‘Toxic masculinity’ has emerged as a prominent theme in the culture wars of the twenty-first century. In social media memes, in therapy sessions, in lecture halls, in university seminars and workshops, or in a freshmen orientation session at Gettysburg College, one is introduced to the notion that a specific assortment of conventional attitudes, behaviors, and taboos associated with masculinity are toxic to the relations between men and women, and also detrimental to the mental health of men.
As with many ideas that gain traction in the national conversation about culture and values, toxic masculinity can be hard to define, particularly as the notion grows in use and popularity. It is an idea which may have originated with the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, but has subsequently been commandeered by the feminist movement as well as any weekend warrior with a half-baked opinion about evolving norms of masculinity. As such, its definition can vary depending on the purpose or agenda it serves. But without encountering too much disagreement, one can begin by defining it as an outward display of aggressiveness in male social behavior that goes beyond assertiveness, and that such aggression stems from a view that equates strength with an unhealthy dose of emotional repression.
Already, however, this definition threatens to scatter the conversation in multiple directions, as disputes arise about what is meant by words like ‘aggressive’, ‘assertive’, ‘strength’, and ‘emotional repression’, and how they relate to masculinity. For instance, the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece equated virtue with a mastery of emotion in the belief that passions cloud reason and undermine the mind’s pursuit of logos, or universal reason. For the Stoics, a good life is inseparable from a vigorous and successful effort to restrain the play of emotions. Self-control is fundamental to happiness, where happiness is a kind of equanimity in the face of life’s adversities. This sounds a lot like the ethics of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose naturalistic ethics argues for a conception of human happiness that depends crucially on the restraint of emotion (properly-defined).
But Greek Stoicism and Spinozoan ethics are probably not what one has in mind when expressing concerns about how conventional notions of masculinity, such as a taboo on emotional expression, become toxic to male health. Moreover, although the Stoics and Spinoza lived in male-centered societies, one would be hard-pressed in the twenty-first century to argue that stoic equanimity is a virtue attainable only by men. Spinozoan stoicism is not about telling men they can’t cry, but about cultivating habits of mind that free us from the need to cry.
One sees quickly, then, that it is no easy task to arrive at a precise definition of toxic masculinity, particularly given ambiguities about how one is to harvest a healthy relationship with emotions like sadness or love. One inevitably runs up against a slew of assumptions and beliefs about what masculinity is, about the attitudes and behaviors to which those assumptions and beliefs give rise, and about what masculinity is supposed to be. This complexity is compounded by the growing popularity of the term. When ideas gain in popularity, one must take great care to discern the contours of its meaning. And then one must stick to it, or else delve into the confusion that arises when overuse of a term expands the contours and dilutes the meaning with an undisciplined inclusion of more and more behaviors within what was supposed to be the precisely-demarcated boundaries of a well-defined concept.
The dilution of meaning—dare I say, the ‘emasculation’ of a phrase such a ‘toxic masculinity’—can happen because the question of what makes masculinity toxic is one whose answer ultimately ends up depending on who is answering the question. The Mythopoetic Men’s Movement (MMM) has its own ideas about how conventional notions of masculinity become toxic to men’s health, while men (or women) not associated with the MMM movement may have their own opinions on the matter (and perhaps there is not uniform agreement within the MMM movement itself).
For example, I am a man who trains in boxing and kickboxing, disciplines which one would associate with toughness, physicality, strength, and high levels of testosterone. Yet if I’m at a bar, I gravitate to ‘fruity’ drinks like strawberry daiquiris and apple martinis. Moreover, though I am straight, I love to go to gay clubs with gay friends and dance. Old-school stereotypes about masculinity may find affinities for kickboxing and gay clubs and strawberry daiquiris in the same personality to be incongruous, but if a ‘less-enlightened’ friend cracks a joke about my masculinity, I shrug. I feel no threat to my masculinity.
