I know what you must be thinking, “don’t you have anything better to do than complain about toxic masculinity?”
I’d like to say that I do but, the real answer is that there’s nothing better to spend my time on than helping out my fellow men become better people. If you break it down, that’s really all the Gillette commercial was asking of us. It told us to speak up when we see harassment, to maybe not let our sons beat each other up, and to possibly not use violence as a solution to all of our problems. And I know, it might feel like Gillette is saying that we’re awful people and that we shouldn’t be manly, but there are plenty of manly things that don’t involve making women feel bad or beating the tar out of each other. Gillette is just trying to sell razors, but it’s spreading a good message at the same time; the fact that they’re just a company trying to make money does not lessen the message. If you’d like to learn more read the full write up we did on toxic masculinity in our last issue.
What is “Toxic Masculinity?”
I’m no expert but as men we’ve all been held victim to toxic masculinity. We’ve all heard phrases such as “Man up,” “Boys don’t cry,” and “Don’t be a bitch.” Wwhether it was said to us or to those around us. Since I was little, I knew what was expected of me. If you ask someone what makes a man a true man they’ll say things like, “strong, quiet, likes beer” or maybe, “frat boy, likes to hook-up, and party.” Over and over again, you see the strong stoic superhero who saves the damsel in distress in the TV and films. When I was growing up my father wasn’t around and my mother was working to keep our family afloat. This might sound like the start to a Lifetime movie, but essentially it means that my role models came from the media. One of my favorite superheroes was Batman. He’s rich, he has a cool car, and gets to beat up bad guys on the street; what’s not to like? What most people gloss over is that at his core, Batman is a traumatized orphan who opted to put on tights and assault criminals in the dead of night. This is arguably one of the worst ways to deal with grief, instead of working through his emotions, he became a vigilante. Although this might be fine in the comic book world, it isn’t as successful in the real world. I wish I could go back and tell younger me that those tragic backstories, while great storytelling mechanics, do not create the stablest people. This constant stream of what it means to be a man was what guided me through my formative years. It wasn’t just superheroes in movies, it was action movies, sports, books, and essentially everything I was consuming. I ate it all up. Instead of making me into a hero or an action star, it left me broken and hollow.
I bottled up more emotions than I ever let out. It felt like I was a brewery. And bottles can only hold so much before they explode. I wasn’t the typical boy, I didn’t express myself in the ways that society expects. I liked reading and drawing more than I enjoyed playing football or soccer. I was a tubby little nerd before it was cool to be into nerdy things. This points to the reality that I didn’t have the easiest time growing up. I started acting out in class, not putting effort into homework, trying so desperately to have everyone like me, and making more jokes than taking notes. I was trying so desperately to make everyone like me. These were all ways that I was really reaching out for help, but even I didn’t know it at the time. I thought that if I was happy and fun all the time (or at least seemed like I was) then people would like me. What I didn’t know is that the feelings that you push down don’t go away. These feelings stay inside of you and begin to rot. Eventually the rot spreads, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. I seemed okay on the outside, but on the inside, it felt like nobody knew who I was. By freshman year of high school, I was like a walking husk of a person, nothing felt real or important. I was just going through the motions. I don’t know how many times I’ve been surrounded by people and still felt utterly alone.
But this is not a sob story, it’s the story of many little boys who feel trapped in their own idea of masculinity. It’s a story that doesn’t have to have a sad ending.
I’m sharing my experience in hopes that you can learn from what I went through. To this day I still struggle to let myself be who I am without trying to perform for others. The thoughts that say that I’m not manly enough or that I’m not strong enough are still in my head. I’m not sure if they will go away completely, but I’ve learned to show weakness and that being myself is easier than pretending to be something else. You might think that these things are common sense but how often do you tell the men in your life that you love them and how often do they let their guard down? Our feelings don’t make us weak, they make us who we are. If we lift each other up instead of trappingbeating ourselves into a box, life won’t feel like an eternal tube ride anymore.
