By Maeve O’Keeffe
As a woman and a feminist, tackling gender stereotypes from a female perspective is a consistent priority of mine. In this column, I have discussed how toxic masculinity and sexist rape myths can affect women. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that men are also frequent casualties of sexism. It may not necessarily be in the same way as women, but gender stereotypes are nonetheless damaging towards men, and there is a pertinent need for conversation surrounding the ways in which we perceive masculinity. As Movember campaigns begin to promote men’s health, I spoke to Bailey Lane and Tadhg Connery, two ambassadors for the Bystander Intervention programme in UCC, as well as the SU’s Equality and Diversity representative Daniel Byrne, about toxic masculinity and the cultural change that needs to occur to dismantle archaic norms about what it means to be a man.
Boys don’t cry. Boys will be boys. Man up. Grow a pair. Don’t be a pussy.
From infancy, we are bombarded with the message that to be a man, one must be strong, both in terms of physicality and emotionally. Being sensitive, nurturing, and expressive of emotions? Those are seen as feminine qualities. We all know how restrictive these gender stereotypes are to women, but we need to look at how harmful it is to tell boys that emotionality is a sign of weakness, and to be a man one can never concede this. There is a crisis of men’s mental health at present, and the masculine archetype of strength and stoicism is not helpful. “To hell with all strong silent men,” to quote Brian Friel’s brilliant play Philadelphia, Here I Come!
If we think back to the media we consumed as children, there is so much gender-typing embedded in it. Although not all parents necessarily imposed adherence to gender norms, there is a stark contrast in the toys and television programmes marketed towards little boys and girls. For the girls, there were princesses, makeup sets, and toy kitchens. For the boys, there were strong and valiant superheroes, army soldier figurines, toy tool kits. I don’t recall Batman ever calling a friend to talk about his feelings, and I don’t think Action Man was too big on self care. Instead, these childhood heroes used their physicality, strength, and bravery to save the day. “From growing up I had seen toxic masculinity all around me, particularly at a young age every young boy is trying to conform to a certain image and personality,” Bailey tells me. Young children are so susceptible to absorbing the norms presented in the toys and media they consume. From the word go, the message to boys is not one of sensitivity, or care, but of brute force. It is only natural that little boys would wish to emulate the characteristics of their heroes, and if this involves concealing all remnants of potential vulnerability beneath a layer of macho man behaviours, then that is what the boys will learn to do.
While the seeds of stereotypical behaviours are sown during early years, adolescence and early adulthood can be an important time for these gender norms to take root, and become embedded in the individual’s sense of self. Though the term toxic masculinity is brandished a lot these days, it is worth noting that masculinity is not inherently toxic. It becomes toxic when it inhibits frank conversations about mental health, or when it promotes ideas of sexual dominance, deviance, and violence. As Bailey outlines, “Low level toxic behaviour that begins at a young age becomes systemic and can be the root of many problems in the future where men don’t talk about how they feel, lack a level of empathy, and think certain behaviours and actions are ‘cool’ or acceptable.” When the traits of stoicism, aggression, toughness, heterosexism, misogyny and insensitivity are equated with the prized attribute of manliness, masculinity becomes toxic, and is utterly detrimental to both men and women.
Lad culture is a key component of toxic masculinity that is particularly pervasive among young men. Again, lad culture is typically mentioned in the context of being harmful against women, but men too can suffer the consequences of this noxious facet of campus culture. Offensive and nasty comments can be made under the guise of “banter” or harmless slagging. It could be something like mocking a teammate over their height, or the size of their muscles, or penis in the changing room before a match. It could be calling someone “soft” if they are injured, or show even a hint of vulnerability. It could be pressuring someone to drink more, or have more sex, or objectify women more. Objection to such remarks would likely result in the individual being labelled as a “pussy,” “gay,” “shit craic,” or all of the above. Bailey spoke of his own experience with this malignant lad culture, “One thing I always saw growing up as a young boy was this almost fear of heterosexual boys to have any sort of trait they saw as ‘feminine’ as they would then be labelled as ‘gay’, a word that is surrounded and used with such negative connotations.” Because our society continues to posit hegemonic masculinity as something for men to aspire towards, the feeling of being insecure in one’s masculinity could amplify their need to engage in laddish “banter”, usually at the expense of someone else, be it a woman, or another man who is perceived to be weaker in some way. In short, nobody benefits from lad culture or the adherence to canthese tired notions of what it means to be a man.