Given the diversity of views, is it impossible to arrive at a general definition of toxic masculinity that can account for these differences? Maybe it is. One attempt defines toxic masculinity as ‘the socially-constructed attitudes, mindsets and (yes) boundaries that tell men that there is only one possible way to embody their (also socially-constructed) gender, and women that they should be looking for (and submissive to) a violent, sex-obsessed, controlling, unfeeling, all-around-unresponsive person.’ The definition seems sensible enough, but obvious questions rear their head: what are these specific attitudes, mindsets, and boundaries that constitute toxic behavioral proclivities? Is the problem so endemic, and simplistic, as to say that millions of men are indoctrinated with a singular idea of how to ‘embody their gender’, and is it the case that this singular idea is so pervasive and common and accepted that it also has millions of women believing they should submit to ‘a violent, sex-obsessed, controlling, unfeeling, all-around unresponsive person?’
If that is the claim, then I respectfully disagree, and would ask the author to be a little more scrupulous in her thinking. In fairness, however, the article identifies a loose collection of ‘toxic’ stereotypes associated with conventional notions of masculinity. For example, it claims: ‘[s]tereotypes that can be included under the umbrella of toxic masculinity include exclusive interest in sex, necessary disinterest in “frivolous” things like sugary drinks or personal hygiene (lest one be thought to be materialistic, and therefore feminine), unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own emotions or those of others, lack of desire to be a parent or be in a serious relationship.’ But does a man’s behavior become toxic when he exhibits only one of these behaviors, or all of them, or a subset of them? If he is sex-obsessed, but not indifferent to personal hygiene, has he nonetheless draped himself in the cloak of toxic masculinity? If he is less prone to expressing or acknowledging his emotions, should we conclude not that he is an introvert or a creature out of the relatively more laconic culture of New England, but rather that he is an unwitting victim of attitudes about masculinity that convince him he needs to ‘man up’ and not be open with his emotions? If he strives to control, but not repress, his emotions, should we conclude not that he is fond of Stoic philosophy but that he has been victimized by the prevailing culture of toxic masculinity?
Aside from a failure to be precise, the definition also suffers from an assumption that a significant degree of human behavior is malleable and can be accounted for by socialization. In this view, cultural constructs like patriarchy have indoctrinated individuals with ideas designed to undergird a system of hegemony, i.e. exploitative power relations, within society. Given how similar this sounds to what Noam Chomsky calls ‘manufacturing consent’, one can be forgiven for entertaining the idea that ‘toxic masculinity’ is just another term in the lexicon of progressive agitprop wielded by left-wing intellectuals like Chomsky or western Marxists like Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci, in fact, proposed an ideological battle for hearts and minds conducted by partisan intellectuals who work to acquire positions of influence within the social hierarchy in order to articulate and advocate for the interests of the supposedly disenfranchised (his so-called ‘war of position’). From this perspective, one cannot help but wonder if the questioning of old-school notions of masculinity is not simply a reassessment of conventional masculinity, but also an attack on masculinity itself, motivated by the view that social constructs can be designed to train individuals to think ‘the right way.’
This is not an absurd notion. While Gramsci’s target was bourgeois capitalism, he waged his war by pinning the blame for exploitation on ‘cultural hegemony’. For Gramsci, like his fellow western Marxists, capitalism is an exploitative system which thrives on the consent of the exploited. Consent is manufactured via ideology, and ideology is a set of ideas and customs reified by the norms of culture. In a postmodern world where truth is regarded as inseparable from historical and social contexts, and where many progressives see the historical and social context in which we live as one primarily characterized by patriarchal hegemony, it is not a stretch to wonder if concerns about ‘toxic masculinity’ are motivated in part by a subversive act of legerdemain that seeks not only to reform masculinity, but to change it altogether in the service of a social construct deemed more favorable to a revolutionary world view.
Lest I be accused of concocting a conspiracy theory, let me flatly state that I don’t see cabals of feminists meeting in dark rooms to talk about how to take power and emasculate men. While left-wing activism has indeed become a force in the university and in other cultural institutions in our society, the problem I’m discussing is something different. One of the critical shortcomings of positions taken in the culture wars, both progressive and conservative, is the tendency to appropriate individual situations that have their own context, and pigeon-hole them into conceptual categories that serve the cause of re-education or consciousness-raising. In other words, we become susceptible to taking things out of context. One danger in doing so is that we confine our perception of the true merits of any given situation at hand by trying to shoehorn a unique situation into preconceived frameworks employed to interpret and understand the situation, thus distorting our understanding of what is at stake in each situation. That is, we can’t see the trees in the forest, or at least distinguish oak trees from maple trees, and redwoods from pines. This myopia militates against the reconciliation of opposing perspectives, as factions dig in and become wedded to ideological agendas.
