Unpacking Two Different Things That Actually Perpetuate Toxic Masculinity
The way North American society sees men has shifted dramatically in the past few decades. The 20th century vision of the brave man — cool, calm and collected, forever ready for a challenge, the hero, the boss, the father — has fallen out of fashion.
These days, it can feel like it’s more common to see men depicted as violent creeps, emotionally unintelligent sex pests, overconfident mansplainers and the like. Stereotypes like the misogynistic incel, the out-of-touch boomer dad, and the sleazy fuckboy abound. For men, that stings a little bit.
But part of the shift is a reckoning with the reality that lots of the traits we assigned to men back in the day — strong, stoic, tough — weren’t all that healthy to begin with, and by embracing them wholesale, generations of men have bargained away portions of their genuine humanity and personhood for membership in a deeply unhealthy club.
This isn’t just conjecture, either. Both physically and mentally, numerous studies have found that men suffer from adherence to traditional masculine ideology. It leads to reduced quality of life and earlier deaths in a variety of ways, from murders and suicides to all kinds of physical ailments brought on by loneliness, stress and other psychological factors. Add to this that far too many men see asking for help with the above issues as a no-go and you get a potent cocktail of factors worsening men’s lives and hastening their demises.
Seeing it laid out like that bleak enough to warrant an interrogation. If so-called toxic masculinity is so bad for men, why do they cling to it? How did we get here exactly? In order to better understand the issue, AskMen spoke to a combination of people, both experts and not, about the subject. Here’s what they had to say:
Toxic Things That We Encourage in Men
Of course, there’s no official border separating healthy masculinity from toxic masculinity, so drawing boundaries and quantifying the latter isn’t an exact science. That being said, there are a few points that are worth taking a look at. Let’s explore two key ones that form a big part of the backbone of this ideology:
Hiding or Downplaying Weakness, Pain, and Emotion
From a relatively young age, most boys understand that expressing physical or emotional pain is anathema to proper masculinity. They’re told not to cry, not to scowl, not to complain; they’re told to man up, to toughen up, to take it like a man. They’re given two for flinching, warned not to be little bitches. Like this anecdote:
When I was 13, I went to a hockey summer camp to learn to skate. We were on the ice for eight hours that first day. Having never skated before, my legs were very sore the second morning. I was in real pain, to the point where I started to cry. All I wanted to do was go back to bed and rest my sore legs. But my mum insisted that I go to camp, and told me that, and I’ll never forget this: "You better stop crying, or the other boys at camp will always know you as the one who cried, and you won’t make any friends." Well, that did the trick — my fear of rejection outweighed my pain, and I bit my lip and hid my tears. That’s stuck with me for a long time, and I never complained about being tired or sore in my many years playing sports as a teen. Even though today I realize that admitting to physical pain isn’t a weakness, I still have a lot of issues around maintaining an appearance of being unaffected by pain from physical activity. – Patrick, 31
When people say these things to boys, the goal is often well-intentioned as a way to help them grow up, but the outcome is to create young people who feel they are literally not allowed to express normal human responses to things. And it expands beyond them to other people, too, according to relationship therapist Jor-El Caraballo.
“We teach boys that emotions are to be minimized or ignored,” he tells AskMen. “Very early on, boys get the message that they should care less about what they’re feeling, and what others are dealing with. I’ve seen how, time and time again, this gives men a deficit in emotional intelligence. This makes it hard to identify their own feelings, express them (and also seek support) and have healthy, communicative relationships.”
But because not feeling their feelings is part and parcel of mainstream masculine ideology and has been for a long time, people don’t see it as abnormal when adult men can’t work through their emotions in a healthy, productive way. Instead, they see it as men being men.
“It can be hard to break these deep paradigms,” says Caraballo. “They require intentional change and development, and for a lot of men that work may not seem worth it for the risks they would be required to take emotionally and socially.”
Cruelty Towards Those Perceived as Lesser
A corollary to men suppressing their own feelings of sadness, pain, or weakness is that those who don’t act similarly — who are identifiable as lacking some quality of masculinity or toughness — are punished for it. In a world where strength is everything, weakness needs to be rooted out, in whatever form it takes. That’s the thinking behind the so-called “alpha male” mentality, according to Connell Barrett, a New York City-based dating coach.
“There’s a big myth in dating that women want an ‘alpha male,’” says Barrett. “But alpha males aren’t a thing.”
He’s not just saying some woo-woo B.S., either. Alpha males literally aren’t a thing — they’re a cultural invention that’s long outstayed its welcome.
“The idea of the alpha male first gained credence in the ‘70s when a wildlife biologist documented the existence of what he thought were ‘alpha’ wolves in the wild,” explains Barrett. “But he later recanted his findings. It turns out, the ‘alpha’ behavior he seemingly observed was simply mom and dad wolves caring for their pups. He renounced his original findings, but it was too late — the myth of the alpha cemented into conventional wisdom.”
Though a misunderstanding of how wolves behave doesn’t have anything to do with human romantic or sexual relationships, according tor Barrett, the myth of the alpha has “informed a lot of bad dating advice.”
