My Thoughts on “Toxic Masculinity”: A Series
Part 1: “Toxic Masculinity” or an Attack on Masculinity?
Last week I posted a brief piece in response to two hot-button items generating a firestorm of controversy: a Gillette ad with the #MeToo-era challenge “Is this the best a man can get?”, and the American Psychological Association’s (APA) new Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.
This is the more in-depth look I promised. In fact, there are so many important angles to this—important to men and to all of us—that I anticipate posting several pieces in the coming weeks. (Click here to receive my posts.)
First, a summary: As a social researcher who has interviewed and surveyed well over 15,000 men and boys to understand how they think and feel—and as the mother of a 16-year-old son—I was overwhelmed with sadness when I tried to read the APA report. I was honestly dumbfounded that guidelines by and for psychological professionals could so overtly label “traditional masculinity” as “harmful” instead of challenging the negatives while also purposefully affirming the positives.
Now, I strongly believe the APA is well-intentioned and deeply concerned about the social and emotional problems affecting so many men and boys. I applaud that they see the need for guidelines. Rates of male depression, addiction, incarceration, and academic failure long ago passed a systemic tipping point. We have moved from isolated, individual impacts and to a male malaise that is systemically impacting society.
The problem is: we have had so many decades of false narratives and inaccurate groupthink about men in media and culture, that even those who sincerely want to help men truly appear to believe the lies. So any approach based on those inaccurate beliefs—including many of the current “guidelines”—won’t touch the real problems and can actually make matters worse.
Here are some crucial facts I strongly believe the APA is missing—and some solutions that will help change the trajectory of our men and boys.
Big picture overview: There is little or no acknowledgement that the way men are wired can be a very good thing
In the APA report, there was almost no acknowledgement that the way men are created can be very positive and absolutely necessary for family and society—the strength, the protectiveness, the desire to take care of people, the desire to do good things. There was a whole section on the vital importance of fathers, but I didn’t see a single recognition that many of the reasons fathers are so important are the commonly-male wirings that were being hammered in the report!
There also didn’t seem to be any explicit recognition of the fact that the toxic (abusive, harmful) application of masculinity is a small percentage compared to the entire population of men. The stereotypically negative/clueless/hapless/overly aggressive portrayal of men in the media is, in reality, far from the majority of men. (More on that in Part 2.)
Most men just want to be good husbands, be good dads, be good at their job, and do good things. But by definition as men, they are “masculine.” They may all be different from each other—some are the traditionally “macho” or stoic types, but many are sensitive, thoughtful, talkative, every pattern of the rainbow—but they are all men. They’re not women, and they don’t want to be women—they want their masculine strength to help people, not hurt people.
But men (and boys) today are caught in a bizarre situation. As a man next to me on the airplane recently told me, “It does feel as if there is a war on men. Have you noticed that on TV shows, men are the only people-group you’re allowed to have overt derision toward? You can’t do that with different religious groups, or women, or various ethnicities—but men as a whole are fair game. It doesn’t really affect me, because I’m 53 years old, and I know who I am. I don’t take it personally. But I do think it is probably deeply affecting our younger men. They don’t even know whether they can or can’t open a door for a woman without being yelled at. And when you can’t win, you check out.”
Society doesn’t yet recognize that a male malaise/crisis even exists, or that a different approach is needed
Many people today don’t believe there is a need to help men and boys. Even the APA felt compelled to preface its report with the apologetic recognition that (I’m paraphrasing here): Yes, so sorry for producing this report, when we do know that men historically have held the power. They’ve been the ones held as the norms even for psychological and medical study. We do know most positions of business and policy leadership around the country (and world) are held by men.
But it can be true that the person at the top of the pyramid is likely to be a man, while at the same time be true that those at the very, very bottom of the pyramid, crushed under the weight of no hope, are most likely men as well. It can also be true that many in the middle of the pyramid—especially our sons—are absorbing an astonishing amount of derision and misunderstanding against men today.
