Eighteenth century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said "Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains." In other words, society corrupts us all. Of course, Rousseau also had horrifying ideas about women's inferiority, but let's talk about the corrosive nature of society some more. The dude had a point there. Take for example, the things boys learn by age 5 that perpetuate toxic masculinity. Because, honestly, it's scary and stunning to think of how quickly they pick up on so much of this nonsense... and how frequently we ourselves might even perpetuate it without realizing.
Before my son was even born, I had plans for him. This little boy was going to be raised to believe in the inarguable equality of men and women. He would know that there's no such thing as "boy things" and "girl things." He would feel free to wear a tutu and dance ballet any time he wanted. My husband and I were very mindful of how we discussed gender with and around him. We were diligent about presenting him with toys and media that were not only gender neutral but masculine and feminine, too. We would be critical of any potential bias we thought we might have in order to avoid them as much as possible. But it turns out that parents aren't a child's only influence in life. I know, I was stunned as well. Apparently they have friends and teachers and community acquaintances and TV personalities they listen to and some of them blow.
And it's not that my son has a membership in the He-Man Women Haters club or anything: he's an awesome kid. But in the past couple years, I've seen him internalize some of the misogyny and toxic masculinity — a narrow and aggressive definition of what it is to be a man that hurts everyone — that run rampant in our society. He went from only wearing pink sneakers to refusing to drink from a pink cup. From watching My Little Pony to vehemently denying he ever enjoyed it. He has declared distinct differences between what boys wear and what girls wear.
Some of this, on the surface, may not seem like a big deal. But I firmly believe all of these things, big and small, feed each other. We hear the term "intersectionality" a lot in terms of feminism, but what we don't always remember is that our systems of oppression are intersectional as well.
Gender Is Binary
It's pretty basic, but until I see this idea all-the-way dead out in society I'm going to keep highlighting the fact that it's a problem.
The idea that there are only two genders, each with unique and very specific modes of behavior, dress, speech, sexual and romantic expression, is as absurd as it is damaging. Because at the same time, under this model, we assert that gender identity is (arguably) the most important identity we have. So much so that it's entirely biologically and evolutionarily dictated and corresponds exclusively with our genitalia.
The problem with that (other than the fact that it's all bullsh*t) is that our ideas of gender are not historically or culturally fixed and, even within a fixed time and place, there are lots of people who do not (and do not wish to) conform to every single line of the gender script they've been given. But now that they've been told their one prescribed gender is who they are and who they are supposed to be, they are put at odds with themselves.
This binary is put on our children often before they're even born.
There Are Girl Things & Boy Things & Girl Things Are Bad
Thanks to the gender binary, "men" and "women" are divided along such strict lines: hobbies, activities, clothing, even colors and subjects in school are split into masculine and feminine. While little girls are often directed away from "male" interests (cars, pants, the color blue... I mean guys, are you hearing how ridiculous this is yet?) it's usually not with the panic that boys are forced away from "girl" interests.
If a girl wants to wear a "boy t-shirt" out of the house, for example, that is less likely to be seen as a point of concern than if a boy wanted to wear a skirt to school. If a girl wants to do karate, it's usually more accepted than a boy doing ballet.
Being Mistaken For A Girl Is Embarrassing
In our binary structure, femaleness is a downgrade. Toxic masculinity overtly (but more often implicitly) asserts the superiority of men by proclaiming the inferiority of women and girls. Girls (and to a lesser extent women) emulating male behavior is understandable in a way that boys (and to a greater extent men) emulating female behavior is unbelievable. Moreover, the latter is a challenge to the idea of male supremacy, and I don't know if you know this about those in power: they usually don't like to give it up. So anything that challenges the concept of who should have power us usually swiftly and decidedly quashed.
A boy, early on, is taught to feel shame if he is associated with femininity.
If You Want To Insult Someone, Feminize Them
And to really drive this idea home, let's point out the idea that the vast array of male-directed insults harken to femininity or being female: b*tch, p*ssy, sissy, or just girl. Even pejoratives like bastard or son of a bitch are, really, besmirching the "honor" of a woman rather than the man in question directly, right? Being a man is, once again, starkly juxtaposed to being female.
