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Toxic Hegemonic Masculinity Ideology

‘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 actually 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 more and more ‘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 ways 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 in order 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 91 countries compared to 43 for women.

These results suggest that the structures and culture that protects ‘male power’ are perhaps somewhat 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 rather 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 probably 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.

I’m ready for you, big boy!’

Some of the media coverage of the new guidelines unwittingly illustrated this. NBC headlineed 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.

But probably not as different as the figures for occupational injury deaths. In 2016, there were 4,803 male and 387 female occupational injury deaths in the United States.

Note how the total numbers fall around 2008, when the financial collapse occurred and the property/construction bubble burst. Men are of course hideously ‘dominant’ in the construction industry – and also in pretty much all the other most dangerous and often poorly-paid low-status professions, such as fishers, loggers, roofers, farm workers and refuse collectors.

Maybe this is down to the ‘sex difference in risk-taking’ of this ‘socioeconomically privileged’ category called men. Or perhaps it has something to do with structural inequalities in society, a lack of provision for (non-rich) boys’ educational needs – and the ruthless, ‘toxic’ way capitalism screws labour, whatever its gender.

But let’s not dwell on such quibbles, or question too closely the newly dominant stereotypical notions about men and masculinity. They are the correct stereotypes, after all. Gender studies has shown us this. And today’s corporate capitalism has taken these lessons on board and selflessly liberated us from boring old class conflict, replacing it with uplifting messaging around gender politics.

Besides this month, in addition to chastising men as a ‘class’, we should be celebrating the fact that extremely well-paid women are now in charge of the behemoth US war industry, by far the largest in the world.

And it would be the worst kind of whataboutery to mention that despite this blow to the patriarchy, men are still much more likely to pay the ultimate price for war.

Sixth Form Boys Will Hug Boys – And Not Have a Crisis

Mark Simpson on a new study that shows how much young men – and masculinity – have changed. 

(Daily Telegraph, 30 May 2017)

When I was a teenager attending an all-boys school back in the 1980s, one of the most popular games we used to play in the common room was, ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Queer To Prove We’re Not’. And quite simply, if you didn’t play it you were definitely a poof. (So I played it lots).

Someone simulating coitus behind you while you were potting a tricky black on the pool table was a popular part of the game. Grabbing one another’s lunchboxes as a form of greeting was another. Often this was accompanied with a loud John Inman/Dick Emery ‘OOOOH!!’ noise, which somehow proved that what you were doing was, in fact, totally and utterly straight.

Pretending to be a ‘poof’ was pretty much the only way we were allowed to touch one another when sober. Except for fights. And rugby, which was a major obsession at my school. But then, rugby was perhaps the biggest ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Queer To Prove We’re Not’ game going.

Oh boy, have things changed! Though lots of people seem to be in even more denial about that today than we lads were about our ‘bumming’ on the green baize back in the 1980s.

Here is a ‘touching’ scene documented in a remarkable new study of how sixth form males relate to one another: “Simon was greeted by six boys at the entrance to the common room who then engaged in a large group hug with him that lasted ten seconds.” Simon had not scored a winning try. No one was drunk. It was just his birthday.

The male-on-male love-bombing didn’t stop there. Again from the study: “Another boy, Kyle, entered the common room and proceeded to kiss Simon on the cheek, hug him, and wish him a happy birthday. Kyle and Simon then shared a seat together for ten minutes, with Kyle’s arm placed around Simon’s shoulders the whole time.”

Hugging was “an almost hourly occurrence.” During an IT lesson “Logan sat with his legs across Ian’s lap for a ten-minute period as they worked together on a project… Ian massaged Logan’s leg as he had complained about how he was sore from athletics training.”

None of these touchy-feely displays were seen as gay by the other students, nor did the boys assert their heterosexuality by imitating Graham Norton or making homophobic remarks. Kids today don’t know they’re born.

In fact, homophobia is now as frowned-upon as homosexuality was in my day. Said one boy: “Who am I to judge? Who is anyone to judge? When people are homophobic it really upsets me.” Two male students at the college were openly gay, reported no overt homophobia, and were fully integrated into their hugging peer groups.