This danger is not only moral, but epistemological. Morally, the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’ divides people into rival camps guided by competing ethical imperatives about the kind of society that is ideal for the cultivation of a good man. But epistemologically, the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’ divides people into rival camps guided by competing impressions of what constitutes healthy masculinity and what constitutes harmful masculinity. It also divides people into rival camps that differ in how they apportion the biological and cultural aspects of male behavior. Such polarized views become as irreconcilable as the age-old nature-nurture debate. Are men born with an innate proclivity for violence, or does the culture in which they grow up emphasize fists over feelings in the reconciliation of disputes? Are men emotionally reticent by nature, or do youth leagues, schools, and parents create a boot-camp atmosphere that raises boys to be emotionally stilted?
One side of the divide is the progressive inclination to explain behavior exclusively, or primarily, in terms of culture. This can be particularly insidious because progressives usually believe they have a monopoly on virtue. Their fight for change is predicated on the assumption that change is necessarily equivalent to a moral advance. In many cases, they are right. But in other cases, they are not, in which case progressive forces are not necessarily trying to improve behavior, but rather alter behavior. But the nature-nurture dichotomy forces one to ask whether they are pursuing a fool’s errand by attempting to conduct a ‘social justice’ war against gender norms they presume to be socially-constructed, versus conducting a war against human nature itself. Such presumptions make them susceptible to errors in reasoning. One article states: ‘Most men don’t take a conversation about how a woman looks like a slut for wearing certain clothing to be an invitation to rape her. But for the few men who do, they are able rationalize their violence through the way our society demeans women. For the men who do choose to commit violence, they are surrounded by a culture that finds ways to justify that violence: she was too drunk, too slutty, too promiscuous.’ This sounds reasonable, but is the contrapositive true? If rapists are not surrounded by a culture that finds ways to justify violence, does it follow that they would not commit rape? Are there are other factors, biological or cultural, to consider in why a man commits rape? Is it the case that eliminating ‘locker room talk’ would necessarily eliminate, or reduce, the prevalence of rape? It’s impossible to say since it’s a counterfactual. But it does leave a taste of skepticism in the mouth of one who chews on the meaning of a ‘culture war’ against so-called ‘toxic masculinity’. Human behavior is not so easily explained, or at least is not so malleable as to be attributed entirely to cultural influences.
In the orientation session at Gettysburg College, freshmen are treated to a documentary entitled ‘The Mask You Live In.’ A trailer for the documentary begins with former coach and NFL football player Joe Ehrman saying that the ‘three most destructive words that every man receives when he is a boy is when he’s told to be a man.’ In sketching out what it means to ‘be a man’ in our culture, the trailer shows the clip of an interview in which a boy says that ‘if you never cry, then you have all these feelings stuffed up inside of you and then you can’t get them out.’ The trailer immediately cuts to a segment in which a psychologist and educator named Dr. Niobe Way claims that boys have ‘bought into a culture’ that doesn’t value certain behaviors because they have been ‘feminized’, and that a culture that doesn’t value relationships, empathy, or caring will generate a society of boys and girls who go ‘crazy’. Her comments are interspersed with headlines of stories about acts of homophobia and bullying, as if to imply that the alleged cultural disparagement of ‘feminized’ behaviors like empathy and caring directly leads to destructive social outcomes. Before one has the time to stop and think about whether these are indeed behaviors that have been ‘feminized’, the video cuts to segments in which boys talk about being prone to violence or suicide because of unresolved anger issues. In their telling, to ‘man up’ and not cry, or even to not talk about emotions, is regarded as harmful to their health and contributes to a host of social problems like suicide and homicide. In short, to ‘be a man’ in our culture is to be a victim of toxic masculinity, and none of it is good for society.
