I know that there are good guys out there. In fact, I know a lot of them. I’ve never actually been poorly treated by a man, and believe me, I know just how lucky and rare that is.
It may come as a surprise just how little personal experience I have with the culture of toxic masculinity.
My family is full of men who value equality and female empowerment and are in healthy relationships with strong women. I have never been sexually harassed or catcalled. The worst thing that has happened to me on a dating app is getting ghosted. A bad date for me means that the guy was either boring or a bad kisser. I’m not trying to brag—I’m just explaining that my interactions with men have not given me a reason to believe that toxic masculinity is a constant presence.
I hear my friends’ stories about guys harassing them and abusing them. I am a shoulder to cry on when someone’s boyfriend won’t express his feelings adequately. I read the anonymous articles about the hazing that goes on in fraternities. I see the #MeToo posts. But I am an outsider to all of this. It makes my understanding of toxic masculinity quite complicated. How can I claim that there is a toxic culture when I have not been victimized by it?
Mulling over this, I realized that maybe that is why there is so much pushback and refusal on the part of men to recognize that toxic masculinity does exist.
The pushback is clearly visible in the response to the Gillette ad from earlier this year. That ad is powerful and beautifully executed—it has me in tears every time I watch it. But it made a lot of men very upset. They claim that it is an insult to men who value those traditionally male qualities, such as assertiveness, aggression, and invulnerability. Those men don’t see those traits and behaviors as toxic, most likely because they have never seen the negative effects of their actions. The men insulted are likely the ones doing the bullying and catcalling. They are not victimized by their peers in a way that many boys and men are. That victimization perpetuates a toxic cycle in which those who are targeted cannot come forward, because if they do, they will only be further insulted for being weak.
Alternatively, some “good guys” were offended by the ad, too. The ones who are respectful of women and care about equality. Those men may have seen the ad and their gut instinct was to feel insulted. They likely felt unfairly targeted and wanted to tweet #notallmen.
But even if they are not the ones participating in toxic actions, it does not mean that toxicity does not exist, or does not need to be addressed.
Just as men who do not experience the negative repercussions of toxic masculinity may fail to recognize its existence, women who do not experience it may also fail to acknowledge that it persists. They can’t see that toxic masculinity is a plague in our society preventing men from expressing genuine emotion and connecting healthily to themselves and those around them.
Despite my almost entirely positive experiences with men, I was not infuriated by the Gillette ad or by any other claims that toxic masculinity is a problem that needs to be addressed. I don’t have Malaria or know anyone who does, but I still acknowledge its existence and would love for it to be cured. You can recognize and address toxic masculinity without having experienced it yourself.
Although it was just an advertisement for razors, the Gillette ad is a positive step in the direction of widespread recognition of a problem. The ad calls attention to behaviors or phrases that those of us with limited first-hand exposure to toxic masculinity may not immediately recognize as problematic. However, by compiling them in this ad, it is impossible to ignore the damage phrases like “Boys will be boys” can do.
It forces us to recognize that actions that we once considered as commonplace or unavoidable may actually be symptoms of a much more serious problem.
I sincerely hope that my interactions with men remain as positive as they have been, but I will also continue to advocate for the recognition and addressing of toxic masculinity in our society.
We need to encourage the men in our lives to express genuine emotion rather than associating that with weakness. We need to build cultures of respect and eliminate structures in which men have the freedom to disregard the consequences for their actions. We need to hold men accountable when they perpetuate the toxic culture. And women need to acknowledge that the toxicity exists, whether or not we have experienced it ourselves.