By Darius Thornton
The concept of toxic masculinity is one that has often been steeped in controversy. Some believe that it is overblown, while others believe that it is one of the chief problems that society faces. On both sides of the debate, it is most often discussed in its effects on women, and rightfully so. Toxic masculinity can lead to terrible things, such as misogynistic behavior, or even sexual assault and domestic violence, all of which disproportionally affect women. However, it is important to consider the aspects of toxic masculinity that negatively impact males as well. These effects often go unnoticed or are overlooked because of their complexity, and the fact that they are often somewhat difficult to observe–especially in comparison to the horrible consequences on women. But, as a male myself, I am here to say that toxic masculinity is damaging to our society as a whole.
First, we must address the difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity. Merriam Webster defines masculinity as “the quality or nature of the male sex”. In simple terms, it is a set of traditional ideals or attributes that have been historically attributed to men. Things like toughness, strength, leadership, bravery, confidence, competitiveness and many more. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with masculinity, as it is simply a way of presenting oneself. It becomes problematic when these traits are specifically attributed to men though. There are some aspects of masculinity that are objectively good things to strive towards and others that are really harmless on their own. Toxic masculinity is what happens when these attributes become rigid absolutes and are taken to the extreme. For example, the idea of toughness becomes a refusal to show any sort of “weakness”, and strength–both of the physical and emotional variety–becomes an incredibly important expectation. Competitiveness becomes hyper-competitiveness and begins to consume almost every aspect of everyday life and social interaction. Confidence begins to lend itself to a sense of arrogance and the denial and burying of any insecurities. Leadership becomes a constant need for control or dominance in any situation. All of these things are obviously negative personality traits, and they all stem from aspects of masculinity becoming extremes.
Growing up as a male, you may have heard the phrase “boys don’t cry.” If you did, you probably didn’t think much of it. To many, it may seem like nothing more than a tired old cliche, repeated by parents (typically fathers) in an attempt to get their sons to toughen up after they scraped their knee or got a bad grade on a test or something. But if one were to take that concept, stretch it a bit and apply it to several aspects of everyday life, you arrive at a very unhealthy mindset. In society, men are often expected to be pillars of strength, though not only physically, but emotionally as well. Women are often (wrongly) stereotyped as being hyper-emotional, and thus, men are often thought of as having to be stoic-like and not showing any other emotion other than righteous rage. Crying is a natural reaction to pain or intense emotions, and is even a healthy way of dealing with them a lot of the time. Many consider it to be a sign of weakness, because it means that one is acknowledging those emotions and “letting them win”, not to mention allowing others to see the degree to which those emotions affect you. Even if you feel sad, you can’t let others know you feel sad. That means you lost, that means you’re weak. Crying is also just one of the many ways in which we express our emotions. This is indicative of a larger problem that toxic masculinity has created, which is the denial and repression of emotions. Never allowing yourself to express your emotions means that you aren’t acknowledging them. This stigma that men should be emotionless creates the idea that they are weak for feeling them, or at least letting others know that they are. This leads to bottling up emotions, which is not a healthy way of dealing with them, as this can lead to a multitude of more problems.
The reluctance to open up is another very common struggle for a lot of the male population. It is hard to grapple with the fact that it isn’t wrong to let your guard down and be vulnerable when the society around you expects otherwise. Personally, even as someone who was raised in a household that didn’t reinforce anything close to the absolutes of toxic masculinity, I can still find it somewhat difficult to be honest with others about my feelings. I still hear that nagging voice in the back of my head telling me “Just deal with it yourself”, “You’re weak for feeling like this and you can’t let anyone see.” These are notions that no one has necessarily directly told me, yet it still feels like society as a whole still expects me to uphold them. This mindset leads to men who buy into it being reluctant to, or outright refusing to, talk to anyone about their feelings, including members of their support system such as friends and family or even licensed professionals. There’s this belief that you have to “dig yourself out of your own hole”, so to speak. These emotions are instead bottled up and suppressed, which is something that is horrible for one’s mental health. According to community non-profit organization Mental Health America, more than six million men across the country experienced symptoms of some form of depression every year as of 2018. Yet in a study released the same year by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), it was found that men are less likely to seek treatment than women, yet are more likely to commit suicide as a result. Since those emotions remain internalized and are not being properly addressed and worked through, things could get to the point where a male feels completely hopeless and decides to take his life. Statistics compiled by the CDC in 2020 revealed that the male suicide rate is between 3 and 3.5% higher than that of females. Sometimes, emotional repression can lead to explosive outburst of anger that manifests in the form of domestic abuse against their partners. It can also contribute to alcohol and drug abuse in an attempt to dull or numb the emotional pain one is feeling, as men are more likely on average to abuse both more than women. Refusing help when you need it is very dangerous and harmful and can even have tragic consequences
Not allowing yourself to feel or acknowledge emotions also directly leads to stunted emotional maturity. This means that one may not know how to work through certain emotions because they have spent so much time hiding them or attempting to stop themselves from feeling them. For men, this may manifest itself in being unable to cope with feelings of intense sadness or depression, since toxic masculinity makes it almost taboo to do so which can lead to mental health problems once the inevitable threshold or “breaking point” is reached. It can also lead to difficulty forming strong relationships and intimate bonds with other people, which only serves to further isolate them. It may be hard for them to relate to or empathize the feelings and emotions of others (as they can not properly understand the complexities of their own) and they may appear cold and distant, or otherwise emotionally unavailable.
