Toxic Masculinity: What Is It And Why Should We Care?
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
I have heard terms like Toxic Masculinity and ‘man-splaining’ bandied around on social media and occasionally in the news. My limited understanding saw both of these as terms that involved men asserting themselves over women and partaking in a laddish, alpha male culture.
It was, in all honesty, completely refreshing to find myself an audience member of an all-male panel discussing the implications of TM at this year’s Women of the World (WOW) festival, held at Exeter Phoenix. This conversation highlighted something that, before now, I had not considered. It revolved around TM’s role in men’s relationships, not just with women, but with other men. And, perhaps most importantly, the male panellists reflected on the impact that TM has upon themselves as men, from their self-identity to the impact it has had upon their mental health.
The discussion, which spanned just over an hour, brought narratives and experiences from the five panellists as well as interaction with the (predominantly) female audience through a lengthy question and answer session. The conversation often strayed away from TM into sidebars of related gender politics and the prevalence of mental health issues amongst men and therefore this article has been a nightmare to make concise. On the plus side, though, it has birthed a range of related articles due to the issues the seminar raised.
So What is Toxic Masculinity?
A quick Google search brings up a wealth of articles about Toxic Masculinity. iNews defines it as:
“the toxic ideas, expectations and beliefs about what it means to be a man and how a ‘real man’ should behave […] These toxic ideas reinforce gender stereotypes, particularly those in which men are dominant, strong and powerful over women. Toxic masculinity teaches young boys to be embarrassed about their emotions and hide them, or avoid communicating them – unless it’s anger. So, a typical rebuff to an upset boy would be to ‘man up’.”
I’m sure I am not alone in saying that I have heard this response to boys, and men, many times. Another favourite would be ‘grow a pair’, probably more common and most associated with the ‘lad’ culture of today.
Having five men leading the discussion was a clever move, I think. This meant that the conversation surrounding Toxic Masculinity not only included men, but discussed the impact TM has on men, as well as the impact it has on women.
Meet the Experts
Although all five men are actively involved in changing the way we perceive gender, I am quite sure none would count themselves as experts on Toxic Masculinity. Chair of the discussion, Jonny Donahoe, even went so far as to say “we’ve paid the wrong people” in his acknowledgement of the all-male panel. A light-hearted spirit, much-needed in a conversation that has the potential to be overly serious or even explosive, Jonny describes himself as a “comedian, actor, writer, musician, dancer, never professionally, and political activist”. Introducing the subject of TM, Jonny said:
“I genuinely believe that because of the nature of our society, most men, especially white men, especially cis white men, don’t develop a level of empathy and compassion equivalent to that of most women because life is so incredibly easy for them. Fortunately, I suffered a trauma and lost a parent before I was thirteen, so I’m not a d*ck head. Had that not been the case, I may have gone into banking…”
The audience promptly burst out laughing and began to clap. Jonny then proceeded to allow the panel to introduce themselves.
First up, Jordan Stephens, known for acting in Rogue One and being one half of hip hop duo, Rizzle Kicks. Jordan discussed his own experiences with TM, saying:
“The reason I’m here at WOW fest is because I’ve spoken out recently about my own relationship with Toxic Masculinity […] I realised that I had been moulded in a way, or developed in a way, where once I was faced with quite severe emotional pain, or if I was put into situations where I had to consider my feelings rather than rationalise everything, I was ill-equipped.”
He even went so far as to say:
“It seems that Toxic Masculinity is an example of, or it might actually be behind most of the sh*t that happens in the world, to be honest.”
His honesty continued, as he talked about his realisation that he was “emotionally abusive and neglectful” after embarking on a period of sobriety after the initial advice from his male friends, to “keep drinking and sleep around” brought him no emotional resolution.
Next up, P J Shepherd, a Swiss National and co-founder of the Roots Foundation, a barbershop-come-social-space based in Exeter, began by speaking about his upbringing in Switzerland; a country “totally obsessed with rules and regulations and everything fits in its place perfectly.”
P J cited his discovery of punk rock at the age of fifteen as a turning point for him, something that was “totally at odds” with everything that surrounded him. P J credits punk rock with changing the way that he thought about himself and his masculinity. He confessed:
“I really found a home in punk rock. I found somewhere where I could be myself without fear of any criticism or judgement […] It allowed me to be a man in any way I saw fit.”
