Photo taken by Ishma Khattak
Understanding toxic masculinity and the secret to overcoming it
“Boys will be boys.” A seemingly innocuous phrase, and yet time and time again it has been used to write off inappropriate and destructive behaviors by men, no matter their age. Yet in recent years, there has been a rise of criticism for this continuation of toxic masculinity, a notion that brings harm to people of all genders.
One of the first steps to combating toxic masculinity is understanding what it entails. This in itself can become convoluted and challenging, but toxic masculinity is most often defined by a suppression of emotions, stoicism and aggression.
Andrew Rutter, a senior at the University of Tennessee, agrees with this sense of traditional masculinity.
“I tend to associate masculinity with competition, self-reliance and ruggedness,” Rutter said.
While the definition of masculinity remains a loose construct, the harms of toxic masculinity are blatant. Guidelines set by the American Psychological Association (APA) paint a clear picture. Traditional masculinity is associated with hostility and violence, ultimately leading to men’s overrepresentation in prisons and greater committal of violent crimes.
Max Mucci, a freshman at the University of Tennessee, adds insight into the damage of the discouragement of men expressing emotions.
“I do think to a point you have to learn to control your emotions, as you need to in daily life, but I also think you have to control the fact that crying and expressing your emotions is a healthy and good thing. Sometimes it’s hard to judge friendships with men because no one is willing to talk about their feelings,” Mucci said.
Additionally, the perpetuation of phrases such as “man up” reinforces these harmful mindsets with each use. Being told to “man up” everytime they express a less than stoic response, or even so far as show a so-called “weak” emotion, exacerbates the idea that masculinity and emotions can not coexist.
“It equates masculinity to this idea of pushing your emotions down. Men who can’t talk to each other can't communicate, and I think this hurts people in ways that aren’t really fully researched,” Mucci said.
“Emotions drive our behavior, and bottling them up can lead to a negative feedback loop and a quick downward spiral,” Rutter said.
These harmful impacts do not stop with men. The behaviors that result from toxic masculinity spread harm to the people around men who fall into the trap of toxic masculinity. Women especially can internalize the negative gender roles perpetuated by toxic masculinity, ultimately creating feelings of insecurity and inferiority.
The commonly used phrase “like a girl” is one of many that is ripe with the ideology of traditional masculinity. When used to refer to actions seen as inferior or weak, the phrase harms both men and women. Men, who may find discomfort and fear in being seen as feminine, begin to associate negative traits with women, thus increasing their beliefs in toxic masculinity. Women may begin to feel that they themselves are menial by default.
While the term “toxic masculinity” implies responsibility onto men, its harms expand to all genders and thus becomes an all gender issue.
“We need to redefine what these gender roles are and start from scratch. More importantly, we should let people forge their own identities/roles that may exist outside of the existing social norm,” Rutter said.
“Men and women need to be comfortable tapping into what are classically considered more masculine or feminine actions. Learning to move past it as a whole is learning to be comfortable with each other as who we are,” Mucci said.
Despite being an all gender issue, the best change comes from example. Men who exhibit healthy masculinity should help others to confront these issues and find what healthy masculinity means to them. It ultimately comes down to the work of men to help their friends and family members become comfortable with their masculinity and define what it means to be masculine.