LETTER TO THE EDITOR: If there can be toxic people, there can be toxic masculinity
As social media continues to increase our exposure to the world that we operate within, we as a united humanity have the unique opportunity to work toward a community that is more inclusive, diverse and empathetic.
In my experience, the most effective way to initiate this transformation is addressing and pruning away toxic traits. While masculinity in itself is not a toxic trait by any means, there are ways that men can twist masculinity—just as women can twist feminism—into a very harmful weapon.
I understand that not everybody has seen the recent Gillette ad, so here is the Cliff’s Notes version for readers who may have missed it:
The shot opens with a man staring in the mirror, clearly experiencing some kind of emotional trauma. As similar shots of boys of all ages flit across the screen, a voiceover addresses the consequences of toxic masculinity—the dangers of the “boys will be boys,” of the “what I think she’s saying is...” However, the video ends on a hopeful note; the “boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.” And in the short, these men of tomorrow treat women and men with respect.
The ad does not insinuate that all men are toxic. Rather, it shows some of the (admittedly many) consequences of a world where toxic masculinity goes unchecked—a world that, unfortunately, is still a reality in a lot of America. While being a man is not evil, traditional masculinity could be considered evil if it actively harms others. According to the Oxford Dictionary, masculinity is “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men.” There are plenty of characteristics of men that would not be considered toxic. My partner, for example is kind. He is empathetic and understanding. Because these are characteristics of him—a man— they are a part of his personal masculinity. Toxicity is not an inherent condition of masculinity, just as toxicity is not an inherent condition of humanity. However, there are specific behaviors that men can exhibit that could—and should—be considered toxic.
The American Psychological Association’s “Guidelines for Practice with Men and Boys” expresses that “stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression” could be considered harmful traits of conventional masculinity. Though the article also acknowledges that these traits “can be absolutely crucial,” Pappas (2019) gives specific examples of how these traits are toxic.
This culture of stoicism is dangerous for men because it encourages men to suppress their emotional responses to stimuli instead of addressing them. According to a study conducted by Parent, Gobble, and Rochlen (2018), “social media/social network use and toxic masculinity are associated with depression” in men. If we continue to perpetuate this culture of stoicism, many men run the risk of becoming emotionally stunted, depressed, or, in extreme cases, suicidal. Pappas (2019) details that men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women are, attributing this problem to “many men with traditional notions of masculinity were more negative about seeking mental health services than those with more flexible gender attitudes.” This stoicism is toxic because it creates a stigma that discourages men from seeking help when they need it. Men do not deserve to suffer through their emotions because they live in a society that tells them they aren’t allowed to feel. Moreover, it is incredibly sexist to suggest that women would suffer if men expressed their emotions because they would lose the “strength” of the relationship—though this seems obvious enough that I should not need to unpack it.
Likewise, competitiveness is not inherently toxic; however, it could be considered toxic when it pits men against themselves and against others. In a study on workplace masculinity, Berdahl, Cooper, Glick, Livingston, and Williams (2018) suggest that “men feel particular pressure to prove themselves as ‘men’” in the workplace. This competition can lead to “toxic leadership, lack of psychological safety in work groups, reduced employee well‐being, lack of work–life balance, sexual harassment, and bullying” (Berdahl et al., 2018). These characteristics are not conducive to a healthy work environment. If society continues to encourage men to outcompete each other in counter-productive ways, we tell them that it is okay to put personal gain over the well-being of the group. Furthermore, letting this competition run rampant could harm relationships in and out of the workplace.
I feel that the consequences of dominance and aggression somewhat go without saying, but let’s unpack this for a second here. It’s something we’ve all heard: ladies, don’t get too drunk at parties. Ladies, carry your keys in your hand when you walk to the car in case you are attacked. Ladies, don’t wear clothing that may attract attention on the streets. Ladies, if he hits you, if he’s mean to you, then he likes you.
Why aren’t we encouraging men to stop aggressive behavior toward women? This is the culture that toxic masculinity forgives. Per Messerschmidt (2000), past research in sexual assault has often ignored “the relationship between masculinity and sexual violence.” This culture of aggression in men, when gone unchecked, can breed a culture that says that this is acceptable behavior. And when men are sexually assaulted? We tell them to man up, to forget about it.
Beyond this, toxic masculinity is not a “made-up” term. Speaking purely in semantics, toxic is an adjective that can modify just about any noun. Not all plants are toxic plants, but that doesn’t mean that we think that toxic plants are safe to consume at leisure because adding the qualifier of toxic does not change its meaning and is “made up.” Likewise, not all masculinity is toxic masculinity, but insinuating that toxic masculinity does not exist is a huge logical fallacy. It denies recent wealth of research that shows that—surprise, surprise—conforming to traditional masculinity can have serious negative consequences for young men.
As a woman, I may not have the most authority on the actions of men. However, I’ve experienced my fair share of sexism and the toxic masculinity. I’ve been “mansplained” to, I’ve been told it is my job to help “fix” the emotional baggage of the men in my life, I’ve been sexually harassed by men I hardly even know. The problem here is not masculinity; the problem is people who refuse to acknowledge that the problem exists and continue to support an ideology that, at its very core, is harmful to people of all gender identities, not just women. Additionally, these ideations of masculinity are incredibly exclusive, often rejecting the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.
Masculinity in itself is not a bad thing. Masculinity isn’t toxic unless it’s harming others, after all.
- Meghan Dyer, Lake Orion junior