What is "toxic masculinity?" Dictionary.com defines it as “a cultural concept of manliness that glorifies stoicism, strength, virility, and dominance, and that is socially maladaptive or harmful to mental health.”
So where does this term come from? “Toxic masculinity” is a term coined by the mythopoetic men’s self-improvement movement in the 1980s and 1990s. The movement framed masculinity from a psychoanalytic perspective and described toxic masculinity as the behavior of “immature” males (Longwood, et. al., 2012). Although the movement was not backed by scientific research, it made an important contribution, explaining that masculinity itself is not toxic, but masculine norms can end up promoting toxic behavior. Over the years, definitions of ‘toxic masculinity’ have changed and now the term has become a buzzword in pop psychology and the media.
What significance does the term have today? The term is heavily debated by experts, sociologists and celebrities (like John Legend and Meryl Streep) alike for its presence and significance in society. Questioning masculinity implicates questioning societal gender norms and guidelines, especially when these guidelines are limiting. Toxic masculinity has been linked to repressed male emotion, denying a space for male vulnerability and ultimately, having damaging effects such as violence and suicide. The CDC released the current statistics: “suicide among males is 4x’s higher than among females. Male deaths represent 79% of all US suicides.” And it is important to know that, “Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year old Americans,” (CDC) and therefore, this is an issue that everyone needs to face, but especially as young people. The Mask You Live In documentary, released in 2013, depicts how our culture fails to create a space of male vulnerability, leading to tragic endings at time, such as suicide and violent acts. Perhaps more meaningful conversations, both in real life and online, could help bring more awareness to this issue?
Here are six perspectives to consider as we navigate this week's topic:
1. The term groups men together: masculinity is a spectrum
Before we introduce ‘toxic’ into the conversation, it might be helpful to understand what masculinity even means in our society today. The dictionary definition of ‘being masculine’’ is having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man. Discourse on toxic masculinity often brings up the defining question of what it means to ‘be a man’ or ‘to be masculine.’ It might be interesting to consider that many people having differing perspectives and definitions for what ‘being a man’ looks like. The Huffington Post offers that, “masculinity is a socially constructed concept that people selectively use to describe what a man should be and how he should act.” Masculinity is subjective because it defined based on cultural, social and temporal contexts. For instance traditional masculinity is often used to refer to historical constructs or ideas of what it means ‘to be a man’ that carry over today, such as “men need to be the breadwinner of the household.” So, in the same respect, ‘toxic masculinity’ can also be seen as a subjective concept. What might be seen as toxic to one person, might not translate for another person.
2. Masculinity is not a debate of good vs. bad: people say the term vilifies men
Firstly, the term can come across as divisive - some people believe the term helps give a vocabulary to unhealthy standards our society sets for men, whilst others believe that the term itself fuels these standards instead of breaking them. For instance, Psychologist Gad Saad, has written that the term “toxic masculinity” pathologized masculinity “in ways that are harmful to the existential sense of self of young men.” A notable advocate of banning the term is beloved actress Meryl Streep, who while on her press tour for Big Little Lies (a show that puts a magnifying glass on abusive relationships), shared “we hurt our boys by calling something toxic masculinity. Women can be pretty f***ing toxic… It’s toxic people.” Toxic masculinity is defined by a range of negative or ‘bad’ behaviors that men adopt. These range from cultural ideals of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to physical affection —are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away. The takeaway here is that the term can seem like it is imposing a binary of good versus bad and binary thinking, with respect to sexual orientation, gender identity or presentation, can be limiting and even dangerous.
