Written by Jyotsna Iyer, a second-year undergraduate student.
Toxic masculinity, put simply, refers to the cultural pressure men face that defines how they should and should not act- it promotes a misplaced sense of manliness, or what it should mean to be a man – example: Men don’t cry (because crying, many believe is a sign of weakness and is something that women do, not men).
The idea that men need to be tough and the display of emotions is weak is what toxic masculinity is all about – and it’s leading to many mental health issues in young boys, who face cultural pressure to behave in a certain “masculine”way.
Let’s break it down
Breaking down the term, we need to understand the words ‘toxic’ and ‘masculinity.’ The word toxic literally means poisonous, harmful, or unpleasant. The word ‘masculinity’ is defined as ‘qualities or attributes regarded as characteristics of men.’ Looking at these definitions, we need to understand that ‘toxic masculinity’ is not characterizing all masculinity as toxic, but rather refers to certain pervasive and harmful notions of what is considered masculine.
Let’s now break this concept down further by looking at three of the most widespread toxic notions of masculinity.
“Boys don’t cry”
Well, they can, they do and they should. Saying“Boys don’t cry” is problematic in two different senses.
First, it directly implies that the act of crying (shedding tears due to emotional reasons) is not ‘masculine’ behavior. However, crying is the natural response of human beings to a wide range of emotions such as sadness, pain, anger, anxiety, stress, sympathy, joy, and often the physical sensation of pain. The emotions and the intensity of the emotions that can stimulate someone to cry differ from person to person.
The urge to cry is not specific to humans of one sex or gender, and the stereotype that boys/ men don’t cry causes them to consciously resist the urge to cry. Resisting tears is harmful, as the tears that are shed for emotional reasons contain stress hormones, hence, crying quite literally relieves one of stress along with toxins. Crying also stabilizes a person’s blood pressure and heart rate. Hence, suppressing the urge to cry can increase a person’s stress level, their susceptibility to health issues such as heart disorders and blood pressure.
Secondly, this indirectly implies that the expression of emotion is weak and not masculine. However, it is important to understand that there is nothing gendered or weak about expressing emotions such as sadness, pain, anxiety, stress, sympathy, empathy, joy, love, or anything else that one can possibly feel. Suppressing these emotions only causes the accumulation of negative emotions, stress, and often aggression. Statistics indicate that men tend to share their ‘softer’ feelings less often, which leads to increased mental health disorders, behavioral issues, and aggression. These can be self-destructive as well as cause them to inflict aggression on others around them.
“Man up” and “That’s so girlish”
These statements reinforce what are known as gender stereotypes and gender norms. It comes from the historic classification of behaviors, actions, colors, and numerous other preferences based on gender. In addition to this, the grip of patriarchy on society caused the traits that were classified as ‘feminine’ to be seen as inferior and even ‘embarrassing’ for boys and men. In the past few decades, these stereotypes have correctly been questioned and attempted to be eradicated. This comes from the understanding that there is no rigid and universal classification of traits and preferences based on sex or gender. On the other hand, even if there were to be classification as masculine and feminine, there is no superiority attached to either of these, and it is perfectly normal for a person of any gender to have either of these.
Children are made to conform to gender norms from a very young age, starting from the toys that are considered ‘appropriate’ for them. This is harmful. Moreover, popular media and cartoons have glorified a notion of masculinity as physically strong, emotionally inexpressive, aggressive, violent, dominant and someone who views himself as a protector.
Fun fact – not all boys/ men need to have all these traits, and it doesn’t make them weak or any less of a person. Understanding this is important because many young boys who don’t confide to these stereotypical and societally endorsed ideals face excessive mental pressure and often a crisis of confidence and self-worth. Moreover, glorifying violence as a basic masculine trait creates a mindset that is one of the root causes of gender-based violence as well as the perpetuation of patriarchy.
As society works towards gender equality, it is highly important that we let go of rigid gender stereotypes. More importantly, it is high time that toxic notions of masculinity are identified, brought down from the pedestal of glorification, and eradicated.
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