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In Boys: What It Means to Become a Man, Toronto journalist and mother Rachel Giese looks at damaging ideals of masculinity and what it takes to unlearn them After videos of violent hazing incidents at St. Michael’s College — a private, all-boys Catholic school in Toronto — surfaced last […]
In Boys: What It Means to Become a Man, Toronto journalist and mother Rachel Giese looks at damaging ideals of masculinity and what it takes to unlearn them
Toxic masculinity. Pipeline protests. The dark side of clean energy. This year’s nominees for the Writers’ Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing touch on both deeply personal issues of identity and community and hot-button public policy issues. The National Post talked to the authors in the countdown to the award, a $25,000 prize to be announced May 15.
In Boys: What It Means to Become a Man, Toronto journalist and mother Rachel Giese looks at damaging ideals of masculinity and what it takes to unlearn them.
NP: In the wake of #MeToo and a resurgence of feminism, why write a book about boys?
RG: I’ve spent much of my career as a journalist covering issues of feminism and gender equality, primarily through the experiences of girls and women. But I grew curious — particularly after I had a son — about how gender norms and expectations related to masculinity affected boys’ attitudes and behaviours. I think that we collectively have done a pretty good job questioning the stereotypes of femininity and being female, even though many, many systemic and social barriers of sexism remain. Most of us believe, for example, that girls can excel in sports, or aspire to be scientists — something that was nearly unfathomable a century ago. But we haven’t done the same for masculinity and maleness, we haven’t challenged and expanded gender expectations for boys to the same degree.
NP: Last fall, there was public outcry over videos of violent hazing at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto — but also some statements in defence of the boys who participated. Why do you think tolerance of this sort of behaviour is so persistent?
RG: The idea that “boys will be boys” persists. Some of our notions about boy culture can be quite dangerous, like when we assume that violence, hazing, bullying and cruelty are just typical boy behaviour or a natural rite of passage into all-male environments, like fraternities or teams. That thinking normalizes harmful behaviour and lets boys off the hook when they hurt others. And for the victims at St. Michael’s, other troubling notions about masculinity also come into play, like the belief that “boys don’t cry” and “snitches get stitches.” Those beliefs, that boys shouldn’t show vulnerability or express hurt and that boys must never speak out against their group, mean that victims are afraid to ask for help for fear that they will seem unmanly or not loyal.
Even worse, because we associate being a victim with being weak and because we believe that real men should never show weakness, often in these cases the bully is empathized with or even valourized, while the victim is seen as the trouble maker who spoiled all the “harmless” fun of hazing.
That said, what happened at St. Michael’s shouldn’t be blamed solely on the boys and young men who were the alleged perpetrators, or seen as an isolated incident or a few bad apples. Adults in the Catholic Church have sexually and physically abused children for decades and have been protected by authorities at the highest level of the church. The incidents at St. Michael’s don’t exist without a context or precedent. If boys see adult men behaving horribly, criminally, and not being held accountable, why would they think they should behave any differently?
NP: Is there a particular antidote to toxic masculinity?
RG: Probably the best antidote to toxic masculinity are more expressive, open, caring, liberated forms of masculinity. By that I mean, forms of masculinity that value kindness, nurturing, intimacy, respect, humility, tolerance and curiosity. I think it’s important to show boys and young men that a quality like strength, for instance, comes in many forms. It’s not just brute force, but also standing up for what’s right, even if that comes at a cost. Think about Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest racism, and racist violence, in America. There’s plenty of strength and courage in showing your vulnerability, in talking about your feelings. There’s strength and courage in coming out as gay or trans. And there’s also strength and courage in being allies with girls and women in the fight for gender equality.
One of the most common themes I heard from boys and men while I was researching my book was how lonely and isolated they felt. It’s clear how toxic masculinity creates harm for girls and women, but there’s growing research indicating that toxic masculinity is also really, really bad for men. All the behaviours we associate with toxic masculinity — like being super stoic and emotionless, getting in fights, denigrating women and LGBTQ2 people, engaging in high-risk behaviours like unprotected sex and binge drinking — are killing boys and men. These types of men are more likely to be the victims of violence (as well as perpetrators), they’re more likely to experience addiction and depression, to have looser and less intimate social ties, to have less fulfilling relationships with partners. They’re more likely to commit suicide.
NP: How is masculinity a political issue?
RG: Despite making up slightly less than half the population, men still hold the vast balance of power in the world, politically, economically and socially. Globally, girls and women still face high levels of inequality when it comes to employment, wages, education and health care, as well as high rates of domestic violence and sexual abuse — all of this primarily as the result of decisions made by men, or actions taken by men. So, if we want a world that is not just safe for girls and women, but a world in which girls and women can thrive and be equal partners and decision makers, then we have to engage men and boys. We can’t do it without them. And in order to do that we need to combat the masculine gender norms and expectations that contribute to inequality and injustice.
We also need to understand how toxic forms of masculinity are at the root of many of the political and economic crises we are facing. Take climate change: research has shown that many men feel it is emasculating to engage in environmentally friendly activities or buy sustainable products, because they consider caring for the planet to be a feminine value. Or consider the rise of nationalism. The idea of men’s threatened masculinity and threat to what they feel they are entitled to runs deep in nationalist ideologies: the belief that an “other” has taken over things you believe are your birthright, like your job, your women, your sport, your country. And the only way to get those things back is to attack or expel that “other” or build a fence to keep that “other” out.
NP: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing boys right now?
RG: I worry a lot about the boys and young men who are most marginalized and who are being overlooked and left behind. Boys and young men of colour, particularly black, Latino and Indigenous boys, continue to be discriminated against in schools. They are much more likely to be punished with suspensions and expulsions. They are far less likely to be recommended for gifted programs. They are racially profiled by police and prospective employers. They are more likely to be incarcerated. Queer and trans boys who don’t have social supports are more likely to be homeless and more likely to experience depression and suicidal ideation.
And for all boys, we still don’t have enough mental health supports specifically for their needs and we haven’t dismantled the stigma around seeking help. We also aren’t talking to boys enough about the issues swirling around them. I think a lot of boys are curious about the #MeToo movement for instance, but not sure how to talk about issues like consent and sex.
I think this moment of progress and backlash is confusing for a lot of young men and they’re not sure of their place in the world and how to be a man right now. And in the absence of open, positive discussions, it’s not surprising that troubled boys and young men are seeking community in toxic, angry online forums or hostile subcultures like the incel movement.
NP: What gives you the most hope for boys?
RG: Boys themselves. I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of young men who are sweet, open, compassionate and kind. These are boys who stand up to bullies, who care about each other, who care about being good friends, who are unafraid to be vulnerable and ask for help, who take for granted a world that is inclusive and fair. And I’ve talked to equal numbers of adults, men and women, who are working with boys and young men to dismantle harmful gender stereotypes and to create supportive spaces for boys to be their full selves.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.