Stop Stunting Your Boys: Toxic Masculinity
“Toughen up Buttercup” was my Uncle’s favourite piece of advice towards my two (male) cousins. He’d egg them on into eating chillis or jumping out of a hot tub to roll in the snow. Quad biking, wakeboarding, skateboarding, if it had wheels — it was a recommended hobby. Funnily enough, when we went to stay it was my brother who was pushed into the weird chilli contest, not me. Whilst he’d be taken along to skatepark trips or risk being called a baby, I was allowed to sit home and chat over a cuppa. Pushing a “boys will be boys”, “boys don’t cry” attitude onto your sons will bring nothing but problems, here’s why.
First of all, lets lay out the term ‘Toxic Masculinity.’ This little phrase refers to an incredibly diverse range of practices and societal norms but in simple terms, toxic masculinity is the idea that we constrain boys/men to very narrow expectations focused around typical masculinity. So, it does not mean that masculinity is toxic, there are many examples of masculine figures (either real or fictional) who show a healthy and balanced masculinity. Take T’Challa from the recent Black Panther film, he’s inarguably a masculine character, but he’s diplomatic, respectful and treats those close to him with love and compassion. Another example I’ve seen a lot online is Mr Rogers (who’s not well known here in the UK), for representing a nurturing and kind masculine presence. What toxic masculinity means is pushing boys towards a hyper-masculine, repressive set of characteristics, typically focused on aggression, sexuality, and a lack of emotion.
The issue with forbidding boys from showing sadness is that doesn’t stop them from feeling it. You can shun them for crying, but that doesn’t resolve the actual emotion, and could end up forcing it out another way; anger. Rather than finding a healthy release, like talking it out with a trusted friend, or having a bit of a cry, the emotion must be either pushed down or shoved out, complete with door slamming and shouting. How are boys supposed to develop any kind of emotional intelligence when as soon as they start to feel they’re told to keep it in? We are living in a contradictory world in which we expect men to be capable of providing emotionally meaningful support, but still expect them to be stoic and unshakeable themselves. It is nigh on impossible for men to understand how to help others manage emotion if they’re never taught how to do it for themselves. A study by Feldman Barrett, Lane, Sechrest and Schwartz in 2000 found the following:
“Female participants from seven different samples, ranging in age, scholastic performance, socioeconomic status, and culture, scored higher on a performance test of emotional awareness than did male participants. […] Higher scores reflect greater differentiation in emotion knowledge and greater awareness of emotional complexity in self and other.”
Some people suggest that women are just ‘wired that way’, that we’re born with more emotional brains. Although brain scans do show sex differences in regions associated with emotion, remember that our brains are plastic; the more we use certain areas, the better they develop. We are not born with a set brain, it is largely shaped by our experiences and environment. When using performance tests rather than self-report (questionnaires etc.) women consistently outperform men in emotional intelligence and empathy [There’s a whole host of research studies on this included in this paper.] Emotional intelligence is an increasingly valuable currency in the 21st century, in personal relationships and in the workplace. The hyper-masculine ruthless working environments of the 70s are not in favour anymore, with companies often preferring co-operation over competition. If you don’t instill this skill in your sons, they’ll have a real disadvantage in the future.
Boys having low emotional intelligence not only affects them but those around them. I touched briefly in a recent post on how women are often expected to be emotional caregivers for men because they are unable to confide in male peers. If being emotionally expressive is seen as weakness, men will be unwilling to do so amongst other men, leading to the burden of emotional support resting solely on the shoulders of the women in their lives. The other downside is that not only do they need a lot of support from their female partners/family members, but they are less capable of giving any in return. If the only advice they’ve ever heard is to bottle it up and hope it disappears, they are hardly prepared to have honest and open conversations about resolving emotional issues. Instead, their parents, siblings, partners and friends have to deal with the consequences of a toxically masculine childhood — the anger, the resentment and the lack of emotional competence.
Toxic masculinity is far from a stand-alone issue, it’s deeply embroiled in both misogyny and homophobia.
To push boys into masculinity, you have to shame the alternatives. What are the alternatives? Being considered either feminine or gay. If you’re not good at sport, you ‘throw like a girl’, immediately implying that being a girl is the most negative outcome available. I’m not going to explain why misogyny and homophobia are bad things because I think in 2018 that’s pretty obvious already. Using shame to achieve your goals is never a positive approach, all you’re going to do is make a child feel insecure and resentful. The ongoing gender stereotype that men are all hardwired to seek sex rather than intimacy also leads to men being reluctant to report sexual abuse. Male victims are often ridiculed or dismissed, due to the toxic belief that men must want sex at all times, even if they didn’t consent. Similarly with domestic abuse, the idea that men are designed to be strong and aggressive means that physical abuse by women is seen as some sort of a joke.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a life or death issue. Thankfully, the number of suicides amongst men in the UK has been steadily falling for the past 30 years, but it’s still far too high. Suicide is the most likely cause of death for young men, and volunteers at Samaritans have stated that the enduring stigma around male mental illness is one of the contributing factors. 3/4 of people who take their own lives in this country are men, and the number is still almost 5000 men annually. Let’s stop pushing men into a corner, and encourage them to talk openly about their emotional challenges because even just one suicide is one too many.