On Tuesday, B&T published an opinion piece by controversial columnist Robert Strohfeldt titled “What Actually Is ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Anyway?” in relation to the recent Gillette campaign. It caused quite a stir among readers, both positive and negative. Here, one B&T reader (who has asked to remain anonymous) replies to the claims made in Strohfeldt’s article…
Robert Strohfeldt’s opinion piece “What Actually Is ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Anyway” was an inarticulate, illogical emotional outburst that completely failed to answer its own question, so let’s address this conundrum by doing it for him…
Let’s start with some basics:
Masculinity – a socially constructed concept that people selectively use to describe what a man should be and how he should act.
Note that “masculinity” has nothing to do with gender, gender identity, transgender or related issues. It is solely and wholly concerned with what a society (or parts of a society) conceive a “real man” to be. Across different societies and sub-groups there are different expectations of male personality traits and behaviour so there is no such thing as a “single definition” of masculinity.
Robert Strohfeldt’s ramblings about gender on birth certificates and allowing children to choose or change their gender are therefore completely irrelevant to a debate about masculinity. You don’t need to be biologically male or identify as male to be masculine. A woman can choose to act in a masculine fashion, and in fact when this occurs, it’s often perceived negatively in society.
For now, be clear that masculinity and biological gender are two totally separate issues. Masculinity literally is whatever it is defined to be – because it is a social construct and cannot exist with our societal definition, so it’s laughable to suggest that masculinity is not the problem, but its definition is the two are inextricable. If Strohfeldt means “maleness” is not the problem, but a particular definition of masculinity is, then I wholeheartedly agree with him – because some interpretations of masculinity are toxic.
Toxic masculinity – particularly negative traits linked with male behaviour, reinforced by a society that rewards these traits and discourages the opposite. Such traits and behaviour include:
- Repression of emotions, or appearing “cold” and “unemotional”, not crying or talking about feelings, fear of vulnerability;
- Anger as a normalised male emotion;
- A need to dominate/control others, especially women;
- Sexual entitlement and violence;
- Fragility of self, because self-worth derives from his power rather than his own person;
- Blaming women for feelings, actions, and consequences e.g. “she made me do it”;
- An ingrained belief that physical superiority is deserving of societal advantage;
- Mocking men who dare to be anything other than the above.
Nothing in this definition of toxic masculinity implies that being male (biological or otherwise) is itself toxic, or that being “manly” means being violent. There is no suggestion that all men exhibit this type of masculinity (and in fact, the Gillette ad acknowledges they do not, because it shows toxic males bullying non-toxic males). “Toxic masculinity” should not be conflated with “masculinity” or “manliness” because it is only one form of masculinity. No one is saying all men are toxic or that men are not capable of acting respectfully.
To help clarify a few other issues in Strohfeldt’s article, it’s useful to stop here and point out some more things that combating toxic masculinity does not involve:
- Combating toxic masculinity does not involve the assertion that women commit no crime, or violent crime. They do, and regrettably Strohfeldt’s daughter was a victim. But, statistically, male offenders in prison outnumber female offenders by 10:1, 90 per cent of all crime is committed by men, and 80 per cent of all violent crime is committed by men – there has to be a reason for the disparity, and a possible reason is an idea of masculinity that not only endorses but embraces violence and domination;
- Combating toxic masculinity is not the assertion that men cannot be the victims of crime. They can. But the perpetrators of most violence against men are also men. In fact, the only victim group that suffers more at the hands of men than women – is men. When men suffer domestic violence, the perpetrator is more often a male partner, or another man in the household (e.g. elder abuse), than a female partner. And even in cases of female violence against men, men often do not speak up – either because a culture of toxic masculinity has conditioned them to be tough and not “act like a girl”, or because of a false perception that male victims are not given adequate protection in criminal and family courts (these systems are failing everybody equally but that’s a whole other debate)
- Combating toxic masculinity does not maintain that some women do not lie, deceive, and cheat to achieve their own aims, because women can also display toxic personality traits (including those attributed to toxic masculinity)—however, I should qualify that statement with the caution that a man is more likely to be the victim of rape himself than he is to be the victim of a false rape allegation. The proportion of false accusations is overinflated;
- Combating toxic masculinity does not suggest that men and woman are physically equal. Strohfeldt has said men are stronger than women and, statistically, on average, that may be true. But so what? If anything, this just heightens the risk toxic masculinity poses to women. If men do not hold themselves and other men in check, how can women? With power comes responsibility!