This is particularly salient when statistics surrounding suicide are considered. Men currently account for roughly 80% of suicides in Ireland. This figure is shocking, but we need to examine the messages that mould the men in our society and the factors that drive men towards such desperation and darkness. Support for mental health issues needs to be destigmatised. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, and is the least you deserve if you are struggling with your mental health. “I think often times men feel they can’t speak up about how they feel or stand up for what they think because of this idea that it somehow impacts their ‘manhood’ or that it is not how they are ‘supposed to’ think or feel when in reality from my experience most if not all people feel similar things,” Bailey informs me, highlighting the message that no matter how alienated one can feel in their distress or discomfort with stereotypical norms for behaviour, they are never alone, and there is support out there. We would all benefit from simply being open to help to address mental health issues, free from fears of judgement or dismissal.
The Movember campaign began in Australia, in the early 2000s. The movement centres around fundraising with the goal to raising money towards lowering the number of men dying prematurely, be that from testicular cancer, prostate cancer, or suicide. Many UCC clubs and societies are embarking on fundraising endeavours, and it’s great to support them in any way we can, in donating, raising awareness, or participating in fundraising events. Bailey spoke on the value of the Movember movement, “It is positive to see things such as Movember to start to have these conversations about men’s mental health as sometimes a man speaking about his feelings can be seen as weak.” However, he also cautioned that “It is important to remember there are 11 more months of the year and our actions and dialogue during November should not just be forgotten about on December 1st but we must continue to follow through on what we all preach during November.”
There is undoubtedly “an expectation that men should be tough and macho,” according to Bystander ambassador Tadgh. “It would be nice to be able to be expressive, maybe even cry at the odd rom-com without worrying about coming across as a sissy,” he tells me. So, how do we go about dismantling outdated notions of masculinity?
Participation in the Bystander Intervention programme here in UCC is one steppingstone towards a cultural shift in how we perceive masculinity. “I hope to see more student leaders, like the SU get involved with becoming ambassadors for the Bystander programme, because they really are a force to be reckoned with, and can positively influence students,” says SU Equality and Diversity representative Daniel. This sentiment is echoed by Bailey, who tells me,
“What has become so apparent to me in working with Bystander and doing work in this general area is the importance of my voice, as a young male, to start dialogue and encourage other young men to get involved in these positive conversations and education to try move forward to a better society.”
We cannot underestimate the power we have to challenge toxic masculinity when we encounter it on and off campus. We can question the very notion of traditional masculinity, and showcase it for the unattainable, and undesirable myth that it truly is. “What is a real man? Are there certain behaviours or actions that define a real man? It seems like a false concept that is ultimately unreachable,” says Bailey, illustrating the critical thinking skills he acquired through his continued participation with the Bystander Intervention programme as an ambassador. We have agency in shifting the narrative around what it means to be a man. Why should we continue to abide by gender norms from the 1950s, when we have the capacity to reconstruct our perceptions of manliness?
Education is vital, according to Tadgh, who told me that “some men are extremely uniformed,” and that “It is crucial that all men are educated about these issues so that they can be aware of harassing behaviours and can speak out against them, to create a safer world for everyone.” Teaching children not to equate femininity, homosexuality, or small stature with fragility or inferiority is a start. In schools, there is a dire need to campaign against lad culture, exposing it for the toxic herd mentality that it is. It’s time second level education caught up to the issues that are pertinent in our society today. Louise Crowley’s continued work on outreach with the Bystander Intervention programme is fantastic in engaging young adults with the issues of lad culture and toxic masculinity, tackling problematic ideas and norms before they get the chance to manifest down the road.
Let’s discard this archaic idea about what it means to be a man, and replace it with a much less restrictive concept, where boys won’t get laughed at for getting upset, wearing nail varnish, or loving fashion; where mental health concerns can be voiced without shame, discomfort, or fear of dismissive responses; where men are learn adaptive emotional regulation strategies, instead of resorting to aggression, violence, and resentment. We have a long way to go, and it will be challenging to change mentalities that are decades old. But the old notion that “Boys will be boys,” needs to be retired, because being male does not excuse problematic behaviours, and besides, our understanding of gender identity is evolving every day. The reality is that masculinity is a social construct long past its expiration date.