P J’s main message, and the premise that inspired his barbershop was:
“Punk really challenges the Toxic Masculinity stereotype because it challenges, more or less, every norm that there is.”
The fourth member of the panel was John Harvey, an Exeter Life columnist and champion of mental health and suicide awareness campaigns in Devon. John began by giving a very frank and candid account of his background; he suffered severe bullying at school followed by grooming and abuse by a professional in a position of responsibility. He publicly wrote about what happened to him for the first time two years ago and his struggle to align his past with his present caused him to attempt suicide just over a year ago. He cites this as his “moment of change”. John recognised:
“I have got to play my part in challenging all those patterns and those norms that I was told were norms when I was a kid. Because if I don’t do my part and challenge that and seek to change the way that we bring up our kids[…], then I’m failing society.”
The final panellist was Tom Ross Williams, an actor, theatre-maker and ambassador for Great Men, a charity challenging gender stereotypes with young men. Tom began by quoting feminist Bell Hooks in saying:
“’We cannot change if there aren’t blue prints for change.’ In the work that I do, I try and create more blueprints.”
Tom described his relationship with TM by premising
“I’m queer and I couldn’t fit into the man-box as much as I tried. You know, the man-box that says you should be strong, silent and straight. My efforts and my failure to exist in that space caused me to be a bit of an incidental activist.”
Tom continued to talk about this idea of a man-box. It’s a term that I hadn’t come across before and having been previously fairly wrapped up in my own gender and trying to explore and challenge the limitations of the woman-box, so to speak, it was refreshing to hear a man speak so candidly about the struggles that men face. Tom continued:
“As we’ve all seen, there’s lots of ways not to fit in to this man-box. In fact, most men I have ever met think they don’t fit into it but still we police it.”
Tom then spoke about his theatre company’s recent show about TM, inspired by the statistic that 98% of mass murders are committed by men. Tom questioned “What are we teaching boys about being men?” and spoke about his role in the charity, the Great Men Project, where he works to break down stereotypes and have frank discussions with boys about consent, porn and mental health. Tom underlined the importance of working with young people to implement change with respect to TM:
“For me, it’s a hopeful space. We’re starting at the beginning of something. We are not expecting these young men to be perpetrators in any way, but potential change-makers.”
Q and A Time
Jonny opted to take questions from the audience, rather than giving the panellists the lead. A wise move, some would say, to give the leading voice to an audience made up predominantly of women.
“How did [your friends] react when you didn’t react in that stereotypical, masculine way?”
Jordan responded by recognising the immediate desire of our generation to “fix” things. To several laughs, he honestly answered “I don’t know how they felt”, explaining they didn’t often have “those kind of discussions”. He did go on to comment on a feeling that “tore [him] apart”:
“I worried that my friends would no longer want to hang out with me because I was so vulnerable.”
He went on to discuss how he began to doubt himself as he was no longer able to compete with his other male friends in the categories that he, and many other men, feel to be important to be successful as a man.
“The vehicles we’re given to find these ideas are things like sex or a career, just to be like ‘Oh, I’m doing well’. And then suddenly when you’re faced with the idea that you can’t validate yourself from other people or you can’t ignore that feeling from drinking or doing coke or whatever, it was incredibly exposing.”
He brought up the idea of a ‘man-wife’, to laughs from the audience, but continued to explain that some men have friends that they can go to and “hold space”. Jordan admitted that this is something he would like from his friends, but equally a role he wants to take on; not offering jokes or immediate solutions as men stereotypically should, but simply “be[ing] present”.
“I had to say when I got here, I was like ‘brilliant, so we’re a festival for women and there’s five men up there’ but it’s so far been amazing.[…] I think we need more men in the room and I’d like to know if you agree […] and how we can get them in here?”
Jonny responded, acknowledging that only around 10% of the audience seemed to be male. He joked “this is a really nice space because there are so few men” then quickly clarified:
“I don’t hate men. Like all good people, I hate d*ck heads. It just so happens that a lot of dick heads are men.”
Jonny made clear that he felt it an honour to be here at WOW and to be chairing a panel of “wonderful people” but conceded:
“Essentially, we have paid the wrong people. You guys really need to teach us a lot more than we can to you. So it seems a bit strange that we’re given microphones and the lights are on us.”
