Redefining masculinity


“Be a man! You must be swift as the coursing river! Be a Man! With all the force of a great typhoon! Be a man! With all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the darkside of the moon!” – I’ll Make a Man Out of You, Mulan.

Any child of the ’90s or avid Disney aficionado will instantly recognize this verse as the chorus from one of the most popular songs from Disney’s Mulan. In the scene, the drill sergeant (voiced by Donny Osmond) is training his new recruits how to be “real men” and defeat the Huns. It is a very triumphant song, advocating that men must be strong, fast, powerful, and mysterious.

The irony in the song is that the unit of soldiers singing about how to be manly men isn’t as all-male as they imagine themselves to be. But for thousands of years, boys have heard a similar, darker, and far less ironic set of gender-defining directives: “Don’t cry,” “don’t be a pu**y!” “bros before hoes,” “man up,” “get laid,” “don’t be a f*g,” “grow some balls,” “be a man!”

This is the far darker and much more “real” version of masculinity most men grow up hearing as boys by our parents and classmates. This masculinity is toxic turning boys and men inward, suppressing their emotions or channeling them through escapes like sports, video games, or far more destructive activities like drinking, drug use, and violence towards themselves or others.

This is the toxic hegemonic masculinity that is destructive to all people, to men and women, and to society as a whole. It is discussed in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s brilliant documentary “The Mask You Live In.” Boys naturally seek guidance from male role models, be they fathers, brothers or the friends who surround them. In college, they may get absorbed into fraternity life in the US or “lad culture” in the UK. Although there are certainly good aspects of the Greek lifestyle or of “lad culture” that can come from male bonding, often times it leads to verbal of physical violence against women, in the form of chanting “No means yes, yes means anal” by one Yale fraternity, rape on US campuses, rampant sexism in the UK or worse.

Drill instructor, via Wikimedia Commons

Drill instructor, via Wikimedia Commons

The American Psychological Association’s Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity determined that American society “socializes boys and men to conform to a definition of masculinity that emphasizes toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness, and self-reliance,” which they say leads to “aggressive, emotionally stunted males who harm not just themselves but their children, partners, and entire communities.”

This processes of the socialization of toxic masculinity begins from birth. Clinical Psychologist David Wexler states that even at age two, girls refer to feelings more frequently than boys and after about age four or five, boys are not only held less than girls but the expression of emotions like fear and sadness by boys are more likely to be discouraged and punished by parents.

Attorney and staff writer for The National Review, David French — this David French — reflects upon his childhood growing up in the south, and the larger cultural shift in definitions of masculinity. In kindergarten, he once punched a boy for saying that he “hit like a girl” and instead of being punished, the teacher said that the boy deserved to be punched. In the last 200 years, French argues, there has been a cultural shift from an “honor culture” where transgressions towards one’s honor and integrity were met with “duels to the death”, to a “victim culture” where people “respond to even the slightest unintentional offence… but must not respond to the offence on their own, but respond to powerful others or administrative bodies.” This is the culture of micro-aggressions, where this hypersensitivity and fragility makes them politically and socially strong. French describes the “liberal elite” he encountered when he left the south for the Northeast as “whiny, petulant, hypersensitive, and incapable of either physical self-defense or even the most rudimentary tasks of manual labor.”

These two extreme forms of masculinity, one hyperaggressive and one hypersensitive, should both be considered toxic forms of masculinity. Although the hypsersensitive form of masculinity is arguably less prone to violence, it is still an extreme response to the question of what it means to be a man.

Given this context, it should therefore come as no surprise to you that the hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile, which trended in September, was met with aggressive responses from many men. The hashtag was created to highlight the effects of negative masculinity, and that “proving yourself” as a man inherently involves being aggressively masculine, cursing, or physically violent violence against the one “attacking your masculinity” – even, and perhaps especially, if the attacker is female. One example, by @MechOfJusticeWZ tweeted, in all seriousness, “I challenge any female tweeting unironically #MasculinitySoFragile to last three rounds in a fight. Let’s see who’s fragile” What @MechOfJusticeWZ, and others like him on the Twittersphere, fail to realize is that their hyperaggressive responses perfectly prove the point that the #MasculinitySoFragile is making. It’s not a personal attack on men, but on how society has socialized men and the toxic masculinity that the patriarchy has created.

