WILL THE REAL MASCULINITY PLEASE STAND UP? My thoughts about "toxic" masculinity.
Updated: May 29, 2022
Okay, Gillette does a commercial which chastises men for bad behavior, a shadow of the “#MeToo” movement. Some men react, “I don’t need Gillette to lecture me on masculinity.” Many men are not used to being called to task. They are used to being dominant and in control, not necessarily of themselves. Call them on their stuff, and it pisses them off because no one is supposed to call them on their stuff, not even another man. The term “Toxic Masculinity” gets tossed around, but the truth is that terms like “Masculine” and “Feminine” are somewhat nebulous and difficult to define. Does it have to do with sexual attractions? No, not necessarily, but there are generalities of behavior that are expected of men and of women. Still, there are multiple exceptions. There are gay men who fit every characteristic that society likes to think of as masculine except for the fact that they are sexually attracted to other men. Also, in my personal experience, there has been more than one time that I have met a man who had multiple “feminine characteristics” who walked and talked according to the standard perception of feminine. However, their sexual attractions were to women. On the flip-side of the coin, there are “lipstick lesbians” who do not fit the stereotypical view of the “bull dyke” lesbian. It is not at all unusual for transgender people, born as biological males, to be attracted to women, and continue sexual relations with women even after having reassignment surgery as transwomen. As well, transgenders born as biological females may continue to have sexual attractions to men after having reassignment surgery as transmen. These are confusing times for the status quo. Confusing because the reality of human nature is finally coming to the surface, and people are having to admit that most of us do not fit into neat and convenient categories. What Gillette is really talking about here is not masculinity, toxic or otherwise. What they are talking about is bullying, intrusive behavior, a sense of entitlement, and excuses for the behavior as though it can’t be helped. Women have long dealt with men who blame them for their own intrusive behavior. For instance, one of the reasons that women in some fundamentalist religious societies, are expected cover themselves is so men do not have lustful thoughts for them. Woman got blamed in the Garden of Eden and have been being blamed ever since. This is why women are finally shouting, “Enough is enough!” God forbid that men should finally have to take responsibility for their own choices and behavior, and control themselves. Women are tired of excuses, and so am I.
Let me preface the rest of what I am about to say by informing you that I grew up in the 1960’s, an era in which men dominated, and in which women continued a fight for their equality, a fight that goes back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many people don’t really recognize how women continue to be oppressed because it has been, and continues to be insidious. It was in the late 1970’s when I heard a man from Zimbabwe, Africa tell me, “There will be a black man elected president of the United States before a white woman.” His prophesy came true, and I literally heard people saying, during the 2016 election, that they would not vote for Hillary Clinton simply because she is a woman. A young veteran I met proclaimed, “I don’t want a woman as my commander in chief.” What is wrong with that picture? It ignores all other factors of either candidate’s qualifications and determines a vote for the presidency of the United States based on which one has a penis. I thought we were better than that, but it seems that there is a very long way to go before the majority of us are making fair and informed decisions based on character instead of presentation of genitalia.
Men have dominated so long, and the oppression has become so insidious that many women don’t even seem to recognize when it is occurring. They fall right in line with “masculine” expectations of them. Men have always had a the best deal with the societal notion that women were expected to enslave themselves into marriage. Research shows that, even today, in marriages where both husband and wife work, women typically have about 40% less leisure time than their husbands, because they are expected to work, and then come home to do childcare and homecare in addition to everything else. This is just expected. It is a drawback to Biblical times when women were expected to submit themselves to their husbands, and not put up a fuss about their position in life. There are still some states that have laws on the books allowing that a husband may legally rape his wife if she does not submit to him sexually. Domestic violence is simply an exaggeration of a toxicity that is already prevalent in society as a whole. I grew up watching this insanity and questioning it. I was raised by my grandparents. So, I got to see first hand, how men were allowed to get away with about anything they wanted when women were concerned, and that was only a couple of generations ago. For instance, my grandmother eloped across the county line at the age of 14, lied about her age, and married my grandfather who was 24. In this day and age, he might have been prosecuted for child molestation. In those days, things were different, and that’s just how it was especially in rural Arkansas. It is not likely she even had a birth certificate to verify her age.
