Rethinking Masculinity: What Should It Look Like?

Adam Polánek gives us a damning and informative look at toxic masculinity. He calls for an ‘unlearning’ of traditional male stereotypes in order to accept a healthier ‘multiple masculinity’ view of our sex and gender.

If there’s one issue people across the political spectrum can generally agree on, it’s that ‘traditional’ masculinity is in a crisis. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, and with the majority of suicides globally being male, it’s clear that the ideal of manliness we’ve been cultivating for decades is unhealthy and unsustainable, to say the least.

What’s less clear, however, is the best alternative - some see today’s men as too fragile, others as too toxic. To make the case for either would be a hasty simplification - there’s no ‘average man’ the same way there isn’t an ‘average bisexual’ or an ‘average atheist’. Still, there seem to exist behavioural patterns many men share, and those need to be scrutinised. Speaking from personal experience and that of others, I will attempt to describe the defining traits of contemporary masculinity and what we can do to move beyond today’s essentialist conception of manliness.

I believe most problems concerning gender arise from the fact that we think of masculinity as an avoidance of femininity. Men are raised to be what women stereotypically ‘aren’t’, and distance themselves from being what women ‘are’. That’s why boys are generally discouraged from hosting tea parties, wearing skirts, or taking up figure skating. Over time, boys come to internalise this gender coding. In my case, to compensate for my ‘unmanly’ love of ballroom dancing, I asked my grandad to teach me how to shoot a rifle and split firewood.

Such a conscious performance of gender sounds comical, but this affirmation of being male by distancing from the ‘feminine’ - whatever that means - impacts subconscious behaviour too. If you have ever asked yourself why a man you know to be nice one-on-one becomes insufferable in a group of men, it’s for this very reason. Manliness in social settings tends to be a kind of ritual - every member of that group of men is, however subconsciously, trying to prove that he, too, is loud, brazen, overly assertive - everything women are stereotypically thought not to be.

Possibly the most insidious implication of the point I am making arises from the way in which we assign character traits to gender. Since characteristics like ‘compassionate', or ‘caring' are traditionally considered feminine, men often shy away from developing those traits as to not appear, or feel, emasculated. In turn, men are denying themselves the mechanisms necessary to grapple with, among other things, mental illnesses. Forming habits and behaviour as a rejection of womanhood - or rather, a misconception of womanhood - we are harming others and we are harming ourselves.

These constricting gender classifications (women like X and do X, men like Y and do Y) came into being through an interplay of media portrayal, historically imposed power structures, and a romantic idea of the male and female principles - the ‘union of opposites'. However, it's becoming increasingly clear that gender essentialism is not allowing us to be our best selves. It took me years to realise feeling vulnerable does not make me less of a man in the same way being ambitious does not make one less of a woman.

Of course, there are indisputable biological differences between men and women, but these must not be weaponized to perpetuate or excuse inequalities and violence. Contrary to the right-wing media fuelled narrative, almost nobody actually advocates for a ‘post-gender' society where gender doesn't exist and people are indistinguishable from one another. The desirable outcome is a society where one can define their individual gender identity and lead a life free from oppression.

We need a radical unlearning of what it is to be a man, to move beyond a single acceptable masculinity towards multiple masculinities -  the kinds that encourage mental wellbeing, that are unafraid of being tender, and that allow us to do ‘unmanly' things without feeling shame. Because looking around, it's apparent that the ‘boys will be boys' attitude has failed just about everyone.