We need to talk about toxic masculinity
Sam Cox navigates the minefield of modern masculinity and asks what society’s shifting values mean for the men of today.
In 1960s America, ideas of masculinity might have evoked John Wayne, but for Seamus Heaney and Ireland, it was turf cutting, his father and his grandfather before him. When the Derry poet wrote of choosing a pen over the spade, he spoke of ‘digging’ with admiration. This coarse and straining life, however, brought its own challenges.
Recent research around modern Irish farmers has focused on these difficulties and revealed some aspects of toxic masculinity associated with the trade. And it isn’t just rural men who are affected. The Men’s Development Network (MDN) used a research tool called the ‘Man Box’ and found that men in Ireland who adhere to ideas of traditional masculinity are less satisfied in themselves, and have more difficulties with drugs and alcohol.
First, it’s worth clarifying that the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ isn’t taking aim at all masculine traits, but instead describes those aspects of ‘traditional’ masculinity that negatively impact both men and women by having men conform to these ideals.
This might involve violence, or keeping emotions pent up, or it could even be unhealthy ideals around men as providers. Ideas of masculinity can also vary by culture, like Heaney and his view of turf-cutting. But is examining this concept through the lens of toxic masculinity also limiting our view?
The blame game
Dr Siobhán O’Higgins is co-lead of Active Consent, a programme from the University of Galway focused on promoting and researching consent, working particularly with adolescents and young adults. One thing she is very clear about is her dislike of the term ‘toxic masculinity’, which she describes as a “blame game”.
“It’s all wagging a finger at males and blaming them for all sorts of things,” she says. “Why don’t we reframe how we as human beings conduct ourselves and form relationships and present ourselves to the world in a less labelling, less extreme way?”
While limited ideas of womanhood and feminity can be just as problematic, women have, in some respects, enjoyed more scope to experiment. Siobhán, for example, once shaved her head and donned heavy boots as part of the early skinhead subculture. Once she realised her favoured aesthetic had an association with violent behaviour, she transitioned to more of a hippy look, but was stuck wearing a hat until her hair grew back. She recounts this with a smile, but it demonstrates the options available for women that haven’t been there for men.
“We don’t talk about femininity in the same way that we talk about masculinity any more,” she says, musing on whether this is because of “feminism liberating girls to be whoever they want to be”.
“We haven’t had the same kind of liberation for our boys and men in relation to how they present themselves to the world,” she adds, with compassion in her voice.
Expectations vs reality
Reading through the Man Box study, it’s striking how much our prevailing views of masculinity focus on establishing status, whether that’s through men’s looks, putting other men down, or having wealth and power. And conforming to these standards can bring a sense of belonging.
“It’s about finding that tribe and in order to find a tribe, you have to buy into some kind of idea of what it is to be male, female or anywhere in between that will make you acceptable to that tribe,” explains Siobhán. “To a certain extent, you swallow a lot of your understanding of who you are as a human being.”
And there’s no shortage of content telling men how they should be. “[Look at] the influencers who are saying you have to be a leader, you have to have a six-pack, you have to have a big penis and you have to have sex with lots of people, and you have to make loads of money … you have to be good at sports,” Siobhán challenges, highlighting the “confining” version of masculinity this presents.
At one point, she demonstrates with her hands the absurdity of penis expectations, reminiscent of a certain viral TikTok. “Imagine you’re 11 and you look down your penis and you go, ‘Jesus, I’ve failed already.’ And look at my father: he’s not a sports person, he doesn’t earn lots of money – so he’s a failure [by these standards].”
This can be particularly difficult in different social and ethnic groups. Siobhán has experienced this in her prior work with the Traveller community, discovering that structural and societal barriers create serious issues and that adhering to traditional masculinity is one way that men might try to reclaim power for themselves.
This is also what MDN’s research found: the gap between how men regard themselves internally and how they expect society to regard them is a large one, and one that is fraught with emotion.
Liam McBrearty, a research assistant with Active Consent, acknowledges the tension between toxic masculinity as an academic talking point and the pragmatic reality of everyday discussion. “If you’re trying to actually promote change, you’re immediately being put on the back foot in every conversation,” he says. “The minute you say ‘toxic masculinity’ to men, listening is switched off a little bit and [the conversation] will turn into ‘not all men’ mode.”
This knee-jerk reaction to go on the defensive can happen no matter how informed your audience is, says Liam. “You’re immediately trying to pull somebody back into the conversation … so, whether or not it’s an accurate term or concept, I don’t think it’s a very useful term for talking to people.”
Pointing to positive versions of masculinity can be a way to reach across the divide, reframing old ideas of masculinity in a way that offers more freedom of expression. Siobhán laughs at herself for bringing up Harry Styles on two separate occasions in our interview, but he presents a good example: he dresses how he likes and is successful, and in doing so he upends traditional ideas of masculinity and creates more options for men.
Liam doesn’t name any former members of One Direction, but he does agree that we need to change it up. “Something that I do hear a lot in this conversation is who’s a positive male role model? What will be a more positive ideal? But I think the pitfall there is you’re just replacing one ‘a man has to be…’ statement with a new one.”
This, Liam explains, can lead to new demands for modern masculinity. “A man doesn’t have to be strong, but now a man has to be completely in touch with his feelings. A man is someone who is soft. A real man cries,” he says. “For a lot of men, if we just replace one standard with another, then it’ll be, ‘Oh now I must become the guru of sensitivity’, and the best, the most emotionally intelligent.”
In the Active Consent workshops, students are given example scenarios to encourage discussion. Liam says that sometimes these young men will point out double standards, demonstrating that they recognise some of society’s masculine expectations even if they’re not yet confident enough to challenge them seriously.
“I think the real goal is to do away with the ideals altogether,” he suggests. “I think taking toxic masculinity and replacing it with positive masculinity addresses part of the problem, but I don’t think it really gets to the heart of it.
“The heart of it is when there’s no ideal, when it’s not men have to be this, men have to be that. It’s that men can be whichever, and there are all kinds of men.” The only limit should be that we maintain what Liam calls “the basic standards of decency, of kindness, of respect”.