Personally, I would argue that these five men were the perfect people to give microphones to. All passionate, all diverse, all admitting that they didn’t fit in the ‘man-box’ and that the box itself was what needs to change, rather than men themselves. I have heard many perspectives on feminism, man-splaining and TM from women but it can’t be a one-gendered debate. Women all over the world fight every day for the right to speak as men speak, to be treated as men are treated, yet there remains this feeling that men don’t belong in our gender debate.
Tom spoke eloquently in response to the question; discussing the idea of the invitation to events such as these. No, he didn’t literally mean sending out a card or a text to a list that involved dudes. “What does the invitation look like?” he questioned. He spoke about men’s views on feminism being limited to their family ties; having a mother or a daughter, rather than acknowledging that this is a discussion about “fundamental equality; your liberation is intimately tied to mine.”
Jordan continued, acknowledging that the panel were “preaching to the converted” in this “female space”. He added:
“What I think is missed is this idea of appreciating the masculine energy and creating a space where men will want to basically champion and honour the positive aspects of the gender, so that, inadvertently, they’ll actually be pushing feminism, but they don’t know.”
Jordan received a lot of laughs for the latter part of his observation but continued to argue, more seriously:
“If we get into a space where men can sit in front of each other and basically go ‘I feel like this’[…] or appreciate men who are doing positive things. [We need to] change the paradigm in terms of that, who we view as heroes, what we deem as heroic, then that will shift.”
He continued to speak about his generation and how “so much of [his] existence is through a man’s eyes […] the stories are told from a male perspective.” Citing Tarantino and Bond as examples of the masculinity that is pressed upon not only women’s narratives, but men’s too, Jordan spoke about the need for this to shift to more female perspectives.
“Where do you find your safe spaces away from Toxic Masculinity?”
Tom explained he found his safe space with self-identifying women. Jordan found his in spiritual practice. P J joked initially that it was his bath tub, and then re-iterated that the punk rock scene was his safe zone.
Further questions were asked about the role of toys in promoting gender stereotypes and the issue of childhood sexual abuse was broached but these significant side-bars are articles for another day.
The most potent and honest example of Toxic Masculinity came towards the end of the discussion when Jordan spoke about an experience with his half brother Gabriel, aged two.
“I found myself getting really p***ed off with him. […] He walked into my flat once and he picked up some papers and threw them on the ground. I’m quite a liberal-minded person but I was like ‘Gabriel, pick up those papers and put them back on the table!’
We have to be very conscious that there’ll be a whole generation of men, like me, that will be moving into a parental role and that haven’t done enough work yet to not start treating boys exactly like their father treated them. And that is exactly why we need to break the cycle.”
“What single most important thing for each of you would be different in a world where we had transformed masculinity?”
This was the final question to the panel. Arguably one of the shortest to ask, but longest to answer. It was clear by the contemplative silence that followed this question how hugely encompassing it was. P J joked “I can see why you wanted to go last” and Jonny agreed by saying “that was unfair” in regard to the question being short. His words “we are all going to say something” sounded more like a threat to the panel as they visually, and audibly, struggled to collect their thoughts for this hugely complex question.
Picked on to go first to give the rest of the panel thinking time, Jordan responded with the word “values”; that we need to create a world where “connection is valued”. Tom used the word “gentle”; gentleness in “not knowing the right answer” and not “having to be the person in control”. John agreed with Tom, saying his word would be “honesty” as he was:
“sick to the back teeth with politicians who will tell you they know the answer when blatantly they haven’t got a bloody clue what’s going on.”
P J stuck to a one word answer as well with “compassion”. Jonny acknowledged that he couldn’t add anything better and credited his partner, Josie Long, commenting derisively to many laughs “Wouldn’t it be lovely if she was here?” He used her word: “tender” as she tells him to “do everything with tenderness” regarding their baby daughter.
So there we have it; “try a little tenderness” with regard to Toxic Masculinity.
The panel received a resounding round of applause, multiple whoops, and even several standing ovations. For me, it really showed that Toxic Masculinity cannot be talked about in isolation. Every question, every thread of discussion that was had in the seminar led on to a different avenue; mental health, gender stereotypes of toys, consent, gender stereotypes in jobs, child sexual abuse. It showed what a mine field that the topic of gender can bring and how our conversations on these subjects are only just beginning.