After they got married, Grandma announced to her father that she had gotten married and, “What do you think about that?”
He said, “I think you have made your bed, and you are going to lie in it.”
I might have been more inclined to take a 24-year-old man to task for running off with my underage daughter and convincing her to break the law in order to get a marriage license. However, it was the early 1920’s and things were very different then, especially in the backwoods. Lie in that bed she did until sixty plus years of marriage brought an end to Grandpa, and she finally obtained her freedom from his oppression. Technically, the marriage was illegal, but she had made a commitment, “for better or worse”, and considered herself married in the eyes of the church. She was not going to go back on that promise, but her oppression was so secure that she was never allowed to drive a car, or visit with anyone who didn’t meet with Grandpa’s approval, and the first check she ever signed on their joint checking account was to pay for his funeral.
Toxic masculinity? That is probably a good term to define the difference between men who think they are masculine and men who truly are masculine. There were examples of toxic masculinity on my mother’s side of the family. When I was about sixteen, my maternal uncle chastised me for wanting an education, telling me that you are not a real man if you don’t work manual labor. There is nothing wrong with manual labor and all honest work is honorable work. However, he was basically telling me that I wasn’t a real man if I wanted an education instead of doing the kind of work that he had always done with less than a high school education. He had also abused me, and when he said that, I was long past his idea that mistreating me somehow showed his superiority as a man. My response was, “If you are a shinning example of manhood, no thanks.”
Still, I had examples of real men in my childhood, men who were not like my grandfather who insisted that Grandma do all of her chores and half of his, or men like my uncle who drank himself into a stupor almost every weekend and depended on my grandmother to wash his cloths, cook for him, provide him a place to sleep and practically wipe his ass until the day that he died of lung cancer from excessive smoking at the age of 62. In truth, Grandma was stronger than both of them put together. They were bullies and I never considered them to be real men. The real men I knew were men I went to church with, and there was one example on TV.
In those days, the “Bonanza” show was popular on TV, and even up in the sticks, we could watch our black and white version of it. I recall thinking, as a child, that Hoss Cartwright, a character on the “Bonanza” show, was an example of a real man. To me, he was the epitome of masculinity. He was big, husky, and strong, but he was also soft spoken and gentle, kind and compassionate. He was a true gentleman who respected others. He would only shove your head through the saloon wall when you left him little other choice.
I had my own personal example who was a man very much like Hoss Cartwright. He was a man who attended our church, and he also happened to drive my school bus. So, through the school year, I could see him almost every day, as well as on Sunday. During the summer, I only saw him on Sunday at church. I wrote about him in my poetry book, “The Gulls Are Always Laughing”. His name was Hollis, and he was the only man in my childhood who ever touched me with gentleness and affection. Although he subscribed to the same fundamentalist Christian religion as my grandparents, the one that said that a man is the head of the household and a woman should submit herself to him, he still did not laud over his wife the way Grandpa lauded over Grandma. They seemed to be more like equals. His wife was a nurse and worked outside the home. She earned the bulk of their income, and that never seemed to bother him. He, like Hoss Cartwright, was strong and gentle, fair and ethical. I also felt safe with him. I never doubted that he would protect me if I needed to be protected, and he did protect me. I never told anyone, but I loved him more than many in my own family.
I was often bullied when I grew up. Until my senior year in high school, I was picked on and made fun of, and I wasn’t generally accepted by most in my school. Maybe that’s because I was different. I had a lazy eye, I didn’t care for sports the way other boys did, I tended to be shy and I had no mother or father. My mother had been killed when I was five years old, and although I knew that my father had been a prisoner of war in Japan in WWII, I had never met him. When I did meet him at the age of eighteen, he proved to be a better example of true masculinity than the men on my mother’s side of the family, but until that time, I had Hollis as my role model.
One day, on the school bus, when I was in the sixth grade, a high school senior, who sat behind me, was pulling my hair. I had asked him several times to stop, but he continued. Finally, I turned around and told him, “If you do that one more time, you are going to be sorry.”
He said to his friend, “What did he say?”
His friend said, “I think he said, if you do that one more time, you are going to be sorry.”
