Toxic Masculinity: The Ego Makes the Poison
I’m going to miss being my daughter’s taxi driver.
Soon she’ll get her driver’s license. Until then I’ll cherish every conversation we have and song we enjoy on the radio while I transport her to forty-eleven karate lessons per week. Recently, “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club came on; I turned it up and we sang along.
I appreciate that song more as an adult, because I wasn’t allowed to like it when I was young.
There are some people I’d like to punch in the face.
I didn’t always feel this way. Gentleness was beaten out of me in my early teens. It’s a slow road to reclaim that compassion and amiability.
My mom told me about what a sweet boy I was; how I was kind and caring. I remember that boy. Alas, he mostly died in junior high school.
I was bullied for not being good in sports; not being tough. I didn’t get the shit beaten out of me, but I was pushed around and picked on. I dreaded going to school and had revenge fantasies. I imagined being bitten by a radioactive spider so I could smack the smirks off their smug teenage faces.
For a time, my life was about hatred for those other boys.
I wanted to inflict pain upon them but was too weak, too afraid. In ninth grade, I finally fought back against one of my primary tormentors, and won. It was a turning point. The bullying became less so. I began to take less shit and by eleventh grade I wasn’t bullied at all.
Violence solved a problem for me. But in the process, it changed me for the worse. It gave me a hard edge I didn’t want and wish I didn’t need to survive my education.
Lots of things got you called a pussy or a fag when I was growing up. It made you create a false exterior of masculinity as a shell against criticism for being perceived as weak. There were things you felt you had to do, and other things you weren’t permitted to do, to maintain some semblance of status in the toxic male hierarchy. For example: no listening to Culture Club. Some guys did, but I already had a target on my back, I didn’t need to add another by listening to the “wrong” music.
Guys who were bigger, stronger, more athletic, often were near the top of the hierarchy, regardless if they had the personality of a wank sock. If you were smaller or less athletically inclined or had interests deemed too feminine, you moved down the pecking order. You could be a genius or an artist and it wouldn’t matter. Times are changing, but in the 80s a rugged exterior trumped meaningful interior.
When we were teens, at least, this is how it was. As adults, it is better, but it can still be hard for some to let go of that pubescent bullshit.
Many never lose the desire to dominate. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to stand out for your achievements and abilities, even via what may be considered “masculine” endeavors, toxic masculinity is that same old bully and bluster crap we did as kids when it was all about how tough you were.
Not all masculinity is toxic; the ego makes the poison.
Last fall I wrote a piece about how to brand a bullshit diet book for maximum sales. The article contained this line:
Paleo sounds all scientific and shit, and appeals to that toxic masculinity about how we’re all supposed to be out stalking, stabbing and skinning mammoths for dinner and getting all the cave bitches.
The piece was popular, but there were several men who called bullshit on the whole thing not because they were paleo fans, but because the article contained that single reference to “toxic masculinity.” They got the impression I see all masculinity as toxic.
There is much fear about the “pussification” of men. And so, toxic masculinity is alive and well, and it’s not good for anyone. Research into the gaming community provides insight.
A July 2015 study published in PLOS ONE examined the threat posed by female gamers to men who were “low status” players in a first-person shooter game (these men had few kills and were killed often). They saw women as a risk to their rank in the gaming hierarchy and lashed out with negative comments towards women at a rate much higher than offered towards other men. Conversely, those men who were “high status” players (lots of kills and rarely got killed) were much more positive towards women.
A partial explanation for why this is so can be found in a 2013 study of 63 college males, published in Evolution & Human Behavior, which found that social dominance rather than attractiveness was associated with having a higher rate of sexual success.
The PLOS ONE study asserted, “Low-status and low-performing males have the most to lose as a consequence of the hierarchical reconfiguration due to the entry of a competitive woman.” Also, “the increase in hostility towards a woman by lower-status males may be an attempt to disregard a female’s performance and suppress her disturbance on the hierarchy to retain their social rank.”
Rank is important to many men, and it breeds toxic masculinity among some of them to attain and retain it. In some cases, it breeds sexist behavior, and that creates bad outcomes for all involved.
A 2016 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology examined 20,000 people across a decade of research regarding the psychological impact of traditionally masculine attitudes. The attitudes studied included taking risks, needing to control people, the urge to win, violence, homophobia, promiscuity, and wanting to have power over women.
Things like seeking status via work and taking risks weren’t determined to be either good or bad traits in terms of psychological effect, but “playboy” behavior and wanting to dominate women are strongly correlated with psychological problems. Beyond the harm it does to women, being sexist is toxic to male psychology. And yet, some see it as simply “What it means to be a man.”
Except that’s bullshit. The definitions of manliness and masculinity evolve over time. A man doesn’t have to bang all the chicks and be dominant over them to be masculine. There isn’t a war on men. There is pushback against douchebaggery. Pussification is bullshit. The world still contains plenty of opportunities to be masculine.
Toxic masculinity is fragile. Positive masculinity isn’t.
How do you tell the difference? It’s earned confidence vs. contrived arrogance. It’s having people respect you for who you are vs. demanding that people pay attention to you. It’s about being witty vs. being obscene. Another aspect of fragile, toxic masculinity is seeing the accomplishments of women as a threat, such as in the study of gamers. Women are just as capable of being confident and charismatic leaders who command respect, and it is men with fragile egos who seek to keep them down.
Being masculine isn’t about being a bully against men or women. Again: the ego makes the poison.
You may be familiar with the term “the dose makes the poison.” But in the case of masculinity it’s not about dose. It’s about how ideas of masculinity manifest.
Except for some fringe groups, most people don’t want men to stop being men. Standing out among others as a leader is often seen as an attractive quality. A study of undergraduate women published in the Journal of Research in Personality looked at different manners in which dominance manifests, and the effect on attractiveness.
If the “dominant male” was “demanding, violent, and self-centered” then this was less desirable. Conversely, if a man was dominant because of real “leadership qualities and other superior abilities”, they were preferred.
But a man no longer must “dominate” to achieve status. Throughout human history, being a brute who used his size and murder-skills to rule over others was an efficacious manner of achieving status, but we’ve evolved. How good you are at being physically superior to others, and your skill at dealing in violence, are not as lauded as they once were.
Your ability to create, to teach, to entertain, to provide, to nurture, to heal, to help … these are all manners in which a man can attain status, to stand out and be appreciate and, yes, desired.
Being courageous is not toxic. If you fall off a mountainside, my best friend can rappel from a helicopter and save your life. This isn’t being a “tough guy,” it’s using his hard-earned skill and his courage to provide a valuable service to those in need. People admire such attributes more than the bully and bluster of a guy who calls himself an “alpha male.”
My father lives a life more rugged than most can imagine. He built his own house in northern British Columbia, and at 73-years old still heats it with wood he chops himself. I’ve eaten plenty of wild game that he hunted. He’s loved in his community not because of his arduous lifestyle, but for his wit and generosity. He makes people laugh and donates time and effort towards helping others.
You can Google “how to lose your man card” and come across a series of douchebaggery-filled lists written by insecure men. What’s a “man card”? I’m not sure, but judging by what these guys say you must do to keep it, I won’t worry on it. I take more pride in having a well-worn blood donation card.
The best part of our brave, new, and more civilized world is the ability to opt out of traditional ideas of masculinity. This isn’t the Amazon jungle and you don’t need to shove your hands into gloves filled with bullet ants as a rite of passage to manhood. You can choose your own path.
You can turn up Culture Club when you hear it on the radio, and sing along.
James S. Fell, MBA, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com, and a contributor to Men’s Health, Women’s Health, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and NPR.