Gillette’s short film about masculinity is bland enough, as are APA’s guidelines about the matter, but Patrick Coleman’s article about traditional masculinity prompts another “Man, oh man,” reaction. How can you even begin to reply to something like this? A better question might be, how do current conceptions of ideal masculinity compare to traditional masculinity? Do they suggest that less masculinity would be good? If so, does less masculinity equal emasculation? Do social critics believe men will be happier if they become more like women?
If you think manly qualities such as stamina, emotional strength, self-reliance, resourcefulness, leadership, independence, toughness, fearlessness, physical courage, bravery, fortitude, and so on are bad qualities, with what would you replace them? Current social thought seems to suggest that as women become more masculine, men ought to become more feminine. Is that actually what they want to propose? Do they actually think a society of women who aim for manliness instead of femininity, and men who aim for feminine traits instead of masculine ones, will have good results for families, children, and other groups?
We are proud of our female fighter pilots. Why should we not be proud of our male fighter pilots as well, and for the same reasons?
It goes without saying that strong women and gentle men are good, virtuous people. No one has ever suggested otherwise. We do not need a report from the APA to know that. No one has ever suggested that gentle, caring men who are also masculine are bad people, or people in trouble, or people who need to change. No one has ever suggested that a female fighter pilot, for example, ought to be more feminine. We are proud of our female fighter pilots. Why should we not be proud of our male fighter pilots as well, and for the same reasons?
The same goes for athletes. We admire athletes, men and women, who push through pain during an athletic contest in order to win. Why would we admire only women who have this quality of fortitude, but say that men who show mental toughness to endure pain are creatures to be pitied because they adhere to traditional masculinity? When you conflate traditional masculinity and toxic masculinity, you have no coherent answer to this question.
When you analyze questions of masculinity and femininity, be careful not to liken qualities instilled in warriors with qualities desirable in men. Yes, Marine Corps recruiting literature might say, “A few good men.” They mean to say, we will make you into a warrior. Though some overlap exists between traditional masculinity and qualities of a warrior, they are not entirely the same.
Warriors train themselves to be killers, merciless beasts. Combat dehumanizes men, and women unlucky enough to participate in it. Warfare makes people uncivilized. Traditional masculinity excludes inhumane qualities required to disarm and kill other people, skills most essential to a warrior. Traditional masculinity values protection and husbandry, not destruction and cruelty.
Crime and toxic masculinity
The idea of toxic masculinity, now lodged in a line of reasoning that argues masculinity makes you sick, is just crazy, to use a term the APA would not approve.
Take O. J. Simpson. Did he kill Nicole Brown Simpson because his masculinity had turned toxic? No, he killed her for a variety of reasons that would have come out at his trial if the prosecution had done its job. Perhaps his reasons for killing her are related to his reasons for beating her when they were married. He is a wife beater and a murderer. I’d like anyone, psychologist or otherwise, to show me how beating your wife, then stabbing her to death, is related to being a man, who is supposed to protect women, treat them kindly and courteously. Not one argument I’ve seen explains how these manly virtues transform into toxic masculinity. Killing your wife makes you a criminal. That’s all you can say about it.
The idea of toxic femininity is incoherent, which is to say it has no foundation in evidence, psychological or otherwise.
When a wife kills her husband, or a mother her children, how would you explain that in terms of toxic femininity? Would you say the virtues we extol in Mary, or Catherine, or Joan, or Theresa, or any of a number of saints became toxic, and that this toxicity led the wife or mother to commit horrendous crimes? Of course not. We would not look for motivations or other causes of these crimes in traditional or toxic femininity. In fact, we would consider a psychologist, a prosecutor, a politician or anyone else who makes an argument like that a fool. The idea of toxic femininity is incoherent, which is to say it has no foundation in evidence, psychological or otherwise.
Gender-based psychology and crime
Psychology as a discipline ought to exercise caution when it ventures into recommendations for gender-based treatment. When a concept like toxic masculinity roils up from cultural criticism, to assign responsibility for egregious social behavior to men because they cannot control or domesticate their masculinity, you would expect psychologists to react more skeptically. Men are not to blame for social ills, any more than women are.
Men sometimes murder a rival, a former spouse or mistress because their love turns to hate. Women sometimes murder rivals or former lovers for similar reasons. That does not make the crime masculine or feminine. It is just a crime.
Crimes and other kinds of impermissible behavior, unhealthy thoughts and emotions, and outcomes of these phenomena, do not occur due to gender-based personality characteristics that have an inherent potential to turn sour, anti-social, or evil. Yes, men sometimes murder a rival, a former spouse or mistress because their love turns to hate. Women sometimes murder rivals or former lovers for similar reasons. That does not make the crime a masculine crime, or a feminine crime. It is just a crime.
Gender-based virtues remain just that: virtues. When Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Matt Lauer, or Larry Nassar mistreat women, they do not do so because masculine virtues are especially prone to produce rapists, molesters, or boors. They do so because they are bad people. Something is wrong inside their brains. I don’t want to say they are sick, because that feeds the APA’s arguments about how masculinity is related to mental illness. Whatever vocabulary you use, men like these have an unhealthy relationship to sex.
You could say that women do not mistreat men in the same way, that the perversions these men display are identifiably male perversions. Yet nothing about their behavior is masculine. Their behavior marks them out as weak – and, when they commit rape or other kinds of sexual assault – as criminals. Weakness and criminality are not masculine qualities, toxic or otherwise. To suggest a convincing connection between traditional masculinity and toxic masculinity requires more explanation than we have seen, from the APA, social justice warriors, feminists, or any other source. You have not seen the argument because, no matter how you define these two concepts, no reasonable connection exists.
Related APA Publications
I should add that APA’s publications, as professional guidance, appear unremarkable enough. They come into the news due to Gillette’s new ad, which also appears unremarkable when you view it. My comments, though they criticize APA, refer primarily to current commentary about traditional and toxic masculinity.
Related cultural question
Do you regard the Boy Scouts’ influence on young men beneficial, or not?