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What is Toxic Masculinity?
You probably have heard the term toxic masculinity before. What is it and how can end it help liberate us all — men included?
We need to end toxic masculinity. You have probably heard people make similar statements before. What does that truly mean? Contrary to what some rather aggressively assume, the point is not to label masculinity itself as toxic, it is to purge masculinity of toxicity. This ultimately benefits men too by reducing shame and pressure to conform to a narrow definition of “man.”
The best way to understand toxic masculinity is a societal tendency to police men’s behavior. This often comes from other men, but it can come from women or non-binary people as well — both of whom are also capable of having masculine attributes, but toxic masculine attitudes are all about opposing gender non-conformitivity.
In some social circles, that toxic masculine policing of others becomes itself seen as a trait that an ideal man should uphold — that it is masculine to tell others around you to “man up” and resist them doing horrible, terrible things to themselves like drink a strawberry daiquiri.
Moving past toxic masculinity as a society means recognizing you do not have to worry about losing your “man card,” as so many people I knew in college called it, or even be seen as less masculine for also doing something seen as feminine. Getting a mani/pedi doesn’t give you -20 MP (masculine points, not Final Fantasy’s version of mana). You are still as masculine as before you got it.
This policing of masculine standards also harms trans women still in the closet as well. Having lived seemingly to the world as a man for twenty-four years, I experienced pushback against anything I did interpreted as unmasculine, from crying too much as a kid to drinking alcoholic drinks that have fruit in them. I will admit, though, that at the time I wished there was a “man card” they could have taken from me — I would have happily surrendered it.
Are we making progress? Seemingly so, though we cannot presume that the process of purging this is a one-way process. However, younger generations do have much higher acceptance for both LGBTQ+ people and gender non-conformitivity, the things which toxic masculinity at its core polices against most. It communicates, “Don’t you dare do anything that is not associated with performative cisheterosexual manhood!”
One place I find this particularly evident is hip hop. The massive success of Lil Nas X is perhaps the most profound example of this. But it is not limited to LGBTQ+ hip hop artists. This year, the Jacksonville hip hop scene has gotten a lot attention or hardcore songs with references to gang shootings, but artists like Spinabenz sample and lip sync to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” while Foolio, associated with a rival gang, styles a diss track as an emotional love song. These songs are dark in lyrics but represent a secure and strong stance in their approach to expression of masculinity. This enables the juxtaposition between the emotional sensitivity of the songs and the coldness of their content creates compelling contrast that empowers their art.
We live in a high-tech, multicultural, complex world full of a rich array of experiences. The minute you write off large swaths of them as “unmanly,” you miss out on so much fun in life. Campaigns against “toxic masculinity” are not attacks on men but a call for men to be liberated by the shackles of narrow definitions of manhood.
That is not to say that traditionally masculine activities should be avoided either — instead, part of the broader shift of how we understand gender roles should mean recognizing that anyone can participate in and have a genuine interest in those activities as well. Video game culture has had a long civil war over misogyny, most evident in Gamergate, but pervasive throughout a lot of gaming as a whole. The “fake gamer girl” stereotype was used to imply real women don’t actually like games, a line of thinking born out of the same staunch sexism of real men don’t actually like fruity drinks.
A healthy concept of masculinity is built on the idea that there is no wrong way to be a man — one that embodies, at the very least, tolerance for conceptions of manhood that might be wildly different than one’s own. It also must understand that masculinity is not the exclusive domain of men, and that much of what we understand as masculine or feminine is somewhat arbitrary — e.g. pink used to be the bright, bold boy’s color, whereas blue was the cool, calm girl’s color.
Be who you want to be. Allow others to be who they want to be, as long as it is not truly wronging others. The whole of society would be better off if no one felt worried they are expected to uphold some narrow ideal of their gender nor compelled to waste energy ensuring others uphold it as well. We are better off when we let that which does not affect us or harm others become a target of attack.