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The Dangers of Toxic Masculinity Go Further than Hurt Feelings

Written by Paula Simoes de Santos

[TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual Assault, Rape]

Masculinity is not just about men and their position in society; it’s about gender roles, cultural norms, stereotypes, power relations, and freedom of choice.

After decades of research on gender, we now understand that masculinities are socially constructed gender norms, embedded in societies and defined by class, economic status, race, and religion. Social masculinity is not solely genetic or naturally developed, rather it is taught and learned at schools, through media and family homes. Children are very observant and pick up information and clues about gender roles from all sources, from gender-based toys, clothing and cartoons to family interactions at home. Often, adults are unknowingly making gender-based comments, imposing damaging dress codes, enrolling children on so-called appropriate after school activities (rugby and soccer for boys, ballet and arts & cookery for girls, with no room for transfer) even though research and common sense says otherwise, and encouraging certain mannerisms from boys and girls that define their lady-likeness or their manliness.

Children are also quick to assimilate predefined gender roles in the household and reinforce displays of disrespect towards women via traditional gender norms that are visible to them. Considering this, the heteronormative family portrait of working dads and stay at home mums is more likely to be replicated in the future.

The issues of reinforced masculinities, however, goes beyond dress code and sports choice. Male adults are feeling the pressure to attain financial independence, social status, authority, leadership skills and control over all aspects of their life, especially finances. According to Raewyn Connell, social definitions of masculinity may also include being physically strong, tough, competitive, in control of the work and the household breadwinner. Not surprisingly, the most common social requirement for achieving manhood is the ability to provide for the family. The man as the household ‘breadwinner’ represents the essence of a socially valued masculinity. This stereotype dates back to the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution increased dependence on male wages, made use of an existing gender hierarchy in the workplace and prompted philosophers and economists to express their concerns about the preservation of the family structure – notably Friedrich Engels wrote that the ‘neglect of all domestic duties, neglect of the children, especially, is only too common among the English working-people, and only too vigorously fostered by the existing institutions of society.’

Outside of the classroom and family homes, the media, advertising, and film industry are still reinforcing the image of a ‘successful and powerful’ man, often portrayed as businessman wearing Italian suits, driving a sports car and delegating the work to female colleagues. This stereotype is evidenced in films such as the Wolf of Wall Street, the Judge, the Big Short, American Hustle and TV series such as Mad Men. Meanwhile, stay at home dads and boys that choose traditional female occupations are largely ignored by policy makers, discouraged by their unconventional choice, and stigmatized. Notably, this focus on performing a socially acceptable form of masculinity could have dangerous consequences. For example, feeding into these kinds of masculinity ideals may lead to a rise in anxiety, frustration and depression amongst men and boys, and subsequently turn into violence as a way for some to reassert their masculinity. Often, these frustrations are targeted at women and children as an attempt to intimidate and reestablish men’s social power. Violence becomes an ephemeral solution to regain this idealized form of manhood.

This notion is illuminated when looking at the rate by which women experience emotional and physical abuse. In Australia for example, 1 in 6 women have experienced physical or sexual violence and 1 in 4 have experienced emotional abuse from a current or former partner.

There is no doubt that toxic masculinity affects the lives of many men who are desperately trying to fit into socially defined gender roles. This in turn, has a negative effect on all genders. Men are feeling the pressure to conform to the breadwinner status quo, and maintain their authority in the household. Furthermore, globalization and economic changes have led to a shift in household dynamics, which has forced some men to reexamine their positionality. Although necessary, this transitional period has threatened the traditional concept of masculinity and contributed to anxieties, depression, unhealthy lifestyle and a loss of identity for some.

The great paradox of masculinities is that cis men are affected by gender norms, while at the same time holding privileged positions in society. The point that Michael Kimmel, one of the world’s leading experts in men and masculinities, has argued is that these privileges are associated with certain behavioural pressures, which can affect men’s general well-being. He suggests that socializing men in a way that promotes gender equality could reduce the negative effects associated with these pressures.

Kimmel also points to the fact that the definitions of masculinity evolve over time and are likely to change with new public policies and social structures. According to him, “definitions of masculinity are historically reactive to changing definitions of femininity.” Women redefining their role and position in the household and workspace will prompt a behavioural change from men – hopefully for the better.

In order to accelerate those changes, it is imperative that gender roles and sexuality are discussed at schools, with kids as young as nine years old. Schools need to create a space for healthy discussion and self-reflection around issues such as gender stereotypes, cultural norms, and violence against women. It is in the safety of classrooms and schoolyard that performances, role-plays, debates and critical thinking can be applied to defy the current model of masculinity.

Luckily for girls and boys, gender norms are fluid and adaptable, and with time men must come to see that gender equality is in their best interest and benefit.


[Feature image via Linda Magdalena Jonsson]

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