John beat Mary

Mary was beaten by John

Mary was beaten

Mary was battered

Mary is a battered woman

This example, as shown by Jackson Katz in his Ted Talk “Violence against Women - it’s a Men’s Issue,” is just one example of how toxic masculinity reshapes our thinking.

“It tends to lean toward hyper-violence, hyper-sexualization, a disregard for anyone other than the man standing there in front,” said Michael Goebel, lecturer of sociology.

When teaching about toxic masculinity, it’s important to understand that professors and advocates can’t just “rip the carpet out from under people,” according to Goebel, it has to be something that is done from the inside out for most men.

“I have found in forty years of activism that the toxic/healthy dichotomy [in masculinity] doesn't resonate for many men,” Michael Kimmel, one of the world’s leading experts on men and masculinities and a distinguished professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University, said during an interview with Signs Journal.

“I feel that when we come to them and talk about toxic masculinity, they very often think that we're telling them they're doing it wrong, that they're bad, and they have to change and give up their ideas of masculinity, the toxic ones, and embrace the new one,” Kimmel said.

Denise Oles-Acevedo, senior lecturer of English, also states toxic masculinity shapes the idea that violence equals masculinity.

It is important to understand the difference between masculinities and toxic masculinity, according to Goebel. It is also important to understand that when speaking about masculinity, people are usually referring to “masculinities.”

Masculinity is shown through traits such as independence, courage and assertiveness. When looking at research, Goebel points out masculinity is usually referred to in the plural.

There are many different types of masculinity, from queer masculinity to geographical masculinities, and none of them are right or wrong, but it is an ongoing process which changes depending on the codes that members of these masculinities receive from society, Goebel explained.

Toxic masculinity, then, is one of these subsections of masculinity. The characteristics of toxic masculinity contrast the more positive aspects of masculinities.

“Toxic masculinity tends to always encompass the same traits but it tends to be more monolithic, or characterized by massiveness, total uniformity, rigidity, invulnerability. It’s the worst characteristics that we associate with men taken to their logical end, and bought into,” Goebel said.

Toxic masculinity is also not restricted to any one race or identity. In Kimmel’s film, “Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity,” Kimmel discusses how race is shown in media.

“Latino men are almost always presented either as boxers or criminals or tough guys in the barrio, and Asian-American men are disproportionately portrayed as martial artists or violent criminals,” Kimmel said in the film.


How men learn toxic masculinity 

In gender studies courses, professors are trying to break the hegemonic, or ruling or dominant in a political or social context, binary of masculinity and femininity.

“Basically we’re asking them to renounce Vin Diesel and embrace Ryan Gosling. And men won't go for it. They're too afraid to let go of things because you think they're unhealthy,” Kimmel said during an interview with Signs Journal.

This toxic masculinity plays out in various forms and in different stages in life. When young, boys are taught they should follow a strict set of codes, and if they do not, they are called “a sissy” or “gay” or other words that are seen as negative to the masculine image society is trying to portray.

This understanding gives men a very small set of codes they are expected to fall into, and if they do not, there can be serious consequences and retaliation from friends and peers, Goebel said.

It is also taught through toys. Boys are given water guns, toy guns and all of those messages combine to say culturally this is what manhood is.

In gender studies courses, it is common to do the “man box” activity. In this activity, men are asked to draw a box. Inside of the box, they are supposed to put words they associate with masculinity or manhood. Outside of the box, they are supposed to put the repercussions that will happen or the words they will be called, if they do not fit in this box.

“When you step back and you analyze it, what you see is what’s in that box is not necessarily positive, although we align that positively because we tend to think male positive, female negative, what we see is some of the most toxic elements of being a man,” Goebel said.

“Almost all of the names that boys are called when they don’t adhere to that, align them with being a woman or being gay.”

Goebel uses a metaphor to explain this topic.

“You know the bumper bowling lanes?” Goebel said. “You think you have all of this space, but there are all these elements that are pushing you to conform to this very narrow understanding of gender in order to reach the goal at the end of the lane.”

Media also plays a huge role in our society and, in turn, plays a huge role in the normalization and teaching of toxic masculinity.


Toxic masculinity in college

This toxicity can be seen in everyday college society as well. The inability to share, aligning heroism with violence, this is seen a lot in action movies. Denigration of women as persons and reducing them to body parts and sex objects, lack of empathy and hypercompetitiveness.

In college, there are many ways hypermasculinity and more specifically toxic masculinity are seen. In party culture, “how much you can drink becomes a marker of how masculine you are,” Goebel said.

Bullying, drinking, drugs and even the Tide Pod challenge are examples of toxic masculinity at play.

“What’s important to understand about toxic masculinity is that it hurts men just as much as it hurts women," Goebel said. “It’s like a slow cancerous growth, it limits the possibilities for them.”

Katz, in his series of Tough Guise films, points out this violent form of masculinity plays a role in male violence against women, violence against other men, mass shootings, road rage and many other forms of violence.

Men are also being taught it is not acceptable to show emotions or to discuss their feelings which leads to less men seeking help or reaching out to counseling as explained by Oles-Acevedo.

“Being emotional is not a bad thing, asking for help is not a bad thing. We need to reframe what it means to be masculine,” Oles-Acevedo said.

A documentary was made to discuss how these masculinity roles affect children and young boys. Titled “The Mask You Live In,” it shows how these roles and binaries negatively affect men, to the point of acting out or suicide. It also discusses how society can change the conversation and raise a healthier generation of men.


How people can work against toxic masculinity

Despite the society around toxic masculinity, there are many ways people can counteract it, according to experts.

Katz, in his Ted Talk, talks about using the bystander approach to end gender violence and challenge toxic masculinity.

The bystander approach is an approach that gives people the tools to interrupt friends and colleagues and to speak up and create a peer culture climate where the abusive behavior will be seen as unacceptable as defined by Katz.

“If we can get to the place where men who act out in sexist ways will lose status, young men and boys who act out in sexist and harassing ways toward girls and women, as well as toward other boys and men, will lose status as a result of it, guess what? We'll see a radical diminution of the abuse,” Katz said.

Traitorous identity is another way men can change the culture in their own peer groups. As defined in Gendered Lives by Julia Wood and Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz, traitorous identity is “a group member’s criticism of particular attitudes and actions—for example, sexist jokes—that are accepted and normative within the group.”

Goebel believes reframing social media in terms of what is shows as masculine, and working in multicultural environments to gain some of the positive influence or positive attributes from these cultures, are ways to combat this toxicity.

“Becoming more educated, becoming more self interrogatory, looking introspectively at who we are and where we learn these things,” Goebel said.

Toxic masculinity can be changed, but it is up to members of the society to step out and make an effort to change it.

“We should respect the toughness and strength of men who challenge the myth that being a real man requires putting up a false front, disrespecting others and engaging in violent and self-destructive behavior,” Kimmel said.

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