‘Toxic masculinity’ may not be terribly appetising, but it does seem to be on everyone’s lips these days.
The concept originally derives from the gender studies theory of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ – described on Wikipedia as the ‘stereotypic notion of masculinity that shapes the socialization and aspirations of young males’.
Although hegemonic masculinity is, as the name suggests, a bad thing in itself, toxic masculinity is, as the name tells you, really bad. It’s the aspects of hegemonic masculinity that ‘serve to maintain men’s dominance over women in Western societies’. Things like ‘the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence’.
Somewhat confusingly however, toxic masculinity theory has itself gone ‘hegemonic’.
Earlier this month the dominant US consumer goods multinational Procter & Gamble (annual revenue $65B) released a hard-hitting new ad for their ailing Gillette razor brand. After decades of gouging their customers and losing market position to new, cheaper ‘shave club’ competitors, they reasserted their supremacy – by ‘calling out’ men’s toxic behaviour.
Though in case you think they were tarring all men with the same stereotypical shaving brush, the ad did allow (at 1:06 mins in) that ‘some’ of them aren’t sexual predators and bullies, or arm-folded, burnt meat-eating enablers. And of course, associating Gillette with those few good guys battling male toxicity.
The ad was a great success – in the sense that it got people ‘talking about the brand’ and its new ‘purpose’. In an age when MSM ‘messaging’ can go entirely unnoticed, this one grabbed loads of editorial like a boss – and, much more importantly, owned people’s timelines.
And here I am, talking about it.
Actually, you’ll be relieved to hear, I don’t want to talk about it much. Everyone already has at length – some even making good points. The only thing I want to say here about this ad is that regardless of what you think about it, whether you consider it ‘an important message’ or ‘an outrage’ – or refuse to have an opinion on it at all (though I’m not sure this is permitted) – it’s somewhat… paradoxical.
And I’m not talking about Gillette’s record of ‘objectification’ of women and exploitation of them with overpriced pink razors.
‘The Best That Man Can Be’ presents itself as an assault on the dominance of toxic masculinity in our culture and its terrible toll. But it is put out by one of the biggest, most powerful multinationals in the world that wants millions of men to buy its products.
If toxic masculinity is so dominant and dominating – along with the patriarchal culture that produces it and protects male power – how does this very expensive ad exist?
OK, I’m being slightly facetious. The reason it exists is because calling out toxic masculinity and ‘male privilege’ (sometimes qualified by ‘white’ but less often by class) has itself become increasingly ‘dominant’ in much of the media over the last few years. A process that predated #MeToo but was turbo-charged by it. To the point where it now looks like liberal orthodoxy. Question it at your peril – unless you want to be labelled as ‘part of the problem’.
The week before Gillette went woke, researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Essex released a report that claimed to show that, contrary to previous studies, men are (slightly) more disadvantaged than women in most developed countries. Previous methods of measuring inequality (the Global Gender Gap Index) are ‘biased to highlight women’s issues’, they argued – and don’t distinguish between personal preferences and social inequalities.
‘We’re not saying that women in highly developed countries are not experiencing disadvantages in some aspects of their lives. What we are saying is that an ideal measure of gender equality is not biased to the disadvantages of either gender. Doing so, we find a different picture to the one commonly presented in the media’.
prof Gijsbert Stoet, University of Essex
Perhaps that picture ‘commonly presented in the media’ is why the newsworthy and controversial study was not widely reported in the UK, aside from conservative newspaper The Daily Mail and its sister paper Metro.
And in case you imagine the University of Essex a bastion of those dreaded Men’s Rights Activists, in 2016 it gave female staff a one-off pay rise to raise their average salaries to the same as their male counterparts.
The study’s Basic Index of Gender Inequality (BIGI) measures educational opportunities, healthy life expectancy and overall life satisfaction. According to the rankings it produces, the UK, US and Australia all discriminate against men (slightly) more, whereas Italy, Israel and China are tougher on women. Men in developed countries receive harsher punishments for the same crime, compulsory military service, and (many) more occupational deaths than women.
