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Bench Press and Belligerence: The Plight of Masculinity

By James M. Heffernan, Contributing Opinion Writer
James M. Heffernan ’24’s column appears on alternate Thursdays.

I don’t like the term “toxic masculinity,” or the concept of “masculinity” in general. Masculinity itself perpetuates a rigid idea of what being a man actually involves, and its involvement in the term “toxic masculinity” further suggests that your very identity as a man has the potential to be damaging, as if your gender is an excuse for harmful behavior: “It wasn’t my fault for acting this way, because that’s what being a man, and being masculine, entails.”

If what makes a man different from a woman is his masculinity and lack of femininity, then it feels wrong to suggest that what makes a man a man can be something negative.

Of course, I understand that the context in which the phrase “toxic masculinity” is used is to critique certain behaviors associated with men rather than gender-distinctive personality traits. I don’t intend to argue that these behaviors aren’t “toxic,” but I believe it’s important to clarify what masculinity is, speaking from what I know as a guy, and knowing the impact this term can have on mental health.

Masculinity, the way it has been advertised to me, encompasses characteristics such as muscularity, aggressiveness, stoicism, etc., and it’s hard to come up with an argument against their inclusion. In my experience, I’ve witnessed many of these qualities more commonly in men than women, and if someone approached me on the street and randomly described a person who possesses these traits, I’d be much more inclined to guess they were describing a man than a woman in those few short seconds before I ran away, regretting having ever visited Australia.

But the problem I find with masculinity and femininity is that they’re (very) imperfect generalizations. The traits I mentioned are not exclusive to men, nor are they present in every man. So, the question is, should masculinity as a whole be defined by traits that are common but not universal?

If genders are to be differentiated by traits perceived to be common, then femininity, and by extension, being a woman might be defined by traits like beauty, passivity, sensitivity, and docility. As if a woman couldn’t possess the traits of strength or assertiveness. The same problem paints masculinity as incompatible with feminine traits. Which would be bad news for me as a die-hard Katy Perry fan (by the way, if you have a problem with any of her bangers, you need more than a mental health column). Even worse for a man who favors de-escalating and avoiding violence, or a woman who acts boldly and audaciously. Is he less a man, and she less a woman?

People should be defined by their characteristics, not by how these characteristics contribute to or infringe upon a person’s adherence to gender-based expectations. Being nurturing shouldn’t make a man less of a man because it contradicts the traits assigned to masculinity; it should just make him a nurturing person. And if a man cries, that shouldn’t make him less of a man; it should make him a real human being. Otherwise, I’d have stopped being a man 16 re-watches of Gladiator ago.

I realize I’m saying this to people who likely agree with me, and who are even stronger advocates against “gender-izing” than I am. But to tie this back to mental health, I think it’s important that people can act how they want to act, and appear how they want to appear, without feeling in conflict with societal expectations.

I see guys I know acting inauthentically just to conform to these expectations of “manly” traits, or becoming possessed by improving their appearance to more closely resemble the physical image associated with masculinity. If I ever speak with my friends about men’s mental health, inevitably the topic of masculinity arises, and how its expectations of resilience, toughness, and a “keep it to yourself” attitude make even just having these conversations harder to do, let alone actually talking about your issues.

I’m left worrying about the mental toll pursuing these ideals takes on the guys I know — contorting themselves to fit these expectations — knowing at the same time how the very same expectations affect me. I’d be lying if I said that when I talk to people, I’m completely comfortable being vulnerable, or that when I work out, it isn’t sometimes motivated by aspiring towards this image. After all, if that’s what it means to be masculine, that’s what you must attain in order to be a man. I expect the experience, in this regard, isn’t too different for women.

I believe you should aspire to be who you want relative to the attributes you value and those you don’t, to the best of your ability ignoring how these attributes would be distinguished in terms of femininity and masculinity. It’s an unnecessary pressure, and personally, I have a lot of respect for people bold enough to act in disregard of these distinctions. It’s the kind of person I’d like to be — and I hope one day, I can drive through the streets blasting “Firework,” window rolled down, and not feel like any less of a man for it.

James M. Heffernan ’24’s column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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