By now, we’ve all heard the phrase “toxic masculinity.” The term is often misunderstood to mean that all masculinity is inherently toxic. It has become a symbol of the gap between conservatives and feminists. For example, one Gillette ad in 2019 encouraged men to be the best version of themselves by addressing typical male toxicity like catcalling and mansplaining. Although it was met with both acclaim and criticism, it ultimately cost the brand more customers than it won.
Toxic masculinity does not refer to individual men. It is defined as ‘the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination (physically, sexually, and intellectually), the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.’ Toxic masculinity causes men’s constant need to feel intimidating and in control, so as to prove their manliness. Men need to be perceived as dominant, strong, and intellectually competitive or risk being referred to as a ‘pussy’, a ‘girl,’ or ‘gay.’ Traits such as toughness, stoicism, heterosexuality, and self-sufficiency are valued above emotional sensitivity or connectedness. In the society we live in, being perceived as feminine is a form of degradation for a man, which leads many of them to overcompensate with their traditionally masculine traits.
Aggression is another side effect of toxic masculinity. Men who feel that their manhood is being threatened commonly fall back on aggression, as it immediately asserts dominance and status – which are, in turn, linked to our society’s perception of masculinity. Therefore, toxic masculinity is the cause of many abusive situations. In these situations, violence is the usually male perpetrator’s reaction to a perceived affront to his superiority. This is exemplified by the fact that men in heterosexual partnerships with lower incomes than their wives are more likely to resort to domestic abuse and cheating.
The external consequences of toxic masculinity (such as abuse, harassment, and extreme violence) mainly harm women and the LGBTQ+ community. However, internally, men themselves also experience the negative sides of the harmful construct on a daily basis.
As boys mature to men, their lives become increasingly influenced by this mindset. The shift into a gendered concept of what a cis man should be like is most visible when boys enter puberty. They learn that showing emotion is a sign of weakness and turn away from self-expression. Their friendships stop centering around honesty and play, molding instead to silence and emotional suppression. Studies show that male friendships involve a considerable less amount of time talking than female friendships do, which leaves less room for the discussion of personal experiences and sentiments. This leaves many men feeling emotionally isolated.
The loneliness that stems from this isolation is directly linked to more serious physical and mental health problems for men than for women. Men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women and face considerably higher rates of a drug overdose. They are also 50% more likely to die of heart disease and 80% more likely to die of cancer. These physical issues are often linked to depression and stress.
Men are also particularly drawn to professional leadership positions, as these are, in some ways, seen as the epitome of manhood. While career aspirations are nothing problematic within themselves, the pressure to achieve this, and the reasons for striving to might be. Decoupling breadwinning from masculinity could offer a solution to address individual male desires and dreams.
Simply put, the problem with toxic masculinity is that society has taken basic human emotions and gendered them. This process is not based on biology: hormone levels do not correspond with male or female traits as we have defined them.
Men teach boys how to be men, just as they were taught by the generation before them. Male society is stuck in a vicious cycle. But, with the acceptance of every individual’s both feminine and masculine traits, we can break this cycle. Relationships between men need to be nurtured more actively, giving each person the emotional space and safety. Though ever-present, toxic masculinity is helping no one. Together, we have the power to shift our perception of what being a man really looks like to create a safer space for us all.