By Kali Holloway
It is impossible to talk about Donald Trump—his election victory, his personal brand, his public persona—without also discussing toxic masculinity. This is a man who brought up the size of his penis during a political debate, who bragged about using his fame in the service of sexual assault, who recently interrupted a call with another world leader to hit on a nearby female reporter. Trump rode toxic masculinity and racial demagoguery to the White House, and he continues to embody and inflame both as a key strategy of his presidency.
But Trump is more than just a case study in male posturing and fragility; he’s a reflection of the culture that elevated and embraced him. As a society, how are we planting the roots of toxic masculinity, and how can we root it out? How do we force boys and men to perform manliness, and what are the consequences? What does the denigration of femininity—a genuine emotional component of every human being—do to men? Now, more than ever, is the time to grapple with these questions.
If we are being honest with ourselves, we have long known that masculinity kills men, in ways both myriad and measurable. While social constructions of femininity demand that women be thin, beautiful, accommodating, and some unattainable balance of virginal and f**kable, social constructions of masculinity demand that men constantly prove and reprove the very fact that they are, well, men.
Both ideas are poisonous and potentially destructive, but statistically speaking, the number of addicted and afflicted men and their comparatively shorter lifespans proves that masculinity is actually the more effective killer, getting the job done faster and in greater numbers. The death toll of masculinity is attributed to its more specific manifestations: alcoholism, workaholism and violence. Even when it does not literally kill, masculinity causes a sort of spiritual death, leaving many men traumatized, dissociated and often depressed. (These consequences are heightened by marginalizing factors such as queerness, nonwhiteness and socio-economic inequality.) To quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “tis not in death that men die most.” And for many men, the process begins long before manhood.
The emotionally damaging “masculinization” of boys starts even before boyhood, in infancy. Psychologist Terry Real, in his 1998 book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, highlights numerous studies that find parents often unconsciously begin projecting a kind of innate “manliness”—and thus, a diminished need for comfort, protection and affection—onto babies as young as newborns.
This, despite the fact that gendered behaviors are absent in babies; male infants actually behave in ways our society defines as “feminine.” As Real explains, “[l]ittle boys and little girls start off… equally emotional, expressive, and dependent, equally desirous of physical affection. At the youngest ages, both boys and girls are more like a stereotypical girl. If any differences exist, little boys are, in fact, slightly more sensitive and expressive than little girls. They cry more easily, seem more easily frustrated, appear more upset when a caregiver leaves the room.” Yet both mothers and fathers imagine inherent sex-related differences between baby girls and boys. Even when researchers controlled for babies’ “weight, length, alertness, and strength,” parents overwhelmingly reported that girls were more delicate and “softer” than boys; they imagined baby boys to be bigger and generally “stronger.” When a group of 204 adults was shown video of the same baby crying and given differing information about the baby’s sex, they judged the “female” baby to be scared, while the “male” baby was described as “angry.”
Intuitively, these differences in perception create correlating differences in the kind of parental caregiving newborn boys receive. In the words of the researchers, “it would seem reasonable to assume that a child who is thought to be afraid is held and cuddled more than a child who is thought to be angry.” That theory is bolstered by other studies Real cites, which consistently find that “from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurtured less.” We begin emotionally shortchanging boys right out of the gate, at the most vulnerable point in their lives.
It’s a pattern that continues throughout childhood and into adolescence. Real cites a study that found both mothers and fathers emphasized “achievement and competition in their sons,” and taught them to “control their emotions”—another way of saying boys are tacitly instructed to ignore or downplay their emotional needs and wants. Similarly, parents of both sexes are more punitive toward their sons, presumably working under the assumption that boys “can take it.”
