"What does it take to earn the title of being a 'man'?" MacKenzie Rumage explores the topic of 'toxic masculinity' through interview-based questions that highlight the current male perspective on this outdated label.
What does it take to earn the title of being a ‘man’? Is it not enough to be born a male and identify as one? Historically, the answer is no. It is not enough to simply have a penis and testosterone, but a man must also be tough, stoic and unfeminine. If women are the damsels in distress in ivory towers, the men are the fearless knights in shining armour coming to save them, braving danger at every turn.
But are these ideals of masculinity fair? Can we, as a society, really put a label on what being a man is, when these qualifications can be so hard to constantly live up to? After all, men are only human. It is a lot to ask of someone to maintain a set of traits their entire life, never mind a whole gender. In this day and age, should the ideas of masculinity that ruled 50 years ago still dominate today?
To find answers to these questions, I conducted a survey with 16 men, ranging in age from 19 to 27—still in the phase of their lives where they are discovering who they are, and who they would like to be. I simply asked them several questions about their opinion on society’s view of masculinity, whether they have opposing views on what it means to be masculine, and if they have ever been considered not ‘manly enough’/told to ‘man up’.
Do you have an issue with society’s view of masculinity?
Nine men answered that they took issue with what society sees as masculine, while six answered ‘sometimes’. Those who answered ‘yes’ found the idea that men have to hide their emotions ridiculous and counter-intuitive. Tim, a senior at George Washington University, said that making men feel like they have to act a certain way and feel certain emotions is a “detriment to society”. While these ideals harm society, they also harm the men themselves. For instance, another man thought that the idea of shutting off your emotions can be compared to building only half of a house: “you may be proud of what you've done, but that still doesn't make it liveable.” A third guy agreed with this sentiment, replying, “I feel like some of the core ideals of masculinity are a bit narrow-minded, and fit guys into a certain box… I often feel like I have to hide that [emotional] side of myself ...”
The only man in the group who did not take issue with society’s views of masculinity, said that the ideas we associate with masculinity “resemble the effects of testosterone.” He continued, “I don’t take issue with the fact that these are issues associated with masculinity, but… I mean men (or women) can be masculine without expressing these traits.” George, a rising senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute agreed. He took issue with society’s ideas of masculinity because he found them to be “too demonised”. To him, core traits of masculinity involve being protective and being a gentleman, which are not harmful traits by themselves. While these responses disagree with the majority of others’, the point they make is worth considering: can both men and women share these traits without being labelled ‘masculine’, and can men and women be labelled ‘masculine’ without these traits? This leads to a question of how one defines masculinity on a personal level.
Do your ideas of masculinity differ from society’s?
Many said yes. Callum noted that our ideas of masculinity have evolved on the whole, and we have started expecting more varied traits from men, other than simply aggression.
Jamie’s view of masculinity has been affected deeply due to his sexual orientation and his recent move from America to the United Kingdom, writing that one’s ideas of masculinity depends “entirely on what culture and environment you come from.”
However, second year Josh said that while we have moved away from “typecasting” men and women, “the traits of masculinity and femininity are still widely accepted and used as attributes adhering to stereotypes we've worked so hard to abolish.”
I believe what Josh says to be accurate. While we have made great strides in terms of gender in the past few years, we still accept these traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity as representative of their respective genders. For example, in 2003 the American Film Institute’s (AFI) listed 50 of film’s greatest heroes and villains. Out of 100 total characters listed, 73 were male, and 42 were labelled ‘heroes’. Many of the characters from both sources (such as Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Ethan Hunt) are typical male heroes: muscled, heterosexual, white, near-fearless, and usually saving a woman from danger. While they are universally beloved characters, there is clearly a bias in our culture in not only who we choose to tell our stories about—men or women—but in also how we define them. And the fact that most of these movie series have lasted for decades shows us that we have stuck with these ideas of male heroes for years, and still hang onto them today.
Not only do these ideas impact men themselves when they become toxic, but in our patriarchal world, they impact everyone else as well. Letherio, a second year at the University of the South said that toxic masculinity occurs when men feel that they must demonstrate their masculinity, even at the “cost of others.” Avery, an American second year at St Andrews, went further, saying toxic masculinity was an exertion of dominance and entitlement. To be a good man, the guys said, is to be a good person: caring, honest, respectful to everyone regardless of gender. St Andrews student Angus added that a good man, like a good person, should be a feminist, and support LGBTQ+ rights. It is not enough, they agreed, to say you support these things, but live by those ideas as well. However, trying to live by these ideas is not always as easy as it sounds.
Avery also said that his ideas and how he tries to live, have conflicted with how he votes. Though he is a registered Republican, he has issues understanding the Republican Party because of how party officials think they are entitled to dictate issues such as abortion. Warwick student Sam, in the same vein, said he would vote for someone who advocated for greater equality for women, if it was taken as a genuine stance in politics at all.
Have you ever felt judged for not being ‘manly’?
15 of the 16 said they had felt judged for not being ‘manly enough’, or they had been told to ‘man up’ before. Many of them had been told this by coaches, teachers, and other male role models. One man I interviewed said he believed that “the stress of being a ‘man’ might be a precursor to any academic stress that children experience.” St Andrews student Callum said that the phrase ‘man up’ is outdated: “people who don’t identify as men have shown plenty of strength in their own right.” Fellow St Andrews student Jamie agreed, saying toxic masculinity came from the idea that men needed to act like they were from the 1940s “even though our culture has changed so much since then, that this is unrealistic.” It makes you wonder about the expectations we put on our children to fit into specific ideas of their gender, whether we mean to or not.
These guys were told how to act like men before they even became men—and that influenced how they saw themselves in comparison to how they were told to be.
Tackling 'toxic masculinity'
Delving deeper into the foundations of these toxic perceptions and challenging them are at the heart of the Kickstarter, that New York University senior Ben started with his friends. Masculinity Reimagined, a theatre company which is currently hosting a workshop in Los Angeles, aims to replace what men have been taught with “room for understanding and compassion.” What lies beneath a man who feels as though his masculinity is threatened, Ben says, is a deep sense of insecurity. Confronting what men have been taught for generations head-on with love and self-love can remedy these toxic “codes” and benefit men as well as the rest of society. When offered an empathetic helping hand, “the willingness men have to confront their biases, blind spots, and harmful behaviour is largely encouraging.”
What needs to come next in this ever-evolving discussion about gender are more seats at the table, and room for different opinions. Branching out from white, over-privileged men to those of different races, LGBTQ+, and political opinions are vital to finding long-term solutions, rather than short-term fixes, as George wrote. Like all things in life, we need balance. We need men’s voices, along with women’s, and those who identify as other. We need to embrace what is seen as feminine in us, and masculine, so that neither turn harmful to ourselves and others.
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