Toxic Masculinity.

Masculinity can be more than one shade of gray. Credit: Josh Hallet, Flickr, CC2.0

This month in Diversity Journal Club (#DiversityJC on Friday, 16 September, 2pm ET), we’ll be discussion this New York Times Column about teaching men to be emotionally honest.

And take it from me (Ian). It is hard to be emotionally open with other men– with everyone, really. Even those we know well.

One example of toxic masculinity is that article about the “advice” on a website about approaching women wearing headphones (the actual answer: don’t).

Andrew Reiner poses this question and assignment to his class on masculinity:

But wouldn’t encouraging men to embrace the full range of their humanity benefit women? Why do we continue to limit the emotional lives of males when it serves no one? This question is the rhetorical blueprint I pose to students before they begin what I call the “Real Man” experiment.

In this assignment, students engage strangers to explore, firsthand, the socialized norms of masculinity and to determine whether these norms encourage a healthy, sustainable identity.

The models men have in the United States are stoic, strong, favor action over contemplation, and most importantly, show no vulnerability. They may or may not also be angry, a facade of strength.

The radio show Backstory aired an episode about The American Work Ethic over labor day weekend. This episode brings up something key to (US) masculinity: Hard work. Providing. And an idea that seems increasingly less true: that hard work will pay off and be rewarded. The recession in 2008 and the slow recovery, and economic insecurity that still exists for many has left men with few outlets to express their vulnerability– and anger and abuse can come out instead.

Brene Brown, a researcher on shame and vulnerability talks about how our culture- even women- often have a hard time hearing men being vulnerable and expressing emotion to their partners or loved ones. As she says, if a woman can sit with a man in true vulnerability, she’ll be showing you a woman that has done some real work (& yes, she has a reverse as well, where men really have to work at just listening to women and not trying to instantly fix everything).

Andrew Reiner notes that men commit suicide at 4 times the rate women do, are not as academically accomplished as women now, and as teenagers socially more unable to connect with others. That can also persist into adulthood.

Too many men are still walled off, isolated, and learn a form of masculinity where the only emotion acceptable is anger.

The Note to Self podcast had an episode with Lead parent, and Dad, Andrew Moravcsik, husband of Anna Marie Slaughter (who wrote the ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All’), about how we think about parenting, and integrating our work and home lives, having men being caretakers, a role still not traditional in the US. He points out how being lead ‘dad’, and how it has to be legitimized. He points out how some of the language and treatment of men as caretakers is akin to bias against women in the workplace (basically that there’s a perception that men can’t handle the school schedules, PTA meetings, etc- though they just haven’t been given opportunity to do so).

Similarly, men’s feelings, besides outrage, need to be able to come into the light and be legitimate (especially to other men).

If you want an example of what opening up, vulnerability, men talking about very real things with each other might look like, listen to this short Story Corps story: Guardians of The Gate where two Golden Gate Bridge workers talk about their job & pivot to talking about a really hard aspect of their job, encountering people intending to jump– it goes to my core and makes me cry every time I listen to it. These two have been colleagues and friends for 25 years.

So that’s what we’ll talk about this month in #DiversityJC on September 16 at 2pm ET.

How can we detoxify this form of masculinity Reiner writes about?

Who are men we might hold up as role models for men to emulate?

How do we legitimize and allow men to express themselves more often & to whom?

And what do you wish men knew about how their emotional distance and isolation translates to biases and abuse of women (& anyone else for that matter).

See you on the 16th.

Ian Street (@IHStreet)

Doctor_PMS (@Doctor_PMS)

Emily S Klein (@DrEmilySKlein)


4 thoughts on “Toxic Masculinity.

  1. It strikes me that the root of emotionally closed maleness is probably that people (both men and women) have a hard time empathizing with men (whether they are emotionally closed or not), probably for both social and biological reasons.

