Michael D. Erickson LPC
Men Behaving Badly
The bizarre behavior at the recent Academy Awards lead to a conversation I had with my men’s group. What does it mean to be a “man.” More importantly, how are men to behave. This question runs far deeper than the superficial explanation our current culture provides. It creates an existential dilemma for men especially men raising boys.
The societal perceptions for “being a man” can often leave men feeling lost and confused. Our media perpetuates subtle cultural biases that influence the male psyche. Young men and boys receive mixed messages from the media, entertainment and educational settings. An insidious idea spread by people attempting to undermine male influence in our society has created a generalization they call “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity is a term that has been gaining traction in the past decade. This term refers to the oppressive form of masculinity wherein men use dominance, violence, and control to assert their power and superiority. I believe it’s incredibly important to separate “toxic” from “healthy” when presenting ideal presentations of male imagery.
“Toxic masculinity” isn’t just about “behaving like a man.” Instead, it involves the extreme pressure some men may feel to act in a way that is not beneficial, but harmful. A working description of Toxic masculinity could be “the need to aggressively compete and dominate others and encompasses the most problematic proclivities in men. These same male proclivities foster resistance to change.” There are many definitions of “toxic masculinity” that appear in the literature as well as current culture. Some researchers have come to agree that toxic masculinity has three core components:
1. Toughness: This is the notion that men should be physically strong, emotionally callous, and behaviorally aggressive.
2. Antifeminism: This involves the idea that men should reject anything that is considered to be feminine, such as showing emotion or accepting help.
3. Power: This is the assumption that men must work toward obtaining power and status (social and financial) so they can gain the respect of others
Toxic masculinity appears in many different forms. A few examples include telling boys to “man up” when they feel upset or justifying abusive and inappropriate behavior with the phrase “boys will be boys.”
The impacts of this construct of toxic masculinity are far-reaching. It can lead to more violence against women, as men may feel entitled or validated in their abusive behavior. Unhealthy masculinity is also incredibly detrimental to men. Research has shown that men who display traits of toxic masculinity are more likely to experience isolation, poor health, and unhappiness. Due to stigma and societal pressures, males are less likely to seek help for mental health issues. Unhealthy or toxic masculinity may not allow males to fully express themselves and their emotional needs because people may view it as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.
So what are men to do? Healthy or positive masculinity is the idea that men can be emotionally expressive, have female friends or mentors, and express their emotions without feeling emasculated. First of all, be careful with media stereotypes. They’re often wrong. Remember, the media has a short time to portray a character through a lens that sensationalizes their marketing agenda. In addition, many of the entertainment outlets are now admittedly indoctrinating our population with not so subtle messages about what they would like our culture to internalize. When people like Will Smith behave barbarically in public, the media rushes to redefine the behavior for fear their narrative be tarnished or subverted. Where was the label of “toxic masculinity?” I never thought I would defend Chris Rock, however his gesture of forgiveness more closely resembles healthy masculinity than that of his assailant. Men and boys can demonstrate a healthy balance of emotional experience, leading to better relationships with wives and others, more compassion in the world and far more happy families. I believe most men have the temperament and proclivity to engage in positive male expressions. Instead of toxic masculinity, I suggest we identify toxic people when their behavior indicates such, rather than broadly painting all men with this heinous drive for damage. Men and fathers that demonstrate healthy attitudes about masculinity can (and should) be exemplified, thus perpetuating the vision for our youth that they will grow into heathy men and fathers themselves.