But if a boy does cry, is he necessarily less prone to get into trouble with authorities later in life? Is he less prone to depression or suicide? Of course not. There are multiple factors in the long causal chain that can lead to a dysfunctional life. These factors depend on the specific genetic endowments, personalities, and environmental circumstances of each individual man. Dysfunction is a function of both sex (the biological reality of being born a male) and gender (cultural attitudes about what it means to be a man). It also reflects the interplay between genetic predispositions and cultural influences. Sex and gender are not mutually exclusive. All the crying in the world cannot eliminate a congenital reticence or moodiness that has been molded and reinforced by an unstable upbringing. Moreover, trying to alter a congenital reticence may hinder an introverted boy’s quest to discover who he is, or inadvertently cast a value judgment on the more laconic culture of a place like New England; in each case, a boy who is less inclined to be emotionally expressive may be made to feel guilty when instead he should be encouraged to be proud of his biological or cultural identity. Of course, it is certainly possible that some boys conditioned by congenital introversion or a more reserved culture may benefit from intervention by mental health professionals who may encourage more emotional expression, but it does not necessarily follow that these boys have been conditioned to devalue emotional expression because they are male. Some boys are reticent by nature, and some cultures may not as expressive as others. Tolerance for emotional expression should not be accompanied by intolerance for emotional restraint.
In short, ‘toxic masculinity’ can be a red herring. Consider the taboo against men crying. I am a man who chooses not to cry. It is not because I believe men are called upon to violently repress their emotions. As a man who believes wholeheartedly that mental health is a serious and underappreciated discipline, I fully support the effort of any man, or woman, to come to terms with anxieties, complexes, traumas, and other emotional vulnerabilities, either with family or friends or mental health professionals.
But restraining emotion is not the same as repressing emotion. In dealing with anxieties about life, I view crying as unhelpful. Like the Stoics or Spinoza, I view the passions as a distraction from the rational quest for equanimity in the face of life’s adversities. After crying, the same hardships remain. In my experience, I feel worse after crying. Crying amounts to little more than a stormy emotional interlude that delays resolution of a conflict. The emotions pour out in a massive heap of confusion without the pilot of a rational mind to steer the ship and point in the direction of clarity and understanding.
This is a philosophical perspective, but my aversion to crying also has roots in one of the most traumatic experiences of my boyhood: seeing my father cry. One night, my parents were in the middle of one of their many rancorous fights. I recall not the cause of the fight, or the contents of their bitter exchange. I only recall the severe tension swelling throughout the house as I heard the harangues emanating from their voices in the bedroom. I did not have a front row seat. I only heard the voices—my father’s roars, my mother’s histrionics. Though dread seized hold of me, I was determined to shut it out.
But suddenly, my mother burst from the room, my father in pursuit. It was not a chase. She was not fleeing him in fear. Rather, he was following her like a wounded dog. He was pleading for her forgiveness, or her understanding. My mother, however, was in a state of disgust. Then, as I saw my father come out of the shadows, I saw that he was crying, and my mother was having none of it.
It wasn’t that my mother was cold and heartless. I could appreciate her disgust. As a child, I associated the booming voice of my cantankerous father with bellicosity, and the shrieking voice of my mother with victimhood. Perhaps she was unable to reciprocate the affection because their argument had been unusually fierce. Perhaps she thought he was play-acting, as if my father was trying to manipulate the situation by making a sympathy play in front of the kids, an ironic twist given that my father would always accuse her of being a ‘drama queen’.
The possibility that my father was feigning emotion crossed my mind at the time, even as a nine-year-old boy. Crying was too dramatic a flair for my father. It chills me even as I write this to see my father crying in my mind’s eye. Perhaps it is because the memory forces me to relive the fear and vulnerability I felt on that late, wintry dark night. But I’m not so sure. I was used to fear and vulnerability in my childhood.
