When toxic masculinity becomes a big problem

What does it mean to be a man? As a woman, I have all sorts of ideas about what a man should be; strong, masculine, virile, charming, smart and funny. Financially intelligent and economically stable. Honest, loyal, monogamous. Clean, fresh, sweet-smelling. Intelligent, eloquent, concise, etcetera.

None of these things are original. I’m basically recounting the Hallmark/Mills and Boon terms and conditions of desirable masculinity. Through an overly romanticised lens, I picture a shirt-less, six-packed specimen, splitting logs out in the woods somewhere, and stopping every so often to wipe the sweat off his furrowed brow. He always has an intense look in his eyes, a bandana stuffed into the back pocket of hip-hugging blue jeans and a Ford pick-up truck parked out front.

If I’m not picturing Mr Six Pack, then I’m picturing his cousin Mr Chief Executive Officer. Mr CEO is always dressed in a dark business suit. He sits in a sky-scraping office building, looking out on the city from his corner-office vantage point, contemplating his next big move. This man is a mogul, the master of all he surveys. He’s the kind of man that drives a Jag, or maybe an Aston Martin. The kind of man that oozes confidence and authority.

Hey, I’ll admit it. My idea of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be masculine, is almost irredeemably skewed by book publishers, and Hollywood executives. Thankfully, I’m well aware that these two groups have been duping impressionable girls and women for ages.

Toxic masculinity

Because these two paragons of manhood that I’ve just described are two-dimensional and unrealistic. And when you add on my long list of how a man should behave - strong, charming, debt-free, honest, sweet-smelling, eloquent, and all the rest of it – you end up with a caricature of fascinating manhood.

And then on the other end of the manhood spectrum, you encounter terms like ‘toxic masculinity’, a term which typically evokes strong emotions among men. Toxic masculinity has been described as a form of manhood that is defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. One could argue that toxic masculinity happens when positive traits like strength, virility, ambition, and intensity are heightened beyond the bounds of what is moderate, and what it acceptable in civil society. It is the flip side of positive manhood; the dark side of the male psyche where things exist in extremes.

If you think about it like this, toxic masculinity is nothing to be ashamed about. Every human being has a devil that whispers in their ear, tempting them to explore the parts of their nature that are harmful not just to them, but to everyone around them.

Rail against

So rather than rail against companies like Gillette, which just recently released a toxic masculinity campaign, every man should take the opportunity to ponder and reflect on the state of their masculinity. How much agency do you have over the choices you make ‘as a man’? What are your influences? What does being a man really mean? And is your masculinity beneficial to the men and women around you?

With that being said, and while I care about the well-being of men; as a woman, I am most concerned about the intersection between toxic masculinity and femininity. I’m concerned because the internal struggles of men often show up on the hearts, minds and bodies of women.

When men find themselves in a loop where the “systematic devaluation of women’s opinions, bodies and sense of self” has become the norm, then there is need for a push-back. These are traits that Shepherd Bliss – the man believed to be the originator of the term ‘toxic masculinity’ – defined as being toxic to masculinity. Bliss also pointed to the condemnation of so-called ‘feminine’ traits in other men as a marker of toxic masculinity.

The condemnation of the men who expressed fear during the Riverside terror attack is a case in point. That, plus the daily devaluation of women and their contributions to Kenyan society, are signs that toxic masculinity is a problem. We are stuck in that loop where violence, sex, status and aggression have come to define gender relations in all spheres of life.

The good news is that toxic masculinity might be acute, but it is not terminal.  There is still room to appeal to our higher nature and to see the value in an authentic human experience where relationships are strengthened by mindfulness and empathy.

One that allows boys to be good boys, and girls to be girls without the threat of violence, emotional aggression and belittlement.


Ms Masiga is Peace and Security editor, The Conversation Africa