Whenever a story about male violence dominates the news, it sets off the same range of discussions about how masculinity may be destroying our society. The aftermath of February’s horrific mass shooting in Parkland, Florida has been no different. Now the deadliest school shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, Parkland has rightfully reawakened contentious debates around gun control and what we need to do as a nation to prevent more tragedies involving gun violence.
Proponents of toxic masculinity claim the term is being used to criticize the male gender role, which in their minds is socially constructed and learned behavior. In fact, what they are actually doing is castigating men as a whole.
There’s been a similar push to claim that gun violence isn’t the result of mental illness, but of being male. When news of the Florida shooting broke, President Donald Trump referred to the shooter as a “sicko,” setting off both a knee-jerk reaction to oppose whatever comes out of his mouth and the need to combat the myth that people who suffer from mental health conditions, like psychosis and bipolar disorder, are more prone to violence. Although de-stigmatizing mental illness is undoubtedly necessary, obscuring the truth for this purpose is not. On top of it, some of advocates believe that toxic masculinity should be considered a mental illness in its own right. But does it really make sense to write off half of the population so broadly? Do all men truly have the potential to take the lives of innocent people?
Extreme instances of aggression that transgress social boundaries are not the male norm.
When we turn to research that has been done on this topic, a recent meta-analysis of 74 studies suggests that conforming to masculine norms has a greater influence on whether someone seeks help for their psychological issues, as opposed to their mental health, per se. So, it’s not correct to assume that men, simply by virtue of being masculine, are at a greater risk of having mental problems.
A slew of pseudo-academic papers would have you believe otherwise, however. Consider “Refusing To Be a Man,” a paper published more than 30 years ago in Women’s Studies International Forum, that somehow still qualifies as academic scholarship. The author, who I presume considers himself to be a male feminist, laments about being “genitally male” and writes about his wish to rid his life of “male sexual behavior programming,” as well as “masculinist lies” (presumably, the 1984 version of “toxic masculinity”) and “phallic imperialism.”
But masculinity isn’t simply taught through cultural norms or the media. It’s the result of testosterone’s influence both before and after birth. The hormone is associated with dominance, aggression and risk-seeking behaviors. Because males are exposed to higher levels of testosterone, we see greater instances of rough-and-tumble play in young boys, and this is why these characteristics, especially in their extreme forms, are seen as predominantly in men. We don’t see the same prevalence of violent crime or gun violence among women, not because women have been socialized to be less violent, but because they are typically exposed to lower levels of testosterone.
Shaming men for being male-typical only lends to further polarization between the sexes.
Men don’t need to behave like women in order to be healthier, more lawful or altogether better citizens. The mainstream discourse, however, suggests otherwise, and is rapidly reaching a point of absurdity. Take a gander at a few recent headlines: “The Patriarchal Race to Colonize Mars Is Just Another Example of Male Entitlement,” “Beware the Man with No Female Friends” and “Emma Stone Delivered The Perfect Burn To The Oscars’ Male-Dominated Director Category.”
Shaming and humiliating men for being male-typical is counterproductive and only lends to further polarization between the sexes. We can condemn malignant behavior without de-humanizing masculinity. Personally, I hope to see the words “toxic masculinity” disappear from the vernacular before it has any lasting implications on public policy and the shaping of young boys’ developmental trajectories. Looking at serious societal issues through the same fantastical lens is not only skewed and tedious, but ineffective.