Why Cracking Down on Toxic Masculinity Is Not a ‘War on Men’
Moving away from rigid gender norms benefits everyone, but this doesn’t seem to have sunk in yet
The Australian government has recently come up with an interesting initiative.
Following the rise in popularity of misogynistic ‘influencers’ like Andrew Tate, they announced rolling out a program to address toxic masculinity, dubbed the ‘Healthy Masculinities Project.’
The initiative, supported by over $3 million in funding, is set to launch next year as a three-year trial. And it will aim to educate school-age boys — as young as five years old — on healthy masculinity and building respectful relationships while debunking harmful ideas perpetuated online.
Sounds good so far, doesn’t it?
Well, not everyone thinks so. In reaction to the announcement, some people claimed the program is only going to ‘emasculate boys even further,’ turn them into ‘softies’, and that it’s essentially an equivalent of ‘chopping off their balls.’
But this isn’t exactly an uncommon response to attempts at making sure that young boys and men don’t spiral into the alienating world of male superiority and misogyny. If you as much as mention the term ‘toxic masculinity’ online, you’ll immediately have people accusing you of waging a war against all men.
Is eradicating harmful norms really a ‘war on men,’ though?
Or do people who think it is simply don’t understand what we mean when we talk about toxic masculinity and realise how addressing it can help men and… everyone else?
The moral panic around ‘emasculated’ men is almost as old as our ideas of masculinity
The moral panic around men becoming ‘emasculated’ and the conviction that they must be pushed to be as ‘manly’ as possible is actually nothing new.
As early as 1835, an American writer and diplomat, Washington Irving, lamented the new upper class’s tendency to ‘send our youth abroad to grow luxurious and effeminate in Europe.’ As an alternative, he proposed ‘a previous tour on the prairies would be more likely to produce that manliness (…) most in unison with our political institutions.’
In the decades that followed, the worries about diminishing masculinity got even more intense, and so preserving it was a relatively frequent topic in magazines, essays, books and… sermons. But just as is the case with ‘traditional’ ideas of femininity, what we understand as ‘traditional’ masculinity hasn’t been with us for a long time.
Ancient Greeks and Romans, although they didn’t consider masculinity to be a monolith or not even something dependent on one’s sex but more of an ‘achieved state’, often idealised a very different type of manhood. A ‘real man’ was thought to have a high level of self-control and avoid anger, lust, luxury, avarice and excess of any kind.
But during the Victorian era, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, manliness became increasingly defined by hardiness, endurance, physical prowess, and subjugation of others. And it was no longer believed to be largely an ‘achieved state’ but an innate feature of the male sex.
Two big things happened in the West at the time that could explain the reasoning behind this shift. The first was Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, which gave rise to Social Darwinism and, later on, biological determinism, both of which implied human behaviour is entirely determined by our genes. And the second was Western Europe’s intensified imperialistic expansion, known as the New Imperialism period.
Now, put yourself into the shoes of an Imperialist for a second. Who would you rather have in your army: men who believe it’s in their genes to act violently, subjugate others and despise comfort, or men who avoid anger and have high levels of self-control? Unless you’re trying to overthrow the regime, I bet you’d choose the former.
It then doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that it’s precisely around the exact time the fears of men becoming ‘emasculated’ started to proliferate. Or that this new and improved ideal of masculinity was reinforced by the media, the church and leading thinkers of the time.
But this ideal never really went away.
What we understand as toxic masculinity today, sometimes referred to as the ‘Man Box’ or ‘hegemonic masculinity’ in academic writing, is not far from the late Victorian notion of manhood. It’s also defined by qualities like violence, aggression, status-seeking and emotional inexpressivity.
But if it’s indeed ‘just how men are’, why must we continuously enforce it?
Toxic masculinity isn’t synonymous with being a man
If there’s one thing I realised growing up with a sensitive, gentle and not particularly athletic brother, it’s that our society doesn’t only look down on women but also men who have qualities deemed as ‘feminine.’
In other words, men who aren’t ‘manly’ enough.
And if you happen to be one of them, you’ll be bullied, shamed and mocked for it. Because there’s something ‘wrong’ with you. Because you’re not supposed to cry ‘like a girl.’ Or run or throw like one. Because boys can’t be ‘pussies.’
But it’s not just men who reinforce those problematic ideals of masculinity, often passed down to them through their fathers, and then shame or bully men who don’t fit them. It’s women, too. My partner was told to ‘man up’ by some women he dated, which understandably made him feel like he wasn’t enough. And that there was indeed something ‘wrong’ he had to fix. (Thankfully, he didn’t.)
