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Toxic Masculinity: Why Big Boys Don’t Cry MAG
You’ve heard it a thousand times: “Women are more emotional than men.” It’s an idea so deeply ingrained in our culture that many simply accept it as fact. However, a recent surge in feminist ideals has radically changed the way younger generations are viewing femininity and masculinity. While it is generally true that men are less inclined to express their emotions, recent research has disproved the belief that men actually feel a slimmer range of emotions than women. Rather, this “emotional stoicism” is a result of sociocultural expectations and pressures that have built up over time, creating what some have termed “toxic masculinity.”
Young people today are in a peculiar predicament in that they have grown up with traditional gender ideals but are now having to choose between them and a new world view. The traditional paradigm asserts that sex and gender are one and the same. As a child, I heard them used interchangeably, and it is only recently that there has been a distinction. The contemporary view is that sex is biological but gender is sociocultural, which means that gender is determined through learned characteristics, cultural expectations, and behavioral patterns. It exists on a spectrum. In other words, you are born male or female, but your gender identity is your individual self-perception of what it means to be feminine or masculine. In this way, elements of the nature-nurture debate are combined.
The reason I subscribe to this idea is that it doesn’t allow for generalizations. Gender stereotypes, like any stereotype, assume that an individual can be understood by qualities of the group they belong to – in this case either men or women. Such thinking ignores the individual’s personality and temperament, and disregards the complexity of human beings. The patriarchy has confined gender to only one mode of expression, which is defined by the stereotypes we hold about men and women.
It is easy to theorize about the validity of a stereotype, but what about empirical evidence? An experiment was conducted by Mindlab, which specializes in scientific research in physiological and neurological studies, to test the assumption that men are incapable of the same range of feelings as women. What they found was that the men who participated actually experienced stronger emotional reactions than the women, which were measured both physiologically and verbally. Men, in an additional survey, reported feeling less emotional than women, even though their physiological changes indicated the opposite. The implications of this study are stated best by neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis:
“Gender stereotypes about men being stoic and women being emotional are reinforced by our day to day consumption of media and our social interactions. We tend to oversimplify and exaggerate the perceived differences between men and women and are more likely to focus on evidence that supports our existing gender stereotypes. This study suggests that men feel emotion just as much as women, sometimes more strongly, but are less willing to express these emotions openly due to expectations put on them by society.”
Curious about how this stereotype was formed, I researched the history of traditional masculinity. Culturally, the United States has been very influenced by England, since many of our ancestors came from there. The Oxford Journals published an article titled “‘Jesus Wept’ But Did the Englishman? Masculinity and Emotion in Modern England,” which details a cultural shift in early modern England that still influences our society today. A code of civility was introduced that demanded rigid emotional self-control. Whereas medieval “courtesy” only dictated behavior “within the context of lordship and service,” civility regulated every aspect of conduct. Failing to comply was considered animalistic and shameful, and not characteristic of high society. “In this new cultural milieu, male tears represented an embarrassing loss of self-control,” according to the article. This is because tears were associated with femininity. This cultural divide between men and women is still evident today, expressed in phrases such as “man up.”
The article also mentions how the belief that men and women were fundamentally different physiologically was espoused by physicians whose medicine was still rooted in Galenic teaching. In 1586, Timothy Bright wrote his influential “Treatise of Melancholie,” which contained five chapters about tears. Bright explained that women and children were more susceptible to tearing up for they possessed “a moist, rare, and tender body, especially of brain and heart.” Men’s heat and dryness generally produced a drier, harder body.
This shows how deeply rooted these ideas are in science that has long since been debunked, yet they persist. How does this stereotype affect our society? In a TEDx Talk titled “Redefining Masculinity,” Shane Horsburgh asked a probing question: “Is our societal view of masculinity still valid?”
“Our traditional view of masculinity holds that men should be, among other things, providers, protectors, and procreators, with guiding behaviors like aggression, competitiveness and toughness, and risk-taking … Guiding behaviors that form a metaphorical map with which we navigate through manhood,” said Horsburgh.
Then he reframed his question: Does the map still fit the territory we are in, or has our view of masculinity caused men to become lost? Toxic masculinity has led to a multitude of problems: suicide, violent crime, antisocial behavior, and spousal abuse. Horsburgh’s account of how, personally, traditional masculinity failed him is profound.
During his years as a policeman and in Special Operations, Horsburgh felt the need to bottle up his emotions and suppress the trauma caused by what he witnessed. As a result, his relationships suffered. His now ex-wife suffered from depression and PTSD. He described himself as an “empty vessel” unable to respond to her pain because of his emotional immaturity. When his seven-year-old son was stung and began to cry, Horsburgh reacted with anger instead of empathy. “Boys don’t cry,” he told him. Teaching children this lesson early is incredibly detrimental to emotional development.
Eventually Horsburgh allowed himself to feel emotion, even though it caused great discomfort. He recalls feeling depressed and confused. What do I measure myself against? he wondered. He began writing a book where he openly expressed himself, and allowed himself to cry for the first time. He also vented to others. Finally confronting the troubling events of his past was a cathartic and therapeutic experience. “[Men] can be strong and sensitive … and everything in between,” he realized.
This attitude is a message that I think is critical in raising healthy young men. Our idea of manhood does not have to be mutually exclusive – it can be nuanced and fluid. And as Horsburgh stated, it is a “road to equality” with implications of betterment for men, women, children, and society.
“Social Scientific Paradigms of Masculinity and Their Implications for Research and Practice in Men’s Mental Health” by Michael Addis and Geoffrey Cohane shows how traditional masculinity is becoming increasingly problematic. The number of men entering the workforce is dropping dramatically, with a decreasing percentage of boys graduating from high school and college. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, men die on average nearly seven years younger than women and have higher mortality rates for all 15 leading causes of death. Furthermore, men are twice as likely to suffer from substance abuse, and are three to five times more likely than women to commit suicide. Men practice more risk-taking and unhealthy behaviors than women. But the reason remains unclear.
We need research, but historically, men’s mental health has not been a topic of major research or clinical interest. This has led to faulty assumptions about differences between men and women. Some statistics would suggest that women suffer more from mood and anxiety disorders. However, it is reasonable to question how accurate this is when most men are taught to mask emotional distress and are less likely to seek help. They are more likely to engage in behaviors such as substance abuse and violence, which are “manly” ways of coping with emotions.
As a society we must re-evaluate our values. Many men view their distress as shameful, and consequently try to hide their symptoms. This pressure to be “manly” is a vicious cycle of empowerment and disempowerment that has pushed our society to its breaking point. Families, communities, and the workplace are suffering as a result.
The stereotype of emotional stoicism in men is not only invalid but harmful. It is rooted in false logic, discredited science, and antiquated ideas. Rather than a set of fixed attributes, masculinity is a fluid process of creating one’s identity that varies from person to person. The same thing can logically be said of femininity. In our increasingly progressive society, we should treat individuals based on their personality and character rather than their association with a group. This applies not just to gender but to sexuality, race, and religion too. There is no universal image of manliness, therefore these stereotypes are nothing but an attempt to simplify our understanding of a complex world.
Cedar Springs, MI