In the UK men fall somewhat behind women in years of secondary education, and more than 3.3% behind in healthy life-expectancy. Globally, men are, allegedly, disadvantaged in ninety-one countries compared to forty-three for women.
These results suggest that the structures and culture that protects ‘male power’ are perhaps less dominant – or effective – than we have been led to believe. At least when compared to say, oh I don’t know… capitalism.
The same week massive multinational Procter & Gamble unleashed its crusading new brand purpose on the world, assimilating hegemonic masculinity theory for its campaign for market hegemony, the venerable American Psychological Association published its “Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men”.
This is the first time the APA have published guidelines for boys and men. According to them, boys and men who are socialised to conform to ‘traditional masculinity ideology’ often suffer in terms of mental and physical health. Although acknowledging that concepts of masculinity vary across cultures, ages and ethnicities ‘traditional masculinity ideology’ is characterised by achievement, risk, violence, dominance, anti-femininity, stigmatisation of the appearance of weakness and homophobia.
In other words, it’s much the same concept as hegemonic masculinity and its evil bro, toxic masculinity.
I think it’s good that the APA have finally released guidelines for boys and men, and of course agree that ‘traditional masculinity ideology’ is related to anti-femininity, and homophobia which does indeed have a cost for men as well as women- after all, my first book Male Impersonators, published a quarter of a century ago, made similar points about the relationship of homophobia to misogyny.
Though I feel more ambivalent about that once radical or at least marginal critique now that it has become official doctrine. I have also documented extensively in my work how many traditional ideas about masculinity have already been largely rejected or considerably modified by young men. And were always much less monolithic than we imagine – or ‘hegemonic’ theories allow.
Otherwise, impossibly pretty metrosexuality and its shockingly slutty successor, spornosexuality, could never have become the mass-market global phenomenon they are.
Some of the media coverage of the new guidelines unwittingly illustrated this. NBC headlined their article ‘American Psychological Association links “masculinity ideology” to homophobia, misogyny’ – and chose a suggestive photo of male bodybuilders working out at 1940s Muscle Beach, Santa Monica.
Muscle Beach was a popular pick-up area with men who wanted to meet men – including Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood. Perhaps NBC’s picture editor was trying to tell us that traditional masculinity ideology has more holes in it than a Santa Monica rest-room partition? Or maybe NBC just wanted to get clicks, as you do these spornographic days, by using a hunk of male eye candy – in this case, vintage eye-candy because ‘traditional’.
Actual traditional masculinity ideology isn’t very sexy. It’s not interested in inviting our 21st Century non-binary gaze nearly enough.
The APA report itself repeatedly reminds us that gender is ‘socially constructed’ and that men have ‘greater socioeconomic advantages’ than women – but when it talks about the problems men face it sometimes seems to imply that they themselves are to blame:
‘Despite having greater socioeconomic advantages than women, men’s life expectancy is almost 5 years shorter than women; in every ethnic group the age-adjusted death rate is higher for men than women. A sex difference in risk-taking is largely responsible for this discrepancy. For example, accidents are the leading killer among all males aged 1 to 44 in the United States (CDC 2010).
‘Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men’ – American psychological association
Men and boys’ disadvantage in life-expectancy is immediately explained by ‘a sex difference in risk-taking’ rather than, say, referring to structural problems in society – which would likely be used to explain inequalities that disadvantage women and girls.
When you look at the CDC figures for leading causes of deaths in the US for 2010 you find that ‘unintentional injuries’ are also the leading killer amongst females, ages 1-34 (falling to second place in the 35-44 category). Likewise for the most recent figures available, 2015.
So it is only in the 35-44 category that there is a ‘sex difference’ in the sense that accidental deaths are the main cause of male deaths and not for females. The total number of deaths by accident for each sex will likely be different.