He asked, “Do you think I will?”
His friend said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you try it and see?”
The high school boy pulled my hair again. I did not say anything. I did not give any warning. I simply stood up and slammed my books flat across his face as hard as I could.
Immediately, his nose started to bleed. I don’t know for sure if I broke his nose, but I suspect that I did.
He got up, went to the bus driver, Hollis, and asked, “Did you see what that kid did to me?”
Hollis said, “Seems I heard someone say, if you do that one more time, you are going to be sorry. Are you sorry?”
The boy said nothing, and Hollis suggested, “Maybe you need to sit on the front seat where you are safe.”
That boy sat on the front seat next to Hollis for the remainder of the trip. I never got punished for that, and the boy I hit never pestered me again. I think it was after that when I began sitting on the front row so I could be near Hollis. It was then that I realized he would have my back, and I wished, at the time, that I could have had a father like him. However, there is a significant point I need to make here and that is, because I am male, fighting was understood and acceptable to a certain degree. Girls, especially in those days, were not allowed the luxury of fighting. A girl would likely have been chastised for “un-lady-like behavior”, even if it was applied subtly. Some women, who may have been taught thoroughly enough that they are not allowed to fight, could have increased susceptibility to domestic violence, and if they fight, it is often done through passive aggressive means rather than through direct assertive confrontation. Men with the most toxic masculinity think they have the right to make emotional slaves of those women and beat them if necessary. Women with the most toxic form of femininity believe it is their place to submit to those men or even men who have less aggressive dominance, because they believe it is a woman’s place to be submissive to a man. Many women don’t know how to stand up for themselves, but even in those days, some did. I will never forget, at the age of seventeen, when I was working as a nurse’s aide at the county hospital, I saw one of our nurses turn on her heels and slap the face of one of only three doctors in the county. She slapped him hard across his face because he had pinched her on the ass. She then stuck her finger in his face and said, “Listen here, Mr.! That belongs to me! It belongs only to me, and no one is allowed to touch it except my husband!” She was at risk of losing her job, and perhaps she might have if medical professionals were not so scarce in those parts in those days. I am not sure that she might not have been forced out because she switched to working at the local nursing home within a year. Still the same doctors attended to patients at the nursing home.
So, back in the sixties, times were different. Men dominated. Women were told that the man was the head of the household and the wife and children were to do what he said, but there were still examples of men who had integrity, honor, and character. There were men who were loving and adoring fathers who taught their children the right way, and instilled respect for themselves and for others, including respect for girls. In those days when “Women’s Liberation” was just catching steam, and people were scoffing because women burned their bras, my high school (in 1973 in the backwoods of Arkansas) had a girl who was the valedictorian and the president of the student council. Perhaps, we were a little ahead of our time. Still, that same girl, despite her intelligence and talent had to go into a work force where men made, and still make, more money for the same job, where women are less likely to be promoted, and more likely to be discounted and disrespected despite their intelligence and skill.
So, I see the Gillette ad which, to me, does not so much scold men for bad behavior as it calls them to a higher standard, and I think, “It’s about damn time!” It is about time that the “boys will be boys” attitude, and the rape culture in which men seem to think that it is okay for them to do whatever they want, gets thrown to the curb. It is about time that men begin to see themselves as equals instead of superiors. In my article “#MeToo”, I address some of my own episodes of sexual harassment as a gay man. Back in high school, no one knew (at least not overtly) that I was gay. It was in the days before don’t ask, don’t tell, and I absolutely was not going to tell. I did my best to play the part of the typical masculine male. You didn’t tell in those days, especially up in the sticks. Telling put you at risk of being beaten up, or worse. I never admitted to anyone that I was gay until I was in my mid-twenties. Still, I was picked on and put down in high school until I started fighting back.
