National Comment Comment

‘Toxic masculinity’ is a flawed and dangerous term

The popularisation of the term generalises and harms the discussion surrounding mental health

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Image Credit: M.Garde, Oxford English Dictionary, Jonathan Wellington

There are a lot of expectations regarding what it means to be a man in 2019. The main issue with this is that the nature of different people’s expectations varies so much. Some people consider masculinity to have only positive connotations, while others believe there to be serious negative implications to the social construct. It’s my opinion that a lot of these views, both positive and negative, are now out-dated and although men must acknowledge their predetermined privilege, that doesn’t mean that they should accept it.

I grew up in a world where it was implied that men had to be strong and that we had to be able to provide for families that didn’t even exist yet. Neither of these are particularly negative and I wouldn’t necessarily object to being described as, or able to fulfil, either of them. However, I would argue that com - pared to the significance that they have had to previous generations, it is in fact not these supposedly necessary traits or requirements that being a man is all about. Rather, it is the effect that these expectations can have on a person that are truly at the centre of what masculinity and being a man in 2019 means.

In my house, the expression “real men don’t eat quiche” was genuinely frequent within my Dad’s vocabulary. I’m not saying that “real men don’t eat quiche” was ever said with particular seriousness, or that I ever heard it from anyone but my Dad in anything but a jokey way, but the fact remains that I’ve still never eaten quiche.

Although this example might seem abstract and irrelevant (if that’s the impact that one jovial suggestion of what it means to be a real man has had on me) it’s no surprise that narratives which are much more widespread can have huge effects on people and their concepts of manliness and manhood. These effects, which are the culmination of thousands of messages and thousands of implications, are most importantly inevitably different. Just like any other form of identity construction, masculinity is the result of countless factors and yet, for some bizarre reason, all the negative implications which result from masculinity are grouped up using a single term: toxic masculinity. It is this term I have grown to have such a problem with.

We’ve all heard the phrase and we’ve all most likely experienced it. If you’re a man reading this then you’ve probably exhibited this toxicity yourself. In fact, anyone can. A certain night I wish I could for - get in Stone Roses, centered around the punching bag and a group of locals, certainly comes to mind as a moment where I wish that toxic masculinity had influenced me less. That ‘laddy’ culture, which is admittedly at some times less harmful than others, is most likely the first thing you associate with the term toxic masculinity and think of when you read the headline of this article. At best it’s that blokey atmosphere, fuelled by testosterone, Stella, and football, and at worst it’s the guy who identifies as a man’s man and uses that to bully and belittle others and their mental health.

What I’m trying to say, however, is that despite this being a big part of masculinity, it really isn’t all there is to the term and there is a lot more under the surface happening when you are looking at or considering the negative implications of the masculine identity. The danger of describing this negative behaviour with the term toxic masculinity is that toxic masculinity then in itself becomes a negative term. It becomes a term used to describe someone who should really know better and someone who desperately needs to be told to stop being such an idiot. This creates the idea that all cases of toxic masculinity, and therefore all cases of masculinity’s negative consequences, can be solved by getting the individuals to stop acting in such a way and to think about others.

By continuing to use the phrase toxic masculinity in this way, we continue to fail men across the country. This is because in my experience, where toxic masculinity is most damaging and most troublesome isn’t in that one dick of an individual at the bar, on the football field, or in the office- places where it is most obvious and visible. Toxic masculinity is instead most damaging where it’s less visible, when it’s inside the heads of men across the country.

I’m not saying to feel sorry for those men I described earlier who use their masculinity as an excuse to bully and discriminate, I’m saying emphasise with the standard person. The person who despite rejecting these ‘traditional’ masculine values still has that tiny pride-fuelled devil on his shoulder that tells him it’s not okay to cry. That tiny part inside a person that tells them it’s not okay to reach out to someone about their mental health. That tiny part that then grows in so many people across the country into something much larger. That tiny part that then leads to 6 507 suicides in 2018 with 4 903 of those being men. I’m not saying that the term “toxic masculinity” was responsible for all of those deaths, what I’m saying is that in order to properly ad - dress the mental health crisis, we need to change the language around men’s mental health. All that demonising toxic masculinity currently does is make those who beat themselves up about their mental health feel worse. Those who embrace that toxic masculine identity are unfazed by the phrase; it means nothing to them. Whereas those who do listen and reject aspects of traditional masculinity are further alienated by their own mental health. The term toxic masculinity not only ignores this separation of negative reactions to ‘masculine values’ but it also further alienates those who don’t think of themselves as ‘masculine’ or those who aren’t men. Continuing to this phrase in the men’s mental health debate essentially says to women, you could never understand the pressure and the guilt I face because you don’t identify as a man and that’s bonkers. What I’ve discussed here is typical of my experiences as a man but that doesn’t mean women can’t feel the same.

Let’s get rid of the term toxic masculinity and replace it with something that better describes the differing situations. Let’s call those who struggle to speak about emotions and mental health as a result of the messages in society one thing, regardless of gender. And let’s call those bullies who use masculinity as an excuse to treat others badly what they are: arseholes.

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