TW: Discussion of mental health, suicide, and sexual abuse
Toxic masculinity is a contentious topic, in no small part because it is often a poorly defined term. For the purpose of this writing I will use the popular definition of toxic masculinity as rigid adherence to socially defined masculine traits, resulting in damage to individuals or society as a whole.
Hands up who has received the following messages before. Men are strong. Men are rational. Men are independent. Men take charge. Men don’t cry. Men like sports. Men fuck. Man up.
These messages, and others like them, are endemic in society. They are found explicitly and implicitly in the media, in how we interact with strangers, and how people raise their children.
Toxic masculinity is also commonly associated with homophobia, misogyny, and violence. This can be seen as a rejection of people who fall outside of this narrow definition of masculinity.
And here’s the thing, you don’t need to be an incel to be affected by elements of toxic masculinity. While it is comforting to think of toxic masculinity as something which only affects a few extremists, things are rarely so clear cut.
How many men don’t feel they can talk out about mental health problems, because it would be admitting weakness? How many men learned to express emotions as anger, because that was more acceptable than crying? How many men have felt forced to pretend to be something they aren’t to be a “real man”?
There’s a reason men are less likely to seek medical treatment when they’re ill. There’s a reason popular culture still glamorises violence. There’s a reason that suicide disproportionately affects men.
Toxic masculinity is also based in the idea that “real men” are superior. This affects how men relate to the world, and feeds into the problem of sexism. I won’t dive too deeply into this topic here. I can recommend Rebecca Solnit’s essays “Men Explain Things to Me” and “The Longest War” for a concise, compelling argument that women are systematically excluded from/minimised in public discourse; and that domestic abuse, sexual assault and murder are the extreme end of a far more pervasive ideology grounded in denying women their rights.
Toxic masculinity is a massive issue, it effects all of us. While progress has been made, everyone needs to recognise there is still something deeply wrong with the existing model of masculinity.
Sources and further reading:
- Men and suicide
- Men and healthcare
- Men Explain Things to Me
- The Longest War
- If you have time I would also recommend How Not to be a Boy but Robert Webb, it has some interesting reflections on gender, mental health and is generally really good.
- There are alternate definitions of masculinity and not everyone perpetuates these ideas. However I believe that the core traits mentioned above are widespread enough that they shape everyone’s perception of masculinity.
- I am not arguing that all masculinity is toxic. Strength and independence tempered with compassion and empathy can be positive, constructive traits. Toxic masculinity is the negative side of the more restrictive ideas around masculinity.
- My writing and experience are primarily focussed on mainstream UK/US models of masculinity.
I welcome discussion and sharing of alternatives views in the comments, but please keep it respectful.