By Alex Mierjeski
May 22, 2016
Masculinity is having a moment — but it's not a good one.
Traditional notions of manliness — they typical characteristics that are purported to make men "Men" — are now being labeled as "toxic." Supposedly masculine traits like an innate emotional stability, individualism, steely resolve, and dominance are just a handful of characteristics that have been increasingly criticized as being damaging to both men themselves and those they interact with.
But where and when do these ideals latch on? Much of the recent coverage of toxic masculinity has focused on lessons learned in early childhood. Here are some of the ways we reinforce these potentially harmful characteristics in boys.
1. "Be a man!"
In a recent popular New York Times article, Andrew Reiner, a writing, literature, and cultural studies professor at Towson University, recounts an anecdote that displays how even at a young age, boys are taught to suppress or reinterpret outward emotional displays — be they psychological or physical — in the pursuit of fostering an "I-can-take-it" manliness.
The account revolves around a home video of a distraught toddler being vaccinated. His father can be overheard saying, "Don't cry!...Aw, big boy! High five, high five! Say you're a man: 'I'm a man!'" As the video ends, the boy, his face contorted in anger, pounds his chest and says through his teeth, "I'm a man!"
To Reiner, the video captures, with "profound concision, the earliest stirrings of a male identity at war with itself."
Men and boys are often taught that they should define themselves against "girliness" and femininity, but those teachings can have unfortunate consequences, and enforce a divide between the sexes. As educator Tony Porter explains in his TED Talk, these notions teach us "that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you should just follow and just do what we say; that men are superior and women are inferior; that men are strong and women are weak."
3. Suppress your emotions
Writing in The Times, Reiner notes that the video of the boy's vaccination shows "how boys are taught, sometimes with the best of intentions, to mutate their emotional suffering into anger." Others have noted that these patterns of teaching men to suppress, deny, or mutate their emotions start early, and are often unwittingly enforced.
In "I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression," psychologist Terry Real writes that "[a]t the youngest ages, both boys and girls are more like a stereotypical girl." However, as Real notes, research suggests that mothers and fathers bring preconceived notions of masculinity to baby boys — often to damaging ends. In one instance, parents were shown video of the same baby crying, but described the emotion on display differently — anger for boys, fear for females — depending on what sex they believed the baby to be. Real concludes:
“[F]rom the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurtured less."
Teaching boys that natural emotions are somehow unmanly and should be repressed can have obvious psychologically damaging impacts. But suppressing emotion can also have more tangible, dangerous outcomes, leading to potential outbursts of aggression, and even shorter life spans.
4.Discouraged from seeking help or treatment
Potentially harmful notions of masculinity are, of course, multifaceted, and tend to bleed into one another. The "tough guy" male caricature, for example, might be hard pressed to open up emotionally — both to themselves, and to others that would be able to offer help. At the risk of looking vulnerable or weak, men might chose not to go to therapy, seek out help with mental health issues, or even lie at the doctor's office. But at least some studies show that those tendencies could be detrimental: According to one recent study from Rutgers researchers, male aversion to seeking out medical help, paired with a propensity to be less honest with their doctors, could cause an earlier death.