Seeing my father cry was something entirely different. My father was often angry. As a child who knew no better, I saw him as mean or grouchy. He was also a hulk of a man. Big. Muscular. Ruddy. Burly. With his bald crown and blond stringy hair, he looked like Hulk Hogan nursing a perpetual lifelong grudge. He never seemed happy. He was always on the verge of a blowup. He was also a martinet disciplinarian who tolerated little disobedience. Seeing him cry was like seeing George Patton cry.
It’s not that my father did not have a softer edge. He was, in fact, a sentimental man with few qualms about wearing his emotions. He was a published poet. He left me letters of apology on mornings after he was unusually strict with me. He requested I kiss him every night and gave me endearing nicknames.
But his acts of sentimentality made me uncomfortable. I could not reconcile them with the rough edges of his personality. So, when I saw him crying, I cringed, as I still do. I did not want to see this. It did not feel good. Something was terribly out of sorts with the universe. A man, or at least a man like my father, was not supposed to cry, at least not so openly, or in front of kids, and I still feel that way today. A child’s intuition acutely perceives the negative emotions on display. A child is not emotionally mature enough to understand and process the meaning and implications of his emotions. He benefits from having a rational adult guide him in interpreting his own emotions. But seeing his ‘rational’ guide break down and cry only serves to leave him in a greater state of confusion.
It may also be that I did not like the sight of my father crying because I had never seen it before, and since it was so unique a display of negative emotion, perhaps I believed it served only to escalate the tension between him and my mother to a level that would become unsustainable, and that I was projecting a fear that my parents would split. Or perhaps I did not like it because it only served to deepen my confusion about what was going on between my parents. In short, crying did not help the situation. It made me feel worse.
It was not the case, however, that my aversion to seeing my father cry stems from some intuition about masculinity that was inculcated in me by social influences. My father did not teach me this. He taught me in word and deed to be open with emotion. He was, after all, a poet who could write me letters of apology when he thought he was wrong.
Maybe I learned that ‘boys don’t cry’ from kids on the street, but then again, I saw several boys cry, like a rival in the schoolyard whom I kneed in the groin in a schoolyard fight in the second grade. I stood around and watched him cry.
And on my first day of kindergarten, I cried. Then, when I was home after the second or third day of kindergarten and my father arrived home, I ran up to him and proclaimed: ‘Dad! I didn’t cry today!’ He paused and looked at me, and nodded, as if he approved, or didn’t know what to think. Maybe he thought to himself: ‘great, I have a crybaby for a son’. I do not know. The sense I do remember, however, was feeling immediately afterward that I had said something shameful. I do not associate that feeling of shame with my father’s reaction. I associate it instead with an innate feeling of regret that I confessed to being susceptible to crying when faced with a new environment.
One tenet of ‘toxic masculinity’ is the idea that men don’t cry, or at least don’t cry in public. Crying is associated with femininity, weakness, or emasculation. It is the objective of those who labor to demythologize ‘toxic masculinity’ in our culture to convince us that it is okay for men to cry, even in public. The stigma against crying is taken to be harmful to the emotional health of men, penalizing them for an authentic expression of emotion.
I can certainly conceive of the possibility that a stigma against crying can facilitate a greater likelihood of emotional repression, and that it may serve to undermine male health. However, I can also conceive of the possibility that crying can be as traumatic for some as it may be cathartic for others. Telling one man it’s ok to cry may make him feel better, but telling another may make him feel worse.
So, I cannot help but wonder if the push to make it permissible for men to cry is infected with its own breed of intolerance. I think few would dispute that men feel sadness, depression, regret, fear, and insecurity. I don’t. But there is a natural voice in me, not easily traceable to cultural influences (my father probably would have told me it is ok to cry), that tells me it is not okay to cry. Over time, this voice has blossomed into a rational choice to cultivate habits of mind that eliminate the need to cry. Maybe I’m too fond of the Greek Stoics, or I’ve been spending too much time reading Spinoza’s Ethics. But for me, a healthy life is one of emotional restraint, and equanimity in the face of life’s adversities. When I hear that the taboo against crying is an unacceptable manifestation of toxic masculinity, I feel a need to explain why I am a man who chooses not to cry. But that’s just me, and I hope it’s ok.
Photo credit: Getty Images