When did masculinity become so toxic?

See how toxic masculinity takes its toll on boys, men and everyone who gets close!

© Maureen Bisilliat ‘Pele Preta’ c. 1962

Until recent, it never occurred to me that masculinity, when exaggerated, could be so harmful. To be specific, I am talking about the negative aspects of masculinity traits that many cultures have widely accepted and glorified (e.g. anger, stoicism, lack of emotions, carelessness, dominance, you name it). And when I say harmful, I mean like really bad — the life threatening kind of bad. What is even more upsetting is the fact that to most cultures, especially here in Africa, hyper masculinity and toxic behaviors that accompany it, are perceived as acceptable standards of a real man — a perception that fuels toxic masculinity traits among countless boys and men.

So to say, this harmful version of masculinity is extremely normalized and pretty much praised that its impacts and effects on physical and mental health goes unnoticed. In an article “What to know about toxic masculinity”, Jon Johnson states that, based on the customary notion of masculinity, male who do not display enough of traditional masculinity traits, may fail to meet standards of who is customarily considered ‘a real man’. As a result, boys and men strive hard to live up to these standards that they end up developing harmful imbalances (e.g. Aggression, hyper-competitiveness, glorifying violence, misogyny, entitlement etc.). In other words, it is the overemphasis of traditional masculinity values that stimulates harmful or toxic masculinity.

I am sure, by now, you may have met guys or men who hit and or bully vulnerable people just to demonstrate power; or better yet, authoritarian men who tell others what to do especially when it is obvious what to do; or men who brag about grabbing women by the pussy; or perhaps that one narcissistic father/uncle who never laughs and treats everyone like jerks. If you haven’t met any of them, then let’s assume you were busy watching Netflix’s Brigerton and at least you remember Lord Hasting’s bitterness towards his son, the young Simon. Now, all these harmful behaviors and many others are influenced by the negative patriarchal privileges — toxic masculinity that is.

So, beware dear reader! When the patriarchy says it is okay to do all these stuff and you agree, you are not only contributing to the toxic version of masculinity but you are also denying yourself a chance to ever truly love yourself and understand others. As stated above, toxic behaviors can be damaging both physically and mentally. That is why I constantly remind myself of these truths and live by them — especially the importance of understanding others and the relevance of matching values. If I must say, I’m always careful and hyper aware of how I choose my friendship cycle and or relationships; last thing I want is associating myself with people who glorify violence, sexual assault, bullying or just anything with a toxic stamp on it. And no, I don’t think that I’m better than everyone else. I just know better!

Growing up, the society expects us (boys) to act tough and suppress other emotions, to see retaliation as strength, to remain stoic to vulnerability etc. — traditional masculinity traits that almost every boy had/ have to endure. Glad I didn’t have to (at least not entirely). Well, I may have lucked out because I was predominantly raised by women. That means everything about my upbringing had prepared me to be a good boy — to spread love and joy; to be emotionally expressive, and most importantly to be humble and kind — literally everything anti traditional masculinity traits. But at some point, because of patriarchal privileges coupled with peer pressure, I still found myself not being ‘all that’. Of course, it is true that many of us, either consciously or subconsciously, have fallen foul of this toxic notion of masculinity and I don’t think it’s our fault!

For example, instead of venting our feelings, we find ourselves engaging in substance abuse just to alter our moods (because that’s what men do. We get high!); we bury ourselves in work and book-reading that we leave little to no time to communicate with people we truly care about (because men and clingy don’t match. We are busy!); we take pride in having many sexual partners and breaking hearts (because why not? So, thank you, next!); and we find ourselves self-sabotaging every time we enter an intimate relationship (because aren’t we entitled? Yeah, so eff off!).

As clichéd as it may sound, everyone has the right to live as they see fit (It’s their right to get drunk; it’s even better to work hard and read as many books as one pleases; and it is okay to start relationships and even end them whenever one feels like it). However, what concerns me the most, is the fact that we’ve become so comfortable partaking in these activities that we forgot how to properly manage our own feelings and emotions. In turn, this has caused more harm than good to our personal growth and well-being and indeed, it has negatively affected our relationships with people we care about. Bad enough, we consciously decide to. So, I think it’s our fault!

For instance, as we all know, the world is currently struggling to battle the global pandemic that is COVID-19 (an illness caused by the novel Coronavirus). It is considered a global health crisis of our time and as I write this, it has already wiped out more than two and a half million of the world’s population in just one year. Thus, in order to prevent spread of the virus, different measures have been recommended including avoiding crowded places, washing hands and most importantly, making wearing masks a normal part of our lives (Visit the WHO website for more information). Now, despite these protective mandates across the globe as life-saving gestures, there are people (males, to be specific) who decide to not practice them just to maintain the ‘tough man’ image.

In one incident, this colleague of mine, after noticing me put on a face mask, approached me eager to share his wisdom: “We jamaa, Korona imeisha kitambo. Sioni sababu ya kuvaa barakoa kila siku. Hizo ni dalili za watu waoga” (Coronavirus is no more. You don’t have to wear masks on a daily basis. That’s cowardly). So, I said “Nafikiri ni bora kuwa muoga na kuishi kuliko kufa kwa kwa tabu” (I’d rather be a coward and live than die gasping for air, and alone!). He then mumbled something but a few words caught my attention “…wanaume hatuogopi kitu bwana” (…we (men) don’t fear anything). Now, little do i know if the word ‘anything’ included death and or the process of dying. But anyway, I didn’t bother asking because to me, at that point, his intellectual façade had faded to reveal his toxic and senseless self. Hashtag no shade!

