How to Detox Masculinity

How to Detox Masculinity

Poem by Nayyirah Waheed

Poem by Nayyirah Waheed

Growing up as a sensitive youth who attended a conservative all-boys school, I have often felt out of place amongst my fellow men. Popular television shows like Entourage and movies like The Hangover showed me the ways in which guys were supposed to connect with each other and interact with women, but I struggled to relate to the misogynistic behaviors depicted on the screen and echoed by the men around me. Today, as a writer of films and television, I see the power that popular culture has in shaping our conceptions of manhood; and I believe it’s our responsibility as content creators to detoxify the destructive messaging that has pervaded mainstream media for far too long. 

The term “toxic masculinity” is being used more and more these days, but few are defining exactly what it means and why it must be challenged. So let’s take a look at the startling facts of some recent psychological studies to help shed light on the damaging expectations ingrained by historical patriarchy.

Just this year, the American Psychological Association released new guidelines for practice with men and boys, with more than 40 years of research showing that “traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly.”

For the inward echoes, we need only look to a 2018 CDC report, which revealed that suicide rates among American men are over three times that of women. This imbalance was largely attributed to internalized standards that men shouldn’t express emotions or show vulnerability, thus leading to self-destructive behaviors in lieu of seeking help.

The outward echoes of toxic masculinity can be seen in a 2018 United Nations study on global homicide patterns, which revealed that “intimate partner violence against women and girls is rooted in widely-accepted gender norms about men’s authority… and men’s use of violence to exert control over women. Research shows that men and boys who adhere to rigid views of gender roles and masculinity… are more likely to use violence against a partner.”

 These timely studies amount to a harsh reality that toxic masculinity is killing men and women alike; and that its deadly inheritance is deeply rooted in cultural norms. In order for society to evolve past these damaging traditional viewpoints, we need to look at how portrayals of men in the media have perpetuated harmful behaviors and offer positive alternatives to content creators.

To combat toxic masculinity in popular culture and beyond, here are a few actionable insights for writers:

  1. Show men crying, expressing vulnerability, and seeking help for emotional distress.

  2. Model male characters who are not controlling with their partners, but rather supportive of women’s freedom and independence.

  3. Depict men offering emotional support to each other and holding a safe space for vulnerability.

  4. Avoid glorifying “boys clubs” that encourage traditional masculine repression and misogynistic exclusion. 

  5. Offer representations of equal partnerships where men are not the assumed authority.

  6. Demonstrate how men can stand up to other men who are engaged in toxic rhetoric or behavior against women.

  7. Portray male-female friendships that are not rooted in sexual prospects.

  8. Highlight vulnerability as a male character’s strength, rather than portraying it as an emasculating weakness or the butt of a joke.


It’s time to detox masculinity. Starting with the screen.


Brian McAuley, MFA

CSS Collaborator

WGA Screenwriter

Adjunct Professor, Columbia University School of the Arts

Media and Relational Aggression Among Youth

Media and Relational Aggression Among Youth

As I greeted my fourth grader off the bus the other day, we began our regular after-school chat between mouthfuls of his afternoon snack.

“What happened at school today?” I ask. “Madison got in trouble with the teacher for being mean to Emily,” he says.

“Oh. What was Madison doing?”

“Well, we were playing this game at recess, but Madison kept changing the rules so that Emily would always lose, or would not know how to play. Emily started to cry and then the teachers came and sent Madison inside.”

It sounds like my son has a mean girl in his class. These types of “mean girl” behaviors—social exclusion, and name calling---are known as relational aggression. I’ve spent the last decade researching this type of behavior among young people and despite the reputation for relational aggression being something that “girls do,” research shows that boys can be just as mean with their friends as girls.

So where do children learn these kinds of relationally aggressive behaviors?

As one might expect, children learn from behaviors modeled to them (e.g. at home or at school). But this also includes behaviors modeled via media content. Indeed, my research demonstrates that exposure to televised relational aggression is related to children’s use of relational aggression at school.

Unfortunately, relational aggression is quite prevalent in children’s television programs. A study I conducted with Dr. Barbara Wilson, found that 92% of 150 shows that are popular among elementary school children included some form of relational aggression.  

Moreover, the ways in which the relational aggression was portrayed increased the chances that children would imitate it. For example, relational aggression was often enacted by attractive perpetrators, who were rarely punished for the actions, and a majority of the relationally aggressive interactions were meant to be funny, which further minimized any potential consequences to the victims.

This is particularly problematic because follow-up studies have shown that relationally aggressive characters tend to be well-liked by children viewers because they are attractive and funny. When children like characters who do antisocial things, they are more likely to excuse the aggression, and as a result, more likely to report they would imitate the behaviors in the future. 

Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to how we feature relationally aggressive conflicts in children’s media representations.

Here are some actionable insights for storytellers:

  • When using a relationally aggressive plot point, show the consequences to the victim. Perhaps the victim can verbalize hurt feelings, or the consequences of a false rumor can be shown.

  • The perpetrator of the relational aggression should be punished in some way. An added bonus: there is research to show that viewers like seeing a disliked perpetrator getting what they deserve.

  • Avoid rewarding relationally aggressive behavior. For example, a verbal ‘put-down’ should not be used to get a laugh. These kinds of actions are easily imitated by young children, but they are not yet able to understand how and when such a joke should be used.

If storytellers could take some of these steps to avoid portraying relational aggression in an appealing light, it could go a long way in shaping how the millions of impressionable young viewers perceive relational aggression and their subsequent behavior. 


Nicole Martins, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Media at Indiana University

Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers


Flip the Script: Why It’s Time to Combat Gender Stereotypes of Boys

Child Reading

“I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons but it will never work unless we start to raise our sons more like our daughters.” Gloria Steinem

Did you know that 63% of men believe they are encouraged to seize sex whenever they can? The messages we send our boys are confusing and can result in grave misunderstandings, even among the best intentioned. The heterosexual script, a concept established in social science, plays out in real life AND plays out on screen, even in 2018.

  • Men Want Sex/ Women set limits

  • Men attract women through power/ Women attract men through sexiness

  • Men avoid commitment/ Women seek it

We pass on these gender stereotypes without recognizing our unconscious contribution to the formulaic scripts. And media outranks schools and parents as being sources of sex for young people.

By showing characters that don’t play into the stereotypes, our boys can embrace all sides of themselves. Here are some research based ideas on how to balanced gender roles for characters of all ages.

  1. Show boys and girls playing together because boys who have female friends are less likely to think of girls as sexual conquests.

  2. Show “tough” male characters being sensitive because role models are important, particularly for boys.

  3. Show boys doing housework. Girls still do 2 hours more than boys a week.

  4. Show girls making the first move, romantically and sexually, boys talking about love and girls buying flowers for boys.

It’s time to flip the script.

Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D.