Beverly I. Fagot, the late researcher and author of The Influence of Sex of Child on Parental Reactions to Toddler Children, found that parents gave positive reinforcement to all children when they exhibited “same-sex preferred” behaviors (as opposed to “cross-sex preferred”). Parents who said they “accepted sex equity” nonetheless offered more positive responses to little boys when they played with blocks, and gave negative feedback to girls when they engaged in sporty behavior. And while independent play—away from parents—and “independent accomplishments” were encouraged in boys, girls received more positive feedback when they asked for help. As a rule, these parents were unaware of the active role they played in socializing their children in accordance with gender norms. Fagot notes that all stated they treated sons and daughters the same, without regard to sex, a claim sharply contradicted by study findings.
Undeniably, these kinds of lessons impart deeply damaging messages to both girls and boys, and have lifelong and observable consequences. But whereas, as Terry Real says, “girls are allowed to maintain emotional expressiveness and cultivate connection,” boys are told not only to suppress their emotions, but that their manliness essentially depends on their doing so. Despite its logicempty premise, our society has fully bought into the notion that the relationship between maleness and masculinity is somehow incidental and precarious, and embraced the myth that “boys must be turned into men… that boys, unlike girls, must achieve masculinity.”
Little boys internalize this concept early; when I spoke to Real, he indicated that research suggests they begin to hide their feelings from as young as three to five years old. “It doesn’t mean that they have fewer emotions. But they’re already learning the game—that it’s not a good idea to express them,” Real says. Boys, conventional wisdom holds, are made men not by merely aging into manhood, but through the crushing effects of socialization. Still, Real points out what should be obvious: that boys “do not need to be turned into males. They are males. Boys do not need to develop their masculinity.”
It is impossible to downplay the concurrent influence of images and messages about masculinity embedded in our media. TV shows and movies inform kids—and all of us, really—not so much about who men (and women) are, but who they should be. While much of the scholarship about gender depictions in media has come from feminists deconstructing the endless damaging representations of women, there’s been far less research specifically about media-perpetuated constructions of masculinity. But certainly, we all recognize the male traits that are valued in film, television, video games, comic books, and more: strength, valor, independence, the ability to provide and protect.
While depictions of men have grown more complicated, nuanced and human over time (we’re long past the days of Father Knows Best and Superman archetypes), certain “masculine” qualities remain valued over others. As Amanda D. Lotz writes in her 2014 book, Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century, though depictions of men in media have become more diverse, “storytelling has nevertheless performed significant ideological work by consistently supporting… male characters it constructs as heroic or admirable, while denigrating others. So although television series may have displayed a range of men and masculinities, they also circumscribed a ‘preferred’ or ‘best’ masculinity through attributes that were consistently idealized.”
We are all familiar with these recurring characters: the fearless action heroes; the prostitute-f**king psychopaths of Grand Theft Auto; the shlubby, housework-averse sitcom dads with inexplicably beautiful wives; the bumbling stoners who still manage to nail the hot girl in the end; and still, the invincible Superman. Even lovable everyguy Paul Rudd somehow “mans up” before the credits roll in his films. Here, it seems important to mention a National Coalition on Television Violence study that finds on average, 18-year-old American males have already witnessed some 26,000 murders on television, “almost all of them committed by men.” Couple those numbers with violence in film and other media, and the figures are likely astronomical.
The result of all this—the early denial of boys’ feelings, and our collective insistence that they follow suit—is that boys are effectively cut off from their emotions, and thus, their deepest and most vulnerable selves. Historian Stephanie Coontz has labeled this effect the “masculine mystique.” It leaves little boys, and later, men, emotionally disembodied, afraid to show weakness and often unable to fully access, recognize or cope with their feelings.
In his book Why Men Can’t Feel: Angry Men, Passive Men: Understanding the Roots of Men’s Anger and How to Move Beyond It, Marvin Allen states, “[T]hese messages encourage boys to be competitive, focus on external success, rely on their intellect, withstand physical pain, and repress their vulnerable emotions. When boys violate the code, it is not uncommon for them to be teased, shamed, or ridiculed.”
The cliché about men not being in touch with their emotions says nothing about inherent markers of maleness, but instead identifies behavioral outcomes that have been rigorously taught, often by wellmeaning parents and society at large. As Terry Real told me, this process of disconnecting boys from their feminine— or more accurately, human—emotional selves is deeply harmful. “Every step… is injurious,” says Real. “It’s traumatic. It’s traumatic to be forced to abdicate half of your own humanity.”
