By MADDIE FRUMAN
What does it really mean to “be a man?” When thinking of the definition of masculinity, several words come to mind, like strength or confidence. Many people also consider manliness as being tough, assertive, muscular or tall. It may mean acting emotionally stoic, or doing sports instead of “feminine” activities such as dance or art.
Our societal concept of masculinity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it promotes many positive character traits such as bravery, leadership and self-sufficiency. However, other more negative stereotypes of manliness, such as the body expectations and the suppression of feelings, put pressure on men that harm both them and women. These aspects of masculinity that create damaging effects are defined as toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity puts pressure on boys at an early age. I know boys who are insecure about their lack of muscle, and spend hours in the gym trying to get a more “masculine” body. I know boys who have felt pressure to hide their feelings because tears and vulnerability are not “manly.” I know boys who have felt hurt by their friends’ constant teasing but chose not to speak up for fear of looking weak. I know boys who were and are teased for participating in “girly” activities, which only encourages boys to reject femininity and associate it with weakness or inferiority.
I also know many boys who, as a result of toxic masculinity, play a game called “Smash or Pass.” In this game, boys list the names of girls they know and the other boys either deem the girl as “smash” (worthy to have sex with) or “pass” (not worth hooking up with). This game is extremely demeaning and objectifying, and reduces a girl’s value to a binary of “sex” or “no sex.” I know boys who, as girls pass by, rate the girl out of 10 in terms of attractiveness. I also know boys who use terms like “sluts” and “hoes” to describe girls they know. All these behaviors are incredibly degrading and offensive to girls, and many boys do not seem to realize this. How would you feel if someone played those games on you? Or your sister? Or your mother?
The boys who play these games are not monsters. In fact, they are often quite nice and friendly. This behavior is motivated by yet another societal expectation of masculinity to verbally degrade women or call them disrespectful names. Boys may feel that it is cool, funny or more manly to talk about girls in a purely sexual fashion, as sexual conquests to be made. All these examples show how toxic masculinity hurts both men and women.
As adults, men still face the same pressures. According to End Sexual Violence, an organization to limit the numbers of assaults and rapes, male sexual assault victims less likely to speak out due to stigmas that say that men should be able to protect themselves from rape and that they should be the sexual initiators. The male suicide rate is also significantly higher than the female suicide rate, with men four times more likely to commit suicide than women, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This trend stems from society’s expectations that discourage men from sharing their feelings and vulnerabilities to other men. As a result, many men feel so unhappy and alone that they make that fatal choice.
Feminism seeks to eliminate toxic masculinity in particular, not all forms of masculinity. Feminism seeks to re-explore what it means to be a man and alter the roles that these expectations play in men’s lives, subsequently bettering gender relations for both men and women.
Many men and boys do not concern themselves much with feminism because they think of it as a “women’s issue” that does not apply to or help them in any way. What they don’t realize is that being a feminist releases their pressures to conform to unhealthy stereotypes, while also improving the status of women. Being a feminist is about using traditionally masculine traits in constructive, rather than destructive, ways.
Take bravery, for example. Traditionally, this is a respectable trait, but through toxic masculinity it has been warped to mean acting tough, rather than showing true emotions. Suppressing emotions in the name of bravery has extremely negative effects on boys’ mental health, which can manifest in shows of aggression and sexism. Bravery, however, can be redirected towards something much more positive.
It is brave to stand up for girls being harassed. It is brave to express moments of vulnerability or sadness. It is brave to take part in activities traditionally viewed as “feminine,” disregarding stereotypes and instead pursuing what you love, whether it be dancing, singing, or sewing. Being your authentic self and fighting societal norms is the bravest thing you can do. These kinds of brave acts, though seemingly small, are monumental in achieving gender equality as well as increasing happiness in boys.
Rejecting toxic masculinity also means treating girls with greater respect. Some boys may feel compelled to call girls demeaning names to seem cooler in front of their friends. However, making sexist comments can quickly lead to loss of respect from girls. Boys who treat girls with respect are more likely to be respected and favored back by the girls. If boys want to create good, healthy relationships with girls, romantically or platonically, treating them with respect is a much more effective way to do so.
It’s time for boys to start standing up to other boys for girls and for themselves. If you are a boy and you hear a friend playing a sexist game or calling a girl a demeaning name, gently call them out for it. You don’t have to be aggressive, but you can say something like, “Hey, can we not play Smash or Pass? It’s kind of degrading,” or “Can you not call her that?” If someone is making fun of something you do as being “girly,” tell him you don’t appreciate that and that there is nothing wrong with enjoying these activities. Small comments like that can make a huge difference in lessening the sexism in a high school environment. Boys need to take action as much as girls do, by taking a stand that empowers both men and women. Voice your beliefs, on behalf of all the women in your life and yourself. Rebel against the traditional views of masculinity, and bring your own views to the table, free of prejudice. What could be more manly than that?