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Understanding Toxic Masculinity

'Toxic masculinity' has been gaining increasing attention in recent years. With the term itself only coming to light towards the end of the 20th century, it's understandable that most may not know what it is, how it manifests, or its potential dangers.


'Toxic masculinity' refers to a set of harmful behaviours and attitudes that are often associated with traditional norms of masculinity, such as aggression, dominance, and emotional repression. While masculinity itself is not toxic, toxic masculinity can have serious negative consequences for all genders.


A man sat on a sofa holding his head in one hand and crossing his legs. Behind him is a plain dark grey wall.

In this blog post, we will delve into the definition of toxic masculinity, its historical roots, and provide examples of how it manifests in everyday life. We'll also explore the impact that toxic masculinity has on individuals and society as a whole before offering practical tips on how to combat toxic masculinity when we see it in the classroom, our social circles, and wider society.


It is important to note that this discussion is not meant to demonise men or masculinity as a whole, but rather to acknowledge the harm that can result from certain rigid and harmful expectations of what it means to be a 'real man'.


By understanding and challenging these harmful norms, we can work towards creating a more inclusive, equitable, and healthy society for all.



The history of 'toxic masculinity'


The concept of toxic masculinity dates back to the feminist movement of the 1970s, when scholars and activists began to examine the ways in which gender roles were constructed and perpetuated in society. At this time, scholars such as Sandra Bem and Judith Butler were exploring the idea of gender as a social construct rather than a biological fact, arguing that it was shaped by cultural norms and expectations rather than innate differences between men and women.


A headshot of Judith Butler. They are a white person with short grey hair, wearing a dark grey t-shirt. They are looking at the camera with a neutral expression.

The term 'toxic masculinity' itself, however, did not come into common usage until much later. One of the earliest uses of the term can be traced back to the work of sociologist Michael Kimmel, who wrote a book in 1995 titled "Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era." In this book, Kimmel examined the rise of what he called "aggrieved entitlement" among white men in the United States, arguing that many men were feeling threatened by the changing social landscape and responding with anger and aggression.


Kimmel went on to use the term "toxic masculinity" in later work, defining it as "a constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence." He argued that toxic masculinity was not an inherent aspect of masculinity itself, but rather a set of harmful behaviours and attitudes that had been learned and reinforced by cultural norms and expectations.


The term began to gain wider use in the 2010s, particularly in the wake of high-profile cases of sexual assault and harassment, such as the #MeToo movement. In this context, the term was often used to describe the ways in which toxic masculinity had contributed to a culture of sexual violence and harassment, and to call for greater awareness and accountability among men.



A photo of someone standing in front of a dark grey wall holding up a piece of paper in front of their face which says #MeToo on it large black writing.


Critics of the term have argued that it is unfairly critical of men and can be used to demonise masculinity as a whole. Some have also argued that the term is too broad and can be used to label any traditionally masculine behaviour as harmful or toxic.


Despite these criticisms, the term has continued to gain prominence in public discourse, particularly in conversations around gender, power, and violence.


‘Masculinity’ & ‘toxic masculinity’ are two different things


Resistance to the term toxic masculinity is often grounded in a fear that 'masculine' things are under threat of being destroyed or demonised, which is not the case. Elements of masculinity can be truly positive in a healthy measure. Is it 'toxic' to be strong? When being strong comes at the expense of your emotional wellbeing, then yes. Being emotionally strong to support a friend going through a tough time, or building muscle through going to CrossFit classes are both arguably examples of a healthy 'masculine' trait.


It's about balance, and having an awareness of when an imbalance is jeopardising wellbeing.


What does toxic masculinity look like?


Let's look at the most clear examples of toxic masculinity:


  • Aggression: The expectation that men must be aggressive and violent to prove their masculinity and/or protect what is 'theirs'. Both physical fights and verbal abuse count as aggressive behaviour.

  • Emotional repression: The idea that men must hide or repress their emotions to avoid appearing weak or vulnerable; the definition of 'Man up'. This puts a huge amount of emotional pressure on the individual to not speak out when they're experiencing emotional problems. Imagine a friend experiences a bereavement of a close family member and doesn't say a word to you about it. It's easy to think that they're 'coping well', but in fact repressing that grief and shock will likely lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety further down the line. Emotional repression is also a barrier to building and maintaining healthy relationships (romantic and platonic). If you struggle to navigate your own emotions you will struggle to understand others', creating a lack of emotional intelligence and an inability to connect with those around you.