Recently I was able to sit down with Clifford C. Rone, PhD and Melissa J. King, PhD of KSU Counseling Services to talk about Toxic Masculinity from a professional perspective. What I found out is that when it comes to breaking down male on male interactions, we can actually see the effects of toxic masculinity. For example, when one male (Chad) compliments another male (Brad), it is often followed by, “no homo”. Why do we feel the need to clarify that we are not romantically attracted to another male when we compliment them? This is because men are taught to communicate based on gender and we’re not supposed to show compassion to other men. Men are supposed to be emotionally distant and keep those feelings hiddenboxed up. Culture says, “Sorry, but there is no emotional validation to be had between Chad and Brad.” This can lead to many men falling to chronic loneliness and even depression due to society telling them not to express their emotions. Men are supposed to be action oriented, so just fix it and move on; but there are some things in life you just can’t fix. So when men cross these problems in life and are not able to process them emotionally, to heal, they’re screwed. According to the 2017 fiscal year report, about 40 percent% of the students who went into the counseling services at Kansas State University were males. Dr. Clifford Rone and Dr. Melissa King of counseling services believe that many of the issues these young men are coming in for are linked to some sort of toxic masculinity.
“It gets in the way of connection,.” says Dr. King., “When guys don’t fit this narrow definition, they then lose self esteem, and so it’s hard for them to be authentic. It’s hard to be yourself when you don’t fit into these rigid boxes.”
Beyond internal struggles, Dr. Rone says some toxic masculinities even promote aggressive behavior and could be linked to many bullying scenarios they have seen at counseling services.
Another example of how toxic masculinity is spread through male on male interactions is when a male teenager loses a game of Fortnite, he will more than likely be overcome with outrage and yell a word like “Bitch!” or “Pussy!”. These names are derogatory female terms for females used to target men in hurtful ways. How many derogatory terms for men do you know of? There are hardly any commonly used unless you are calling a man gay. You’re not going to say, “You’re such a man!” to someone to insult them, because men are prioritized in this society. We are brought up in a system that teaches us men are on top, and therefore it is a good thing to be a man. Now, being a man is definitely is something to be proud of, but at the same time there is nothing a person can be that inherently makes them better than anysomeone else. Passing judgment ounto others based on gender, race, or sexual orientation is not how a perfect world works. We have all were been socialized to think in these ways; but now that we have this knowledge, we have an opportunity to change. When it comes to college campuses, bystander intervention is most likely the best way to educate and prevent. That is how we can change our culture. However, doing so can be tricky. There is one method of confronting situations called “calling in”, where two or more people engage in a dialog of connecting and embracing healthy behavior, without bleeding into the toxic possibility at bay. Calling in focuses on engaging, connecting, and working through difficult conversations.
When you see a situation of toxic masculinity, call it in instead of calling it out. When a conversation is hostile, nothing is learned.
So what are some characteristics of healthy masculinity? “There are infinite possibilities,.” says Dr. King. We as individuals determine what masculinity is for ourselves and we put that judgement on others. Masculinity to one person could mean prioritizing family and bettering one’s home. To others it could mean being successful in sports and remaining in good physical health. The point is masculinity can be expressed in a number of healthy ways. Going from what we see as toxic traits and working to fix those could mean working on being more open to expression of emotion and vulnerability. Find spaces with people you feel comfortable to express your emotions and start practicing. It’s not easy at first, but it helps to practice. Surround yourself with good examples of masculinity to help inspire you to become a better man. Respect all genders. Reevaluate how you see gender and the roles we assign to genders in our society. We can all do our part to minimize toxic masculinity by breaking down these inherent roles we are given by society and finding our own path to authenticity without doing so at the cost of others.
Resources to help:
- KSU Men’s Engagement Group
- Group Therapy at KSU Counseling Services
Special thanks to Clifford C. Rone, PhD and Melissa J. King, PhD of KSU Counseling Services.
Included is the link if case you’re interested in watching the Gillette commercial we’ve referred to.