- Combating toxic masculinity certainly does not purport that the majority of men are toxic—but it does suggest that the majority of certain problems are caused by toxic males and a society that accepts toxic masculinity as the status quo (even if the number of individual toxic males in the population is low).
Strohfeldt also seems to think that we are turning our backs on the old definition of “gentleman”. To some degree, he’s absolutely right. During the period of time throughout which the word “gentleman” was commonly understood to mean “a well-mannered man”, it was still considered perfectly socially acceptable for a man to return home to beat his wife or force her to have non-consensual sex – and still be considered a gentleman. During some of that time, it was even legal for him to do so. I don’t consider there is any place in 2019 for a “well-mannered” wife-beater or rapist. Good manners do not get you a pass.
So what does non-toxic masculinity look like?
- Acceptance of vulnerability and emotion (including crying!)
And what would define a non-toxic male?
- He knows his own worth and does not derive it from controlling or intimidating others
- He does not harass or objectify women
- He stands up to bullies
- He is a leader
- He controls his own anger – it does not control him
- He does not dominate through displays of violence or aggression or other controlling behaviours
- He is intolerant of objectifying or harassing women.
There’s a lot of guff in Strohfeldt’s article that just defies any explanation – weird ramblings about the changing roles of men and women which seem at odds with his insistence on the old “gentleman” definition, some whacky statements about how we tolerate Muslims mistreating women, and lastly a tangent about white supremacism, none of which have anything to do with toxic masculinity, and so I won’t address them, except to note the lack of overall coherence Strohfeldt’s arguments carry as a result of these digressions.
Bizarrely, by the end of his convoluted and nonsensical “contrarian” diatribe, Strohfeldt has come to the conclusion that a real man doesn’t assault or bully anyone, that he conducts himself with dignity, is kind and considerate, and steps in to take a stance against bullies.
Colour me confused, but isn’t that what Gillette said?
Hopefully now we’re all a little bit more enlightened and, armed with our new understanding of what toxic masculinity is—and what it’s not—we can all agree with Strohfeldt’s conclusion if not his reasoning.
As a final note, it is important to understand that many of Strohfeldt’s sentiments are not just “contrarian”, they are downright dangerous. Having them published on a respected (while occasionally irreverent) news site such as B&T carries the real risk that his comments will be given more credibility than they deserve.
There is nothing more heartbreaking for women who have been abused, assaulted, harassed or downtrodden to be told by another man if, and how, we should tell our own stories, or that millions of legitimate #metoo stories don’t matter because, on rare occasions, women have been horrible too.
In publishing Strohfeldt’s opinion piece with the caveat of “these are not necessarily the views of the publisher”, B&T and its editorial team became a silent bystander, allowing Strohfeld to co-opt a platform that is meant to be about advertising, media and marketing and turn it into a self-serving tirade about why society shouldn’t redefine masculinity to empower men, protect women and improve the lives of all of us.
Once upon a time we used to burn women at the stake on suspicion of witchcraft. We used to have slavery. We used to steal indigenous children from their families. Those things were not okay and we know that now. Society can get better from change.
And for that reason, I thank John and the team at B&T for publishing this response to the column, even if the subject matter has strayed far from this website’s advertising, media and marketing focus.
As marketers and media personnel, we have the huge potential to influence society. We can all be better.