Why Toxic Masculinity Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

I’ve used the term ‘toxic masculinity’ now and again when discussing feminism, and I’m always slightly surprised by the reaction that I get.

It doesn’t seem to matter the context in which I use the term. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I explain what the term means. Every single time I bring it up, there is always at least one person who hears what I’m saying and they think that I mean that men are toxic. They assume that I am saying that men are all evil, and they are to blame for all the negative things that exist in this world.

Which isn’t what I mean. At all. Honestly, some of my best friends are men.

No? Not buying that blatant excuse? Okay, I guess I’ll have to explain a little further then.

So, in order to understand what I mean when I say ‘toxic masculinity’, you’re going to need to understand the feminist theory that gender is performative. First put forth by feminist scholar Judith Butler, this theory essentially states that gender is not what’s between your legs or what comes naturally to you as a human being – gender is a performance, and we are all given the script from infancy. And by the time that we’re adults, we are so accustomed to performing our parts that we don’t even realize we’re performing them anymore.

So a lot of the ways that we perform our gender – the way we dress, the things we say, the thoughts that cross our minds – they are all learned behaviour. Women aren’t more emotional by nature; women are perceived as more emotional because women are encouraged to discuss their feelings whereas men are discouraged from doing the same.

You may agree with this. You may not. But this is the theory that toxic masculinity rests on.

Because what the theory of toxic masculinity argues is that some of the behaviours that men are taught to engage in to prove their masculinity are, in fact, toxic.

And I don’t only mean toxic to other people – although it is certainly that. From a very young age, men are told that violence and domination are two surefire ways to prove that they are men. In our media, you are much more likely to see men solve their problems by punching them than by discussing them, and you are much more likely to see men respond to rejection with harassment than with genuine understanding. And this has contributed to a society where 99 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence are men. Men are also responsible for 98 percent of mass shootings and 90 percent of murders.

And women are not the only ones who are victimized by male violence (although that fact shouldn’t make you care any more or less about the fact that this is happening). Although one in four women will face domestic violence at some point in her life, 68 percent of homicide victims are men.

So, yeah, violence and domination is a real-life problem that affects all of us for the worst. And yet, that doesn’t seem to stop our media and our society from telling boys that violence and domination is one way to prove that you are a man.

But this is just one form of toxic behaviour that men might engage in to prove their masculinity. There are so many more.

For example, men are told from a young age that “real men don’t cry”. They’re told that nobody cares about their emotions, so “toughen up” and “be a man”. So, of course, to prove their masculinity, men will suppress their emotions and avoid talking about them. And perhaps because of this, depression in men goes woefully under diagnosed, despite the fact that men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women.

Men are also told from a young age that “real men” are “players” and “lady-killers”. They get all the women, all the time, and women love them. This contributes to this idea of women as conquests and trophies, yes, but it also contributes to this idea that a “real man” is heterosexual, and intensely interested in sex.

Men are told that “real men” have big penises, despite the fact that trans-men are not born with penises.

Men are told that “real men” are muscular, which contributes to poor body image for men who do not feel that they fit that image.

Men are told that “real men” are white – in fact, Asian-American men are frequently emasculated in our media.

This is what I am referring to when I say ‘toxic masculinity’. I am not saying that men are evil. I am not saying that men are toxic. I am saying that society has put in place certain methods by which men are expected to prove their masculinity, and many of these methods are toxic – to the men who do not live up to these expectations, to the men who do, and to everyone else around them.

And this is part of why I believe that it is important for us to talk about toxic masculinity, even despite the negative connotation that many have ascribed to the discussion. Because in recent news, we have had multiple movements that discuss some of the unfortunate side-effects of toxic masculinity, such as the #metoo movement and Bell Let’s Talk Day, but we haven’t been discussing the matter directly.

And if we are going to make some actual, lasting changes, we need to talk about it. We need to stop telling boys to bottle up their emotions, or to fix problems through violence. We as a society – men and women alike – need to change the definition of what a “real man” is, and we start by changing the way that we talk to men and boys about their masculinity.

Because there are so many ways to be a “real man”. Real men identify as men – that’s literally the end of it. And that means that real men do whatever the hell they want, so long as what they do doesn’t hurt others or themselves.

