What Is Toxic Masculinity?
“Men’s lives are violent because their souls have been violated.”–James Hollis, Under Saturn’s Shadow
In a column I wrote a few years ago, I used the phrase “toxic views of masculinity” to describe one of the many causes of a mass shooting. At least one reader took exception to the phrase and I realized that I hadn’t really defined it.
Academics and activists have begun using the term “toxic masculinity” quite commonly, but I haven’t yet seen a good definition. So, I’ll try to provide one myself.
First of all, let’s say what it is not. No one is saying that all masculinity or that men themselves are toxic or bad. You are free to like the things that men stereotypically like sports, cars, the opposite sex, with no judgment. There is nothing wrong with these things.
When does masculinity become toxic? When it derives from a rejection of the perceived opposite, femininity, that is so pervasive as to become unhealthy for both men and those around them.
Women and children are often victimized by toxic masculinity, through domestic violence and other violence, but men are victimized by it as well. Toxic masculinity stunts their cognitive, intellectual, and emotional growth. This damage is part of what fuels the victimization of women.
By rejecting anything stereotypically feminine, men and boys are taught to reject an essential part of themselves, something that is to be valued. What’s more, these allegedly female traits are often ones that help us all get along in society, things like compassion, empathy, even politeness. A man or boy displaying these traits can invite ridicule.
Boys are taught from a very early age to reject all things feminine, from the color pink to television shows or movies that feature girls as primary characters.
Consider that when a girl “acts like a boy,” she is often praised. Celebrity women proudly describe themselves as “tomboys” when they were young, a badge of honor.
What’s the reverse equivalent of a tomboy? The word most commonly used is “sissy,” though there are worse ones. Rather than a badge of honor, acting like a girl is a point of shame.
Boys are taught, often as toddlers, and often by both parents, not to cry. They must “man up” long before they can think of calling themselves men. Most displays of emotion, other than anger, are deemed suspect.
The result of this is men who do not know how to express themselves, who lack emotional intelligence. Many act out in ways, large and small, that are not healthy, either for themselves or for those around them. This may result in violence, but also takes the form of excessive risk-taking. More male babies than female are born each year (at least 105 boys to every 100 girls), but within a few years, risky behavior begins to take its toll, whether it be extreme sports, violence, or drag racing. There is a reason insurance companies charge young men very high rates.
Women far outlive men, but not primarily because they are healthier overall, but because they take fewer risks.
There is an area where women make healthier choices: even food has become gendered and men who choose salads risk ridicule for eating something insufficiently manly.
What’s the biggest common denominator in mass shootings? Weapon type? Mental illness? Nope. Almost all of the perpetrators are men. Women suffer mental illness at roughly the same rate as men, but almost none commit large-scale violence.
It may well be the case that men are somewhat more biologically prone to violence and aggression, but we exaggerate this with a culture that shames men for even the slightest emotional display.
Toxic masculinity affects a variety of other areas of life as well, from education–men are falling far behind women in college completion–to the workplace, where men are discouraged from certain fields and limited in their growth in others due to inappropriate learned behaviors.
My friend Mark Greene, author of Remaking Manhood, has written extensively on this subject. He compiled a 30-second video that showed the downward cycle of emotional suppression imposed on men. It begins with shame and bullying, leading to a narrowing of the range of acceptable emotional expression. This results in a variety of problems, from increased stress, substance abuse, and addiction, depression and suicide, and epidemic levels of several related diseases.
Adult men deal with very high levels of social isolation due to stunted development and a lack of meaningful friendship networks.
Luckily, there is pushback led by people like Mark, and a variety of others from varying perspectives. As he wrote in another piece, it’s not that masculinity itself is toxic, but “our narrow, conformist, violent, bullying version of it is.”
It’s time to change that.
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.