Some Thoughts on Toxic Masculinity

When I do community presentations, I’ll often ask a hypothetical question: “Imagine I just got a text alert saying there was a school shooting in Arizona. Tell me the gender of the shooter.”
Invariably everyone says male.

I’ll often pause a bit and let that sink in a bit — they all “knew” this hypothetical killer was boy or a man.

Then I’ll ask them why he did it. The typical answers:
· he was bullied
· mental health problems
· break up with a girlfriend
· access to guns

Then I’ll ask more questions. Are girls also bullied? Do girls have mental health problems? Do you girls have break-ups? Do girls have access to guns?

Of course, their answers are all yes.

So I’ll ask: “though these are all important issues that need to be addressed if these are the causes, why are girls also not doing mass shootings?”

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Another exercise I’ve done with hundreds of groups over the past 15 years is the “Man Box” exercise. It’s a simple, two-part exercise: first I’ll ask what they think of when I hear someone tell a boy to “man up” or “act like a man”. Part two, I’ll ask what they think of when they hear the words “healthy manhood”.

The answers are always the same no matter the group demographics: League of Women Voters, fraternities, high school teens, or a group of six graders from a small rural elementary school.

The answers for part 1 (“man up” / “act like a man”) shared from a group of local 9th graders:

Don’t cry, no emotions except anger, fight, be tough, be into sports & guns, don’t ask for help, don’t wear pink, eat meat, don’t be “whipped”, no fear, drink beer, dominate, be straight, head-of-household, in charge, drive trucks, no long hair, good with tools, be a lady’s man.

The answers for part 2 (“healthy manhood”) from the same group of 9th graders:

Be able to cry and show emotions, loving, not afraid to fail, music and theatre and not just sports, don’t treat women like property, drive a minivan, care about others, honorable, good listener, selfless, loyal, stay-at-home dad, listen to women, gentle, able to show anger in a positive way, humble, not all about money, willing to show a feminine side, helping those in need.

So I’ll ask: why are these list different? Why when we tell a boy to “man up” or “act like a man” is that a very different message than when we talk about healthy manhood?

This “Man Box” list is also known as toxic masculinity. It is what we are often teaching our boys what it means to “be a man”. When I say “act like a man”, I’m intentionally using the word “act”. It is a role – an acting role that we are teaching our boys from day one.

I’ll ask the audience: “imagine you’re going to a baby shower and you’re buying a onesie as a gift. If the baby is a boy, what color is the onesie and what is on it?” Every group says blue, and that it would likely have balls, trucks, or superheroes. “And if the baby is a girl?” — they’ll say pink with flowers, butterflies, and princesses.

This baby isn’t even born yet, and she/he is already being put in a box.

The “Act like a Man” / “Man Box” list always falls in three categories:
1. No crying and no emotions except for anger.
2. Be tough, dominate, power and control, never be weak, never ask for help.
3. Devalue women and anything feminine, don’t wear pink, don’t act/throw like a girl, be a lady’s man.

Of course, not everything in the Man Box is necessarily bad – things like owning a truck, being into sports, being brave. But what is problematic, is when boys feel they need to be stuck in the Man Box, or else they will be considered “less than”.

Our culture polices this Man Box — all kinds of language used as weapons to push boys back in the box: “man up”, “grow a pair”, “bros before hoes”, “don’t be gay”, “quit acting like a little girl”, “don’t be a wuss”, “no tears”, “sissy”.

It’s impossible as a boy or man in society to avoid this Man Box, but for some of us the box is tighter than for others. For some boys and men, they’d rather die than be called a sissy. And this “Man Box” is a root cause to a variety of problems: sexual assault, domestic violence, homophobia, transphobia, male suicide risk …

So we have girls and boys who are being bullied, have mental health problems, or are dealing with break-ups. The girl is allowed to have emotions – sadness, fear, etc. She can cry. The boy in a tight man box has one emotional option – anger. The girl is taught that she can be vulnerable and can seek help. The boy can’t. He needs to “man up”. And in some cases, this involves a gun and killing people, and he might die as well. But from inside the Man Box, with those limited options we’ve given him, this is the only option – to “man up”.

We are failing our boys. We are forcing them to “act like a man” and not teaching healthy manhood and giving him a range of options. And we’re not just harming those boys, but people of all genders who are in those boys’ lives. We can do better. And I’ll know that day has arrived when the list shared by every group for “man up / act like a man” is the same as the healthy manhood list, and the exercise loses its meaning.

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