Well, while reasons to why people choose to or to not comply with protective measures may differ, the influence of toxic masculinity on people’s decision is shockingly obvious and disturbing. I mean there are men neglecting to visit hospitals because ‘it’s just headache, I’ll be fine’ and others refraining from washing hands regularly because ‘that’s girlish’. Right, Absurd! To this day, I am very much convinced that somewhere around the world, there are men who have tested positive for COVID-19 or far worse lost their lives and perhaps put lives of others at risk because they were too stubborn to follow correct practices to protect themselves and their loved ones — just to maintain the tough guy image. Needless to say, it is very distressing that we live in a society where people would rather die a miserable death that live a vulnerable life, apparently.

It is worth noting that masculinity in itself is not a problem, the toxic version of it, however, is. Look at it this way, as men we are expected to be brave enough to handle responsibilities which includes leadership, protecting our loved ones and being accountable (few of the acceptable masculine traits) and for that reason, we are seen as strength. Now, the problem comes when we choose to turn our strength into false powers influenced by toxic patriarchy privileges. I mean, imagine not washing your hands regularly because it’s unmanly, and then you go back home to shake your grandma’s hands — exposing her to dangers she didn’t ask for. But you are just a boy/ man and so it’s none of your concern. Right? Well, of course we both know it is everything of your concern. You are just good at bottling up!

At this point it’s a no-brainer that most of us (boys and men) lack a free space to express emotions. E.g. If you’re male and human, then you probably have experienced one of those messed up moments when life’s demands become so overwhelming that all you want is to hug someone so tight and break down in tears. But I guess you didn’t. Why? — well, because the patriarchy kicked in, screaming ‘kaza’, to remind you that ‘you are a man’ which means you can’t afford to look vulnerable. I believe, to this day, there are a lot of boys and men out there who would rather struggle in silence than open up because of the fear of being judged. Others bottle up their feelings until they can’t anymore: just like bombs, they wait for the right moment to explode and when they do, the explosion is usually full of anger, violence and everything toxic — disastrous to both men and women and even lethal to children.

Talking of children, I remember one day observing some guy yell at this little boy (probably his son or nephew) for just crying after a ‘trip and fall’ accident. The guy shouted at the top of his lungs “Acha kulialia kama demu, nyanyuka twende fala we!” (Stop crying like a little girl. Get the eff up!). The boy, who was then sobbing and seemingly in pain, got up, wiped tears off his face and walked along. I couldn’t help but conclude that the guy was literally projecting his childhood trauma on to the boy — because what else would explain his reaction to that tiny human being? I mean, why would someone yell at an injured kid for crying (which is a natural reaction)? And what was wrong with comforting the boy or asking if he was okay instead of scolding him and spewing unnecessary profanity? Now, will the boy ever depend on him for physical and emotional support? I guess we’ll never know! Or, maybe we know but, we just think it’s normal. Well, rest assured it’s not!

So, stay woke — while it may seem okay to tell boys and men to ‘man up’ or ‘toughen up’ or ‘men don’t cry’, in reality, what you are doing is invalidating their innermost emotions leaving them stuck in a void of unrecognizable feelings towards themselves and others. In 2019, the American Psychological Association (APA) published “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men”. According to the report, raising boys into traditional masculinity is harmful to their health and wellness. The APA states that traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and can leave long lasting damages on both their physical and mental health.

In a view of that, different studies suggest that we can live a more positive life by confronting harmful and negative patriarchal privileges, dealing with any trauma experienced as children, and choosing to open up our emotions. That is why it is it is extremely important and necessary for us to first accept this as a problem and then seek better ways to protect current and future generations of boys and men from surrendering to toxic behaviors influenced by the patriarchy. We seriously need to change these unhealthy methods of survival — they are attributes we inherit or learn from our predecessors and that means we can unlearn them.

Mind you, am neither at liberty to criticize ancestors for passing down hyper masculinity values nor am I condemning our grandfathers and fathers for inheriting these values and passing them down to us (they probably had their own sound reasons). All I’m saying is, it’s about time we stopped pressuring and teaching young boys to accept the patriarchy from a place of false benefit. It is about time we stopped denying them their humanly right to feel sentiment because in the worst cases, all the negative impacts such as bullying, academic challenges, domestic violence, sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, psychological trauma, bigotry and even worse behaviors, can be encouraged.

Thus, when talking to men, in particular young boys, try to allow yourself to be open and honest but also choose your words wisely: Don’t tell them to ‘suck it up’ when they try to reveal emotions. Instead, let them cry if they want because that’s what humans do — we cry when we are happy or sad and angry and there is nothing wrong with that. Don’t encourage macho attitudes because that will only make them emotionally distant in the long run. Instead, talk to them, hug them, and allow them to count on you for emotional support. Don’t discourage vulnerability because that is one way of them knowing they are humans too. Don’t use phrases like ‘man up’ or ‘don’t be a pussy’ or ‘be a real man’ because there is no one way to be a man. Instead, teach them how to lead, to protect, to love and respect others, and most importantly, to be accountable and responsible in life.

If you are one of those guys who take pride in championing all the blatant toxic behaviors in the name of patriarchy, it’s long past time to stop. Stop projecting your past traumas on to the lives of others. Instead, deal with it! Try to seek better ways to pursue a more positive life because (and I can’t stress this enough) embracing toxic attributes will only take a heavy toll on your physical and mental health. By the way, word has it that these kind of discussions are triggered by the desire to emasculate men. Well, that’s so false — and toxic . See, I just don’t think Jay-Z hits Beyoncé and I have seen Obama cry on mass media. Do you get my point? On that account, please and thank you, keep reminding yourself and teach others that men can actually be masculine without being toxic. Ends!

Moral of the Story

Glorifying toxic masculinity can hospitalize your grandma, make your son/nephew hate your guts, and can have you living unhappily ever after. But the reverse is also true. So, good-luck picking a struggle!

Anthropology, tourism & everything humane!

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