Redefining Masculinity (10 Minute Read)
Updated: Feb 6, 2020
When I was a kid, I thought that being a man meant that it was your job to know how to do everything, because that's what it seemed like my dad did. He was a jack of all trades. He could fix a wall, tile a floor, wire an air conditioner, and then go change his oil without complaining. Therefore, growing up, I assumed that's what all men were supposed to be like. Moms were there for you when you needed to cry and Dads were there to teach you how to be strong. Despite my mom's amazing work and knowledge in building a progressive home, even for today's standards, I fell victim to the ideals of toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity has become somewhat of a buzzword over the past year. It is often cited by left-wingers as a representation of systematic oppression, while right-wingers regularly use it as cannon fodder in their battle against the PC movement. It may appear to be a contemporary idea, but in reality it was just a subverted one, hiding under the surface. The idea of toxic masculinity and gendered mores go hand-in-hand with feminism, but unlike the rise of feminism, masculinity has remained a silent observer when it needed to be an active participant in the conversation. That conversation is happening now.
Socially, we are beginning to challenge the role that masculinity plays in our homes, our relationships, our communities and its meaning altogether; much to the credit of protesters, advocates and academics whose decades of work have laid the foundation for these ideas to enter the mainstream. More and more, we are starting to recognize, acknowledge, and work against the privilege and institutionalized advantages that come with being a man. By no means are we even close to where we need to be, but I can start to see the wheels turning. The motivation for writing this piece stems from my conversations with men and their confusion in navigating the waters that lie ahead. As we continue to move forward, men are being asked to reevaluate the preconceived notion of what it means to be a man, and in response, we are tasked with either embracing change and redefining masculinity for ourselves, or refuting it. Many have opted for the latter. I am here to speak towards why redefining our masculinity is the only viable option. The way in which we culturally raise men to think about and treat women has a direct influence on equality. This should be something that we all want, because at the end of the day, feminism and equality don’t just make a better world for women, they make a better world for everyone. Men lead some of the most grim categories that exist: suicide, violent crime, anti-social behaviour and spousal abuse to name a few, and I imagine many of those statistics result from the culture built around what it means to be a man. Men must now be willing to face the ambiguity necessary in order to grow. We need to forgo short-term hedonism in pursuit of a long-term truth: that we are all different, but we were all created equal.
We are at a turning point. For the first time, a generation has the power and the numbers to change the way their children approach masculinity. We can remove the imbalance of emotional labour that heavily falls on women in relationships and families, something men stay often completely unaware of, and a generation can grow up without once uttering something about women being in the kitchen. But in order to do this, we need to look at the current and traditional state of masculinity and identify how to shift away from its toxic components while embracing the positive and introducing new ones. Why would men resist this? Well, traditionally as men, masculinity dictates we value stoicism, strength, power, fearlessness and independence (not asking for help). We are supposed to be providers, protectors, and procreators. It is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) reinforced that emotion, compassion and vulnerability are equivocal to weakness. We are indirectly encouraged to repress emotional trauma and we are told that if we are weak, we are not valuable, which breeds hesitation. And if we ever do overcome that hesitation and are met with resistance from other men, we typically just revert back to what we know. We are encouraged to embrace aggression, toughness, and risk-taking as the pillars that foundationally support our psyche. All of these expectations can lead to an inordinate amount of pressure, insecurity, and fear in men of all ages. Communicating emotionally should be one of the most natural things a human can do. We are one of the fortunate few organisms that has the capacity for emotion because it benefited us in survival. It was an added advantage in communication. But now, it isn’t as natural as it should be for men.
This hyper-masculinity we are now seeing has been present for centuries. This long time horizon would sometimes suggest that biological factors play a role, which I’m sure they do, but not on as large a scale as we may think. Many cultural studies have shown that there are a number of masculine behaviours that are socially learned and ingrained, meaning men are not destined or predisposed to fulfill the behaviours they sometimes claim to be. I would love to say that this learned helplessness in emotionality and communication are easy to change, but sadly they are not. I am a feminist, an ally, and I try to be an advocate for those without a voice when I have the time and effort available to do so properly, and I still struggle with these things at times.
