Unraveling Institutionalized Toxic Masculinity

The origins of “masculinity” date nearly 55 million years back. Early male hominids and other primates showed displays of physical strength and aggression to exert control over their communities. The notion of violence as an indicator of power has since been ingrained in male psychology, which is mankind’s centuries-old affinity for military conflict and warfare. The term itself, however, only recently raised to popularity, as crass male behavior fell under scrutiny in the wake of the MeToo movement.

Toxic masculinity refers to the harmful and destructive behaviors associated with certain aspects of traditional masculinity ideology and, as stated by psychologist and anthropologist Samuel Paul Veissière Ph.D., “a culture that overwhelmingly associates masculinity with risk, violence, and inner essence of sexual aggression”. It can ultimately accumulate in an anti-feminine attitude, a fascination with risk and violence, and an aversion to displays of “weakness”. The restriction of emotions can affect and hinder identity development and the formation of social and romantic relationships. A fixation with one’s masculinity is often associated with physical and societal negative effects, including a shorter life expectancy, higher suicide risk, and a higher likelihood of committing violent crimes. In fact, researchers now argue that so-called “toxic masculinity” maybe the root of many societal problems, including sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, violence towards the LGBTQ+ community, and domestic abuse.
A 2019 study by the American Psychological Association examined a group of 278 male college students and assessed their eudaimonic well-being (their personal development and relationships), their masculine norm conformity (emotional control, risk-taking, desire to win, aggression), and gender role conflicts (issues that may have resulted from these gender roles). The results showed a negative correlation between individuals’ wellbeing and their adhesion to masculine norms, specifically risk-taking and power. Similarly, a decline in mental well-being is also linked to internal gender role conflicts and emotional restrictions. Researchers conclude that “men who have internalized the power norm may be more likely to take risky and extreme measures (e.g., perpetration of violence) to establish dominance and might seek more risky opportunities to assert their masculinity”. The A.P.A. believes traditional ideas of masculinity may result in an increased predisposition towards academic challenges, certain health disparities (specifically cardiovascular problems), substance abuse, and aggressive offenses.

While mxn may derive pride from displaying machismo, they are simultaneously victims of the process, as the same inclination to traditionally masculine tendencies creates a strain in their interpersonal relationships and personal self-esteem. By educating young boys to mask their distress, society has denied them an outlet for their emotions, which can take a serious psychological and developmental toll. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, mxn are up to four times more likely to commit suicide. Mxn have been conditioned to not accept failure and constantly strive for success. While this may initially seem positive, this preconditioning is also the roots of many sexual assaults and “rejection murders” — mxn are less likely to accept “no” as an answer. Award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie comments that “by far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos.” The idea of “masculinity” has been so ingrained in our society that young boys and masc children are equipped with a very skewed understanding of romantic relationships and intimacies as a result of these social constructs. They are forced to rely on these ancient ideals and strive for these inherently violent standards of masculinity that are presented in the media. The influences on the psyche are often subtle but prevalent: a young boy might feel the obligation to have a “fit” physique and look up to an “alpha male” figure.

Additionally, displays of toxic masculinity can take form through subtle daily interactions within a romantic relationship, sometimes leading to domestic violence. Mxn might feel the innate desire to control the financial decisions of the household, whether it’s through controlling their partner’s spending habits or impulsively spending money. A 2014 study led by psychologist Aylin Kaya shows that mxn are more likely to make impulsive financial decisions, while womxn tend to place their children and familial dynamic before their desires. Such attitudes are normalized in the media as a “mother’s sacrifice” and are internalized within a familial dynamic. Mxn are less likely to perform housework, including cooking, cleaning, and childcare.  Womxn are often conditioned to place the needs of their partners before their own, stemming from a long history of sexist relationship dynamics. This often causes mxn to feel a sense of ownership over their significant other’s body, whether it’s by controlling what they wear, their weight, or their consumption.

Today’s culture actively preaches against “toxic masculinity” but, ironically, also institutionally encourages it. The human mind is not good at understanding and processing counterintuitive facts that do not align with our sense of reality, hence our tendencies to form stereotypes and archetypes for informational efficiency. From infanthood, our minds are wired to recognize patterns in the world and form mental templates to organize our observations into stereotypes. Gender archetypes usually depict the worst and best ideals of the two ends of the gender spectrum, as the extremist depiction allows for humorous propagation. Veissière notes that these archetypes are very similar internationally despite broader cultural differences. Male stereotypes play on them being either overly aggressive and emotionless or strong and protective, while female stereotypes are either coddling and manipulative or beautiful and generous. These archetypes dictate that mxn protect the family and toughen up children to face the challenges of the outside world, while womxn manage stability within the family dynamic and attend to smaller needs that mxn overlook, taking a more delicate and attentive role. A cross-cultural 2012 study by Joseph L. Flanders of McGill University suggests that fathers generally prefer rough-and-tumble play (RTP) over fine-motor subtle play, showing an association between father-child RTP and physically aggressive behavior in early childhood and adolescence.
Our Eurocentric society has grown to reject the notion that physical violence and control are always superior and shift away from traditional gender-based expectations. Public figures, notably musical artist Harry Styles, have been rewriting the norms of masculinity through his flamboyant and androgynous style. His photoshoot for Vogue magazine, where he donned a dress and other “traditionally female” attire, was criticized by conservative commentators, like author Candance Owens who protested the “steady feminization of our men” and called to “bring back manly men”. The condemnation demonstrates how deeply rooted Eurocentric society is in gender binaries. A recent trend of “E-boy” subculture, popularized through TikTok, has been dismantling the fortress of masculinity through the normalization of nail polish on mxn. The K-pop revolution is introducing Western audiences to makeup-wearing, exuberantly-dressed, and overall incredibly talented idols, forcing the public to confront their narrow views of masculinity.

In many native cultures, masculinity and femininity have long been recognized and accepted as a porous spectrum. Some indigenous groups have well-acknowledged social roles for the intertwining of these two constructs. The “Berdache” tradition is one with Native American origins that refer to the belief that gender exists as a continuum varying between male and female. The Native American concept of gender, sometimes referred to as the “two-spirit” tradition, recognizes the distinct separation of gender from sexual orientation, a concept that foreign to the Eurocentric realm of thought. In the Philippines, the term “baklâ” is used to denote a biological male who adopts a feminine gender expression, often considered a third gender. The term “hijra” describes the third gender expression in India. Additionally, the understanding that gender identity does not always align with sexual preference is much more accepted in other societies. For example, Ancient Greece and Tokugawa Era Japan had a strong warrior culture that promoted the image of an aggressive domineering male figure, while simultaneously permitting homosexuality and homoeroticism. In most parts of Melanesia and Polynesia, male-male attraction is considered a normal part of childhood development.
However, most mxn in this modern era of acceptance still strive to attain these primitive standards of masculinity to display their abilities and success. This culture forms an expectation for rich and successful mxn to exert their influence and dominance over the remaining population as a recompensation for their wealth, reinforcing the cycle. Society itself boasts a perplexing message through overt and covert encouragements for mxn to have in these crude manners while simultaneously showing support for emotional vulnerability. For example, the infamous Maxi-Milk ad — depicting a rugged toned man rock climbing with the bolded label “Milk for Real Men” — clearly portray visual markers that allow for a narrow interpretation of what it means to “be a man” or be “masculine”. Mainstream media from movies to graphic novels to books are often geared towards the same message: “real men” assert their dominance and beat down anything that doesn’t conform with their will. Ironically, what we now refer to as “toxic masculinity” might simply be the apex of what has been traditionally regarded as the “ideal” man for centuries.

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