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The History Of Masculinity & How We Can Save It

In the Middle Ages, a man was judged by his chivalry: his respect for women, his loyalty to his people, and his willingness to do what was right. This led to tales like those of Lancelot and Gawain, placing the needs of others before their own and channeling their machismo into doing good work. This couldn’t last forever, though. The rules of chivalry fell in the 15th century, and by the 1900s the word “chivalry” was being applied by men to things like lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan.

Chivalry was never a perfect thing. In the modern climate, a culture built on assuming women can’t do anything for themselves is sure to raise eyebrows in most parts of the world. However, that benignly sexist culture of older times has evolved into something much more quiet and dangerous. Today, it’s self-perpetuating, harmful, and sometimes violent. You might even call it toxic.

What does toxic masculinity really mean? It’s best to start at the beginning — not when the phrase became popular in the feminist movement and was instantly reviled by men’s rights groups, but when it was first coined all the way back in the middle of the 1980s.

“Toxic masculinity” was first widely used by the mythopoetic men’s movement to describe two very different ideas — on one end of the spectrum was the idea that men had become misogynistic and hyper-masculine, on the other was the assertion that they had become too feminized by society. The origins of the phrase are in fact not feminist in the slightest. The men of the mythopoetic movement, led by Shepherd Bliss, blamed women as at least one factor in the creation of toxic masculinity and relied on the appropriation of Native American tribal culture to counteract this influence.

Image Via @mgtow_man on Instagram

Fast-forwarding about 40 years, toxic masculinity has become a buzzword of epic proportions. Articles are written almost weekly, almost exclusively by men. They spew a wide range of reasons why masculinity isn’t toxic. Ironically, this is how the culture of masculinity festers. Men say it isn’t true, women say it is, but they’re not us so they must be wrong, therefore they must be bad. From there it’s easy to progress to the idea that we shouldn’t cry or show emotion because that’s what women do and women are bad. This train of thought can happen subconsciously and in seconds, but its effect on our culture will last far longer.

I would argue that these points to an even deeper problem because the very concept of masculinity can’t really be defined. The only ideals that define what it means to be masculine come from the individual, and are created by what a young person internalizes from the world around them. That doesn’t mean that toxic masculinity is any less of a problem, though. While the root cause is social and not internal, the issue is present nonetheless and will continue to exist until a change is made not to individual people but to Western society as a whole. For now, though, the toxic ideals of masculinity are so ingrained in our minds that any perceived attack on them will be treated as a “violation” of rules that don’t truly exist.

“Toxic” is used today as a figurative blanket term for a much more narrow issue. The psychological term for what we see today is “hegemonic masculinity”, a term created by sociologist Raewyn Connell. According to Connell, this concept is “built on two legs, domination of women and a hierarchy of intermale dominance.” She argues that it is “also shaped to a significant extent by the stigmatization of homosexuality.”

In short, the dominant male culture of today is sexist, overly competitive, and widely homophobic.

Raewyn Connell speaks at the University of Sydney, Image via North Sydney Boys’ School

There are multiple factors that contribute to toxic masculinity. Home and school life are arguably the most important, as parents and friends of any gender can have a huge impact on the internalized beliefs and stereotypes a child takes on. The media also plays a role in creating the harsh pseudo-rules that govern the emotion and expression of men today. Social media, outdated literature, and religious influences can also play a role. Basically, any trusted source of information can influence the development of what we call toxic masculinity. This can happen in benign or malicious ways, on purpose or by accident. More often than not, it’s spread by parents and teachers who have no intention of creating sexist or violent men. They simply aren’t taught how to stop the perpetuation of this harmful culture.

Toxic masculinity can also be tied to concepts about what is masculine and what isn’t in today’s society. According to a study by Brandwatch with Ditch The Label, this culture permeates even the most mundane places. In an analysis of Twitter posts from a 4-year period, the statistics they found are telling. The online conversation associated the word “americano” with the construct of masculinity, but not the word “latte.” Things get darker very quickly – 32% of discussion related to masculine behavior talked about violence. “Muscular” was used to describe the appearance of an ideal athletic man, while athletic women were said to be “built like a man” nearly 40% of the time. The concept of homosexuality was used a shocking 76% of the time to describe non-homosexual behavior that did not conform to norms of hegemonic masculinity.

Graph detailing Twitter conversation leading up to the US election, Image via Brandwatch

It’s not all bad. The same study found that spikes in toxic or misogynistic comments typically lead to much larger spikes in the discussion of issues like toxic masculinity and misogyny. Our society is capable of change and positive growth, but in order for that to happen the institutions that perpetuate the hegemonic norms bust be changed or removed. The media must stop enforcing gender stereotypes and making fun of men for defying gender norms. Parents must be educated and teachers must be trained to let all young children become whatever they want to, regardless of gender. It won’t happen overnight, but this is the way that we can reverse the spread of this toxin and let men express themselves in a safe and peaceful way.

If you are a man and you’ve read this far, remember that stereotypes of what it means to be masculine don’t define you. It’s okay to love whoever you want, to talk to whoever you want, hug whoever you want, and talk about your feelings whenever you want. None of that will make you any less of a man. The one thing you shouldn’t do is let society teach you to keep your emotions bottled up because that’s how you’ll end up exploding.

Male suicide rates are rising around the world. If you feel like you need help or someone to talk to, call 1.800.273.8255 in the U.S. or visit this page for international options.

Featured Image Via Gillette 

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Ezra Levinson
Written By

Ezra Levinson is a writer, activist and student. He lives in Hawai'i, where he enjoys spending time with friends and loved ones.

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