For example, there was a period throughout high school where I didn’t cry for probably about 1.5-2 years. It wasn't because I didn’t want to, but because I had internalized the idea that I was a ‘pussy’ if I did. I began to put an extreme amount of pressure on myself to be perfect and to never experience failure because I didn’t live up to the physical prototype of what it meant to be a man. I was thin, lanky, and unsure of myself. I had to make up for not being big by being tough and flawlessly smart instead, which was impossible in the first place. I thought that what I lacked in muscle and size could have been made up for in toughness and wit. Since then, I’ve worked extremely hard and spent hours in therapy to change that mentality that once existed, but it still affects me today. I am admittedly, like most of us, a work in progress. I have moments where I want to show emotion and where I know it's acceptable and safe to show emotion, but am physically incapable of doing so. There are instances where I have built a cognitive block to safeguard myself and continually have to work to break down that wall. I, like many men, have fallen into the false notion by which we identify ourselves. We have attached parts of our worth to this fake ideology, not because we want to, but because in many situations we were raised to. We have fallen into the parochial stereotype the media expects us to fulfill, and many of the principles in which men live and take pride in are based on those ingrained ideas. Parts of us are always the product of our environments. In saying this, I feel it's important to note that these aren’t excuses or justifications, but merely context. This isn’t a Michael Scott-esque “society made me this way” argument. Men should be held accountable for their behaviour and the retribution of that behaviour, and in doing so, ensure that the responsibility doesn’t fall onto the shoulders of the women supporting them. We should ask a lot of men, because we have asked so much from women for so long. Although it is not an excuse, what I’ve said is important in seeing why so many men are opposed to the idea of toxic masculinity and reject it. It forces them to question their behaviour, their identity, and in many cases, their purpose. And therein lies the rub; when your foundational pillars are centered on dominating, being the best, and evading the perception of weakness, you will do anything to avoid asking those questions and the iterative cycle will continue.
When Gillette released their commercial ‘The Best Men Can Be,’ it was rendered incredibly controversial. It was considered breaking news on CNN and was debated by pundits all over the world. When I saw it for the first time, I didn’t even understand what the problem was. I thought I must have watched the wrong commercial. I went to speak to some of my male friends about it, thinking that I would get the same response. Boy, was I wrong. It came as a surprise, but many of them just blew off the whole concept and spoke about how ridiculous it was, picking apart each frame and saying how it wasn’t representational of men. They said we shouldn’t let a few bad apples spoil the barrel and mentioned the harmlessness in many of the situations depicted. In those moments, it felt like someone had taken something from me, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. I think it was because my membership to the traditional masculinity club was never one I liked or identified with. So when my friends said those things, it felt like my trust had been abandoned. I imagine that's what being a woman feels like a lot of the time. In reality, the actual reason the commercial is controversial is because of its elicited response, not because of its subject matter. The message is simple: problematic male behaviour in the past that was once tolerated will no longer be tolerated anymore, and men can be better. There is nothing controversial about that. The response is either: ‘yes we can change’, or ‘no, I don’t want to.’
Men now have the power to redefine what masculinity means to them. We can set a new precendent. It isn’t an exercise of labour, its an exercise of freedom. We no longer have to ascribe to the ideals that are placed on us within society and we have the power to propel those new freedoms onto future generations. Being a man isn’t about being the breadwinner or being able to protect your partner or family. Being strong for your family and bearing emotional labour don't have to be mutually exclusive. Being a man is about accepting your faults, holding yourself accountable, and embracing vulnerability. Its letting your true self be seen and expressing your emotions fully and without regret. Feeling unbridled emotion, whether it be happiness, joy, or sadness is what life is all about. The highs are meaningless without the lows. Men often take for granted the opportunity we are given in feeling and expressing our emotions. Let's not take that for granted anymore. Let's reclaim our own new ideals as men, not because we are now expected to, but because it is simply the right thing to do. We have an obligation to fight for our sisters equality and combat the behaviour that contradicts that obligation. For the men out there, I know that this path will undoubtedly be difficult and scary. For some, it may be the toughest thing they ever do. Reshaping your own vision of yourself is never easy. It will require introspection, reflection, tears and critical thought. We need to be there for each other throughout this process, because it will be a process. But it will all undoubtedly be worth it, for everyone.