A violent knife attack in Sydney’s CBD last month left one woman dead and another severely injured. But in media reports and public conversation, the devastation took a backseat to the role of two men. These men weren’t the alleged killers, far from it. They were genuine heroes of the moment, stepping in wielding café chairs and milk crates to prevent further bloodshed. If it weren’t for their swift thinking, more lives would have almost certainly been lost.
Writing in The Australian newspaper, columnist Janet Albrechtson was one of many who praised their courage. She also admired these newly crowned ‘Australian champions’ for their demonstration of masculinity. In doing so, Albrechtson asked: “Can we praise masculinity too? Or is that too controversial in an age when masculinity is raised only to condemn what is wrong with men and to preach how to change them…. Do we fear praising masculinity in case it leads to a scolding for encouraging toxic masculinity?… The conflation of masculinity with toxic masculinity, to use the phrase favoured by the roving gender police, has become routine. This common sleight of hand to use gender to confect some crudely defined phenomenon stokes pointless gender wars and risks harming both men and women.”
Albrechtson isn’t alone in her critique of ‘toxic masculinity’. When razor brand Gillette flipped their historical messaging from ‘the best a man can get’ to become ‘the best a man can be’, it was a global sensation. This was the marketing campaign – specifically aimed at tackling toxic masculinity – that launched a thousand media commentary ships. It also resulted in a tonne of free airtime for the advertisement. Gillette were predictably applauded by some quarters for their positive reframing of masculinity, and panned by others, for attacking men.
The critics were particularly vicious. So-called ‘toxic masculinity’ has become a real trigger point for anger and frustration amongst segments of the community. Journalist Piers Morgan raged against the campaign commenting: “What Gillette is now saying, everything we told you to be, men, for the last 30 years is evil. I think it’s repulsive … the implication we all have something to apologise for? Shut up, Gillette.”
So, what is toxic masculinity? And is the mainstreaming of the term preventing us praising positive acts of masculinity? Acts like those carried out to prevent further carnage in the Sydney CBD earlier this year? Acts, that are in fact, not at all toxic?
‘Come on boy, be a man’: Masculinity as a social construct
Masculinity, itself, is a socially constructed concept. Just like femininity, it’s a catch-all stereotype; a term we use for how men do – or ought to – behave. Or at least, it’s a term for the rather narrow set of attributes society has expected of men throughout history and continues to today. Think physical strength, assertiveness, stoicism, courage and independence. It’s the Disney princes of the 1990s; the brave but unemotional James Bond – the handsome but detached Don Draper.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with the personality traits listed above. Indeed, they are mostly qualities to be proud of and worthy of public admiration. The stereotype of masculinity, however, becomes problematic in three ways. Firstly, when we assume these traits are the exclusive domain of men, when of course women can be – and are also – strong, assertive, courageous and independent. Secondly, when we assume men who possess different positive qualities are somehow less worthy or aren’t ‘living up’ to their gender. (It’s the foundation of phrases like ‘man up’, ‘be a man’ and that absolute stinker, ‘real man’.) And finally, when those positive qualities are taken to such an extreme so as to become harmful, or toxic.
Historian Ashley Morgan writes that “for centuries, male violence and acts of aggression were often the way power was understood and patriarchy upheld”. Over time such acts became synonymous with maleness, much like labouring without any reimbursement did with being female. (Thankfully, we’re working hard at fixing that association). The result can be a damaging form of masculinity that hurts both men – and the women around them.
“Ninety five percent of all Australian victims of violence – whether women or men – experience violence from a male perpetrator.”
Count the murdered women: Toxic masculinity kills
More than one Australian woman is killed by a man every week. While there are some women killers and significant numbers of men killed by violence, the data tells a decidedly gendered story. Women are three times more likely than men to be killed by an intimate partner – and four times as likely to be hospitalised. Women who have disabilities, are indigenous or are from culturally diverse backgrounds are at higher risk again. Ninety five percent of all Australian victims of violence – whether women or men – experience violence from a male perpetrator.
Women often report being made to feel unsafe in public. Most women have experienced or witnessed some kind of unwanted sexual attention. Derogatory comments from men are still par for the course in many workplaces. Ask any woman whether she walks home at night alone, and she’ll have a litany of ‘tactics’ designed to lessen the risk she’ll be physically harmed by a man. Hold your keys between your fingers as a makeshift weapon, pretend that you’re on a phone call, make sure someone knows when to expect you home, don’t wear high heels because you might have to run…
Physical expressions of anger by men is normalised. Little boys grow up witnessing it and consider violence an acceptable, even natural, way to exhibit their frustration as adults. Toxic masculinity breeds men who derive their self-worth through power rather than personality. The result is women moving through the world with caution and care. Not only in an attempt to prevent violence towards them, but also to avoid being blamed for that violence. Toxic masculinity legitimises men’s violence, providing an excuse for it and thus laying the blame at women’s feet.
She ignored me. She didn’t return my calls. She left me. She provoked me. She made me do it.
“The suppression of emotional needs is quite literally killing men.”