Here’s another one for you–insecurity. The feeling of insecurity is perhaps the emotion that toxic masculinity accepts the least. Feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy are a direct contradiction to that idea of what a man is–always strong, confident and sure of himself and what he brings to the table. Needless to say, it is often stereotyped by the adherents of toxic masculinity as a “female” emotion. It doesn’t factor in that questioning self-worth is a normal emotional response across the human race, especially as people try to come into who they want to be. This lends itself to a paradox of sorts, that goes like this: you feel unsure or less than confident about some aspect of yourself, you see and hear the pressures of society telling you that you shouldn’t feel this way, that it’s somehow not valid that you do, so you end up having to question your masculinity. If being a man means that you’re strong and confident, what does that make you? It makes you less than that. It makes you weak, and you don’t want to be weak, do you? In other words, someone can end up feeling insecure about feeling insecure, and end up trying to hide or bury that instead of taking the necessary steps to improve their self-esteem. This is not a solution to the problem, but rather a temporary remedy.
Continuing down that line of thought, “fake it till you make it” is probably a saying you’ve heard before that is posed as a solution to issues of low self-confidence. Essentially, it implies that you should fake being confident to others because, eventually, you will attain true self-confidence. In terms of toxic masculinity, this is taken to another level. Since they don’t want it to be noticed by others out of fear of being mocked and ridiculed, men who are feeling insecure will adopt a persona that is confident in order to present themselves that way to others, especially their peers. The issue here is that men who do this will often overcompensate to mask the depth of their insecurity. They go too far in wanting to prove or present that they are confident and end up becoming arrogant and even aggressive. They may boast about material things they have, be they clothes or things such as cars, brag about relationships with women as if they were nothing more than accomplishments or trophies. This is what is seen as the stereotypical “alpha male” mentality, who are also known as “real men”. They are dominant and get what they want through intimidating and dominating others through their physical strength and sense of bravado, in comparison to the more timid and shy “nice guys” or “beta males.” Aside from these stereotypes being overly simplistic, the former can also lend itself to very toxic and problematic behavior. In order to conform to that idea of what a man is, a person may feel pressured to be aggressive and pick fights in order to posture themself as some manly “badass”. Or maybe they begin to behave in a misogynistic way around women, making perverted comments, being overly forceful with them, or treating them as conquests they boast to their friends about in a hyper-competitive atmosphere. They may even begin to do worse in school purposely to prove they “don’t care”. In addition to all of these behaviors being morally reprehensible, they could also get men into legal trouble as well if they reach a severe enough extent and could have them facing serious jail time, possibly ruining their life.
The reality is that there is a substantial amount of males who are taught to reject femininity, or at least the emotions and behaviors commonly associated with it from a young age. So when they come in contact with women, they view them as somehow lesser for having those traits they were taught to look down on and avoid, which can result in misogyny and sexual assault; This in no way excuses these actions, but it provides a reason into how and why that way of thinking may develop in males. After a lifetime of viewing emotional vulnerability and femininity as a weakness, it’s no wonder that men have issues healthily interacting with those who they (wrongly) feel do not exhibit that–women. Instead, we get disgusting behavior, like 1 in 4 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime, and we treat the victims instead of looking at it as a symptom of a much larger disease.
In conclusion, toxic masculinity is a complex issue of societal and social construction that impacts all genders and both sexes in very different, but equally as important and consequential ways. It is something that will not go away overnight and has to be actively fought against, by everyone, for everyone.