The notion of toxic masculinity has perpetuated like wildfire in recent years. After multiple mass shootings, all perpetrated by men, and the incense in sexual harassment accusations, mostly toward men, we’ve finally taken stock our culture and acknowledged the toxic environments in which we raise our boys; and yet, I’m not so sure that we’ve fully accepted the underlying causes. An accurate assessment implies acceptance that both men and women are involved, as both genders play their roles in perpetuating a culture, and an environment, which indicates that men are men, and have to act accordingly.
As difficult as it may be to admit, women, often play an equal, if not greater, role in the maintenance of toxicity, because they’re the ones boys most seek to impress and win over. In my experience as a teen, any male signs of femininity in my neighborhood were equivalent to a death warrant; you can bet on being assaulted and ostracized if you were to ever show any indicator of perceived weakness. But, to me the biggest fear wasn’t being beat up or isolated from my friend group; it was being rejected by girls. And girls, through the obvious influence of their fathers, brothers, and male friends, let us know what it took to gain their affection: in essence, you simply had to be a man. And what did that mean? It implied making solo decisions, aggressive pursuit, refusal to quit after rejection, intolerance of even the slightest disrespect, and a level of assertiveness that veered off into abusive territory. For to be a man was to take charge, to lack sympathy for others, and to be ruthless in one’s pursuits. That was where I grew up, where any hint of warmth or indecisiveness was met with disapproval.
Fortunately, things have changed since I was a teen, and it’s obvious that boys are given greater freedom to express themselves, and yet, this desire for an alpha male partner persists among a great number of women. To ask why boys, and even men, are hyper-aggressive in their pursuit of women is an unnecessary question if you just take the time to look around; put simply, it works. It worked when I was a teen, and it works today. While expressing a desire for equality in one breath, some women ask for someone who’ll take charge in another; and both can’t be had, yet both are demanded. The roots of toxic masculinity are many-fold and involve both genders as sustaining forces. If we are to begin tackling this widespread problem, we have to not only start by teaching boys that it’s okay to express themselves, but to also start teaching girls that it’s okay for them to make decisions on their own or with their partners, not relying on men to do so for them, telling them that vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness, as it takes strong men to be vulnerable in the midst of others.
It’s really challenging for me to speak with women who’ve internalized misogyny, those who enable the very behaviors the rest of us are seeking desperately to reduce. I’m often stunned by their rationalizations and their incessant desire to maintain a culture of ‘men being real men’. If we’re to begin to change, it’s necessary to explore how both genders can change their attitudes, helping men accept their vulnerability and women acknowledge that male strength doesn’t have to imply force and assertiveness, that our strengths can also be what were once perceived as being feminine traits.
As a kid and as a teen, if my bravado wasn’t necessary to preclude both male and female rejection, I may have shown a softer side, appearing more genuine to those whom I cared for. I think that in all of us lies a deep-seated desire to be known and to be loved for who we truly are, but we can’t be known if we’re constantly perpetrating frauds, macho selves that can seldom be sustained. I hope the boys who grow up in today’s environments don’t have to wear the same mask that I did, being able to share those depths which are indispensable for intimacy. To this day, I still won’t allow myself to cry in front of others, and for that, I blame my upbringing, which robbed me of an interpersonal depth which I’ll never be able to fully comprehend, a depth which I hope, with each part of my very being, that today’s boys will allow themselves to experience.