Is ‘Traditional Masculinity’ A Toxic Construct?

Is ‘Traditional Masculinity’ A Toxic Construct?

Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson

As a society, we have been re-thinking gender and the stereotypes that have been constructed over generations. Feminism has seen multiple waves of development in Western civilisations and the ‘modern’ first-world woman arguably lives in a very different society with very different options to those available just half a century ago. Masculinity, on the other hand, has remained relatively stable and it is only in recent months that a shift is beginning to occur.

More than a decade ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a set of guidelines for treating women and girls. This document addressed sexual violence and pay inequality and discussed how women disproportionately suffer from eating disorders and anxiety. It advised clinicians with female clients on how to be more sensitive and more effective when treating women and girls.

Over the years, the APA has released guidelines for treating a variety of ‘groups’, such as the elderly, those of racial and ethnic minorities and members of the LGBT community. In all this time, however, the APA has not released guidelines for treating men and boys, perceiving them as the ‘default’ or norm. It was only at the end of last year that the APA rectified this previously overlooked category and released its Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.

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So what sparked this change in attitude? The need to treat men and boys as a unique category stems from the statistics relating to their gender with regard to violent crime and mental health. In America, men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women, for example. They have more academic challenges and receive harsher punishments in school settings. They’re the victims of 77 percent of homicides (and they commit 90 percent of them).

These statistics are not isolated to America. Across the pond, we can see similar findings echoed, as in the UK, men remain three times more likely to take their own lives than women and in the Republic of Ireland this increases to four times more likely. The highest suicide rate remains with men from the ages of 45-49. The number of male homicide victims has increased by 33% (excluding Hillsborough victims) and women are more likely to be killed by their partners/ex-partners whereas men are more likely to be killed by friends or acquaintances. For the year ending March 2017, 76% of homicide suspects convicted were male.

The APA guidelines do not propose a single causal factor for this consortium of maladies, but one suggested contributing factor is ‘traditional masculinity’; the Western concept of ‘manliness’. After the APA condensed their findings into a tweet describing the practice of socialising boys to suppress emotions as damaging, mass outrage and viral wars occurred. For many, this new set of guidelines was perceived as a direct threat to men; a belief that the APA had it out for their entire sex.

There is no doubt that gender is a touchy subject; the suggestion that what makes you male or female could be false, or worse still, toxic to you and those around you is guaranteed to rattle some cages. However, the purpose of the new guidelines needs to remain at the forefront of the discussion. Men are the demographic group most at risk of violent crime (both victims and perpetrators of) and suicide and studies in America have also shown that men who bought into traditional notions of masculinity were less likely to seek mental health support than those who had more open gender attitudes. Instead of being seen as an attack on men, these guidelines and the conversations surrounding them serve a purpose to interrogate and dismantle toxic gender norms and get to the root of why men feature so prominently in these statistics.

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Matt Englar-Carlson, a California Professor who worked on the APA guidelines for several years, clarified the perspective of the report, saying:

“A lot of men have the expectation that they need to be stoic, and independent, and take care of things on their own — and those can all be quite helpful tools.” (Washington Post)

Problems arise, however, when men believe that these are the only tools they have. Englar-Carlson continued:

“The guidelines are about, how do we help men live healthier lives? How do we help men live lives that aren’t trapped in straitjackets of gender expectations?”

Within media and advertising, we are witnessing a shift in the tide of gender stereotypes; Lynx’s ‘Find your Magic’ campaign and Nike’s ‘Find your Greatness’ movement are prime examples of these. Brands are beginning to move away from typical gender norms and explore the alternative narratives that exist in the modern day Western world.

This was cemented in the UK at the end of 2018 when the Committee of Advertising Practice approved a ban preventing advertisers from presenting gender stereotypes that “are likely to cause harm, or serious widespread offence” from June 2019. (Campaign Live)

Grow Talk has written previously about the concept of brands taking a political stand and, potentially inspired by the APA’s heightened awareness of the damaging nature of traditional masculinity, Gillette has launched a new campaign that takes a stand against its previous thirty-year campaign.

“Gillette, the best a man can get” was the tagline that the company had used previously, but this year their campaign has been reimagined and entitled “We Believe”. It re-examines what it means to be “the best” man in a modern world, taking aim at traditionally masculine behaviours that may be perceived as ‘cool’ and ‘normal’ under the ‘boys will be boys’ maxim.

Jack Halberstam, Ph.D, a gender theorist at Columbia University who has studied constructs of masculinity and serves as the director of Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, explained that there is no better indication of a major societal change than when advertising begins to perpetuate it.

“There’s clearly a cultural shift happening around masculine norms, and the fact that corporate advertising realises it needs to modify the way it markets to men and represents masculinity suggests that the shift is not just happening at a sub-cultural level.” (Thrive Global)

The new Gillette advert shows boys engaging in a range of stereotypical behaviours as well as watching and emulating the behaviour of men. The advert finishes with the line:

“Because the boys of today will be the men of tomorrow.”

There is a resounding truth that children learn through imitation and therefore behaviours, whether they be positive or potentially damaging, will be learned by the children observing them. However it is not the only explanation of behaviour in men and boys.

The video does not acknowledge what Robert Trivers calls phenotypic indulgences. This campaign assumes that this ‘boys will be boys’ behaviour stems purely from nurture, but nature too must be considered. The ancient pleasures and reflexes instilled in humans through the evolutionary process are arguably at work too; the instinct to mate and therefore reproduce, the instinct of fight or flight when challenged.

There are theories that suggest that some of the conflict and unhappiness that men experience within modern Western society stems from the inability to perform tasks that are in-line with their phenotypic indulgences. Men no longer need to hunt and gather, to protect tribes, to compete physically to mate. Lack of fulfilment of natural instincts may lead to inner conflict which could manifest in any number of ways.

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Without falling any further down the rabbit hole of nature vs nurture, Gillette’s campaign offers a perspective of accountability for all and they have taken their stand one step further by launching thebestmencanbe.org, a site that details the brand’s plan to donate $1 million per year for the next three years to not-for-profit organisations in the US which focus on helping men and boys achieve their best selves. They have also teamed up with the Building a Better Man Project, a campaign that seeks to end violence and encourage pro-social behaviour in men and boys through education.

Pankaj Bhalla, the Director of Gillette & Venus North America explained:

“Brands today have a responsibility to use their voice to champion issues of great relevance to both the brand and customers.

“As a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”

So is being ‘traditionally manly’ a bad thing; should men no longer strive to be ‘alpha’ and boycott activities and careers that have long been associated with their gender? The conversations that are arising surrounding masculinity by no means dictate these ideas. In fact, there is nothing prescriptory in what is being suggested. What is being suggested, however, is the same as the ideas that surrounded the beginnings of the feminist movement; we (whether male, female or non-identifying) do not have to fit into moulds that have been suggested or constructed over time. There is no right or wrong for gender.

As the famous feminist Bell Hooks said: “We cannot change if there aren’t blueprints for change.” Things in this world are definitely changing; genders other than male or female are being officially recognised; women have achieved rights and respect that seemed impossible only a hundred years ago, and that still seem distant in many non-Western civilisations.

Perhaps we are at the beginning of a gender debate for men, or perhaps it is something that has been slowly bubbling under the surface for some time. Is this the type of uprising where we should all go out and burn our copies of James Bond and make effigies of other traditionally masculine and iconic heroes? If the feeling takes you, go ahead, but masculine heroes aren’t the bad guys here. As the Gillette campaign has cleverly done by shifting its branding, ideals of masculinity should be perpetuated by being the best, healthy version of a man you can be and this definition is essentially internally constructed, rather than externally derived.

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