#ThisGuyCan – A Challenge to Toxic Masculinity

Picture of me, taken by my friend Lisa in Australia, where I am wearing one of her T-shirts proclaiming 'Princesses Have More Fun', with four cartoonish images of princesses' heads on it. The most disturbing thing about it is that the t-shirt fits me. Also, moobs.

This post, about toxic masculinity, is the first of a new section of my website where I concentrate more on political thought around travel than on the travel itself.

See, I’ve always been quite a political person (Full Disclaimer: I am currently a member of the Green Party of England & Wales); but while you get a sense of it in some of my travel writing, up until now it’s been more that many of the places I go tend have a strong political component to them anyway. This means that while my writing about them is influenced by my own beliefs and opinions, it’s rare I state them openly and directly.

In late 2017, I was having a conversation with a friend on Twitter about men – I’ve no idea what prompted it, probably just an idle thought, and I had a bit of a rant to her, it’s fair to say. Her response was that she helped run a political podcast (“(Left) Ungagged”) and this was exactly the sort of thing they were interested in people recording for them.

Anyway, ever since then I’ve recorded a few pieces for them, mostly, you may be unsurprised to know, about the overlap between Travel and Politics; regardless of anything else, ultimately travel is a political act (from international borders, through the ethics of travelling to particular places, even down to fundamental things like the ability to travel at all). As an aside, this is why, on my own pod, I do a regular topic that’s much ‘deeper’ than the others.

The first piece I recorded for them however wasn’t about travel, but more about what became known as “toxic masculinity”, and how it felt from a male point of view. It was originally created around September 2017, just after the whole Harvey Weinstein story broke. In the light of the recent advert by Gillette, it seemed an appropriate time to start my political section with the same topic as I started my podding life. I’ve edited and updated it from the original, which you can hear here (starts at 52m 25s). And yes, I do pod for them under a false name. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to separate out the different parts of my online life, but like many ideas good and bad, time has suggested a different plan.

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#ThisGirlCan. Short, pithy, effective. A great example of how a simple theme can be used to unite so many people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexualities, and abilities. It demonstrates the differences between individual women but collectively it shows that despite any of these differences, each individual woman can succeed on their own terms, and it doesn’t make them any less of a woman if their individual goals are different. Collectively, it promotes all women and allows them to belong; it empowers each and every woman to be the best they can, without reference to other women’s aims, abilities, and drive.

To put it simply, #ThisGirlCan means that every woman is, regardless of anything else, a valid, accepted, acceptable, woman.

There is no male equivalent of this. This is a problem.

There is a perfectly acceptable argument that says there doesn’t need to be, that the point of #ThisGirlCan is because the nature of society is one that drives female empowerment into the ground, and women need that specific boost to highlight their individual successes and needs, ‘by women for women’, and not be hidden by the toxic masculinity of patriarchy.

This would be true, except for one thing. Men.

The problem is, as I see it, how men are portrayed and how, more importantly, how men portray themselves. There is an unwritten set of conduct amongst men, that forces them to act in a certain way, and any deviation from this is seen as ‘unmanly’. You can see this any time a traditional masculine stereotype is challenged – not just the recent Gillette advert but pretty much throughout history; it is, indeed, one of the driving plot points of the film “Billy Elliot”. In truth it’s much older than that – phrases in the language used so often they’ve become cliches, yet still feel unchallengeable: “boys don’t cry”, “stiff upper lip”, “be a man”, “man up”. Alternatives are almost never shown in pop culture, and when they are, they’re either criticised within the medium, or outside in the mainstream society/media.

I’ve been told on several occasions, by male friends even, that I’m not a “red-blooded male”. They couldn’t generally elaborate on what that means, but I think we all know. It means a strong sexual desire, often dominant. It means a healthy interest in ‘male’-assumed pastimes like football, boxing, cars, lager, female models. I once told a work colleague that I found the music video to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” to be very boring as it was simply “three women dancing, nothing actually happens”. His response was “oh, but what women!”.

This sort of attitude is an example of why patriarchy exists. It’s how people like Harvey Weinstein, like Bill Cosby, could get away with so much for so long. “Why did no-one say something; they must have known?” Well, yes, yes they probably did. But challenging masculinity like that, when you’re a man, is something that cuts to the very core of what it means to be a “man”, because we don’t have any visible alternative. Men assume men will be like them. To reveal yourself to be otherwise makes you ‘less of a man’ in their eyes – cue the dismissal of men who challenge, or who have alternative interests, as ‘queer’, ‘pooftah’, or ‘nonces’; in their eyes we’re ‘merely women with dicks’ and therefore not to be trusted, not to be listened to. Now I’m not one for peer approval (ffs!), but I imagine a lot of other men are. Especially if they’re not ‘alpha males’, they’ll tend to get ‘quietened out’ by the more assertive men who are the power-hungry lot we’re trying to fight against.