Out of a total of 100 male students aged 16-18 the vast majority, 87, were reported to espouse ‘tolerant to positive’ (and most of them positive) attitudes towards homosexuality and engaged in physical tactility and emotional intimacy, offering each other support. Sexism and misogyny were not generally tolerated.

Obviously, I can hear you snort, this was an upper middle class, non-binary sixth form college in Hampstead.

Actually, it was a working class sixth form Christian (mixed) college in a small town in the North East of England, located 25 miles from the nearest city – and considerably further from the nearest Waitrose.

‘Inclusive Masculinities in a Working-Class Sixth Form in Northeast England’, by Callum Blanchard, Mark McCormack, and Grant Peterson makes for eye-opening reading. The result of six weeks observation by Blanchard (who attended the same college himself a few years ago), hanging out in common rooms and class-rooms, combined with in-depth interviews, the results indicate just how radically different modern north eastern masculinity is from the hard-bitten, phobic stereotypes.

You may recall C4 despatching cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry to County Durham last year as part of his TV series on contemporary masculinity All Man, to save north-eastern young working class men from their self-harming, emotionally-blocked ways with his colourful tapestries, outrageous pottery and male feminism.

wrote in The Telegraph at the time about some of the patronising southern assumptions behind the documentary and London-based media in general. How in fact the region has been in many at the cutting edge of changing masculinity in the UK – a post-industrial laboratory for both metrosexuality and spornosexuality. And while it’s true that the NE has some of the highest levels of male suicide in the UK, I have a hunch this probably has something do with the fact the NE also has the highest levels of male unemployment.

In addition to Blanchard’s research, a larger pioneering study of several working class sixth form colleges in the south of England by McCormack a few years ago found similar touchy-feely anti-homophobic behaviour amongst the majority of male students.

There’s abundant evidence, if you want to see it, that most of the younger generation of males are much more at ease with themselves – and with other males – than previous generations. Including Perry’s generation, who despite or maybe because of his cross dressing and feminism, often comes across as possibly the most heterosexual man in the world.

Or this old bugger, for that matter: I still struggle putting an ‘x’ at the end of text messages – young straight men today can’t stop with them.

As an example of emotional openness, the study cites a student, Jayden, whose offer of a date has been knocked back by a girl. ‘“I’m gutted to be honest. I mean, I really care about her. We’re good friends, but I wanted to be more than that, and she doesn’t. Honest, I’m proper gutted.” Instead of telling him to ‘man up’, his chums offered their support and sympathised with him. “I know mate, you’ll be gutted. We’re here for you, though.”

The masculinity that many middle-aged commentators blithely bang on about as being ‘toxic’ or ‘in crisis’ or ‘default’ – and somehow universal and monolithic – is probably the masculinity of their own youth, projected blithely onto today’s youth, whether or not it has any relevance.

Even in what many in the south would see as the ‘butch’ and ‘backwards’ north east, traditional masculinity is increasingly a ‘niche’, almost lonely affair. Only thirteen of the one hundred male students were categorised as embodying an ‘orthodox’ form of masculinity. These boys disliked ‘out there gays’, and what they saw as feminine behaviour in boys, distancing themselves from the gay students.

In fact, they distanced themselves from most of the college – completely avoiding the touchy-feely common room and secluding themselves in a classroom on the other side of the school. They also distanced themselves from one another – no hugging, or touching, except for play fights.

But as further evidence of how much has changed, even this ‘orthodox’, retrosexual masculinity thought overt homophobia ‘mean’. Their use of anti-gay terms was strictly saved for one another, to police their ‘soppy’ behaviour: “I called Ross a ‘poof’ cause we were talking about girls and he said he loved someone.”

Of these thirteen ‘trad’ boys, nine were members of the college’s rugby team – perhaps because then they did at least get to touch one another on the pitch. The rugby coach seemed to be an old skool guy himself, over-fond of the phrase ‘man up’, telling one injured player: “You’ll just have to man up and get on with it. We’re a man down here.”

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