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Emphasis on the toxic, not the masculinity

Column by James Ellis

The concept of toxic masculinity is scary. Toxicity threatens the definition of a man if it doesn’t exist, and damages interpersonal relationships and society as a whole if it does. 

The good news is we can sidestep that conversation altogether, because we don’t need a special name to recognize the problem with our current understanding of masculinity. Because certain masculine traits undeniably play a role in contemporary social strife.

Masculinity becomes toxic when men cause harm to themselves or those around them in pursuit of masculine values. Some argue masculinity is inherently toxic, but traditional masculine values such as strength, independence and assertiveness help people deal with adversity and certainly have their place in society. 

One compelling theory implicates the intrinsic relationship between masculinity and capitalism for the corruption of masculine values. Researchers argue that capitalism introduced social stratification to formerly egalitarian societies, and continues to reinforce arbitrary gender constructs with the likes of “lady pens” and “manly toothpaste.” 

Bryant Sculos, a visiting assistant professor at Worcester State University with a PhD in political science, studied the ways toxic masculinity manifests from social and political phenomena. Sculos said some men conflate capitalist and masculine values, and expect people to reward aggressive competitiveness in their relationships as much as they do in the free market. 

“If there’s not a winner and a loser in some situation, there’s something unvaluable or trivial about that scenario,” Sculos said. “The idea of trying to work cooperatively to come to a solution to a collective benefit to all those involved, that’s not really a commonly encouraged way of going about your life within a capitalist society.”

Sculos argued capitalism influenced the nature of these relationships as well, where people treat them as commodities for personal gain. 

“Even the idea of networking events, you know?” Sculos said. “We’re turning our personal relationships into competitive endeavors to see how much we can get from other people, how much they can do for us.”

In this sense, toxic masculinity is a shortcut men take to achieve some semblance of the platonic ideal of man, and compels them to fight against the social progress of women and minorities that threatens their social standing.

With our relationships inherently transactional, toxic masculinity incentivises men to objectify others and lack the empathy needed to notice their deplorable behavior. “Sexual conquest” has long been a hallmark of toxic masculinity, where women who decline advances by men do not demonstrate their agency as much as they challenge a man’s birthright. 

Men who cannot rely on their charisma resort to violence, expressed physically through sexual assault or emotionally through castigation and vitriol by incels, self-described “involuntary celibates” who demonize women for the perceived unequitable treatment of men.

As a man, I recognize the appeal of toxic masculinity. Self-improvement is difficult, and toxic masculinity means I can achieve some level of success and security by default, even if I poison my relationships doing so. Some dismiss that trade-off and defer its consequences to the future to preserve their self-esteem. It’s ultimately up to them to change that perspective. 

Unfortunately, people willing to change may struggle to recognize toxic traits because of the normalization of toxic masculinity. Society frequently parrots the phrase “boys will be boys” to dismiss any criticism of violent or sexually aggressive behavior, seldom committed by actual children. The suggestion to “man up,” along with the seemingly innocuous notion that men pay on the first date, imposes upon men an emotional and financial burden in their relationships.

For the past several weeks, the Harvey Weinstein trial has tested the efforts of the “me too” movement to determine whether society is ready to hold men accountable for abusing their power. The prosecution recently explained why they maintained their relationships with Weinstein despite his predatory behavior. 

Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg penned a Facebook post describing his experience with Miramax and the Weinstein brothers, and both examples illustrate the difficulty addressing toxic masculinity in business. People have accepted their exploitative relationship with powerful men to achieve a successful career. 

 Not to excuse damaging behavior, but blaming individuals for wrongdoing without considering society’s role in perpetuating gender constructs will not solve the problem.

“If you’ve been conditioned by social norms and incentives and expectations to behave in toxically masculine ways,” Sculos said. “And that’s the only way you know how to be a person, how could that possibly be that person’s fault?”

Bear in mind that centuries of prejudice have shaped contemporary society in the U. S. All these biases, from discrimination against ethnicity and gender to age and physical ability, hold subconscious influence over our attitude and behavior, and we have to dig through these problematic layers in order to diagnose of the root cause of a given social issue. 

Despite our best efforts to isolate the toxic elements of masculinity, we do a disservice to society by trying to label everything. Brandon Joseph, Men’s Resiliency specialist in Western’s Prevention and Wellness Services, emphasized the importance of context in this discussion.

“There’s so much nuance that needs to be understood when we describe something like toxic masculinity,” Joseph said. “It’s just deeper than saying, ‘Here’s toxic masculinity. If you suppress your emotions, that’s toxic.’ It could be, but it might not always be.”

Allijah Motika recently moved to Bellingham from Tallahassee, Florida, and immediately noticed the sports culture here. He spoke with some reservation, given he moved only six months ago, but he said the “bro culture” he associates with sports is notably absent in his early impression of Bellingham. 

“Even beyond it not existing, it feels frowned upon,” Motika said. “[It feels like] Bellingham wants to be so intellectually, emotionally progressive from a masculine standpoint, that bro culture is really crushed, even too much, that if you like sports it’s not OK.”

Joseph also enjoys watching sports, and has similar difficulty finding people to share his passion with. Could we consider that apprehension toward sports culture toxic, since it impedes the quality of their relationships? 

“We’ve come across this buzzword of toxic masculinity, but there’s no pinpoint definition of toxic masculinity,” Joseph said. “As humans, we want answers. We want to label things. But we’re all different people.”

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