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The Objectification of Men

Recently, Suistudio launched the campaign #NOTDRESSINGMEN in order to advertise their line of business suits created for women. The images that have been released for this campaign are, in some ways, fairly standard for this sort of product: two people, one dressed head-to-toe in a suit and standing in a position of power and domination, the other posed provocatively, their identity meaningless, their body completely on display. Now, this is an image that we have seen before – many, many times, in fact. Yet, there is one thing about this campaign that not only makes it different, but has caused plenty of controversy, and that is the fact that a woman is placed in a position of power, while a male model is the one being sexualized and objectified.

There are many who have taken to social media to show their disagreement with this campaign, despite the fact that these images are not entirely new. In fact, it is nearly common for us to see the genders reversed. In many advertisements, women are depicted as sexual objects, to the point where we barely even think about it anymore. We’re used to the images of big-breasted women with their heads tipped back and their lips parted. All the time, we see men standing squarely facing the camera, their stances strong, their jaws locked, their power confirmed. This is the language of our media, and we speak it fluently.

But at the same time, the majority of comments that I have seen disagreeing with the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign have not been upset with it because it dares to reverse the gender roles; rather, they disagree with it because they know that this is an injustice that society already does to women all the time, and they don’t think that it’s right to spread this injustice to men as well.

As one Instagram commenter said, “If it was the other way around with the woman on the couch and man above her, feminist groups would jump and criticise. This double standard needs to end.”

Some people have accused this campaign of “making feminism look bad”, turning it into a movement of women who merely want to dominate and control men, rather than being about equal rights. And is this what the campaign is doing? Are these images trying to destroy the patriarchy and replace it with a matriarchy?

Well, the way I see it, my opinion on this campaign rests heavily on the campaign’s intent.

On the one hand, it is very possible that the commenters are correct, and the purpose of this campaign is not necessarily to challenge anything, but rather, to use the accepted language of our media to convey the age-old message, but with the genders swapped. And, in fact, many of the images do seem to be indicating that.

The reason why we often see men standing firm and square-jawed, staring directly at the camera, is because the image is very clearly trying to convey a message, and that message is very connected with gender: he is strong. He is capable. He can do whatever he needs to do, and he can do it without wrinkling his suit or breaking an expression. It just so happens, all of these tend to be masculine traits, and I don’t think that’s incidental. Similarly, when we see women lounging out over objects without much of anything on, that too is meant to convey a message: she is passive, but sexually available. When we see women compared to or used in place of objects, then that is the ultimate passivity: she isn’t even a person, she’s just a thing, waiting around to be used by whoever shows up and wants her.

So when we see the same poses used but the genders reversed, the messages don’t really change, although the gender roles might be challenged. But, still, the photographer is relying on a specific language, one that the viewer will undeniably be familiar with, to convey a message. And the message really isn’t okay. End of day, whether it’s a man or a woman being objectified, the message is that they aren’t really a person. They’re a sexy object, a thing that can be used and disposed of. And not only that, but in both cases, a specific language is being used to convey the message of ‘sexy’ as well; only one body type is displayed, because the viewer will automatically connect that body type to sex appeal. And when that happens, then that dismisses all other body types as being even potentially accepted by society.

So, essentially, if the intent behind this campaign was to rely upon a harmful language that feminism is, in fact, trying to combat, all so that they could convey to their presumably female audience that this company’s suits will make them powerful and alluring to men, then that is not okay.

But there is one other possible intent that this campaign might have, one that I am more comfortable with accepting: the intent to challenge the majority of media.

As I have mentioned, advertisers have made use of sexualizing and objectifying women for decades in order to make their product look somehow superior, and one thing that I think many commenters are forgetting when they show their distaste for the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is that it is only one campaign. It is not an entire industry, meaning that women are not quite at the precipice of taking over the world quite yet. And, more than that, campaigns that rely on switching societal roles are released all the time with the intent of showing just how unfair our society really is.

