Six journalism students, Kenzie Aellig, Justine Brady, Emily Calix, Karina Patel, Heleen Pfrommer, and Rene Ramirez, spent the Fall 2021 semester exploring the prevalent topic of toxic masculinity in today’s culture. They spoke to SFSU students and experts in order to create a collective of multimedia pieces that dive into the problems and potential solutions of unhealthy masculinity across various cultures and experiences.
FROM TOXIC TO HEALTHY MASCULINITY
By Heleen Pfrommer
We’ve all encountered it. “Don’t be such a pussy, man up!” “You’re a man, you aren’t supposed to cry!” — Or the situations women encounter as they walk past a group of men hyping each other up to say something to women just to look “tough.” All of these phrases and situations fall under the same category, namely, toxic masculinity.
A solution to toxic masculinity starts with the term in itself because masculinity in itself is not toxic. It is healthy and comes naturally. However, it is important to acknowledge that it comes in many different shapes and forms, as not every human is the same and portrays this masculinity in the same way. Some men weren’t even born with male genitals, and others express their feminine side more than their male characteristics. Because in every man there is a “female spirit” and in every woman hides a “masculine spirit.” Society demands humans when, where and how to express these spirits, and which one to be dominant. Certain social settings require humans to present their male or masculine spirits while other situations ask us to be more female so to say. Listen to the audio below to hear some males speak about masculinity and the way it is represented in their daily life.
Focusing on the solution to this first problem, we could rather consider “toxic masculinity” as “boxed’ masculinity” — the so-called “man box.” This refers to society demanding males to portray their male spirits in framed boxes. These expectations, perceptions and even definitions of “manly” behavior set the idea of what the ideal man should or does look like. This creates the man box. When masculinity becomes boxed, it can create toxic behavior that asks for solutions.
There are various solutions and ideas of what healthy masculinity could imply. It all starts in someone’s childhood. Children are truly the product of their parents, and they form the key medium for how their children express their gender identity. The consumer choices that parents make for their children take a key part in this, as it starts with how they dress their children, or with what toys they make them play with. It is not to say that the man box or toxic masculinity derives from these small choices, but they do show the root of where gender ideals are born within humans.
Furthermore, schooling is important as well. The school in itself should be a safe place for young boys and men to be themselves, as this is the place where most humans develop themselves to a large extent and create their values and norms for the rest of their lives. But also schooling in a verb is important to recognizing the problem of this man box and in order to create solutions, the first step is to recognize the problem (after calling it a man box instead of toxic masculinity).
And for all men out there: you can be the solution to this man box yourself. You can be the change. Take a real interest in your (male) friends and family, call other males out when you feel a sense of toxic masculinity, try to be open to your loved ones about your mental health, and create a space for others to do the same.
Even though all these solutions could eventually make a difference, there is a bigger problem to consider here as well. Because toxic masculinity is a systematic problem, within a bigger problematic system. It all lies in the socio-economic and cultural structures that fuel this toxic masculinity. If we want to understand the solutions to toxic masculinity it is important to recognize this. Even though small interruptions such as calling other men out on their toxic actions, or talking in general with fellow men (and women) about mental health can create a great difference, it is still important to recognize that the problem of the man box lies in a greater and larger system of oppression.
By Emily Calix
The following timeline goes through the history of men’s clothing in the United States starting in the early 1900s and ending in the 2020s. Scroll to discover how men’s fashion has progressed and how it has impacted and reflected the experiences and expectations of men in each period of time.
REPLACING TOXIC MASCULINITY WITH HEALTHY MASCULINITY
By Justine Brady
“Be a man,” is a well-known phrase that has been beaten down into each generation of men. It has been greatly expected by social constructs for men to be macho providers that display strength, independence, courage and a stoic-like attitude, which rarely allows them to show emotional vulnerability to others. But now, times are changing.
Within U.S. culture, showing weakness has not been a desirable trait for men. Masculinity has forced men to shield themselves from all emotion and build up a hard exterior. When finally men do express some type of emotion that does not fit in line with the emotionless brute, they are discarded as unmasculine. These societal expectations do more harm than good for young men while they try to find their own masculine identity in life.
Medical News Today describes toxic masculinity as a set of negative behaviors that over-exaggerate masculine traits. Masculinity is usually influenced by one’s cultural and family upbringing as a child. The stereotypical masculine traits that are normally fixated on men are characteristics displaying dominance, aggression, anti-feminism as well as lack of emotion. However, this does not mean that masculinity as a whole should not be looked at as a toxic trait. “Toxic” is used to describe the negative manifestations that can be found within masculinity. Even the most toxic traits from masculinity can be replaced with positive qualities like men becoming more nurturing and celebrated as healthy masculinity. No longer wanting to identify with those toxic traits, men have now started to push back against the stereotype and instead endorse a healthier masculinity that shows compassion, emotion and the ability to seek help when needed.
