Sunday 20 January 2019

What is toxic masculinity?

Gillette's recent marketing campaign addressing the issue received a mixed response online

The release of Gillette’s new advert, called “The Best Men Can Be”, has sparked a huge online debate about the concept of toxic masculinity and whether it’s something that society needs to tackle.

The advert highlights several topical issues, including sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement and the pressure placed on young boys to conform to gender norms, all of which are arguably rooted in toxic masculinity.

What is toxic masculinity?
Toxic masculinity refers to harmful behaviour and attitudes commonly associated with some men, such as the need to repress emotions during stressful situations, and to act in an aggressively dominant way.

“I would say there’s lots of forms of masculinity,” says Tom Ross-Williams, actor, activist and ambassador for the Great Men project, a school workshop project run by gender equality organisation the Good Lad Initiative.

“One of the ways that masculinity sometimes manifests is through toxic behaviour which ultimately ends in violence, and that violence either is enacted on men themselves, or on other people.

“I think it’s a process of microaggressions that escalate to a point where violence is enacted on the world.”

The Good Men project, another initiative that aims to challenge public perception of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, describes toxic masculinity as a form of manhood that’s “defined by violence, sex, status and aggression.”

The organisation explains that men who exhibit behaviour affiliated with toxic masculinity often view stereotypically feminine traits, such as being emotionally vulnerable, in a negative light.

Toxic masculinity doesn’t solely affect the boys and men who exhibit “toxic” behaviour, but also those around them who may not identify with or relate to conventionally masculine traits.

“It affects anybody outside of a very narrow ‘man box’. So that includes queer boys, gender non-conforming people and women,” Ross-Williams tells The Independent.

“I think it is especially harmful in that it holds structures of patriarchy that stop women from accessing certain positions of power or more fundamentally challenges their basic human rights.”

Where has toxic masculinity come from?
The term “toxic masculinity” was reportedly first used by psychologist Shepherd Bliss in the 1980s and 1990s, explains writer Emily C. A. Snyder.

Bliss sought to separate the negative traits of men from the positive traits, and used the term “toxic masculinity” as a means of making the distinction.

Traits that Bliss defined as being “toxic” to masculinity included “avoidance of emotional expression”, the “over-aspiration for physical, sexual and intellectual dominance” and the “systematic devaluation of women’s opinions, body and sense of self.”

Toxic masculinity and the notion that men must act in a dominant and aggressive manner in order to command respect is a concept that may stem from the perpetuation of the patriarchy, Ross-Williams states.

It may also come from a recent cultural shift in attitudes towards gender norms, explains Jack Urwin, author of Man Up, a book about modern masculinity.

“The fact is, a lot of men seem to feel their place in the modern world is becoming less purposeful,” he says in an interview with charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).

“So in an attempt to claw back some sense of manliness a lot of them are perpetuating what we’d refer to as toxic masculinity – a sort of overcompensating form of behaviour that has its roots in ideas of traditional masculinity – such as strength and stoicism.

“But because our understanding of these has become so warped and removed from context they end up just being very unhealthy ways to act.”

How can toxic masculinity be addressed?
One of the ways toxic masculinity can be addressed is by changing how boys and young men are raised in today’s society, says Christopher Muwanguzi, CEO of charity Working With Men.

He explains that dominance and aggression are both traits that are frequently imparted on young boys from an early age as “necessary parts of being a man”.

“By helping young men and boys understand that they don’t have to conform to archaic aggressive stereotypes of masculinity, we can reduce antisocial behaviour, mental health struggles, suicides, gender-based crime and domestic violence,” he says.

Ross-Williams also believes that men have a duty to recognise their privilege in modern society, and that doing so will have a knock-on effect on the current state of toxic masculinity.

“In order to dismantle toxic masculinity, people would have to be willing to challenge their own privileges, which is not something a lot of people want to do because it gives them an advantage in the world,” Ross-Williams states.

Several brands have started addressing toxic masculinity in their marketing campaigns, most notably Gillette in the recent “The Best Men Can Be” advert.

While some have condemned the advert for seemingly criticising the behaviour of all men and for exploiting customers by jumping on a progressive bandwagon, others have praised it for showing the different ways in which masculinity can be defined.

“It is completely necessary to show men – and especially boys – that there are many ways of ‘being a man’; ways in which strength can be reimagined as calling out a friend who tells a sexist joke or resilience can be seen as an acceptance of one’s vulnerability,” says Ben Hurst, project coordinator and lead facilitator of the Good Lad Initiative.

“Gillette’s ad is certainly not the answer to this problem, but it’s encouraging to see that they have taken a step in the right direction, and this advert along with adverts like it are certainly moving the conversation to the next level.”

(Source: The Independent)

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