That trauma makes itself plain in the ways men attempt to sublimate feelings of emotional need and vulnerability. While women tend to internalize pain, men act it out, against themselves and others. Real said that women “blame themselves, they feel bad, they know they feel bad, they’d like to get out of it. Boys and men tend to externalize stress. We act it out and often don’t see our part in it. It’s the opposite of self-blame; it’s more like feeling like an angry victim.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that across race and ethnicity, women are twice as likely to experience depression as men. But Real believes men’s acting-out behaviors primarily serve to mask their depression, which goes largely unrecognized and undiagnosed.
Examples of these destructive behaviors range from the societally approved, such as workaholism, to the criminally punishable, such as drug addiction and violence. Men are twice as likely as women to suffer from rage disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control, men are more likely to drink to excess than women, leading to “higher rates of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations.” (Possibly because men under the influence are also more likely to engage in other risky behaviors, such as “driv[ing] fast or without a safety belt.”) Boys are more likely to have used drugs by the age of 12 than girls, which leads to a higher likelihood of drug abuse in men later in life. American men are more likely to kill (committing 90.5 percent of all murders) and be killed (comprising 76.8 percent of murder victims). This extends to themselves, according to studies: “males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and comprise approximately 80 percent of all suicides.” (Interestingly, suicide attempts among women are estimated to be three to four times higher than that of their male counterparts.) And according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, men make up more than 93 percent of prisoners.
The damaging effects of emotional severing even play a role in the lifespan gender gap. As Terry Real explains: “Men’s willingness to downplay weakness and pain is so great that it has been named as a factor in their shorter lifespan. The 10 years of difference in longevity between men and women turns out to have little to do with genes. Men die early because they do not take care of themselves. Men wait longer to acknowledge that they are sick, take longer to get help, and once they get treatment do not comply with it as well as women do.”
Masculinity is both difficult to achieve and impossible to maintain, a fact Real notes is evident in the phrase “fragile male ego.” Because men’s self-esteem often rests on such a shaky construct, the effort to preserve it can be all-consuming. Avoiding the shame that’s left when it is peeled away can drive some men to dangerous ends. This is not to absolve people of responsibility for their actions, but it does drive home the forces that inform behaviors we often attribute solely to individual issues, ignoring their root causes.
James Gilligan, former director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School, has written numerous books on the subject of male violence and its source. In a 2013 interview with MenAlive, a men’s health blog, Gilligan spoke of his study findings, stating, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo that ‘loss of face’—no matter how severe the punishment, even if it includes death.”
Too often, men suffer alone, believing that revealing their personal pain is tantamount to failing at being a man. “As a society, we have more respect for the walking wounded,” Terry Real writes, “those who deny their difficulties, than we have for those who ‘let’ their conditions ‘get to them.’” Yet the cost, both human and in real dollars, of not recognizing men’s trauma is far greater than attending to those wounds, or avoiding creating them in the first place. It’s critical that we begin taking more seriously what we do to little boys, how we do it, and the high emotional cost of masculinity, which turns emotionally whole little boys into emotionally debilitated adults.
When masculinity is defined by absence, when it sits on the absurd and fallacious idea that the only way to be a man is not to acknowledge a key part of oneself, the consequences are both vicious and soul-crushing. The resulting displacement and dissociation leaves men yet more vulnerable and in need of crutches to help allay the pain created by our demands of manliness. As Terry Real writes, “A depressed woman’s internalization of pain weakens her and hampers her capacity for direct communication. A depressed man’s tendency to extrude pain… may render him psychologically dangerous.”
Society has set an unfair and unachievable standard, and in trying to live up to it, many men are slowly killing themselves. It’s time to move beyond these outdated ideas of masculinity and start seeing men as innately human, with no need to prove who they are, to themselves or anyone else. Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet, where this article first appeared.