The past weeks have been significant regarding men and their masculinities. Firstly, the American Psychological Association (APA) made headlines as, for the first time ever, they released recommended guidelines for working with boys and men. A few days later, Gillette released a shaving advert that had little to do with shaving but instead challenged men to do and be better. Both of these initiatives were guided by the belief that there is a prominent and harmful version of masculinity. This is what the APA calls “traditional masculine ideology,” taught to boys and men that hurts them and those around them. Supporters of these initiatives heralded them as representing a much needed and long overdue cultural shift in how we conceptualise and talk about masculinity. Opposition generally saw this as an unfair and one-sided assault on men, or as identity politics being used by the left to ideologically brainwash everyone else.
You may be wondering what authority I have to write on the subject. More than most, but much less than others. I have worked as a high school teacher with boys with behavioural disorders (among other things), and I am currently a PhD student researching emotional issues relating to adolescent boys at school.
Both sides of the debate want to help boys and men. Social media posts from some individuals on the internet aside, academic discussions of men and masculinities come from a desire to help support boys and men. Whether they are pro-feminist researchers like Michael Kimmel or more in line with the thinking of Jordan Peterson, they can agree that boys and men are struggling. Gender disparities regarding mortality, diseases, and suicide rates for males are especially alarming for all. Certainly, there is disagreement as to what is best for boys and men, but they share a mutual concern for them.
At some level, this should unite us. But there are significantly more downvotes on the Gillette commercial on YouTube than upvotes, and this should make us pause. There is clearly a disconnect between the two sides of the debate and this could be preventing help from reaching those who might need it most.
There are three things that I think some of the supporters of these movements can understand better and learn from the backlash. Firstly, it is worth noting that critiquing one’s masculinity can come at a great cost. Traits of hyper-masculinity are often so embedded in a male’s identity that asking him to deconstruct notions of what “being a man” is, can lead to great inner turmoil and an identity crisis. Ask someone who deconstructed concepts from their religious identity whether they had a lot of doubt, uncertainty, feelings of loss, purposelessness and desire for meaning? The likely answer is yes because change is difficult. The same is true for hyper-masculinity. For example, a boy who challenges his peers’ sexist changing room talk or behaviour could be more susceptible to bullying or isolation himself. Or a male, who presents himself as being vulnerable to his friends, may experience shame. Obviously, these things need to change, which is part of the impetus behind the APA’s guidelines and the Gillette commercial, but let’s not ignore the initial cost that the changes being asked of boys and men might create.
Additionally, it is important to recognise how big of a paradigm shift it is to not view one’s masculinity as inexorably linked to one’s sex. Those of you who believe gender is at least partially socially constructed likely did not grow up believing that, and most of the world still doesn’t. There’s a potential danger when we forget how gradual our own process was to change a previously held belief while expecting others to change immediately. Change is not always a slow process, but often it can be.
Moreover, females are also involved in perpetuating toxic masculinity. The onus falls on men, but females also promote harmful and contradictory expectations for men and their masculinity. This could range from laughing at men when they are emotional to putting men on a pedestal who epitomise the desire for dominance or objectification of women. Let’s also not forget, that in war especially, societies have often benefited greatly from and even celebrated the emotional stoicism of men. More acknowledgement of these mixed messages may be helpful.
Here are three things I think some of the opponents of these movements could understand better and learn from the APA and Gillette. Firstly, critiquing masculinity is necessary. I started researching this subject quite unintentionally. I was researching students with behavioural needs and discovered that 81 per cent of them are male. This led me to explore masculinity and to 40 years of research which show that men are more likely to believe and rigidly adhere to norms of masculinity, particularly emotional stoicism, autonomy, and dominance, and are much more likely to suffer negative psychological and physical problems. They are also more likely to hurt other people. Let’s be clear: these traits aren’t healthy for anyone to adhere to in excess, but males are significantly more likely to be expected or pressured into being that way.
It should also be understood that critiquing masculinity is not critiquing men. Regardless of what you see someone post on Twitter or Instagram, the research behind the APA guidelines is clear in saying that there is a harmful form of masculinity, not that men are inherently bad. If it feels like it’s a personal attack, then perhaps it has been presented that way by a polarised source, or you have certain traits of masculinity deeply ingrained in your identity. The hard work for men can be staring at themselves in the mirror, and figuring out who they would be if they didn’t always have to be emotionally stoic, autonomous, or dominant. Chances are they already have lots of amazing qualities, but what may have been beyond criticism in the past but is no longer good for you or others.
Finally, it should be made clear what belief in a ‘toxic-form’ masculinity doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying things which are stereotypically characterised as being masculine unless they promote harmful messages. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean you have to call yourself a feminist or like the Gillette advert. Rather, it indicates that you believe the research that things like emotional stoicism, autonomy, and dominance can be harmful when rigidly embodied and you will do your best to not promote them for yourself or for others.
The controversial nature of this topic is neither surprising nor avoidable but adding to the polarity of it is. My hope is that this article contains even one point of reflection that contributes to its depolarisation.
Image U.S. Army photo via army.mil