For example, in 2004, the Disability Rights Commission released a short film called “Talk”, which follows an able-bodied man who suddenly wakes up in a world designed for the new majority, people with disabilities. Another short film, entitled “Love Is All You Need”, takes place in a world where homosexuality is the norm, and heterosexuality is looked down upon as “weird” and “unnatural”.

There are many issues in our society that are sometimes difficult for us to wrap our heads around – not because we never experience them, but because we experience them everyday. They are normal to us, so we don’t even second-guess them. And the purpose of media like “Talk” and “Love Is All You Need” is to try to point out just how wrong our society is. It forces able-bodied people to imagine, not what it would be like to be disabled, but what it would be like to live with the stigma of disability. It forces heterosexual people to imagine what it would be like if they couldn’t safely take their partners home to meet their parents, or hold hands with them in public.

And, maybe, the intent behind the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is not to create a new norm, but rather, to force us to question the old one, to make us realize that the over-sexualizing and objectification of women is wrong by forcing us to see it from a new perspective. And, I mean, while I said that there was plenty of evidence in the photographs to suggest the other intention, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest this as well. The photographs, after all, are overly sexual, and overly objectifying, even going so far as to intentionally remove the man’s face from the images, as though to completely remove his identity and force the viewer to look at him only as an object – a body without a soul.

Now, what the company’s actual intent was is difficult to decipher. They have not made any attempt to comment either way, although Suistudio has confessed to intending controversy. Besides that, I suppose that the viewer can merely take what they want from the campaign: are they a frightening image of a new sort of objectification, or an isolated incident intending only to make us question our past and present?

The Hatred of Femininity

Misogyny: (noun) the hatred of women.

In our society, misogyny can take many forms. It can come in the form of gender-based violence, like rape or domestic abuse. It can come in the form of social exclusion or hostility in certain spaces, such as cat-calling – especially if that cat-calling turns into threats, insults, or anything else that makes them feel unsafe in a public place. Or it can come in the form of constantly assuming the worst of women – thinking that they’re to blame for rape, thinking that they’re too delicate and too vulnerable to hear certain truths, thinking that they’re too emotional to do anything right.

Misogyny is something that is still very much alive today, and it is a very serious problem in our society that we cannot stop talking about. But the sort of misogyny that I want to focus on today is not simply the hatred of women, but rather the hatred of the feminine – because while these two issues most certainly connect and stem from the same issue (as I said, misogyny), the thing about the hatred of the feminine is that it affects all of us.

Because as much as femininity is something that gets assigned to straight women most frequently, that does not mean that only women are capable of femininity. They really aren’t.

Gay men, for example, are frequently represented as feminine in our media. They are represented as feminine so often, in fact, that some people have begun to shun this representation for being ‘stereotypical’, favouring the more invisible image of the masculine gay man (this can sometimes be referred to as effeminophobia, or discrimination against effeminate gay men). But feminine gay men most certainly exist as well, and they deserve a chance to see themselves not only represented, but represented well, and as much as feminine gay men have gotten a bit of the former, they haven’t always gotten the latter.

One example that we might all be aware of is the representation of feminine men in Disney movies. While not necessarily gay (or not openly so, anyway), many of the male villains of Disney cartoons are rather feminine – the Pocahontas villain Governor Ratcliffe styles his hair in two pink bows and carries around a small dog, the Peter Pan villain Captain Hook is highly emotional and dresses very flamboyant, the Aladdin villain Jafar has his eyeliner game on point. And why is this a reoccurring theme with male Disney villains? Well, in my opinion, it’s because, while Disney isn’t outright trying to say that femininity (and male femininity in particular) is wrong, they are trying to use these conventions to convey certain misogynist messages. We as the audience are supposed to read these men as being silly, vain and greedy because they are outwardly feminine. These villains are more easily detestable because they remind us of feminine aspects.

Disney will sometimes even use these aspects in their female villains as well. Honestly, think about it – when Ariel first meets Ursula in The Little Mermaid, she is applying her lipstick and fixing up her hair, and in One Hundred and One Dalmatians Cruella de Vil’s greatest downfall is her obsession with fashion.

