a long time—maybe for the rest of their lives. These messages are the foundation for toxic masculinity.
What is toxic masculinity? It’s not just men being rude to women (though that’s certainly a part of it). Toxic masculinity is both a behavior and a belief. It’s society’s acceptance that men—especially cisgender, straight men—must behave a certain way in order to be considered a man. These stereotypical “manly” behaviors are often used as excuses to bully and belittle women and nonbinary folks. It’s the idea that “boys will be boys” and that domineering, belligerent behavior is acceptable whereas showing emotion and vulnerability is not. I’ve heard fathers encourage their sons to punch someone who’s “bothering them” while scolding them for crying.
In January 2019, Gillette released an ad urging men to do better. The ad opens with boys bullying other kids, men catcalling and interrupting women—including in professional settings—and ends with men holding each other accountable.
Some people responded to Gillette’s ad saying that toxic masculinity doesn’t exist. But for many of us, the situations in the ad are all too familiar. I can’t count how many times men have made inappropriate comments about my and my friends’ bodies or how many times I’ve been cut off in the middle of a conversation when a man wanted to speak or tell me what I “was trying to say.”
At one of my past jobs, there was a man who, nearly every time someone (especially a woman or female-presenting person) spoke, would stop them in the middle of their sentence with a repeated “wait, wait, wait, listen, listen” until they stopped speaking and he got to talk. This was someone I liked and respected, but he still displayed toxic male behavior. And the worst part is, I don’t think he even realized he was doing it. Even “good men” aren’t exempt from toxic masculinity.
Why do so many men act like that? Why do they assert themselves so violently, as if their lives depend on always being at the front of the line?
The problem goes beyond the individual. In Gillette’s ad, there’s a long line of men standing behind charcoal grills chanting “boys will be boys” as one male child beats up another. We talk a lot about how toxic masculinity hurts women, trans folks, and nonbinary/gender-nonconforming people. But we also need to talk about how it hurts men, too.
There needs to be space in the world for men to be vulnerable. In telling men they can’t cry, they can’t like flowers or dolls, they can’t run away, we’re telling them they can’t do other things. They can’t feel. They can’t love beautiful things without sexualizing them. They can’t be wrong. They can’t apologize, even if they should. They can’t ask for help.
Part of the problem is that we gender so many things. We gender personality traits, and for what? Personalities aren’t limited by gender, nor are feelings. When someone is in crisis, their gender doesn’t make it more or less serious. Telling someone they’re not allowed to have support won’t make them stronger. It means they’ll learn to cope with their feelings using unhealthy behaviors, like anger and aggression.
Gillette’s ad is only a single step toward steering away from toxic masculinity, but it is progress. This is a major company making room for male vulnerability and calling men to action, not only for women, but for each other.
But we need more than ads. We need people, in real life, around us, holding themselves and each other accountable. The only way we change as a whole is as individuals. We need to hold men accountable, but beyond that, we need men holding themselves accountable. We need men to stand up to men, and men who take a step back and look at their behavior. It’s not too late to change it.