It seems not long ago that the term “toxic masculinity” was just a controversial phrase in our society, but, although the excitement around the term seems to have died down, the term has come to identify a deep cultural divide between more progressive social reformers and advocates of a more traditional society. Some might see it as an attack on traditional masculinity, while others would say it is a necessary critique of the culture that surrounds modern masculinity.
So, what is toxic masculinity, and what lessons can we learn from its sudden jump to controversy?
In its article on “Harmful masculinity” posted in September 2018, the American Psychological Association suggests that it is connected to ingrained misogyny and homophobia, as well as unhealthy forms of stoicism and lack of emotional sensitivity. It further suggests that these habits are often instilled in young men in their childhood, and perpetuate a patriarchal culture where men are taught to leverage power and influence over women, and even their fellow men, for their own gain.
Following the initial controversy over the use of the term a few years ago, society seemed to have been left with an appeal, and a question: The appeal was made to reevaluate the “masculine” traits we are taught as young men because they are unhealthy, and in fact, emotionally stunting. But the question asked was, how can we take this appeal seriously, without inevitably telling young men that they cannot take any pride in their masculinity?
So how can we as a society critique and even seemingly doubt the fundamentals of masculinity without inadvertently devaluing every young man in the process? Well, as a Catholic liberal arts institution, we have a thorough anthropology of the human person at our disposal to pull from.
First, we can make the distinction that God has made each and every person in his own image—in the “Imago Dei.” Therefore as men and women, what we receive from God through our sex cannot be bad, unhealthy, or toxic; what comes from God is inherently good. But alas, we are fallen people with free will and a fair amount of selfishness ingrained in our minds, so we tend to fall short of those gifts from God.
This is consistent also with a proper understanding of the human person. I would argue that what distinguishes men and women is not necessarily the physical differences, but rather how we live out our natural virtues and vices. To ask what virtues are inherently masculine and which are feminine is to ask the wrong question: it is the way that we act on those virtues that distinguishes between men and women. This framework affords us the ability to side-step the misleading question of what things are “masculine” or “feminine” and focus on the means by which men and women find their own personal virtues and fulfillment.
So we can say confidently that masculinity — as well as femininity, for that matter — cannot cause us to have bad habits, but rather, they are sources of virtue if we choose to pull from them. Therefore, those things that are toxic or unhealthy about masculinity are actually just bad habits that have attached themselves to the way that we act out our masculine virtues.
Finally, we can make a proper distinction: masculinity, properly understood, is ingrained in the proper and natural way that a man acts and treats those around him, and any toxic behavior that has attached itself to masculine habits is simply not masculine, so we should call it what it is: false masculinity.
But what does this distinction afford us? Most importantly, we can affirm for each young man that masculinity is nothing to be ashamed of, and that he should take pride in his manliness. But furthermore we can take the first steps in redefining what masculinity should look like in our society, because it surely isn’t meant to include ingrained misogyny — or any other prejudice for that matter — bottling up our emotions and aggression, or any other false “masculine” vices.
It seems evident that many men do face these issues though — we struggle to express ourselves, and sometimes when we do, we are shamed for not being “manly enough.” We are called to love and respect the women in our lives, and yet so many men are exposed to porn at increasingly young ages and subliminally taught that women are objects for our own gratification. We want to appreciate our brothers around us, but we’re conditioned to think that the only way we can show affection for other men is through teasing and underhanded comments.
This is not to say that young men are totally victimized — whether these problems have been forced upon us or we are causing them ourselves is another conversation — but we can be sure that the proper response is charity and patience.
Now the larger question of “what is masculinity?” obviously has no simple answer, and can’t be captured in a single sentence, but we can be sure that for every man, the journey towards becoming a genuinely good, emotionally intelligent, and well-rounded individual is synonymous with embracing one’s masculinity, and ultimately, that is what we are challenged to do through a proper education and throughout life.
It may seem pedantic to make the distinction between “toxic” and “false” masculinity, but I believe it is actually crucial to the formation of every young man. What the toxic masculinity movement got right was that men absolutely need to keep each other accountable — to present our emotions authentically; to love and respect the women in our lives, and to live out genuine fraternity with our brothers.
If I may be permitted to cite the most “UD” book to never be in the Core, we should look at our male role models in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” If Aragorn, son of Arathorn, can tenderly kiss Boromir on the forehead after he has sacrificed himself to protect the hobbits, we can bring ourselves to show some physical and emotional vulnerability with our brothers. In fact, I submit that it would be beneficial to look to the male role models on our campus. It may be impossible to define masculinity in a few words, but I could surely point out a few men on campus that I think capture what it is to be a man, and that is an invaluable resource.
In my experience, the only danger in making these critiques — and it is a concerning one — is when they are made outright, you risk ostracizing young men who struggle with those vices, and making them doubt their own masculine nature. Ultimately, this simple change in perspective affords us the ability to acknowledge the real dangers of false masculinity without degrading the inherent nature of man.