Which brings me to another issue in all of this – it is not only women and men who receive scorn and hatred if they become classified as ‘too feminine’, but hobbies and interests as well. We as a society tend to regard the playing or watching of sports, a masculine pass-time, as worthwhile, something that builds character. And yet, watching fashion shows or reading magazines is regarded as silly and frivolous. Fixing a car is a useful skill to have, whereas sewing a dress is kind of cool if you can do it well, but not really useful unless you can make some good money at it. And don’t even get me started on the way that we as a society look down on chick-flicks for being stupid, unrealistic, and vapid, whereas action movies are awesome and full of fun car chases and explosions.

Especially if someone identifies themselves as a masculine person, it is a very common narrative for them to completely reject feminine pass-times. We have all heard about the very stereotypical set-up of the masculine boyfriend complaining loudly as his girlfriend drags him, kicking and screaming, into Sephora, while women are frequently expected to sit there quietly and watch sports with their boyfriends, even if they don’t like them.

Now, at this point you might be asking: so what? Why does it matter that people tend to look down on femininity? Well, it matters because, to some extent, we all have some aspect of us that is feminine. Not just straight women. Not just gay men. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. And this societal rejection of femininity as a valid option in our lives forces us to make one of two choices: we can continue to act feminine as accept that a side-effect of that will be that people will see us as vapid, silly, stupid, frivolous, etc., or we can reject the feminine parts of ourselves and act masculine, neither of them really works for me.

The latter option forces us to shave off parts of ourselves, to never be our complete self because society tells us that we can’t be. The latter option leaves holes in our identity, leaves parts of ourselves unexplored and unfulfilled. And when it comes to the former option, here’s the thing: I am very feminine. I like to do my hair and my make-up. My favourite movie is a love story. I dress very flamboyantly, I move very flamboyantly, and when I talk, my mannerisms are very feminine. And I am not stupid, silly, or frivolous. I do not appreciate being called stupid, silly, or frivolous. I refuse to live with that title placed on me by others, and I refuse to let others place that title on others like me.

Femininity is not a weakness; femininity is just a different way of being, and a perfectly valid way of being. The only reason why we tell our daughters that they’re frivolous for liking the Notebook, our sons that they can’t wear a dress or make-up, is because femininity is frequently assigned to women, and societally speaking, we do not like women. We think women are vapid and silly and overly-emotional, and so we think that anyone like them are the same. And it should probably go without saying that this way of thinking is misogynist and wrong.

You can like romantic movies, and get shit done. You can know all the latest fashions and be a total boss. The two things are not mutually exclusive, and we need to stop treating them like they are.

Why Boys SHOULD Cry

When I was a little girl, I received the message that men did not like it when female-gendered people cried (particularly if it was during an argument or disagreement) because it was as good as blackmail. I was indirectly told that it did not matter if my tears were genuine or not, they would always be perceived by men as intentional and manipulative, a way to get what I wanted out of them. I must have been around five or six when I first heard this – kindergarten aged, anyway.

Throughout my life, I would hear a very similar message repeated. I learned that any excess of emotion that I showed in front of men would earn me a dismissive scoff and the question, “are you on your period?” I learned that, throughout history, women have been accused of being hysterical and insane because they tend to express more emotion than men do. And only yesterday, I heard the comment that finally made me break down and write this article: “You can’t cry as a woman. If you cry, then you give away all of your power” (the amount of emotion you express has absolutely no connection to your level of power, just to make that clear now. You can still be a total badass while simultaneously crying at dog food commercials).

Now, so far, I have been focusing on the female experience simply because I was born and raised female. I know what it’s like to be a woman, while I’ve never really lived as a man, but I do know that this is not an issue that stems traditionally from the way that we view women and their emotions. Rather, it is an issue that stems traditionally from men, and the way that we as a society perceive male emotions.

Men are taught essentially from birth that emotions are not only a bad thing, they are decidedly un-masculine (read: feminine). Young boys are allowed to express emotions like anger and aggression, and even happiness to a somewhat subdued extent (if they’re too openly happy, they run the risk of being accused of being feminine or, in this case, gay). But we’ve all heard the expression “boys don’t cry”, and that expression comes from somewhere culturally. We teach boys that they shouldn’t cry, that if they’re sad or troubled or struggling, they should bottle that up and shoulder the burden themselves. They should not reach out. They should not talk to someone. They should not cry. They should buck up and be a man, grow some balls, rub some dirt in it and move on.

