Over the past year or so there has been a lot of media attention on sexual assault and men behaving badly. As an author of several books dealing with masculinity, I wanted to share my views on the current state of masculinity and where I believe it’s headed.
The current buzzword in the media is “toxic masculinity”. Unfortunately, I believe this culturally generated label is the product of a lack of understanding of men’s behavior.
Recently, Gillette, who produce shaving razors for men, released a video in which they challenged men to hold themselves accountable in how they treat women and how they interact as a man. In the commercial, they used the term “toxic masculinity” and although I fully understand what they mean, the term “toxic” has distracted people’s attention from what Gillette were truly trying to say.
I believe the intention of the commercial is to actually support men in being the best a man can be. However, there has been serious backlash to the ad, because some people believe the commercial implied that all men are toxic.
So I wanted to break down the term “toxic masculinity” in the hopes that it engages you in a conversation about the challenges men deal with, and my hope is that this conversation continues the dialog I believe the Gillette commercial is trying to promote.
To understand toxic masculinity, we must first understand masculinity. Masculinity can be defined as a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with boys and men. Put another way, masculinity could be defined as a series of beliefs and behaviors that are passed down through the male gender from generation to generation.
If we go back in time and examine some of the beliefs and behaviors that have been passed on for millennia, men have been conditioned to believe that they have three primary responsibilities:
Men have been culturally conditioned to accept these three responsibilities and they have identified with and perpetuated these ideas since the beginning of time.
As humans have evolved, we have come to understand that these rigid roles do not define a man. As a matter of fact, adhering rigidly to these roles is actually the source of a lot of pain and suffering in a man’s life. Men are taught to provide and protect, but they aren’t taught how to connect, and therefore they embrace attitudes and beliefs that are detrimental to their emotional, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing.
When a man gets trapped in this antiquated paradigm of masculinity it keeps him from accessing the most important aspect of his humanity, which are his feelings and inner wisdom.
If we pay close attention to mainstream media, it should be easy to recognize how cultural conditioning contributes to how men view masculinity. From a very early age, we are taught that it’s not okay to feel and express our emotions. We are told “big boys don’t cry” and that men are not supposed to be sensitive and nurturing. Our media convinces us that sexual conquest is a gauge for manhood and that men are supposed to sleep with as many women as possible to prove they are men. It teaches us that if you love someone, you’re supposed to buy diamonds or a car or a house to show your love. It tells us we must have titles and positions of power to be men and most importantly, it teaches us that we should always compete with and try to outdo other men.
These are antiquated and outdated paradigms of masculinity that more and more men are beginning to challenge and not conform to. More and more men are asking themselves deeper and deeper questions about what it means to be a man and they are challenging the status quo.
Unfortunately, these men make up the small majority. These are the men who are willing to seek out support and face their emotional and psychological challenges. They are the ones who are courageous enough to go to therapy or work with a mentor or coach who can support them in their transformation. They are the courageous warriors who recognize that true strength comes from being in touch with their emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual aspects of their nature. These are the men who are ushering in a new paradigm of masculinity and they are holding themselves and other men accountable in shifting the current male paradigm.
Healthy masculinity occurs when a man is willing to become self- introspective and to examine his beliefs about what it means to be a man. When a man commits to doing his inner work and his emotional healing, he lays the foundation for creating inner peace, dynamic health, fulfilling relationships, and financial abundance. It supports him in being a great husband or partner, it encourages him to be a sensitive nurturing father, it challenges him to be a trusted loyal friend and it supports him in creating a vocation that nurtures and honors his unique gifts and talents.
The overwhelming majority of men are actually good men. As I see it, men aren’t the problem: an antiquated paradigm of masculinity is the problem. In order to shift the paradigm, we must engage men in a dialog about what it means to be a man in today’s ever-changing world, and I believe that was the intention of the Gillette commercial.
The fact that so many people reacted negatively to the ad confirms that the current culture of masculinity has a stronghold on the minds and hearts of a lot of people, and it’s going to take a considerable amount of effort to usher in this new paradigm of masculinity that I mentioned. But I am optimistic that the culture can and will change as long as we remain open-minded to conversations like this one.
Which leads me to the topic of toxic masculinity. Let me be clear, men are not inherently toxic. Masculinity is not inherently toxic.
When a man is trapped in antiquated ideas about masculinity, it can cause him to exhibit toxic behavior. For example, when a man is trapped in the illusion that sexual conquest is a gauge for manhood, he is going to act out in toxic ways. In an attempt to prove his manhood he will try to sleep with as many women as possible to prove he is a man.
When a man is trapped in the illusion that men are not supposed to feel or express emotions he will do everything in his power to avoid his feelings. He may medicate with drugs or alcohol or he may engage in other addictive behaviors like sex or work. But ultimately his unwillingness to feel his feelings will lead to his unhappiness.
When a man is trapped in the illusion that he must be tough no matter what, he is going to act out through some form of violence. It could be domestic violence or it could be a mass shooting. But in his mind, he’s being tough and being a man.
When a man is trapped in the illusion that he must have material possessions it can cause him to overspend and fall into debt, which could cause him to possibly steal or embezzle money out of fear of being labeled a failure. He will do this to try to keep up with the Jones’s.
When a man is trapped in the illusion that his primary job is to simply provide for his family he will overwork to provide for them but he is unable to give them what they truly want and need, which is his time and attention.
These are all examples of toxic behaviors, not necessarily toxic masculinity. As mentioned, the overwhelming majority of men are actually good men, but when a man displays toxic behavior it is sometimes labeled as toxic masculinity, which then implies that men may be toxic. Let me reiterate, men are not toxic but sometimes their actions are.
From my perspective, the key is for us to look at the behavior and try to understand the cause of it. Although I firmly believe every human being is 100% responsible for their actions, cultural conditioning can definitely influence those actions. So we must be willing to accept that the current paradigm of masculinity contributes to negative male behavior, but it cannot be blamed for the actions some men take.
The key is to engage men in a dialog about what it means to be a man. Too many men fall victim to antiquated attitudes and beliefs about masculinity and they feel victimized and powerless to do anything. By engaging men in these types of conversations, I believe we open the door for men to speak openly and honestly about the challenges they face, which can then provide them with some tools to support them in changing their behaviors if they so choose.
Contrary to mainstream media, I am extremely optimistic about the future for men and the world at large. The fact that we are even having this conversation about masculinity confirms for me that men are waking up and are open to learning new ways of being and relating as men.
As for me, I will continue writing and speaking about men’s issues because I firmly believe that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us. I have great faith in men and humanity as a whole and I firmly believe we will rise above the current challenges facing our world.
So rest assured, men are not toxic – although they may sometimes do toxic things, and regardless of mainstream media men are definitely capable of becoming loving, caring, nurturing, sensitive, and compassionate men, as well as being ambitious, courageous, driven, and motivated.
So to the Gillette company, I say thank you for your commercial and for the courage to start this conversation, which I believe will ultimately help usher in a new paradigm of masculinity.
Let’s continue to encourage men to be the best a man can be!