To a greater or lesser extent, we all internalise rigid gender norms and stereotypes and either shame others for not complying with them or, sometimes, even ourselves.
Here’s the thing, though.
Criticising those narrow and repressive norms of manhood is not criticising men. Plenty of men don’t fit in with them. (And even when they try their hardest to.) And those that do aren’t exactly born with a specific gene for toxic masculinity.
There is a broad scientific consensus that biologically essentialist or determinist perspectives that suggest bad behaviour of men is innate and inevitable — the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality — don’t hold much water. Because there’s very little difference between the brains of men and women. And no such thing as a gene for violence. Even when it comes to testosterone, often labelled the ‘aggression hormone,’ it doesn’t inevitably make men more violent.
As Cordelia Fine demonstrated in her acclaimed book Testosterone Rex, being male or female isn’t enough to make you into your society’s version of a man or a woman. Biology is hardly our destiny.
And that means the problem of behaviours associated with toxic masculinity does not primarily lie in a person’s gender or genitalia or hormones or masculinity itself. It lies in the form of harmful gendered behaviour enforced by socialisation, media, peers, and a host of other influences.
Today, even the seemingly ‘pro-men’ online spaces and gurus with cigars surgically attached to their hands push content that does the same thing. They might claim to ‘empower’ young boys and men, but only through killing parts of themselves and becoming the so-called ‘alpha male’ — a man who is tough, ruthless, emotionally inexpressive and dominant.
That ‘empowerment’ is also synonymous with treating women like men’s property, an idea that then contributes to a culture where rape and sexual assault are tacitly or explicitly permitted — even encouraged.
But worryingly, a recent survey in Australia found that a third of teenage boys look up to social media personalities like Andrew Tate, who endorse such stereotypes and beliefs. A similar study in the UK revealed that while a quarter of boys aged 15–16 have a favourable view of him, an even higher proportion of dads do.
And that’s not exactly good news. Not for the boys being targeted by misogyny masquerading as male empowerment, and certainly not for women and girls.
Everyone loses when men are conditioned to be unfeeling machines
You’d think it shouldn’t even have to be explained why convincing men there’s just one acceptable way to ‘be a man’ and pitting them against one another in the pursuit of the shiniest things and highest ‘body counts’ is damaging. And not only to those who refuse to participate in this ‘manliest man alive’ race.
But it doesn’t look like we’re there yet.
Luckily, there’s a mountain of recent research that does explain it. And it found what could be expected: narrow stereotypical norms constrain men’s physical and emotional health as well as their relationships and treatment of other people.
According to the American Psychological Association’s new Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men, drawing on more than 40 years of research, socialising boys to be dominant, competitive and emotionally restrained leads to reluctance to seek preventative health care, reluctance to seek mental health services and a higher likelihood of engaging in risky healthy behaviours like heavy drinking, use of tobacco and… avoiding vegetables.
All this then leaves men at disproportionate risk for health disparities, including cardiovascular problems and substance abuse.
But, unsurprisingly, toxic masculinity has also been linked to prejudiced behaviours against women and girls and violence — including domestic abuse, gender-based sexual violence, gun violence, homophobia, and violence against other men.
On the other hand, men who stray away from these toxic norms and are more egalitarian in their relationships report improved mental well-being. Actually, for both men and women, egalitarian gender attitudes are associated with better mental health.
How do we get to a world where these attitudes aren’t all that rare, though? How do we fix the damage done by toxic masculine ideals for at least a couple of centuries now?
I’ve recently written about the ‘Nordic Paradox’ and how even seemingly gender-equal countries struggle with inequality because policy change without a simultaneous shift in cultural beliefs is not enough. But programs like the one recently announced by the Australian government might just be the thing that helps with that.
Some people have also insisted that to turn things around, we must build a new script for men on how to ‘be a man.’
I’m pretty sceptical about that, though.
We put pressure on men to ‘be men’ for such a long time it feels counter-productive to once again come up with a script that will inevitably force them to squeeze themselves into a box. Just a different one.
Can’t we all learn how to be better humans instead?
This has never been, and still isn’t, a war on men. It’s a war on harmful norms that weaken, warp, and even destroy men.
And while the fault lies primarily in our environment, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we, as individuals, can do about it. In particular, other men who don’t want to see yet another generation of boys grow up hiding or killing parts of themselves out of fear of failing at ‘being a man.’
You can always speak up. And push back against the harmful, and frankly quite insulting, idea that ‘boys will be boys’ and there’s nothing to be done about it.
Because there certainly is.
Thanks to Ruben for bringing the news about the Australian program to my attention :)