Gender identity and sexuality are tightly bound up in our culture and being a "man" means being a straight man. (In turn, toxic masculinity dictates that gay men be feminized, whether or not they are femme.) I heard the word "gay" used as an insult long before I ever knew what it actually meant. So the first time I heard it used properly I already had several years of negative connotations connected to it.
(I find it hard to believe that I'm alone in this, and I hope I was able to explain what it means to be gay before my kids were fed a string of homophobic misrepresentations.)
Showing Affection For Other Men Is The Same As Showing Sexual Attraction To Other Men
Because homophobia is so deeply ingrained in toxic masculinity, it's learned early on that even the appearance of homosexuality is to be avoided at all costs. Boys are encouraged not to hug and certainly not to kiss, and the older they get the more insistent those taboos become.
Of course this leads to a culture of male closeness being expressed as ironically as possible (guys constantly ripping on each other, for example) and living in fear of being seen as a feminized man rather than comfortable expressing positive emotions for people who are important to them.
Pretty Much Anything About "Courtship" Culture
So many of our old (awful) standbys as to how a man should treat a woman start when we talk about how boys should treat girls, and are rooted in the idea that men are superior to women. From the paternalistic platitudes that nevertheless serve to segregate men from women and women from being seen as individuals ("a man should always pay for dinner," "don't swear in front of a lady," "treat her like a princess,") to the more blatantly problematic ("if she says no it means she wants you to chase her," or "if she puts out on the first date she's a slut"), romance isn't about being kind, it's about establishing a hierarchy in which the man is superior.
"Courtship" practices have historically been a hotbed of toxic masculinity, because it's so concerned with how men are supposed to treat women (and vice versa) based on gender.
Boys Should "Protect" Girls
Certainly we should all strive to raise children who will stand up for those they love and be generally mindful of defending those who may not be able to defend themselves (or who could at the very least use a vocal ally). But the idea that boys should protect girls simply because they're girls is condescending at best, perpetuating an idea of female weakness. At worst, it promotes the idea that boys and men have a kind of ownership over the women in their lives.
Men Should Be Physically Tough...
For some reason this is tremendously important within the realm of toxic masculinity. Guys should be physically impressive, not predominantly for the purpose of being sexually attractive (though all the better if you conform to a particular male beauty standard, says toxic masculinity) but so you can intimidate people.
And far be it from me to say we should live in a world without superheroes or action movies, but little boys can absolutely learn this sort of thing through the promotion of superheroes and action movies if they are not put in the proper context.
... & Not Shy Away From Settling Disputes Through Violence
How many young boys hear, "Don't start fights, but if someone starts something with you you don't just sit there and take it."
Now certainly there's a time and place for self-defense, but I find that when this attitude is employed "self-defense" is a concept liberally applied. Very often, it's not just used to mean "defend your body" but "defend your reputation as a man." Walking away from a fight, in instances like these, is an example of "sitting there and taking it."
Men Should Be Stoic...
Boys are encouraged, earlier and more emphatically than girls, to be more emotionally reserved. "Don't cry" is, in sentiment, synonymous with "man up." "Emotional" is another word for "hysterical" which is rooted in the Greek word for "uterus." Boys are to suppress their emotions, good and bad, except for one.
... Unless They're Angry
In a world of toxic masculinity, it's basically the only acceptable emotion they can have... and, honestly, there's so much bullshit that they're expected to perform and not perform at this point that it's understandable that they'd be really, really angry.
Men Should Be Completely Self-Sufficient
Whereas women are socialized to be dependent (on men and each other) for not just physical and financial support but emotional support as well, men and boys internalize a "man of the house" or "your own man." American culture also has a long history of promoting fierce independence and the myth of a self-made man as being the pinnacle of success and prestige.
This can lead to deep feelings of isolation, insecurity, and extreme reluctance to reach out for help, particularly mental health help. Couple all this with the fact that men have been left with one emotion — rage — in their arsenal and, well, there's a reason this brand of masculinity is so toxic.
Like so many toxic things, this sludge has spread far and wide. It's spent centuries oozing deep into the foundations of our society and will sometimes creep up in places we don't necessarily expect it. That's why it's so important to be aware of what it is and how it can infect our boys, and critical of our own potential complacency in its promotion. Because it starts early and its effects can last a lifetime.
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