“Guys grow up learning that showing vulnerability in dating and relationships is a weakness, rather than a strength,” he says. “Many single women date guys who talk down to the wait-staff or the servers, as a way to impress her, and show her that he’s an alpha male. What these guys don’t realize is that they’re not just being jerks — they’re killing their chances for romantic connections, because that kind of dismissive, punching-down treatment is a huge turn-off. At worst, alpha-male behavior stifles a single man’s growth and encourages guys to view women and ‘beta males’ as inferior. At best, it leads to wearing Axe body spray and chest bumps.”
Why Do We Teach Young Boys To Have This Mentality?
My parents never raised us with that kind of explicit gender ideology, but I’ve read some books on the psychology of masculinity that say a lot of these messages are delivered in school and through media, and a lot of them are actually implicit. It’s not like anyone ever sits you down and says, ‘You need to be an asshole.’ You just sort of figure it out over time. – Andrew, 30
In his groundbreaking 2002 book about abusive men, Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft explores the reason violent and controlling men continue to cling to these cruel behaviors even when they so obviously hurt the people the men claim to love.
In short, it’s because they see the benefits as continuing to outweigh the drawbacks. To these men, the benefits of having a romantic partner who’s completely under their thumb, constantly afraid of them and has to cater to their every whim, are more desirable than having an equal partner who’s happy and does things for them out of genuine love.
Some of that thinking is at the root of the mentality that sees us as a society continuing to inculcate young boys into a traditionally masculine mindset. It’s a prioritizing of short-term gains over long-term ones, mixed with an ill-advised adherence to a toxic ideology, while avoiding genuinely grappling with tricky and complex emotional vulnerability.
“This kind of thinking (minimization of need for emotional intelligence) is a vestige of ideas and stereotypes from many previous generations,” says Caraballo. “Like most things, in order for us to change them, we have to work very hard at shifting our perspective and daily behaviors.”
Of course, it’s not only on the men in question, but also an issue for everyone who holds up these ideas in how they interact with the men and boys in their lives.
“Most people say that men should be more in tune with their feelings and emotions, but don’t recognize the times that they might minimize their son’s ‘inconvenient’ feelings, or not model the kind of tenderness they’d like adult men to have access to,” says Caraballo. “Simply put, it can often be the message of ‘do what I say, not as I do,’ but that’s a hard sell when your primary life model (like a father, parents, etc.) seem to be getting by just fine without doing that deeper work to be more emotionally aware and attuned to the people around them.”
By the time these men have grown up, they’re out there forming relationships (or trying to) with people who don’t necessarily encourage their vulnerability.
“While adult partners of men seek these more fulfilling, communicative relationships, there is often still a reinforcement of lack of emotional expression that is deemed ‘mysterious’ and alluring,” says Caraballo, “which leaves men confused about what to share about their internal experiences.”
Another issue when it comes to dating, according to Barrett, is that “many young men are still being taught to ‘show a woman who’s boss’” rather than form genuine connections.
“Sadly, the dating industry is still largely dominated by so-called ‘pickup artists’ who teach this outdated, ‘just be a man’ approach to dating, and a lot of young men learn these messages from misguided coaches on YouTube, or on Reddit," he tells AskMen. "We live in a more ‘woke,’ enlightened society, but most male dating coaches are still living in the dark ages.”
Of course, the sad truth there is the same aforementioned logic that men are doing this kind of thing because they do see short-term benefits: The pickup artists who say what men want to hear gain in popularity, and then men flock to guys telling them what they want to hear.
How to Shift Away From That Toxic Mindset
Growing up, my complaints were treated as invalid compared to my sister’s. I was physically punished more, very disproportionately, and I received a lot more messages like, “You shouldn’t complain, other people have it harder.” So I learned stoicism, the need to repress emotions, because anything I felt bad about was not addressed. To this day, it’s very hard for me to cry, very, very hard, even though I am a pretty emotional person, and I’ve been pretty in touch with my emotions for a long time. That is the last piece. Through years of therapy I’ve been able to get my eyes to get, like, a little bit misty if I’m really sad, but that’s it. There’s something about the expression of tears or vulnerability that still feels like it is a threat to my person. – Andrew, 30
There’s a decent chance these ideas aren’t all that new to you. Maybe you’ve read other articles or books on the subject, or engaged in conversations with people about the issues with contemporary masculinity. But as anyone who’s ever tried to master a skill knows, there’s a big difference between understanding something in theory and putting it into practice.
If you’re curious about stepping away from the more toxic aspects of masculinity, how exactly would you go about that? It’s not like there’s a clear or straightforward roadmap for doing so. As a man, your instinct may be to try to push for big change fast, with clear, definable results. For Caraballo, though, it’s worthwhile to simply start small.
“I think that being able to take some time to self-reflect more is a good place to start,” he says. “Exercises that encourage reflection, like journaling prompts, are helpful. Learning emotional vocabulary is often work I do in therapy with clients so seeking out therapy for this kind of development is also highly recommended.”
If you’re looking to “do the work of untangling these complex processes,” he says, it’s also not a bad idea to do some reading: “Self-help and personal development books also help us start to connect with ourselves on a deeper level, if we use them intentionally.”
And, of course, seeing a therapist, even if you don’t suspect you have any mental health issues, can be a huge boon for guys with unresolved emotional issues, or simply guys who are struggling with some aspect of their inner lives.
It’s not a perfect fix, but it can help you make big strides when it comes to understanding and being at peace with your emotions.
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