Years later, after I came out, I endured toxic masculinity in the gay community, as well. I endured some of the same things that women endure, because masculinity, toxic or otherwise, has nothing to do with sexual orientation. If I wasn’t into someone, or I didn’t respond sexually the way they wanted me to, I got called “Bitch, slut, cunt”, all the same derogatory names that women get called, and for the same reason. I was called names and put down because I didn’t serve some guy the way he thought he ought to be served. Toxic masculinity was so prevalent that it was present even in the gay community. You were not supposed to say, “no”, and if you did, you were treated as though there was something wrong with you, and you were cast aside, even within your own community. Add toxic femininity to the mix and you get passive aggressive, cutting put downs of one another. Some in minorities internalize their oppression and the toxic societal views of themselves, then turn that on each other. There was no insight for the guy who insisted that I have sex with him. Instead of looking into the mirror and recognizing that there is something wrong with the arrogance that says you are not allowed to say, “no”, toxic masculinity perpetrated itself in the gay community the same as it did in straight society. There was also a time that I was raped, but didn’t really recognize it until I had a nightmare afterward.
I am glad the “#MeToo” movement is here, and I am glad that men, who haven’t figured out what real masculinity is, are being held to a higher standard. There is a huge difference between someone letting you know they are attracted to you or that they would like to have sex with you, and someone forcing themselves on you, manipulating you or treating you like you are worthless if you don’t give in to their solicitations. There is no place in civilized society for that type of behavior, and real men don’t treat women, or other men, that way. Real men respect themselves and others.
Of course, there is a backlash to the Gillette commercial asking men to look at themselves, and calling them to be the best that men can be. What comes with the backlash is the arrogance of toxic masculinity that insists you are not allowed to question or challenge. It is about time that we started questioning and challenging the status quo of perceived masculinity, and about time that we began to redefine masculinity. It is time for real masculinity to stand up and be heard. It is time to get real, and recognize that dominance is not masculinity. Abuse is not masculinity. Bullying is not masculinity. Rape and sexual oppression, or sexual microaggression are not masculinity. Demanding servitude is not masculinity. Arrogance is not masculinity. True masculinity is found in the examples of Hoss Cartwright and Hollis, as well as a few others from my childhood and many I know today. True masculinity is strength tempered with integrity. It is male sexuality tempered with respect and understanding. It is the loving father who can protect and comfort his child as well as hold his child accountable. It has been said that feminine love says, “I love you no matter what.” Masculine love says, “I believe in you no matter what.” We need both male and female, true masculinity and true femininity. We are each capable of extending both, and we need to. There is not one person in civilized society who does not need to step up and practice a better way of being themselves and of interacting with others.
While we are on the subject of true masculinity, real men cry. Real men know that, if they cry, it is not the end of the world. They know that crying does not mean anything about their strength because their strength can be expressed in the midst of tears. Real men know that you can cry and still stand up and do whatever you need to do in spite of the tears. Real men get to say, “I don’t feel like a superhero today, and I don’t really want to leap tall buildings right now.” Real women get to say that as well. Real men own their fear and walk through it. They know that courage is what happens when we stop listening to fear and that the act of courage never requires the demeaning and disrespect of another person. Real men, not only have the strength to stand up for what is right, they have the strength to challenge what is wrong. The opposite of toxic masculinity is real masculinity, true masculinity which is not tainted by false bravado and the arrogance of narcissism. Real men know that those who are confident have nothing to prove. Real men love as deeply and as compassionately as women. Real men admit when they are wrong, and never feel defeated for having been wrong. Real men have humility instead of allowing ego to define their masculinity.
So, there has been a lot of backlash to the Gillette ad, some saying, “I don’t need Gillette to lecture me.”, some saying, “It’s a war on men.” First of all, if you think you don’t need to be lectured, then you do. Second, there is no damn war on men, any more than there has ever been a war on Christianity. It’s all myth. For the first time in history, as far as I have known, women and other men are standing up to the bullshit notion of masculinity as arrogance, narcissism and dominance, and they are calling it for what it is. Of course, those who have bought into toxic masculinity shout, “Don’t lecture me!”, and “This is a war on men!” Because—you are not supposed to challenge them. The rule is, and has been for as long as I can remember, “We get to make the rules, and you are not allowed to question them, much less challenge them.” The men who are getting their “panties in a wad” over this ad are the very ones who have been behaving badly in the first place. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “Me thinks he doth protest too much.” Men who are confident in their masculinity are not offended by this ad. Men who have an understanding of what pure and true masculinity is are applauding this ad, and saying, “Well done!” Real men are not offended