And just to make this clear – I’m not trying to say that no man is in touch with their emotions. I have known many men who are even more in touch with their emotions than I am. What I am talking about here is the cultural idea of “boys don’t cry”, and how this idea has affected some men.

This cultural idea that men can never be vulnerable or excessively emotional has led to many, many problems for the men who take this message seriously. Pent-up unhappiness needs to come out in some way, and if men aren’t going to talk about it or deal with it directly, this can sometimes come out in the form of aggression toward other people, or behaviour that is self-harmful (but “boys will be boys”, right?). Other times, this unhappiness will lead to clinical depression, which in and of itself is a major problem that needs to be addressed, but especially when you add on to that the fact that men in America die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women. And in many cases, men who take this message of “boys don’t cry” too seriously are, to put it simply, emotionally immature. They are men who don’t know how to deal with emotions when they’re confronted with them. Men who assume that, every time a woman cries, it is weak and it is manipulative and it is evil. Men who just emotionally check out of a situation when it gets too be too much or too big for them to handle.

My point is, when you teach a young boy that “boys don’t cry”, that they can’t deal with their emotions and work through them, all you are doing is hurting them in the long run. You are taking away their opportunity to learn about their emotions and how to deal with them in a healthy and mature way.

But this is an issue that’s getting better, right? As feminism becomes more and more prominently talked about and we begin to question gender roles more openly, we as a society are becoming more and more accepting of male emotions, right?

Well, actually, if the personal experience that I shared at the beginning of the article means anything, I’m tempted to say: no. In fact, in some ways, this issue actually seems to be getting worse.

Although we talk more and more about feminism nowadays, society at large still has this tendency to think of things as a binary of good and evil, and gender still tends to fall into that binary. We’re opening up more and more every day – transgender issues are being more prominently discussed, and the existence of gender queer or non-binary people has been acknowledged to some extent, but at the same time, I’m tempted to say that society still tends to split gender into this idea of man/masculine, as opposed to woman/feminine. And more than that, as with most binaries, society tends to value one side over the other. Society likes light better than dark, no pineapple on pizza better than pineapple on pizza, and men better than women. And with that hierarchy, we also have all the behaviours that are associated with the two genders.

There is a reason why society tells men that they should be emotionless: because, in society’s eyes, emotions are weakness. Women are emotional, and that’s what makes them weak (or, as I brought up earlier, hysterical and insane). Men are better suited to the world of leadership, protection, and big business because they don’t let emotions get in the way; they are strong. And as women emerge more and more into these fields, they tend not to be accepted for the emotional, vulnerable women that they might have been taught to be from childhood; rather, they are expected to become more like how men are expected to be, hard and emotionless, and even then they will constantly live with society’s doubt that they can be that. For proof of that, look at the fact that, very recently, society posed the doubt that a woman could be as successful a president as a man because when she gets her period, she might PMS and declare war on Germany or something.

Except emotions are not weakness. In fact, if anything, they are a strength.

Having the ability to discuss your emotions can be very healing, and it can be very bonding for two people to discuss their emotions together.

Having the ability to understand the way someone else is feeling and empathize with them allows you to connect with them on a more human level, meaning that I’d argue that having emotions would actually make you better leader, as it makes you want to understand the people that you are leading, as well as the people who could potentially be your enemies.

I may be a weak, manipulative, hysterical, emotional woman to you, but in my own eyes, being an empath is my superpower. It is what has kept me from getting lost in the depths of depression for all time. It is what has helped me understand and love people, rather than give up on them all as cruel or worthless. It is what has made it possible for me to reach out to other people, even help them through difficult times. It is what makes my life worthwhile, and I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for my emotions.

Emotions are a treasure that society looks down on ‘feminine’ people for possessing, when the truth is that they are a gift that should be given to more ‘masculine’ people as well. We treat them as something shameful, as something that should be hidden or ignored, but they are a beautiful, human thing. They have the capability to turn us into better people, and all we need to do to let them is develop and learn about them.