Men are deeply misunderstood today—because there is an epidemic lack of awareness or validation of how men are wired
After my first research project about men was published as the book For Women Only: What You Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men, I saw a stunning pattern after the book started getting a lot of attention. Day after day, when people would come up to talk to me after I spoke at a university, community event, church, or corporation, there was always at least one man who had to pause for a moment because he started getting emotional.
“Sorry,” a tall, imposing-looking man told me at a large event in Canada, embarrassed as his eyes were red with trying to tamp down his feelings. “Hold on. Sorry. I’m just really . . . overwhelmed . . . by the idea that my wife might finally be able to understand me.”
As I’m traveling, I often interview random strangers to learn of their perceptions on things. Yesterday, I spoke to two clearly thoughtful, interested women while waiting for our flight who didn’t even understand what I was getting at when I asked their opinion on whether there are “masculine” emotional traits, and which, if any, were positive as well as negative. They strongly agreed that traditional masculinity was toxic (“It’s about time!” one exclaimed, when I asked about the APA report), but also shared their strong (and somewhat contradictory) opinion that there were also not specific things to understand about men’s underlying emotions.
“I think it’s been a problem for a long time that guys are expected to be macho and take care of people financially and all this other B.S..” one said. “We need to de-genderize a lot of these character attributes and just take personal responsibility.”
While I agree with the “personal responsibility” part, there is all too often a rejection of the notion that there is anything specific to understand about men.
No wonder some men shut down, check out, don’t share their feelings, and have higher rates of depression
As a result of this trend, over and over and over again, my staff and I have heard from men who have felt that their feelings, way of processing/communicating, and way of being are not valid or validated. In many cases the men themselves didn’t even realize that they had a unique set of feelings and predispositions that were common to most men—that they weren’t alone!
For years these men have plowed forward, trying to be good husbands, fathers, salesmen or students, internally accepting the assumption of their wives, teachers, the media, their pastors and even their marriage therapists or business coaches that they are the ones who need to be fixed. That they don’t study or learn the right way. That surely the marriage problems are their fault, because women of course are better at relationships, right?
Think about the level of cluelessness that this represents toward half the population and you’ll see how astounding this truly is.
More fundamentally: Think about how hard it would be to keep going, keep trying, in the face of this constant, subconscious blame; this undercurrent of cluelessness and disdain, and suddenly, you start to see how easy it would be for a man to shut down and check out. You start to see how easy it would be for a schoolboy who doesn’t learn well in a girl-centric learning environment, to feel stupid and decide he’s better at basketball than science, thanks. How easy it would be for a young man in this environment—especially a young minority man who feels not only disdained as a man but as a person of color!—to have a lack of hope.
And as Proverbs so aptly captures it: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
That is the malaise I’m worried about, for men today—and our sons. A subconscious but very real lack of hope. A lack of belief that they are valuable. That they make a difference.
Yes, I’m making generalizations—but the gender differences do exist
Yes, of course I am making major generalizations here, and not every man (or every woman) will think or feel or process or communicate the same. But on my surveys (and the surveys of many other social scientists), and in the fMRI scans done by neuroscientists, it is beyond debate that men and women often simply have different neuro-emotional wiring. Anything else is simply wishful thinking on the part of people who don’t want it to be so.
And yes, there are men who are themselves clueless or truly insensitive Neanderthals—just like there are with women. But on the whole men are working to be good, productive and caring people and deserve our understanding, just like women do.
The first step is understanding men—and each other
I’ll cover more solutions in Part 2 of this series, but here’s the starting point:
The solutions to this are both very simple and very complex. The complex solution will be somehow generating a sea change in our culture that acknowledges that there are legitimate, valid differences between how men and women often think and feel. And many of these can help us understand each other better.
But the simple solution comes one person, one interaction at a time—working to understand the men or women in your life, to honor how they are similar or different from you. To see their different insecurities, needs, ways of processing, and predispositions.
More on that next time. But that will be the start for that sea change.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Find Rest: A Women’s Devotional for Lasting Peace in Busy Life, focuses on a journey to rest even with life’s constant demands. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.