Madeleine Kearns

‘Toxic masculinity’ is a toxic phrase

'Toxic masculinity' is a toxic phrase
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To tackle London’s murder problem, Sarah Jones, Labour Party and Croydon Central MP, told the BBC that a ‘public health approach’ is needed. This, she says, involves going into schools and teaching ‘what it is to be a man.’ Quite so. Masculinity can and ought to be taught. But is this really a job for schools?

A recent article in the New York Times, entitled, ‘Boys to Men: Teaching and Learning About Masculinity in an Age of Change’ thinks so. It discusses how to address what is often referred to as ‘toxic masculinity’ - a phrase applied to the notion of ‘manning up’, ‘growing a pair’; the idea that men are socially conditioned to be aggressive and dominant.

The NYT article has some interesting ideas on how to go about tackling this menace:

...we begin with the idea that sex — the anatomy with which one is born — does not predetermine gender identity — one’s sense of being male, female or another gender — or gender expression — the way one shows gender to the world.

Fascinating. Then:

...take a moment to have students write anonymously about and then, perhaps, discuss this question: Why might this [masculinity] be a challenging issue to talk about in school?

Why indeed. Next:

Based on what students say, you and the class may set up discussion protocols for this unit.

And so on.

It is difficult to determine what it is that ‘perhaps’ or ‘might’ or ‘may’ be being taught (let alone learned) here. Indeed the new masculinity is a handbook of gobbledygook, hence utterly uninspiring.

That masculinity is in crisis is irrefutable. Male problems are well documented. Worldwide, boys are 50 percent less likely than girls to meet basic proficiency standards in readings, maths, and science. Western sperm counts have halved in the last forty years. Men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women.

But the solution ought to start at home -- with role models. Take fatherhood, for instance, the quintessential male experience. Social scientists at Princeton, Cornell and the University of California have found that father absence is not just correlated with, but directly causes negative outcomes. But as far as the cultural benchmarks go, we’re now more familiar with the maddeningly bad dads of Mad Men, than, say, George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life.

It’s self-defeating to ignore -- worse still, to justify -- this omission. In fact, young men are so desperate for inspiration, that when someone even mentions their potential for strength, they become an instant hero. Like Jordan Peterson.

Moreover, the political correctness only makes matters worse. In Cathy Newman’s famous ‘so you’re saying’ interview, she was struck by Peterson’s obvious statement that male strength is desirable. She said that weak men may actually be preferable. ‘I mean maybe that’s how [some] women want their relationships,’ is what she said. Now, why would such a smart, strong woman say such a silly thing?

Hollywood knows only too well. Earlier this year, at the Academy Awards ceremony, in an unlikely moment of genuine insight, Jimmy Kimmel drove home a similar idea. He said that the best man in Hollywood is an inanimate trophy, Oscar, because ‘he keeps his hands where you can see them, never says a rude word, and literally doesn’t have a penis.’

That was just a joke. A real thigh-slapper, provided it’s one’s own thigh. But as jokes often do, his comment captures the subtle message emitted to boys in our culture: That on some level, we consider their neutering to be part of the solution.

In reality, the opposite is true. What’s badly needed today is something more akin to Kipling’s vision of masculinity, as it appears in his poem If.  This is a conditional masculinity -- it demands good behaviour.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And -- which is more -- you’ll be a man my son.

Of course, anything taken to excess becomes a vice. But Kipling’s masculinity brims with high expectations and champions fatherhood. What we need today is less talk about ‘toxic masculinity’ and more mention of men who use their privilege, in whatever form it comes, for the service of others. Men like the French police officer Arnaud Beltrame, who, recently, voluntarily swapped places with a hostage during a terrorist attack.

For every Don Draper we need a thousand more George Baileys. But we’ve rather inadvertently ‘thrown the boy out with the bathwater’, as has been suggested. No doubt this will worsen the same problem that it is trying to solve -- an epidemic of lost boys.