Toxic Masculinity: Culture vs Biology
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
It is a common human phenomenon that if something does not have a label, it cannot exist.
Toxic masculinity is defined as a cultural concept of manliness that glorifies male stoicism, strength, and dominance. It is the belief that men must control all emotions but anger by refusing to cry, inclining towards violence, or bottling up their emotions. Despite the very tangible effects of toxic masculinity- disproportionate male access to mental health services, perpetuation of rape culture, homophobia, and countless others- societal perceptions of toxic masculinity vary based on political affiliation and gender.
This means that certain cultures label toxically masculine norms as such, and thus have the mental resources to actively denounce them in the fight for gender equality. Meanwhile, other cultures perceive toxically masculine behaviors as acceptable norms, which enables them to continue insidiously.
While it is healthy for a man to embrace his masculinity, societal idolization of one rigid version of the ideal “man” is undeniably toxic. Ironically, the groups that one would expect to be more pro-men are those that more often perpetuate toxic masculinity. Men are more likely to believe that glorifying conventionally masculine traits is constructive: 68% of men agree that society should look up to masculine men, compared to 56% of women. This makes sense: as outsiders, women are more likely to recognize toxically masculine behaviors, whereas men may be less likely to question traits that were ingrained into them in childhood.
Regarding politics, 78% of Republicans agree that society should look up to masculine men, compared to 49% of Democrats. This is also logical, as Republicans and Democrats take fundamentally different views on gender roles. Republican ideology promotes stereotypical gender roles by maintaining conservative views on parental leave, abortion, and equal pay, all of which indirectly delegate the husband as breadwinner and the wife as a stay-home mother. Democrats, on the other hand, traditionally take a more universal view on gender by promoting paid leave for both parents, giving women reproductive freedom, and advocating for equal pay.
The effects of toxic masculinity are manifested within every facet of society, especially within male mental health. For instance, despite the proven health benefits of crying (the release of “happy” hormones oxytocin and endorphins), the average woman cries 30 to 64 times annually compared to the average man’s five to 17 times. Men are also three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent and report frequent drug use, both of which are often coping mechanisms to unresolved emotional issues. This aligns with nationwide statistics that men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women, as only 36% of referrals to IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies) are by men.
These more subtle behavioral differences have long-term destructive implications. Men make up 95% of the prison population; of this 95%, about 72% of male prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders. Most disturbingly, three-fourths of all drug-related deaths are male, and 79% of all suicides in the US are by men- more than four times the rate of women.
Contrary to common belief, there is no scientific basis for this reality. According to Psychology Today, there are negligible physiological differences in how men and women experience emotions. The American Psychological Association further iterates that one’s gender has little to no bearing on preference or personality. This means that being conventionally emotional is a matter of personality, not gender.
Rather than changing how men and women are biologically geared to feel, toxic masculinity simply teaches men and women to process their emotions differently. In a recent study led by Dr. Yoshiya Moriguchi of the National Institute of Mental Health, adult men and women were shown images that elicited strong emotional reactions. The results found that men and women experienced the same overall intensity of emotional reactions to the images, yet had different neural circuitry when analyzing and blunting emotions. Women displayed neural activity in the anterior insula cortex (a processor of bodily sensations), which indicates that they experienced emotions within their bodies. Meanwhile, men displayed neural responses in the visual cortex (a processor that shifts attention to the environment), which means they intentionally blocked the emotional impact of the images.
Another study found that men and women report their emotions differently as well. While viewing animated clips of characters being injured, female and male participants were told to report their level of empathy. While female participants scored higher than males on self-reported empathy- a difference that augmented with age- there were no sex differences in blood pressure, heart rate, or pupil dilation. This means that both genders felt equally, yet reported differently. This trend is a direct product of culture, rather than biology.
Since toxic masculinity is purely a product of social norms, promoting an accepting culture helps men internalize egalitarian and mentally healthy ideals. High-schooler Clint Karlyle describes his social circles: “My friends and I open up to each other. And I think that as long as you have a valid reason for crying, it’s completely okay.” Having grown up in a liberal community in New York City, Clint recognizes that he has also been raised within a culture that accepts every man’s definition of masculinity.
In fact, when recalling his interactions with boys his age from different states, Clint reports a tangible difference between him and his friends’ expression of emotion, portrayal of women, and general sense of self-awareness.
His close friend Paco comments on the generation gap: “I talk about my emotions with my friends, but I’ve never seen my dad cry.” This indicates that the males of Generation Z (1996-2015) are more likely to express emotions, as they are raised in an environment that destigmatizes mental illness and promotes feminist, egalitarian ideals. In comparison, Generation X (1965-1980) grew up in a time where there was massive federal deinstitutionalization of mental health services, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, and marital rape was not criminalized.
As sexism, homophobia, and toxic masculinity all go hand-in-hand, it is no wonder that today’s generation of males are much more confident in themselves as both men and people.
Regardless, current statistics remain a blaring reminder of reality. We must all remember that every man’s version of masculinity- tall, short, muscular, weak, charming, shy- is inherently valid, and by no means related to their sense of emotion. Just as women should be taught to embrace and take pride in their subjective femininity, men should be taught to embrace their subjective masculinity.
These ideals can easily be promoted on an everyday level: having workshops about mental health in elementary schools, letting men be vulnerable, speaking out against patriarchal comments, and monitoring one’s intake of sexist entertainment. Simultaneously, change can be enacted on a national level by voting for candidates who will enact pro-women legislation and implement affordable mental health services.
Because ultimately, our emotions are a universality that makes us human, which is our greatest strength.