How to Detox Masculinity
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:
Show men crying, expressing vulnerability, and seeking help for emotional distress.
Model male characters who are not controlling with their partners, but rather supportive of women’s freedom and independence.
Depict men offering emotional support to each other and holding a safe space for vulnerability.
Avoid glorifying “boys clubs” that encourage traditional masculine repression and misogynistic exclusion.
Offer representations of equal partnerships where men are not the assumed authority.
Demonstrate how men can stand up to other men who are engaged in toxic rhetoric or behavior against women.
Portray male-female friendships that are not rooted in sexual prospects.
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
Adjunct Professor, Columbia University School of the Arts