By: Gene Cole, Opinions Editor
Gillette recently put out a commercial about their old slogan,“the best a man can get.” The ad talks about how there’s a lot of problems specific to men and traditional masculinity, and how they have real-world consequences. More than that, Gillette took a direct stand against norms of masculinity that let a lot of men get away with violent or cruel behaviour (like “boys will be boys”), and spoke out against the normalized sexual assault being addressed throughout the #MeToo movement.
At the time of writing, that video has 1.3 million dislikes on YouTube. It’s inspired a lot of hate from men who feel that it overgeneralizes their gender. Right-wing celebrities like Piers Morgan and James Woods are vocally denouncing the company. Others have been putting up (embarrassing) photos of their Gillette razors being demolished and/or thrown in the garbage. One even made the brilliant move of throwing one into the toilet in protest.
This backlash indicates a common misunderstanding about toxic masculinity. It’s not that men are inherently evil, it’s that much of traditional masculinity causes serious harm to people of all gender identities — and yes, that includes men. Masculinity doesn’t have to go away, but we absolutely need to take out the toxic elements. From there, we can start encouraging a stronger, healthier, and more positive sense of masculinity, and make a safer world for everyone.
Don’t know what that might look like? Well, here’s a few ideas.
Hold other men accountable and intervene when needed
It’s hard to confront friends or strangers, and I don’t want to say that you need to endanger yourself by getting in the way every time a man is making someone feel unsafe. Intervening isn’t always about getting in the way of things, or putting yourself in unsafe situations: it just means you’re actively doing something to make a better environment, and it stops toxic behaviour from seeping in from around you.
If a friend does something inappropriate or makes you uncomfortable, talk to them privately later if you can’t stop them or be honest in the moment. Touch bases with other friends who are being made uncomfortable by others; giving support and helping them recover from threatening or distressing situations at a bar or party can go a long way. If you do see someone who needs help immediately and you don’t feel you can directly intervene, it helps to find someone who can deal with it, like a club executive at an event on campus or the staff at a restaurant.
At the very least, if you don’t think that someone is going to change or make you feel safe, cut ties. You have no responsibility to force friendship with people who make others unsafe or uncomfortable. Walking away from someone toxic is the most important choice in creating a healthy social circle.
Identify and learn from your own behaviour
Improving yourself means looking at your thoughts and actions critically. It’s possible to do and say harmful things without meaning to, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from the experience afterwards.
For men, this starts by thinking more about where you pick up on certain thoughts and behaviours. Things like sexist commercials, poor parenting, and confusing role models can all subtly influence you in ways that are important to keep track of. Knowing where these influences come from is the first step in deciding if they’re healthy or not.
Most importantly though, learning is about listening to what others have to say. When someone talks to you about something uncomfortable or inappropriate that you did, listen to what they have to say. You might not understand why you did it, but you can recognize the action and learn from it to become a fuller person.
In trying to learn, it’s especially important to listen to people who come from different life experiences and gender identities, particularly women. So much toxic behaviour in men exists solely to harm women, from harassment to condescending language and “mansplaining.” They’ve seen just how horrible certain behaviours are, and how they can affect both themselves and others. Their perspective is important in recognizing where you can improve yourself.
Oh, and don’t treat critiques on all or other men as an attack on you. We’re each on our own personal journey when it comes to our identity. Unless you’re behaving problematically, don’t treat efforts to correct men who are acting toxic as someone trying to hurt you personally.
When someone says they hate men, they are referring to the trends and problems that are unfortunately common, and you should be proud not to be contributing to them (although nobody likes a showoff, so please hold off on your “I’m so much less problematic than this guy” tweets).
Discourage strict masculinity in traditionally masculine activities
One of the biggest misunderstandings I see about toxic masculinity is the idea that something is malicious by default just because it’s traditionally male. This isn’t necessarily the case: hobbies like barbequing, bodybuilding, and watching sports like pro-wrestling are things you should absolutely feel free to enjoy. But it’s important that you go into these things for reasons besides just the constructed manliness of it, and that you partake in them in healthy ways.
Instead, be free to think critically about what you enjoy and why you enjoy it, and it’ll make you enjoy your interests in a healthier and more approachable way. You can enjoy the confidence that comes with bodybuilding while still acknowledging the impossible male body image that is often considered the “goal.” You can watch pro-wrestling and empathize with strong male characters while criticizing sexist storylines or problematic actors.
Liking something purely for its “male-ness” can make traditionally masculine things exclusive, especially for those who don’t abide by a relatively arbitrary definition of manhood. Getting away from that definition gives a lot of opportunities to enjoy and appreciate your interests on a deeper level. This will also make traditionally masculine things more approachable for anyone who would be put off or intimidated by the masculinity blocking the door.
Encourage diverse masculinities, and be open with yours
Everybody has a unique way of defining their gender identity, even if they lie on the same end of the gender spectrum. One of the key parts of a positive masculinity is accepting and supporting anybody who identifies as a man, regardless of non-masculine — and particularly feminine — interests and values. Masculinity doesn’t have to involve exclusively masculine interests and values. Additionally, non-binary folks can also identify with certain elements of masculinity without being gendered as men.
It’s important to support people in their personal definition of their masculinity. Let people make the choices that work for them, and try not question them for not fitting your definition of masculinity. A man who wears a more neutral or feminine satchel is just as much of a man as one who carries a backpack. A man who’s uncomfortable with wearing cosmetics is just as much of a man as one who paints their nails. Men express male identities in various ways, which can take a different form than your own.
And once you let people express themselves, start supporting and taking an interest in them. Be open with your own definition of masculinity. Try something slightly out of your comfort zone, like a bath bomb or a more female-coded colour of clothing. Try foods that don’t fit your normal diet. You might not like or stick with them, but it’s just as important to let others explore as it is to explore yourself.
The toxic masculinity that we’ve held onto this long does nothing but make people unsafe and uncomfortable, and supporting diverse and positive masculinities is an important step in being a safer and healthier person. It wasn’t really all that long ago that “traditional” was the only type of man that anyone thought could exist. Everything from strict fashion to harassment was considered not just normal but also accepted, and for many it still is today. But as time’s gone on, it’s become so much clearer that there’s more to life and masculinity than those arbitrary stereotypes.
Men can be so much more than the harm that they’ve caused.
Editor’s note: Liked this piece? Tune into our podcast episode this week for a discussion on masculinity! See back page for more info.
Our podcast is recorded in collaboration with CJSF, SFU’s campus FM radio station.