By Bart Magee, Ph.D.
In the weeks since the Parkland school massacre, many of us have been heartened by a renewed focus on the need for sensible gun control led by young survivors and other advocates. I also found myself intrigued by the public discourse that, understandably, seeks to explore the social and psychological underpinnings of violence. Within that discussion, we are hearing a growing chorus of voices calling out “toxic masculinity” not only as a root cause of gun violence (an estimated 97% of mass shooters are men), but also as a contributor to a range of social ills, from sexual abuse and domestic violence to trolling, harassment, and bullying. Writing in the Times, the comedian Michael Ian Black urges us to rescue boys who are trapped in an “outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.” Black and those who study masculinity note that a masculine gender role equating strength with dominance and vulnerability with shameful weakness leaves boys and men ill equipped to cope with a changing social climate in which white, heterosexual, men no longer rule with unquestioned authority. Cultural changes have allowed women, gay men, and people of color to gain social standing that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, while straight, white men are suffocating in their gender constriction and not adjusting well to the new world.
Traditional masculinity offers a limited range of responses for men facing disappointment or overwhelming challenges. They can toughen up and try harder, blame others for their situation or withdraw into resentment and rage. The need to appear tough and strong along with a coping strategy that utilizes both externalization (resentment and anger) and internalization (feelings of victimization and depression) creates a toxic and volatile mix. Now, pour that mixture into a culture that fetishizes guns as symbols of heroism, freedom, family protection, and individualism. Can we really be surprised when violent eruptions ensue?
A recasting of masculinity often involves promoting increased emotional flexibility, allowing men to experience vulnerable feelings, enhance their empathy, and reach out to others during difficult times. Such a model was recently discussed by Melanie MacFarland in Salon. MacFarland holds up Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as the example of a tender, caring, emotionally responsive man and the antidote to the one based on dominance and aggression. Many of other approaches take a similar tack, seeking to teach boys and men to embrace their softer sides and learn to respect women. And while it’s important to teach boys that it’s ok not to be dominating and it’s ok to express your feelings, we also don’t want to give boys and men the message that their competitive strivings, need for autonomy, and feelings of aggression are only bad or that their wishes to be tough and strong have no place in our society.
We know this well from our therapeutic work with young boys in our school program at Access Institute. Aggressive behavior may be defensive, reactive or mean-spirited, but not always. Boys often use their bodies in forceful ways and find pleasure in the experience of dominance or in vigorous contact. If those experiences are mutual, playful, and consensual they contribute to social and emotional growth. Hard, physical contact is often a form of communication and a way of connecting with others. If adults are too quick to label these behaviors only as “mean” or “thuggish” not only do boys feel misunderstood, they may start to conform to those negative attributions. Our therapists also learn quickly that coaxing boys into talking about their feelings or telling them to be “nice” only goes so far, and that helping them to balance assertiveness with empathy starts with making real contact with their harder and softer sides.
And there’s hope here. More and more we are seeing models of masculinity that balance force and strength with the ability to yield, to respect women, and hold to an unwavering moral compass. In the wildly popular super-hero film, Black Panther, T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and the film’s protagonist, exhibits many of these qualities, assuming the mantle of the first black superhero and the first to find strength and true emotional vulnerability together at the core of his character. He also models a flexible masculinity, at once decisive and collaborative. At key moments in the story he needs to lean on others, including powerful women, to find his way, and does so in a manner that betrays no shame whatsoever, on the contrary, he expresses respect and gratitude. At another critical point, he faces a genuine crisis of faith requiring him to look inward and come to a painful reckoning, which he does naturally (not forced or awkward) and with grit. He comes out of the experience with increased determination and focus. Here, he models a graceful self-reliance, one that confronts hardship and perseveres not by avoiding and suppressing feelings but by accepting, bearing and coming to terms with them.
If we want to save our boys and men from a straight jacket of worn-out masculinity, we’d do well to model these examples for them and work to encourage their growth and development.