Just what is “toxic masculinity”? Which destructive and antisocial behaviors are presented as “manly” and are excused with the adage “boys will be boys”? Is critiquing these behaviors tantamount to attacking manhood itself? How can we go about critiquing said behaviors without seeming to attack manhood itself? Plenty of us have been scrambling for answers to these questions since Gillette aired its now infamous commercial “The Best Men Can Be” and set off a hailstorm of controversy.
I hadn’t planned to address this issue in my blog, directly at least, until a scene from the most recent episode of Masterpiece Theatre’s Victoria started me thinking about where toxic masculinity might come from, and how difficult it might be to root out.
Victoria showcases the stories not only of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert but a cross- section of people, nobles and commoners and servants, powerful and powerless, whose lives orbit and/or intersect with theirs. New to this season is Sophie, Duchess of Monmouth. A loving and devoted mother, Sophie worries about how much time she’s spending away from her children while she’s attending the Queen and is desperate for any kind of contact with them. Toward the end of the episode, we see her reunite with her little boy, and we hear him declare how happy he is to have the chance to spend some time with her at last. Then her husband appears and puts an end to the tender scene. He sends the boy away and tells Sophie that her “mollycoddling” will render their son unfit to be the next Duke. The time has come, in short, for the mother to step back from her active role in raising the boy and let men take over.
Examples of this once-common idea in action can be found everywhere, from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (in which a drunk and dissolute father seeks to instruct his tiny son in the “art” of ignoring and looking down on women, including his mother) to the 1950s big-screen potboiler Home From the Hill (in which Robert Mitchum plays a father who decides that too much time with and guidance from his wife has made their teenage son “weak,” and advises her to take up a hobby because “from here on out, that boy’s mine”) to Sharon Shinn’s underrated fantasy series The Twelve Houses (in which, when asked whether her two sons provide any consolation, an abused wife says her sons belong to their father, adding that they’ve had no interest in her since they could first hold a sword). Emotional ties between mothers and sons must be severed, or at least gravely loosed, as soon as possible so the boys can move into exclusively masculine spheres. A boy can only “become a man” if he is separated from women. If interactions with Mom are not reduced or even eliminated — well, you know what happens to “Mama’s boys.” At best, they turn into “sissies.” At worst, they turn into Norman Bates.
As I think about this supposed necessity of driving a wedge between mother and son — and by extension, any other female mentor and any space/environment perceived as “feminine” — I can’t help wondering, is this where it starts? Or how it has started for hundreds of years, the ripple effects of which we still feel today? Healthy interactions with the mother and/or other female elders could surely do as much as anything to help boys grow into young men who see women as people with minds and hearts and ideas that matter. Yet when those interactions are cut off in the name of “becoming a man,” should it surprise us when boys grow into young men who view women as a puzzling separate species? Not quite human, or perhaps a little less than human?
Times have changed. The idea that it’s imperative for the growing boy to be separated from the company of women and girls so that he can become a “proper man” is no longer as commonly accepted as it once was. Children’s and middle-grade stories frequently model strong friendships between boys and girls; even when the protagonist is a boy, like, say, Harry Potter, the female friend gets to be part of the action rather than cheering the hero on from the sidelines. The concept of “No Girls Allowed” has gone out of fashion, at least in the stories we tell about childhood. That’s progress, to be sure, even though descriptions of healthy and functional mother-son relationships remain practically non-existent in pop culture. Plenty of parents are raising their boys to view girls as potential friends and partners in adventure rather than as alien incomprehensible creatures. So I do have some hope for future generations.
But the past casts a very long shadow, still affecting the ways in which we view ourselves and each other. If I had to give toxic masculinity a nutshell definition, I’d say it’s a belief that simply being a cisgender male makes you more important, more valuable, and worthier of respect than those who are not. And progress notwithstanding, the world still offers plenty of choice tidbits to feed this idea.
When convicted rapists serve little or no jail time, and when judges and commentators fret over what will become of man-boys like Brock Turner and the Steubenville, Ohio rapists while expressing no concern at all for the fates of their victims, the message is clear: A boy’s or man’s future is worth far more than that of a woman or girl.
When people circle the proverbial wagons to protect powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, and R. Kelly from any consequences of their treating women and girls like sexual appliances even though they’re fully aware of the extent of these men’s reprehensible behavior — and thus make it possible for those men to get away with this behavior for years, even decades — what does that say but, The powerful man is more valuable and more deserving of protection than the women he’s exploiting?
When, in the midst and in the aftermath of the excruciating (whichever side you’re on) Brett Kavanaugh hearings, talking heads warn mothers to worry that their sons will face false accusations of sexual assault, yet can’t find it in their hearts to give even a passing mention of the dangers daughters face in a world where Brock Turners and R. Kellys still lurk, it’s hard not to hear, Mothers, put your sons first. Daughters come a distant second. (This TED Talk offers a disturbing example of what can happen when mothers internalize this “boys are better” message.)
The problem of toxic masculinity (or any other toxicity that results from someone taking a hand they were dealt at birth as a badge of honor and importance) is too entrenched to be solved by one ad or even an awesome classic R&B hit by the Four Tops. There’s no quick fix. The problem will recede bit by bit, as long-term abusers of women are finally called to account, and as more parents and other mentors help their sons grow into men who view others as just as valuable as themselves.
It’s in our hands.