Note also the sheer numbers of male mental health sufferers, male runaways, and male suicides, often of people who know they’re different from the ‘standard view of masculinity’ but who can’t challenge their peers, but equally can’t cope with living a lie, and feel that running away, or ending their lives, is preferable to either facing up to society, or having to hide themselves within it.

We need young men to know they don’t have to conform to one particular ideal of masculinity. We need illustrations, examples, of men who don’t conform to strict gender norms. I’m not talking here of the likes of David Bowie or Eddie Izzard, as they take the idea of masculinity and completely subvert it – that doesn’t help the ranks of everyday men leading ordinary mundane lives who don’t want to rock the boat too much. It’s not just strict gender norms in the sense of pushing the limits on what’s acceptable in terms of gender itself, but also in behaviour. Highlighting that you don’t need to be an alpha male. You don’t need to be the lion. You don’t need to spend your time trying to be “funny” and make yourself the centre of attention. You don’t need to be controversial to be a man. You don’t need to be a dick to be a man. You don’t need to be a pisshead. You don’t need to like sports. You don’t need to feel like you have to dominate women all the time. You don’t need to wear a suit. You don’t need to always have the last word. You’re still a man.

People like Russell Howard – an everyday bloke but not … creepy. Andy Murray too.

Related is what is commonly known as ‘white male privilege’, I can’t hide this fact so I’m not going to; it’s uncomfortable to bring it up because I know it just makes me sound elitist, but I think sometimes I guess I may need to use it to my / our / everyone’s advantage:

I am white. I am male, I am middle-class. I am affluent. I went to a private school. I had a slightly unorthodox family in childhood but it was probably even more “good” than being in a two-parent family never mind a one-parent family. I can easily pass for both Christian and Heterosexual. In essence, I am “the establishment”. I’m closer to being “Tory Boy” than probably most of your friends.

And yet. And yet I’m not. But the actions of people like Trump, Weinstein, even Saville, etc reflect badly on people like me. I have much more in common with them in terms of background, lifestyle etc, than most people do – they give people like me a bad name and I don’t really know what to do about it.

The issue that this relates to my previous comment is, because of our similarities, it’s hard for me to come across as different. Because there are no adverts, no role models, well no that’s not quite true but certainly no mental stimuli, to say that middle-class middle-aged white men can be anything other than party animals and misogynistic letches. If you’re not “one of them”, then as I say, you’re not a man. Until that changes, until men feel like they can speak out and challenge what it means to ‘be a man’, that masculinity is more than the narrow path that’s common laid out, then people like Weinstein will always get away with it.

There’s of course another aspect to this, and that’s how women see men. One of the more controversial hashtags of recent times has been #NotAllMen – an attempt by men to defend themselves against accusation and distrust of men by women; men can’t seem to believe that women don’t trust them because they’re the ‘nice guys’ and that not every man is a bastard out to get them.

While statistically true (the majority of men don’t harass, abuse, rape or murder people), it’s not a terribly constructive way of dealing the issue. Rather, it’s an attempt to change the terms of reference of the debate from one of women going ‘there is a problem with (some) men here’ to one of men going ‘how dare you tar us all with the same brush; it’s basically your fault for finding the bad men’.

Note the brackets around ‘some’, by the way. Men tend to read any statement by women about men as applying to the whole of the species; in reality it’s a bit like someone saying ‘I’m a bit scared of spiders because they’re venomous’. They know the majority of spiders are pretty harmless, but they don’t know which ones they are, so for protection they avoid all of them until they learn more and feel comfortable around a specific individual.

And therein lies an issue. For all of those men saying “I’m a nice guy’ – prove it. Prove to the world you’re worth trusting. Prove to the world you’re not just saying it to get inside a woman’s knickers. See, you might well be a nice guy – indeed I am sure you are – but the only person in the world who knows that right now … is you. I know I’d never intentionally make a woman feel uncomfortable, but I equally know that any random woman I see on a train, or in a restaurant, or passing by in the street, doesn’t know this – the only thing they have to go on is that I’m a man and therefore a potential threat just by existing. And the longer that the male patriarchy exists in its current form, holding us down as well as women, and the longer we as men don’t challenge it, the longer this situation, and these feelings, will stay and the harder they will be to knock down. For each day that men in powerful positions use their privilege to their advantage and repress everyone, men and women, who don’t follow their tone, the more entrenched it gets.

Toxic masculinity thus affects men in two ways – directly, because men are peer-pressurised to meet the ‘male standard’, and criticised when they don’t – and indirectly, because the actions of the ‘alpha males’ affect how the world sees all men, not just those specific individuals. It’s up to us to change this. Ready, Player One?

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One Comment

  1. Lisa

    Good discussion. (Side note, toxic masculinity as a term is older than 2017).

    The example that I always think of, is an old acquaintance talking about her two sons. She described them as regular boys who always want to play rowdy. I said my stepson never played like that. She said, well, he is gay (which is true). But that means what? If you’re gay, you’re not a real boy? There is only one way to be a real boy, and a real man?

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