Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Masculinity is toxic. Men don’t have to be

"Another kiss! Another kiss!" my son yelled the other morning, banging on the window to get his dad's attention. My husband paused his morning commute to stand in full of view of our neighbours, a grown man blowing kisses to a giggling three-year-old boy.

It warmed my heart, and not just because these are the people I love most in the world. As the daily news disintegrates into a horror show of dark male power, I'm desperate for reassurance of men's humanity, and that the boy I'm raising has a whole, healthy future.

Masculinity's maw is eating us all alive, with the Harvey Weinstein scandal revealing a fresh set of bite marks. Allegations of harassment or assault now face director James Toback, former Amazon Studios CEO Roy Price, former Just for Laughs president Gilbert Rozon, New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh, Gavin Baker and Robert Chow of Fidelity Investments … the list grows longer as I type this.

Story continues below advertisement

Read also: Please turn down the volume on the outrage machine

Many of the names aren't surprises: it's pathetic that it took Condé Nast so long to cut ties with the photographer Terry Richardson. It's also revolting that the singer R. Kelly continues to be celebrated despite the decades of allegations against him. Forget bad apples: That Fox is willing to rehire Bill O'Reilly after he paid out $32-million (U.S.) to just one of his many accusers shows just how rotten this tree's roots are.

While the disbelieving often argue that such powerful men have no need to force anyone to do their sexual bidding, the truth is that exercising their power is their very motivation. That includes self-declared assailant U.S. President Donald Trump, who is gleefully decimating laws that protect women's rights and has nominated a proud anti-LGBTQ bigot as a judge.

The common phrase for these behaviours is "toxic masculinity," the stale idea that humanity's pinnacle is a merciless, power-hungry straight white dude. Today, a successful adult needs to have a blend of qualities that used to be gendered – whether that's the formerly "feminine" ability to nurture or the supposedly "masculine" trait of financially supporting a family, which seems to have left poison as the last vestige of exclusively male identity.

"The definition of masculinity has changed over time, and in 2017 it's somewhat regressive," says Dr. William Ming Liu, editor of the American Psychological Association journal Men and Masculinity.

A professor of counselling psychology at the University of Iowa, Dr. Liu prefers the phrase "dominant masculinity" to describe a form of alpha manhood that demands men extract submission from women, be emotionally removed but hypersexual and in control "everywhere they go."

He speaks of "masculinities," plural, and says that the 1990s and early 2000s revealed greater possibilities. As gay and transgender identities became more mainstream, many straight guys were proudly well-groomed "metrosexuals." Women fared well in business and the military, and for a while, cisgendered men seemed to be coping alright with the change.

Story continues below advertisement

We're often told that the resurgence of dominant masculinity came alongside the Great Recession, driven by the often-invoked "working-class man." Rural, white and adrift in a new economy where his wife earns more than he does, he's susceptible to populist messages that his nostalgia could actually become reality.

While I'm sure this guy exists, another type of man has been responsible for much of this era's ugliest vitriol – the one behind Gamergate, Uber's sexual-harassment lawsuit and other Silicon Valley abuses. Empowered after centuries of having sand kicked in their faces, too many tech geeks are asserting their newfound dominance over women repeatedly and repulsively. Their rise shows that there is no one type of man having trouble negotiating the space between archaic ideals and modern reality.

Deep down, the Geek knows that truly dominant masculinity is probably never available to him – its elusive nature is what makes it addictive, and mean. Another hypocrisy was revealed by the actor Terry Crews, who recently shared his own story of sexual harassment, about having his genitals groped by a Hollywood executive at a party.

Crews is intensely muscular, so overtly so that his frame is regularly played to comic effect on his television show Brooklyn Nine Nine. But as a black man, he knew that responding to the assault with physical strength wasn't an option – as he put it on Twitter, "I WOULD BE IN JAIL." This is how dominant masculinity encourages men to assert control over others themselves, by punishing them for disrupting the social order.

But Mr. Crews did disrupt it, using words instead of violence, saying out loud that he felt "shame" and was "hopeless." In making his vulnerability public, he showed true bravery, a type for which men often go unrewarded. Rejecting masculinity allowed him to be a grown man and, more importantly, a full human.

Clinton lauds women's courage in wake of Weinstein allegations (The Canadian Press)
Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Journalist and editor

Denise Balkissoon is an editor in the Globe’s Life section and a columnist in Comment. The National Magazine Award-winning writer is also a co-founder of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the Greater Toronto Area. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