Although the aggressive responses by men to this hashtag were left in the Twittersphere, that is not always the case. 97% of school shooters are male. One need look no further than Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, the Navy Yard, the Boston Marathon bomber, the UC Santa Barbara shooting or the Charleston AME Church shooting to see an obvious and terrifying pattern emerging. All relatively young men who felt isolated from their school, women, some other overarching cultural value like religion, race, or from American society and took it out on the general public.

The UC Santa Barbara shooting is particularly relevant in this context because of its direct intersection with the Mens Rights Movement (or MRA, men’s rights activism). What began in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a misogynistic backlash to 2nd wave feminism decrying female equality has seen a resurgence in recent years, whose most radical members preach a hatred, disdain, and fear of women and of the “feminization of men” while embracing the “pick-up artistry,” bodybuilding, and other hypermasculine activities. Naturally, there have been a number of disagreements between MRA members and feminists, with a debate between them in 2012 being cancelled by the convener due to a barrage of hate speech and threats from both camps. The UC Santa Barbra shooter, for example, turned to MRA websites to justify his demeaning and disrespectful behavior towards women, eventually pegging his victims’ fate to the supposed injustice of them not being attracted to him:

“It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls have never been attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime, because I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy, and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men, instead of me, the supreme gentleman.”

“I will punish all of you for it,” he says again, and then he laughs.

“On the day of retribution I will enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB, and I will slaughter every single spoiled stuck up blonde slut I see inside there. All those girls that I’ve desired so much, they would have all rejected me and looked down upon me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance towards them. While they throw themselves at these obnoxious brutes. I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one. The true Alpha Male.

The feminist response to the men’s rights movement has been swift and near-uniformly negative. They accuse MRAs of condoning rape culture and disrespecting women, or in response to the realization that the days of white male patriarchal dominance are thankfully starting to come to an end. One MRA website, A Voice for Men, counters that the redefinition of masculinity must not only come from within the men’s rights movement, but be added to the original definition of men as “providers and protectors,” further defining masculinity within the hyperaggressive toxic paradigm.

What both movements, along with all men and women need to realize is that we need to work together to redefine masculinity away from both the hyperaggressive or hypersensitive extremes. It not just a male issue, or a female issue, but a human rights issue. Women give birth to all children, and to both cisgender and transgender boys who become men. However as with feminism and other social justice movements, change and leadership must come from within, it cannot be up to women to redefine masculinity.

If feminists engaged in a dialogue with men, about both feminism and toxic masculinity, instead of baiting them on twitter perhaps we may actually make some progress as a society. Those who get it already see what the twitter hashtag is doing. Those who don’t are responding as you would expect, with hate speech, anger, and violence. Especially when THOSE are the men who need the most help. Passive-aggressive twitter hashtags aren’t helping anything, and are most likely doing more harm than good. Ridicule can be an effective force for social change, but given the violent nature of these would-be alpha males, it’s playing with fire.

Society itself also needs to change, media representation of men needs to change, and more parents need to raise their sons to understand their own and other people’s emotions, to express their needs non-violently, to know that it is okay to cry when you are hurting. We have made progress in the last 20-30 years though. We’ve gone from SNL skits making fun of non-heteronormative masculinity like Lyle, the effeminate heterosexual and The Ambiguously Gay Duo, the latter featuring the voice acting of Stephen Colbert, to the visibility of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson (a voice for nerds everywhere), and prominent gay actors in leading roles, like Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Bomer, and Jim Parsons. We need female to male transgender celebrities in mainstream media. We need more non-hegemonically male politicians, and male advocates for women’s rights. We need to reduce harassment and bullying of gay boys, nerds, boys who respect girls, boys who like sports, and boys who may not be the best at sports. We need those who wish to redefine masculinity to seek common ground and fight for greater gender equality and to reject toxic masculinity, before another young man who is isolated and angry takes his aggression out on society.

Nick Lehn
Nick Lehn recently received his Masters in Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of Oxford. His favorite topics include anything pertaining to science and society, global politics, social justice, globalization, and technology. Nick recently moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, MD.

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