Prisms of Perception 2: Toxic Masculinity by a Toxic Society
It’s safe to say that there probably isn’t a single male out there who hasn’t been told, at least once in his life, to “be a man”. Even a few girls out there can vouch for being told to “grow a pair” from time to time, emphasising the complex that the best way to deal with something bothering you, is by thinking like a man. There is no doubt that the pressure on men by society to be “men” is now higher than ever before, with the drop into the whirlwind of confusion occurring as soon as the razor blade glides along their faces for the first time at the tender age of puberty. But where is the fine line between encouraging a certain way of living, and forcing a certain image? An image that undoubtedly never fails to glorify habits that are unhealthy for the self, and others. Social norms and new standards of manhood are constantly growing and manifesting unfortunate levels of toxicity among men, pressuring an uphold of certain appearances that are becoming difficult for a man to maintain.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the term ‘toxic masculinity’. This term encompasses all the cultural norms and stereotypes associated with masculinity and the harm they cause to society, and the individual man. Although the term hasn’t specifically been coined, we can certainly pinpoint the period where these standards of being a ‘man’ began to arise. The ‘Mythopoetic Men’s Movement’ was established by men, for men, during the 1980s. It was an outlet for their manhood, if you like, inspired by the work of Robert Bly and his book Iron John: A Book About Men. Particular groups of men began to feel that they were no longer able to manifest certain traits they believed would emphasise their ‘manliness’, due to modern society viewing it as a damaging concept. Essentially, the movement aimed to restore the “deep masculine”, which was claimed to have been lost through modern-day values, such as men spending more time at home with their wives rather than with men, and the increase of feminism leading many men to believe that the male voice was being muted. The biggest challenge the movement faced was against the concept that it only portrayed masculinity to be manifested in one particular way. But nowadays, we all know that that is simply not true. The term ‘masculinity’ now has a very broad definition, but the initial stereotypes still have more damaging effects than we realise.
Devastatingly, three-quarters of suicides in 2018 were among men, which equals to around 4903 deaths, according to the Office of National Statistics. And this has been the case since the mid-nineties, just after the establishment of the men’s movement. If a social or political movement has done nothing but maintain a staggering ratio of suicide rates for nearly three decades, there must be something wrong here. The constant pushing of emotional repression and self-reliance would leave one lonely. Would leave one feeling they shouldn’t be asking for help because they can’t. Even when they need it the most. No wonder there are increased rates of depression and even substance abuse among males; because despite having a so-called ‘outlet’ for their masculinity, that very thing has denied an outlet for their emotions. Trying so hard to maintain the “deep masculine” standards set by society, leads to an unhealthy suppression of emotions. It’s interesting how the concept is now so open, yet such a taboo at the same time. And when the individual struggles do begin to externalise to a social level, the attention toward the issue is rapidly spread. And when these struggles are externalised, it’s safe to say that society certainly acts as the catalyst for the environment of toxicity.
Undoubtedly, the assertion of patriarchal values runs across cultures and builds the foundation for many social norms. And the desire to maintain them runs even more extensively. However, it’s important to expand the reasoning beyond a surface-level of understanding. Men of ethnic minority groups may feel the need to over-exaggerate certain masculine traits to gain their position in society, by using force to fight against the hate and racism they may face. Males of South Asian or black heritage living in the west may feel at a disadvantage when surrounded by a majority of the white population, even in environments such as the workplace where levels of competition amongst peers would already be extensive, so naturally one may find themselves fighting for advantages they think they aren’t entitled to. Additionally, certain traits are sometimes overrepresented in an environment where emotions are repressed within even a physically repressive environment, such as a prison. We’re all aware of the stereotypical prison hierarchy; the ‘tough guy’ at the top, who would be the best person to suck up to if you found yourself walking through the prison walls, and the weaklings at the bottom. It seems that the best way to survive and make your days in such an environment, would literally be to toughen up, otherwise chances would be slim. However, it’s interesting to note something here; unlike other social movements or concepts, this isn’t a group of people fighting against a group with contradictory beliefs, this is a group of people fighting against themselves, for the same beliefs. The factor that causes disputes, is the interpretation of the concept by different individuals. What one man may consider being ‘manly’, another may think the opposite, even the simplest concept of the stigma of a man wearing the colour pink.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as mentioning that increasing levels of education would help combat the issue of toxic masculinity. As it’s a matter of interpretation of what masculine identity is, the best way to influence the best choices is to encourage them from a young age that being ‘masculine’, or being anyone for that matter, is simply being yourself. It all starts with a father-son conversation. Teaching young boys about the importance of expressing emotions is a step in the right direction. But actions speak louder than words. If you express your emotions in front of your child, they’d build the confidence to express theirs. However, it’s needless to say that family doesn’t stand as the only influence. Friends, school, and even the media play their part. The hurdle arises when parents feel that expressing ‘negative’ emotions would be unhealthy for a child to see. But what does ‘negative’ mean? I’m not advising having a full-blown argument. But it’s important to differentiate between emotions that would wrongly be considered negative, and begin to diminish the limited idea of ‘boys don’t cry’. The sooner a young boy is able to establish a definition of masculinity for himself and not for others, and understand that it isn’t mandatory, the sooner he can influence others to do and think the same.
And for us girls out there, a lot of us would debate that we have no influence on how men perceive masculinity to be because as mentioned before, this is a refute amongst themselves. However, that doesn’t mean to say we can’t influence a more positive outlook. If a man feels the need to be more ‘manly’ to impress a partner, remind them that the best way they can do that, is by being themselves. Helping them understand that they don’t need to adhere to a set of rules to keep us happy and encouraging their interests in whatever they’re keen on would certainly stand as a solution.
Even though everybody is responsible for their own actions and in control of what information they choose to take in, society consistently encourages certain behaviours which, ironically, they then criticise. This catalyses the ongoing circle of the development of toxic traits and worsening men’s mental health. But it’s not enough for the individual to take responsibility for their actions. Society, whether they be conscious or even unconscious influences, has an equal obligation to take ownership, because change can only begin to prevail with a collective and consistent effort.
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