Nuance Is Often Lost In The Discussion Of Toxic Masculinity

Nuance Is Often Lost In The Discussion Of Toxic Masculinity January 15, 2019
Image via YouTube screengrab

The American Psychological Association recently argued that traditional masculinity is linked to negative health outcomes. 

This shouldn’t be that controversial. If a certain gender, men in this case, are more likely to hold some unhealthy beliefs, then I think it is totally fair to discuss as a concern. There are some pretty clear links between ideas many men hold (called traditional masculinity here) and unhealthy behavior. A very clear one is that men do not go to the doctor as often as women do. This is a very quantifiable behavior and it could be linked to masculine ideas of “being tough.”

I think it’s totally fair to investigate how ideas around wanting to “be tough” could link to negative health outcomes. This is a pretty straightforward link between a belief and behavior. However, studying masculinity can be very complicated quickly.

If you read through the APA’s guidelines on masculinity, you will see how they try to narrow masculinity into a subset of “traditional masculinity” that is defined as: “a particular constellation  of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the
appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.”

This is a good start, but unfortunately it’s still rather broad. It’s a big issue! When masculinity is discussed in the popular media, it often has an even broader and more nebulous definition. I think that leads to a lot of problems and a lot of people talking past each other.

Gillette recently came out with a commercial that tried to tackle the issues with traditional masculinity.  Basically, this commercial shows how the sentiments “boys will be boys” are unhealthy when they are used to dismiss bad behavior from boys. And also that more men need to intervene when they see men behaving inappropriately.

For me, I thought this was a pretty innocuous commercial. It showed how men receive negative cultural messages and that we can all do better. Yet, you can go to just about any comment section where this video is discussed and you’ll see plenty of men venting how offended they were by it.

These men seem to be interpreting a mere suggestion that men can act better as a personal attack on men. But I think that is a very reactionary and emotional response. Ironically, the angry comments from men reflect a lack of emotional control, something the APA mentions can happen from the negative aspects of adherence to traditional masculinity.

Most men do not commit sexual assault or harassment. However, there are plenty of instances where otherwise good and decent men do not intervene as much as they could. That is one of the main messages of the commercial and I think it’s totally reasonable. And studies do show that bystander intervention programs do help reduce the amount of sexual violence in schools. 

Men in our society get a lot of garbage messages regarding how to treat women and how to handle their emotions. Some men rise above this and some do not. The good men out there should feel motivated to talk to other men about the unhealthy ideas others may have internalized about women and emotions (again these unhealthy ideas could be defined as the “traditional” or “toxic” masculinity).

If you’re a man, you can speak to other men as peers. And if you see a man disrespecting a woman, you can call him out on it. The idea is to create a stronger social norm that feeling entitled to women’s bodies and attention is not okay. Again, research shows that most men are good men and don’t harass women. But too many times we don’t intervene when we could.

We also can make it more of a social norm to express vulnerability. For example, it’s okay to get medical check ups. It’s okay to see a counselor. It’s okay to vent to a friend about stuff. The idea of “being tough” can be helpful during a war, but it’s not often helpful in interpersonal relationships or daily life.

So when I see these discussions of masculinity, I often feel frustrated. There are valid points to be made about the unhealthy beliefs many men internalize. While the Gillette commercial tried to tackle this, I don’t think it had enough time to address the nuance of the issue. So in such a short video, some men may interpret it as a personal attack. And that’s a bummer because I think there is a good message in there if they are willing to reflect on how broader cultural beliefs internalized by some men can be unhealthy. And also how we can make an effort to change this.

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