Understanding and redefining masculinity in 2020
Certain worthy issues have captured and sustained our attention: the impossible proportions of Barbie dolls and their lasting damage on girls’ body image, the slowly-phased out (yay!) tampon tax, the absurdity of a perpetual wage gap. Yet, as we appropriately focus on the inequalities that women and young girls face, we’ve somehow overlooked those of men. Though men directly and indirectly benefit from patriarchal societies around the world, many also suffer its internal workings, the most prevalent one being toxic masculinity. This is an everybody issue, cause listen - none of us are free until we’re all free.
Toxic masculinity is the traditional and outdated concept of how men should act and think, governing their hobbies, interests, and mannerisms. Toxic masculinity perpetuates the stereotypes that men should be strong and tough, the breadwinners of a nuclear household. In addition to these expectations, the most harmful aspect of toxic masculinity is that it makes it harder for boys and men to express their emotions.
While we live in a continuously progressive society, we have not truly moved away from enforcing toxic masculinity in boys. Countless times I have heard coaches and fathers yelling at their players and sons to “be a man,” an imperative that connotes strength in an almost violent and aggressive manner. In pop culture, most of the leading superheroes fighting in the Marvel and DC universes are male. In addition, men are 3 times as likely to purchase video games than women, while 75% of the video games that are played are violent.
The 2015 documentary “The Mask You Live In” revealed the result of pushing boys to resort to violence and toughness over expressing natural emotion. The documentary reported that 3 or more boys commit suicide every day and boys are 4 times as likely to be expelled from school than girls.
Masculinity is a construct of the patriarchal society it simultaneously upholds. In order to establish the male as dominant and powerful, masculinity serves to contrast women as weak and emotional and thus, inferior. However, this division is one that separates essential characteristics of humanity - traits that shouldn’t be categorized by one gender or another.
I spoke to twelve young men, all belonging to Generation Z, who helped me understand how they have navigated a society that still pushes toxic masculinity onto them.
Many of the men agreed that it was easier to grow up and be included by other men if they were more adherent to masculine stereotypes. Christian Wong explained to me, “I grew up playing ice hockey, which is a super masculine sport. [Being surrounded by that, it becomes] less of a pressure to be masculine and more just regularity”. Meanwhile, Kyle Farscht, who identifies himself as “falling somewhere in between the spectrum of femininity and masculinity” felt out of place when playing sports. He said that there was a great “pressure to be masculine” and even “cheering in certain ways was considered too feminine,”
The presence of a masculine stereotype becomes extremely limiting and binary: you either play sports and fit in or you don’t. It pushes boys who don’t completely fall within the box of masculinity to question and reject their identities.
Although a lot of the young men are comfortably and successfully pushing away the constraints of toxic masculinity, they agree that being able to freely express how they feel is still something they have to work on. Joachim Santiago expresses, “I deal with sadness frequently but I am not comfortable showing it because of the perceived notion that I am the one who has got life under control.” This belief that boys are the tough money providers and protectors of women puts an unreasonable pressure on them - setting them up for failure by confining them to narrow and fallible measures of success.
While all of the young men find masculinity to be too constraining and limiting for anyone to adhere to, they have still managed to extract the positive connotations of masculinity. Jacob Watson wants to equate his masculinity to “respect, kindness, and [being] hardworking” while Nathan Bogomolny seeks “empathy and confidence.” Ultimately, however, these traits aren’t exclusive to men - these young men simply want to be good people.
Rather than having and enforcing identity within the confinements of masculinity and femininity, these young men want gender and identity to be recognized as fluid. Larry Yu expresses the importance of educating and treating people as “unique individuals, [with] no definition that traps them,” while Christian says that “you don’t have to subscribe to masculinity. You should be able to pick up masculine parts of identity without embracing all aspects of it. You don’t have to label your identity a certain thing.” Joachim agrees, saying “once we start labeling things masculine and feminine, we limit our minds to the possibility that men can’t be emotional and women can’t be strong.” Instead of separating and dictating identity, we should all embrace who, what, and how we feel most comfortable.
Many of the young men I interviewed feel more comfortable in their identities because of where they are geographically and because of who they have decided to surround themselves with. Particularly, the men living in New York City express that they feel less pressure and judgement. Max Grovit says being in the “college environment [in NYC] is more accepting” and Larry agrees that “NYC is so unique and open with a new wave of thinking that leaves behind a lot of toxic ideals.” Because of how diverse New York is, there is no real wrong or right form of identity and self-expression. It’s hard to find an absolute binary in a city filled with trend-setters and global citizens. Rather than trying to follow a narrow definition of identity, New York citizens are paving the future with a continuous expansion of identity, thriving off and learning from the differences it contains.
However, as important as it is to be surrounded by free expression and acceptance, not every man has the privilege, especially those in close-knit and conservative communities, and no man should wait until he leaves home to find that liberation. Jamauri Bagby tells me about a conversation he once had with his mother, who is a single parent. He’d asked her, “would things be different if I had been raised by both a mother and father?” To which she replied, “you would’ve been less compassionate.” A big part of our identity becomes shaped and configured in us as young children, with parents, teachers, and even pop culture figures often enforcing identity-based rules rooted in traditional norms. As many of us enter roles of authority, it’s important to pay attention to our microaggressions and expectations of gender. As current producers of media and possibly future parents, we have the power to reshape the discourse surrounding masculinity. Jamauri declares: “instead of teaching boys how to be boys, we need to teach them how to be good individuals.”
Rather than only focusing on how the patriarchy affects women and girls, the only way we can eliminate the destructive effects of patriarchy is if we begin to challenge the standards of toxic masculinity for boys and men in all aspects of our lives.