According to Medical News Today, there are a combination of factors that shape masculine behavior which includes age, race, class, culture, sexuality and religion. When men start to attach themselves to toxic masculine behaviors, this could lead to an array of different issues: bullying, academic challenges, domestic violence, sexual assault, lack of friendships or genuine connections and substance abuse. A 2019 statistic from a Pew Research study shows that 37% of men feel it is important for them to be seen as masculine, which can lead to more pressure on an individual if they personally feel like they do not meet these traits.
When he was a sophomore in high school, 23-year-old SF State graduate Robert Ramirez struggled to grasp what it meant to be a man. As a sensitive and emotional individual, growing up in a Mexican household created challenges for Ramirez to embrace his individuality. He was expected to be a tough, male figure for his father who rarely showed any signs of weakness. Even when he was experiencing low mental health days, Ramirez hid his emotions away from his family, knowing his father would look down upon him if he did.
“My culture did influence a certain way of masculinity, but I’ve made sure to change that cycle and create my own version of masculinity. [Masculinity] was taught to me at a young age by my dad, specifically telling me all the things I needed to do in order to be a man, like for example to be interested in sports or that men don’t cry. Obviously, when you are young you don’t know better and follow everything you are told but as I’ve grown older and see things differently, my views on masculinity have changed,” said Ramirez.
At first, he felt ashamed to divulge in his own individual interests, like his passion for baking and watching telenovelas with his mother on the weekends. But now as a grown man, Ramirez fully embraces these characteristics to further define masculinity for himself, which has also helped replace the toxic masculine narrative his father knew.
“I don’t let certain typical masculine behaviors affect me nor will I change to be accepted into these norms, I am who I am,” said Ramirez.
Toxic masculinity can place an unwarranted amount of stress on men that can affect their mental health. Studies from the American Journal of Men’s Health reported that there is a greater risk of depression for men who partake in masculine norms that include “self-reliance” and playboy-esque attitudes. The study mentions that while most men do not agree with most of the toxic traits like violence and aggression, some men tend to conform to these standards because they believe society pressures them to reject any type of weakness or femininity. With all of that in mind, men mask their depressive feelings and neglect to reach out to mental health services. The study concludes that there needs to be a more “gender-tailored” outreach of programs that will help men improve their engagement with mental health discussions.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reported that suicide is almost 4 times greater among men compared to women. While women tend to be more outspoken about their mental health, men are not.
If men are experiencing negative thoughts of suicide, a viable resource to contact is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Kate, who could not give out her last name for privacy reasons, works as a crisis counselor. She explains that their services are here to provide help for anyone 24/7.
“Crisis counselors are here to listen to those in need and provide support. This hotline could be considered a resource for those in need if the concern involves suicide,” said Kate.
The main focus of healthy masculinity is for men to be able to engage in proactive conversations with others to discuss more beneficial behaviors to adapt to. Men should be able to ask for help when needed. An article from the Men’s Resource Center mentions society embracing a more feminine type of approach by incorporating a future where emotional intelligence is valued along with the practice of compassion. When people are able to communicate openly, it could provide a sense of empathic community building for others to speak freely and embrace who they are. If society starts to shift the conversation to incorporate more honest conversations for men, it will become a valuable asset for their own personal benefit as well as their family and work life. However, this needs to be a collaborative group effort so men can feel involved and comfortable discussing their problems along with expressing themselves freely.
One solution for achieving a healthier masculine future is for men to call out other men for their negative masculine behaviors and encourage additional discussions where men can be compassionate and open to sharing a wide range of emotions. Masculinity no longer needs to be characterized with traits of violence, emotionlessness and aggression. When men’s physical and emotional strengths are displayed in a positive manner, it can lead to healthier behaviors and community relations for both women and other male peers. Instead of adhering to stereotypical male behaviors, men should take a step back and recognize areas of flaws to work on for not only themselves but for others, which can provide a more respectful culture for all genders.
“I have realized that it’s okay not to be like others. There is a sense of accomplishment knowing that you aren’t continuing the chain of toxic masculinity,” said Ramirez.
By Rene Ramirez
San Francisco State University students portray stereotypical masculine and feminine poses to visualize society’s perception of gendered expectations.
YouTube videos giving step-by-step instructions on how to be an “alpha male” have become popular in recent years. These videos promote unhealthy forms of masculinity.
Join Heleen Pfrommer as she and SFSU Women and Gender Studies professor Julietta Hua discuss toxic masculinity from a woman’s perspective. Listen to learn more about the history and systems that have built and upheld toxic masculinity.