Updated: Jul 7, 2020
As a man, I know that few people are asking for more male voices in conversations about toxic masculinity and abusive culture.
That said, I always aim to highlight constructive points that may be getting lost in the shuffle of social media and loud arguments at the dinner table.
It’s in that spirit I ask you to read this article. One year into the global #MeToo movement, we need to be willing to take a hard look at the way we’re talking about this.
For some, #NotAllMen was an attempt at reminding people that there are good men out there among the predators. For many, though, it rang hollow as a way to deflect from a needed conversation about toxic masculinity and the abuse that’s prevalent in society.
As a man, I agree that the conversation is long overdue. Too often, though, we end up concluding that toxic masculinity is a “male problem.” Or, to put it less delicately: “men are horrible, disgusting and can’t be trusted to change a system that benefits them.” That’s quoting no one in particular, mind you, but I think we’ve all heard something along those lines.
I get where this comes from, to be sure, but it’s a frankly unhelpful way to think about what #MeToo is supposed to accomplish.
I know this because toxic masculinity isn’t only something that results in lives lost or ruined. It permeates our culture, our entertainment and our livelihoods. Even as a straight white man, I don’t truly feel represented by a system that was created by and for straight white men.
Men are rightly having to come to grips with their own actions and how they affect the people in their lives. Men are rightly having to realize when their concept of “manliness” is innocent or harmful.
The point of addressing abuse isn’t that all men do these things, it’s that all men are raised in a system that breeds and shelters abusers.
The idea that men will be falsely accused by droves of attention-seeking women is just fear-mongering by the people who benefit from the harmful status quo.
But there is a very real fear that all men will be judged on the actions of the worst among us. I see and hear it constantly -- not because all men are pigs, but because we are all doing a poor job separating the cause of the problem from the people who are causing problems.
We don’t have a problem with men, we have a problem with the world men created - one we are all influenced by and contribute to.
I’ve no doubt learned toxic behavior from men and boys -- behavior that it’s incumbent on me to address. But I’ve also been taught toxic male behavior from another group: women.
Television and music, even those produced by women, encourage girls and women to find guys who ‘take charge’ and exude confidence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but you don’t have to delve too deeply to find examples that seem to encourage the very behavior we despise.
A show I rather like, “New Girl,” created by Elizabeth Meriwether, has an episode in which one female character says to a man, “There’s nothing less sexy than when a guy asks if he can kiss you.”
Another episode depicts a high school boy, who’s a founding member of his school’s safe sex group, as a whimpy annoyance. He’s told to “man up” when he asks a girl for consent multiple times before the act.
Now, I am NOT saying that it’s a woman’s fault, by desiring certain qualities, that a man assaults or harasses her. I'm also not saying that a comedy show should be our moral standard or that "New Girl" was trying to encourage toxic behavior.
My point is that it’s depictions like these that highlight the way we all tend to think about masculinity: in absolutes. This allows toxic masculinity -- all harmful gender norms for that matter -- to thrive.
We should all agree that men long ago shaped this narrative, but that doesn’t excuse each and every one of us from recognizing how we contribute to it.
Media is a mirror. If we don’t like what we see, we need to fix ourselves.
Another example of this is the mysterious facade that women’s needs and wants are too complex for men to understand or that men are too emotionally vacant to comprehend them.
Many of us, both men and women, are guilty of talking about men as though they have no self-control -- that they are unwilling or unable to change. We’ve all heard that “men think with their you-know-whats."
It’s a kind of faux-feminism that doesn’t realize its own hypocrisy. In relegating men to this, we are encouraging the same cycle to repeat itself over and over. I think that’s where the knee-jerk #NotAllMen reaction comes from, however indelicately or poorly timed it was said.
That tendency to lump all men into the toxic masculinity box can cause us to dismiss how men are also marginalized by this same culture.
I once told a female friend of mine that there are many times in my life where I’m told I’m not manly enough. Nearly every day, advertisements and social circles appeal to this inferiority, to coerce me into buying certain products, watching certain sports and caring less about my mental and physical well-being than I should.
There are certain things that society says straight men aren't allowed to do. That's changing, to be sure, but the struggle is nonetheless there.
My friend, without ill-intent, dismissed these feelings by saying I’m “an average guy.”
Whether this is what she meant or not, her tone suggested that I don’t really struggle with my own perception of masculinity. Or, at the very least, she was saying that it’s not something I should worry about.
She may have been right to point that out, however flippantly, but I wasn't asking for her take, I was telling her my reality.
Without thinking, my friend -- as many of us might -- didn’t take a second to see things from my perspective or to see why I was bringing it up. I wasn’t fishing for validation, I was describing how my own experiences with “masculinity” are a real and constant struggle.
No, it’s not the same as the abuse and trauma that women face at the hands of men. But the fact remains: I don’t see myself in a system that was designed to empower me. Many men don’t. The patriarchy isn’t just failing women, it’s failing all of us.
And I’m not asking for sympathy, only understanding.
When we act like someone’s struggles are insignificant, even if by comparison to others, we’re trading one blindness for another. We can’t ask for understanding from others while refusing to give it ourselves.
Just because my struggle as a man is different doesn’t make it less essential to the conversation. Look at all the men who are raised in a broken system and tell me that their experiences aren’t relevant to finding a solution.
If we are going to agree that toxic masculinity is the root of all these other problems, we need to be willing to take a candid look at how we are all affected by it and how we each take part in it.
There’s got to be a way to do that without allowing men, or anyone in power, to shirk the blame when they fail to act with basic human decency.
This isn’t a male problem, it’s a societal one. It’s one we all advance every single day without having to try.
That’s the thing about the status quo: it’s easy to maintain. What’s hard is seeing how our own behavior feeds the pattern.