  • Objectification of women: The belief that women are objects to be conquered or possessed. This can manifest in sexual harassment, catcalling, and other forms of misogynistic behaviour. You can read more about what misogyny is and how to tackle it on our previous blog post.

  • Homophobia: The belief that being gay or effeminate is shameful, and/or a sign of weakness and inferiority, which ultimately leads to discrimination and harassment of LGBTQ+ people, a lack of support for their rights and wellbeing, and an active discouragement in men exploring their own sexualities. That's not to say that all heterosexual men are in fact not heterosexual, but more that a rejection and hatred of anything LGBTQ+ or non-masculine puts an unhealthy sense of value on straight-ness, rather than thinking about one's own sexuality objectively and fluidly, rooted in the wants of the individual, not expectations of society.

  • The above point also links to anti-femininity, another key example of toxic masculinity. If someone is anti-feminine, they are opposed to or discriminate against women or feminine characteristics or behaviour. We've all heard the classic "Don't be a girl" and "Man up". It's completely normalised in our language. Hence why the pressure from society, friends and family members to not be something (i.e. feminine) can ultimately lead to an unhealthy way of living.

  • Risk-taking behaviour: The expectation that men should engage in risky behaviour to prove their masculinity. This type of behaviour could manifest as doing extreme sports, substance abuse or unprotected sexual activity, all in order to prove one's 'manliness'.


It is important to note that toxic masculinity is not an inherent trait of men, but rather a cultural construct that can be unlearned and dismantled through education and awareness. By understanding and challenging these harmful expectations, we can be better equipped to recognise and prevent them in a safe and healthy way.


A photo of a round sign on a plain white wall. The sign is split in half vertically down the middle. On the left side is the male toilet symbol, and on the right is the female toilet symbol.

What's the alternative to toxic masculinity?


The alternative to toxic masculinity is often referred to as positive masculinity, healthy masculinity, or even just "masculinity." This alternative view of masculinity is based on the idea that men can be both strong and nurturing, assertive and empathetic, and confident without being domineering. It encourages men to develop a healthier and stronger emotional intelligence and cultivate healthy relationships with others, including women, children, and other men.


Emotional literacy


One of the key components of positive masculinity is the idea of emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is the ability to recognise, understand, and express one's own emotions, as well as being able to empathise with the emotions of others. This is a vital skill for healthy relationships and is particularly important for men who have traditionally been socialised to suppress their emotions. By encouraging emotional literacy, positive masculinity creates a space for men to express themselves fully and to connect with others on a deeper level.



Caring masculinity


Another key component of positive masculinity is the idea of caring masculinity. Dr Karla Elliott of Monash University defines caring masculinity as an alternative 'to hegemonic, dominant

forms of masculinity. They are masculinities based on care-giving and nurturing roles for

men rather than the dominating, aggressive roles normally associated with hegemonic

masculinity in western societies'. By promoting the idea of caring masculinity, we can encourage men to embrace their nurturing side and contribute to a more equitable and compassionate world.


Self care


In addition to these key components, positive masculinity also emphasises the importance of self-care, healthy communication, and personal growth. By promoting healthy habits and behaviours, positive masculinity encourages men to take care of their physical and mental well-being, and to be more open and vulnerable in their relationships.


By prioritising personal growth and development, positive masculinity helps men to become more empathetic, compassionate, and self-aware individuals. Ultimately, embracing these aspects of positive masculinity can lead to more fulfilling and meaningful lives for both men and those around them.



Practically combating toxic masculinity


At Voicebox, we believe in learning through doing. That's why we offer interactive drama workshops and assemblies for schools and organisations to help students and young people of all genders unpack challenging conversations on gender, relationships and well-being in a safe and inclusive environment.



A photo of facilitators Fredi, Andy and Jack leading a workshop with a group of young people inside a large drama studio. The facilitators are stood up while the young people sit on the floor with pieces of paper in front of them. The sun is shining through a large window on the back wall.

Our workshops on Healthy Relationships, Masculinity and Wellbeing, and 'What it means to be a good man' all offer participants a practical exploration of 'toxic masculinity' in their lives and the lives of those around them.


It's important to note that (although this may not be preferred by all workshop leaders) in Voicebox workshops, we aim to refer to toxic masculinity as 'unhealthy masculinity'. This is because the term 'toxic' can often be met with resistance and a level of defence. It can also often be met with the question 'But what about toxic femininity?' which is ultimately not the focus of the session and can distract participants to engage with the topic.




 


If you're interested in booking one of Voicebox's workshops or assemblies which explore masculinity, you can fill out a booking form here.


If you have a question or would like to chat through something with one of the team, you can book a free consultation here.


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