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What is toxic masculinity?

What is masculinity? Masculinity is a constellation of human behaviors, qualities, roles and characteristics that have been socially deemed to constitute manliness. Psychological and biological research has shown that — contrary to common belief — masculinity is not biologically determined; men are not “hard-wired” to be masculine. Although we typically associate masculinity with men, anybody — regardless gender — can have masculine traits. Research has shown how masculinity is taught: boys and men are socialized to adopt behaviors and roles reflecting stereotypes of what it means to be a “real” or “normal” man. “Boys don’t cry” exemplifies how adults teach boys to be masculine by reprimanding them for expressing vulnerable feelings. Masculine identities are nurtured rather than innate.

Prevailing or dominant cultural conceptions of masculinity in the US and Western countries include personal qualities and behaviors such as being disciplined, physically strong, muscular, physically active, rational and in control. Conventions of masculinity even extend to which emotions are expected and allowed: stoicism and toughness are expected and sadness is not allowed. Masculinity is also defined by stereotypes of male sexuality: men should be heterosexual, constantly interested in sex, and sexually aggressive. However, masculine traits are not necessarily negative. Masculinity is also associated with being responsible, independent, self-sufficient, and showing leadership. Personal qualities translate into masculine ways of interacting with others, which can be negative (i.e., being controlling), or positive, like taking care of family and loved ones.

It is impossible to talk about conceptions of masculinity without reference to conceptions of femininity. Masculinity is defined by its difference and opposition to femininity; feminine stereotypes such as being kind, gentle, sexually passive and emotional, are denigrated. These rigid categories create a gender binary: masculine/male vs. feminine/female. Since all binaries make hierarchies, this firm line is necessary to uphold patriarchal power: masculinity is positioned as superior and femininity as subordinate. It is no coincidence, for instance, that professions considered more “feminine,” such as teaching or nursing, pay less and earn less respect than other careers.

Are men born masculine and women born feminine? Thirty years of research has shown that this assumption is false. Masculinity is not a product of the hormone testosterone (which both men and women have); it is created by beliefs about men and manhood. Masculinity actually requires the work of constantly proving one’s masculinity, which shows its fragility: showing any hint of femininity, such as dressing in a way considered feminine, or being sexually interested in other men, places a boy’s or man’s masculine status in jeopardy. Acts or behaviors that violate the rules of gender may result in punishment through bullying, discrimination or even physical violence.

However, what constitutes masculinity is different depending on time, place and community; variations in masculinity and femininity across cultures and social settings provides further evidence that they are not hard-wired traits. For instance, among White working class women and girls, being tough and standing up for the family are valued traits despite being qualities typically considered masculine by dominant conceptions of gender. Such a difference can be valued within a community and derided or even punished by institutions such as school, where expectations of middle class definitions of femininity and masculinity are expected and enforced. As another example, while in the US and Western cultures it is considered normal for girls and women to hold hands with friends, this would be seen as unusual for (older) boys and men, who have been taught to police their own behavior to avoid being read as gay. However, in other countries and cultures, male friends holding hands or greeting each other with a kiss on the cheek is considered normal.

Is masculinity just a set of behaviors? Masculinity is more than individual traits, behaviors and social roles; it is connected to and fundamental for how patriarchal societies are organized and maintained as a system of power. Traditionally, this has meant that men hold more (social and political) power, which produces and upholds inequalities. Understanding the connection between masculinity and power helps explain how race, class, and sexual orientation intersect with gender at both individual and systemic levels. For instance, the US and other Western societies have traditionally accorded the most power to wealthy, heterosexual, white, cisgender men, while white women and women and men of color have been marginalized. Masculine conventions maintain and perpetuate systemic inequality. In this system, these individual men are rewarded for being masculine, but the rules and rewards of masculinity vary based on whom is enacting such behavior. For example, when masculinity is enacted by men who are Black, working class, and/or disabled, these qualities are either denied or exaggerated. For instance, when Black men or White working class men express anger or outrage, they are stereotyped as threatening and out of control, or dangerously hyper-masculine. When wealthy, White men express anger, they are often assumed to be or justified as powerful leaders.

Why is masculinity often called toxic now? The word “toxic” means poisonous. Adding the word “toxic” to masculinity makes it seem that masculinity in and of itself is inevitably violent, controlling and sexually demanding. On the one hand, when taken to extremes, many beliefs, roles and behaviors that have been deemed masculine can be expressed or understood in toxic ways. Masculinity norms make it hard to have empathy–to have a sense of others’ feelings and to feel or express one’s own feelings. For instance, psychological research has shown that being highly invested in masculinity is linked to endorsing rape myths and violence among boys and men. Other research has also shown that boys and men feel a lot of pressure to achieve an impossible ideal of masculinity, which is connected to lower self-esteem and depression.

The rise of the term “toxic masculinity” reflects an increasing recognition that aspects or manifestations of masculinity can be harmful for society and also for boys and men. In fact, psychological research has shown that rigid and complementary ideas about gender–both masculinity and femininity–are harmful for everyone. Encouraging men to only be masculine, and women to only be feminine prevents everyone from living up to their full humanity, which includes characteristics associated with both femininity and masculinity. The challenge is to recognize that it is meanings of masculinity that are toxic. The good news about masculinity and femininity is that they are changeable. History, cultural variations and the current recognition of the downsides show us that it is possible to reimagine masculinity in ways that many men and people are already taking up, such as standing up to violence and being empathic and responsive to others. Detoxifying masculinity is good for everyone.

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