    Discussions like this one are a great example: people are much more comfortable talking about men’s emotional well-being if they can frame it as partly or largely in service to women’s needs (e.g. ‘let’s work to improve men’s emotional health because then they’d treat women better’) and place the brunt of the problematization on maleness (e.g. the term ‘toxic masculinity’), because this returns the conversation to the more comfortable frame (for both men and women in the current gender system) in which we empathize with women and project fear, suspicion and senses of duty onto men. Groups or spaces that do try to center men’s well-being (for its own sake), or try to even out the senses of responsibility among men and women for finding solutions, in these types of discussions often face fierce opposition, even those groups that don’t intentionally court controversy themselves (and some, like Red Pill, A Voice for Men, etc., certainly do). There were a bunch of good examples of this on Canadian college campuses a few years ago, e.g. the Warren Farrell protests at University of Toronto, or the opposition to the creation of the Simon Fraser University Men’s Center:

    So I guess I think at least part of the reason that men are raised in some places to not show emotion or vulnerability is that they (and their parents, friends, etc.) correctly perceive that showing emotion costs men status in a way that it doesn’t for women. It’s very hard to invoke strength/admiration and empathy at the same time, so I think a lot of men learn–moreso through their experiences than we probably would like to admit–that showing vulnerability tends to fall on deaf ears and also makes people lose respect for them–lose-lose.

    I agree with the moderators of this discussion in saying that the culture of male emotional closedness hurts both men and women and should be changed, but I also think that a fresh look at some of the root causes of this culture is needed to find solutions. Some new language that doesn’t bring men to the conversation on the defensive (as terms like ‘toxic masculinity’ do) would probably help too, because defensiveness is a naturally emotionally closed posture (e.g. analogously, therapists don’t try to get patients to open up emotionally by calling them ‘toxic’ at the start of the conversation).

    Anyway, just my two cents. I look forward to the discussion!


  2. Maybe I could have put the headline differently, like the ‘man box’, but there really is a destructive, harmful, and asocial form a masculinity that exists. It’s not hard to find examples (& are those men like that all the time…probably not, or I hope not- it’s the behavior/social phenomenon, not meant to put anyone on the defensive, but if your presence is actively harming someone else…that’s a problem & the fact that it doesn’t get called out very often is also an issue).

    In terms of objecting to masculinity studies, I feel like some of that comes from the presumption that since men have dominated throughout history, we don’t need a special area of scholarship to study them, since they’re the default group everything is based upon. I think there are some questions that really should focus on how men are socialized as I don’t know that they are always asked or studied.

    I agree with you that both men and women play into how men wind up closed off (as Brene Brown points out); some of it is learning who you can open up to and who not and you learn that over time (but a lot of men conclude that no one is there to open up to and therefore must keep it all inside and then it eventually comes out in often unhealthy ways). It’s not that we want men to be more open to everyone, just some significant people in their lives.

    As Reiner points out, there seems to be a particular phase; when men enter high school through college where this really seems to come up; and again, I hope, it doesn’t persist often.

    the core question is that women are permitted to have a wide array of identities and many ways of existing and be accepted. Men simply don’t have that (at least in the United States- there is a narrow way to ‘be a man’).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Re: “there really is a destructive, harmful, and asocial form a masculinity that exists”: I don’t disagree. My point was just about where I think it partly comes from and how (not) to address it. One aspect I didn’t go into much in my comment was the biological aspect. The fact that you see this type of male behavior flare up in high-school/college would not surprise someone who studies variations in testosterone levels throughout men’s lives, for example. The biological aspect of these issues is also hard to face sometimes in these discussions I suspect, because it naturally leads to the conclusion that change will be harder than merely social change might be (e.g. we can go from pre-suffrage America to today’s America in less than 100 years, but we can’t change our DNA that fast).

      Re: your objections to “masculinity studies”: I didn’t say anything about masculinity studies. The SFU Men’s Center was supposed to be a safe space/support center for men dealing with male-specific issues, not an academic unit. Are such support centers not something worth having? The Warren Farrell lecture was a public talk that protesters tried to shut down (while spitting on, threatening and cursing attendees).

      Re: “the core question”: I agree 100%.


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