3. @women, toxic masculinity involves you too
It might be important to consider that many people feel that toxic masculinity implicates not only men but women and non-binary individuals as well. Many female critics believe that toxic masculinity is at the root of gender discrimination and misconduct, that it is a culture that encourages men to see themselves as superior or claim ownership of a woman. In their recent detailed guidebook on Psychological Practices for Boys and Men, the American Psychology Association never uses the term ‘toxic masculinity,' however, they suggest that a ‘masculine ideology’ can lead to misogyny. Yet, there are also critics that believe that women play a big role in perpetuating toxic masculinity, offering that women that tolerate, justify and even encourage ‘dominant male’ behavior are equally responsible. A Washington Post Op-Ed, advocates that women that use the phrase, “boys will be boys," are permitting negative behavior that turns into habit. There are also women who believe that we also live in a culture where toxic femininity exists. Psychology Today, offers that this type of toxicity presents as, “when one works to the benefit of others but to the detriment of themselves,” whilst maintaining stereotypically ‘female’ or ‘feminine behavior’. So whether toxic masculinity encourages sexism, women permit toxic behavior or even encourage unhealthy feminine standards. Let’s not forget that women have a part to play in this puzzle.
4. Gender doesn't exist on binary, behavior shouldn't either: let's look at the term in relation to the LGBTQ+ community
Another perspective to consider is the role of non-binary folks and the LGBTQ+ community in this discussion. Many people believe that toxic masculinity encourages homophobia and prejudice towards non-gender conforming individuals. Additionally, some people believe that toxic masculinity affects the gay community by setting high standards for physical appearance and behavior. APA’s guidebook for clinicians on how to treat male patients also offers that a ‘masculine ideology’ can and historically has lead to homophobia and prejudice. The guidebook explores how men can experience ‘gender role conflict’ which they define as “rigid, sexist, or restrictive gender roles, learned during socialization, that result in personal restriction, devaluation, or violation of others or self.” They offer that this conflict most notably experienced in the following domains: success, power, competition, restrictive emotionality and restrictive affectionate behavior between men. Many critics share that toxic masculinity portrays any affectionate male behavior as signs of homosexuality, which perpetuates further stigma for the LGBTQ+ community.
5. Psychology's approach towards 'healthier' masculinity: changing the discourse
So what are people saying about changing the discourse? The American Psychology Association (APA) caused a ripple in the mental health community when they released their guidelines for Psychological Practice for Boys and Men. The document proposes 10 practicable guidelines on how to encourage fathers to engage with their kids, how to address problems that disproportionately affect men, like suicide and substance abuse, and how to encourage men toward healthy behaviors. APA consulted over 200 physicians and specialists alike since 2005 to compose this comprehensive document with the hopes to address that “men are struggling” today. Yet, more right wing critics felt that APA inaccurately portrayed the ‘traditional masculinity’ as “on the whole, harmful.” Media outlets such as National Review and Fox News saw it as an attack on men, whom they claim are already suffering from a mental health crisis. Psychologist, Joseph Vandello offers that, “It’s positioning traditional masculinity as a problem to be solved,” which can seem as though it is targeting men as being the source of the problem. Other experts have suggested that the guidelines are not for men to intepret for themselves, but mainly for physicians and practitioners to have a better understanding of men’s experience. These guidelines will hopefully set the tone for future conversations on the topic, so that we understand that it is multi-dimensional and therefore, be more empathetic.
6. De-stigmatizing male vulnerability: how can we open the conversation?
Many believe that APA guidebook was a step in the right direction especially after the #MeToo Movement, yet feel that we are still not having meaningful conversations around toxic masculinity both ‘IRL’ and online. A 2018 study investigated the power of social media in transforming the male dialogue with the #HowIWillChange and found that the male participants were opposed to contribute because they advocated that “not all men” were at fault for the #MeToo Movement. ‘Toxic masculinity’ was a viral trending term after Gillette released its 2019 Super Bowl ad titled, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” Men, women, and non-binary folks alike took to social media to share their opinion on the razor brand’s portrayal of what masculinity looks like today. Many individuals believed that the ad was raising awareness around the issue whereas others felt it was a trivial or inaccurate portrayal. The controversy did encourage huge online dialogue around masculinity, behavior and media representation. So, why can’t an advertisement bring the needed public attention to men’s mental health? Also, to get more involved in this topic, you can participate in "No Shave November," an initiative run by "Movember." November is the international month where men grow mustaches to raise awareness for men's health issues, such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and men's suicide. Happy Movember to all!
Want to continue the conversation about toxic masculinity? Check out our content throughout the week and submit your points of view about the topic here. Let's keep the conversations going!