Toxic masculinity is harmful and deadly for men too
Women aren’t the only victims of toxic masculinity. Men are too. Men are encouraged to repress their emotions from an early age, as embodied by the phrase ‘boys don’t cry’. This causes the bottling of feelings, a public-facing coldness, avoidance of tears and emotional conversations, and a fear of appearing vulnerable. The data reveals that suicide is the leading cause of death amongst young men, and the tenth highest cause of death overall. Men are three times as likely to take their own lives than women and report significantly higher levels of loneliness.
A desire to be brave and stoic can lead to emotional and even physical isolation. Most of us know at least a handful of men we’d describe as ‘strong and silent’. Unfortunately, that silence can result in damaging seclusion. The impacts of isolation are enormous. American research estimates that being consistently alone, unable to connect with people, is the health equivalent of smoking a packet of cigarettes each day. Loneliness is associated with diabetes, obesity, depression, heart disease and a host of other illnesses. The suppression of emotional needs is quite literally killing men.
Does the term ‘toxic masculinity’ do more harm than good?
That the stereotype of what it is to ‘be a man’ exists, and can be harmful, is irrefutable. However, it’s worth exploring whether the term ‘toxic masculinity’ itself is helpful. Given the broad misunderstanding of the concept, and the perception it’s somehow an attack on men, should we abandon it altogether? Mark Green, Author of The Little Book of #MeToo for Men says yes.
Green argues that toxic masculinity is associated too strongly with men as people, rather than the culture they are part of. As a parent, you’re advised never to tell your child that they’re ‘bad’. Instead you’re encouraged to explain to your child why their particular behaviour was ‘bad’. It’s a critical distinction which makes the problem external to the child, rather than labelling their very essence as problematic. Green suggests that ‘toxic masculinity’ is the equivalent of calling a four-year-old a ‘bad boy’.
Green speaks instead about the conditions which cause violence and the stereotyping of men. He says: “I always prefer to talk about culture, shifting the focus to where powerful generative change is possible while potentially reducing reactivity. And it’s a conversation that works. As more and more men come to understand we are all victims of man-box culture, change is accelerating”.
Doing away with ‘toxic masculinity’, and embracing a positive, broad-church approach to masculinity, would be less isolating and damaging, says Green. He explains that, “Life in the man-box is not living at all. It is a slow death. It is an alienating and isolating culture of forced conformity that is killing our capacity to form healthy collaborative relationships”.
Should we do away with the concept of ‘masculinity’ itself?
Another option, is to part ways with the stereotypes of maleness and femaleness altogether. Author John Stolberg, who wrote the influential text Manhood: A book for men of conscience is of the view that ‘toxic’ isn’t the problem, it’s ‘masculinity’ itself. He writes that, “Manhood is a contested identity. It arises in combat. Kids who are assigned male at birth learn through playground fights and so forth to see the world through the prism of winners and losers. The one who wins is the one who walks away with the manhood and the one who loses is the one who is made invisible and is feminised”.
Stolberg thinks that when we divide masculinity into ‘positive’, ‘toxic’ – and everything in between – it’s actually a problem. It implies that there is good and bad manhood, a sliding scale of acceptable manly behaviour. His suggestion is that we should all see our characters as divorced from gender. This would make life far more manageable for young trans men and women, who feel as if they’ve been born into the wrong body but, of course, are the same person at their core after transitioning. Gender fluidity arguably renders terms like ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ redundant, and toxic masculinity goes in the bin simultaneously.
“A little boy needs adults who will praise him for human qualities, his positive contributions to society that sit apart from gender.”
Towards the future: A new kind of masculinity?
In the short term, at least, it’s unlikely western societies will move away from feminine and masculine stereotypes. So, if we’re stuck with those stereotypes for the time being, the interim solution is to broaden them and make it more acceptable for men to live outside their narrow bounds. For generations there have been men who didn’t fit the manhood mould. Throughout history those men have been bullied, mocked, harmed and hamstrung. We can’t let that keep happening. We require a new approach to masculinity.
Parents of small boys don’t want to raise them within a stereotype. All parents want the best for their kids, whatever that ‘best’ might be. A little boy needs adults who will praise him for human qualities, his positive contributions to society that sit apart from gender. A little boy needs to know his own worth, and to know it without needing to control or intimidate others to reaffirm that. A little boy needs to know harassing or objectifying a woman doesn’t make him cool, or tough.
We need to teach our boys that they can – and should – be leaders, not because they’re tall or strong or powerful, but because they have integrity, intelligence and empathy. Boys need to know that crying is okay, but violence is not. And that kindness is a thoroughly masculine trait. By adopting this approach to the next generation of men, we also empower current generations. We start to carve out a fresh space for what it means to be a man, and build an environment where men feel comfortable asking for help and exposing vulnerabilities.
And yes, a new kind of masculinity will mean de-emphasising toxic. Marketing experts advise that a product sells best when advertising focuses on what it ‘is’ – not what it ‘isn’t’. So, let’s all commit to selling a new kind of masculinity. Then perhaps by the end of the next decade we’ll be celebrating men for being brave and strong, and also kind and empathetic. Freeing men from the ‘man box’ John Stolberg writes about, and instead drawing a new map of what it is to be masculine. By doing so we will save the lives of countless men and women – and make those lives richer and more fulfilling too.
If you or someone you know is seeking support and information about mental health or suicide prevention, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
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