Performing Gender

Gender is a topic that comes up quite often nowadays, but what, exactly, is gender?

In the popular conscious, gender is often divided into two categories: masculine and feminine. People who identify as men are masculine. People who identify as women are feminine.

Masculinity is strength. Masculinity is no emotions, the ability to be a provider and take care of their loved ones in financial and safety-related means. Masculinity can be recognized through very specific, very visible means. Masculinity means shirts and pants, suit and tie. Masculinity means faces clean of make-up or product, but covered in hair. Masculinity means obsession with sex, and sex with women in particular. The more heterosexual sex a man has, the more masculine he is. The more respect and fear a man earns, the more masculine he is.

Femininity is vulnerability. Femininity is more emotions than can easily be dealt with, the ability to be a housekeeper and take care of their loved ones in nurturing and love-related means. Femininity can be recognized through very specific, very visible means. Femininity means dresses and skirts, pantyhose and yoga pants. Femininity means faces clean of hair, but covered in make-up and product. Femininity means hesitation toward sex, but wanting sex with men in particular. The less sex a woman has with anyone, the more valuable she is considered. The more love and adoration a woman earns, the more feminine she is.

All of this, however, is just the way that gender is considered in the popular culture. In real life, nothing is as simple as all this.

The feminist scholar Judith Butler has said that gender is performative, meaning that we are not born into a gender, but we are told how we should act if we want to be accepted as a member of our gender – and we want to be accepted as a member of our gender. If we aren’t, then we pose the risk of being dismissed as (for women) a butch, a bitch, selfish, man-hater, ball-buster, and (for men) a sissy, gay, weak, or feminine (I am not trying to imply that there is anything wrong with being any of these things, I am simply pointing out that these are sometimes used as insults to undermine someone’s gender identity). This means that we force ourselves to act and present ourselves in specific ways so that we can be accepted as a member of our gender, which we are then rewarded for by our peer group. This means that, by nature, there are parts of ourselves that do not easily fall into the category that we are put in as far as gender goes, but we sometimes ignore these parts of ourselves to be accepted.

This means that men (and people identifying as men) are not completely, totally, 100% masculine by nature, and it means that women (and people identifying as women) are not completely, totally, 100% feminine by nature.

We see examples of this everyday, and yet we still continue to claim that there are a certain set of accepted behaviours for men and women to adopt.

There are men who enjoy (and even prefer) dressing up in women’s clothing. But that’s okay, because those men are drag queens, or cross dressers, or gay men, or altogether ‘feminine’ men with nothing masculine about them. Right?

There are women who prefer to take charge, who don’t want children or a family and just want to focus on their career, which happens to be in the sciences or in fitness-related fields. But that’s okay, because those women are ‘masculine’ women who find the company of other women frivolous and annoying, who prefer to spend all their time with men and just consider themselves “one of the guys”. Right?

Well, not necessarily.

Yes, there are plenty of people that fall nearly perfectly into the definitions of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, but in my opinion, most people in this world have at least a few aspects of themselves that do not correlate with the gender that they identify with.

Some people who identify as men like to wear make-up, and that’s okay.

Some people who identify as women are capable of growing full beards and don’t feel like shaving it, and that’s okay.

Some people who identify as men aspire to be stay-at-home dads, and that’s okay.

Some people who identify as women are very forward and aggressive, and that’s okay.

And the only reason why I feel the need to say this is because there are so many people out there who think that doing one thing or acting one way means that you should change the way that you identify yourself. But if you are comfortable identifying as a man but dressing as a woman and vice versa, then nobody should ever have the power to take your identity away from you.

In my opinion, we should all be opening up our definitions of what it is to be a man or a woman. There is no one right way to behave in order to belong in your gender, and there shouldn’t be. We should all be free to present ourselves in the way that makes us feel comfortable, regardless of the gender we live in. Society has turned gender into a prison, but there are plenty of scholars who debate if gender roles even exist outside of society.

So be yourself, whatever that means. Don’t change to fit into someone else’s limited view of what you should and shouldn’t be based on gender identity. Masculinity and femininity are just ideas, and you so much more than that.