“Toxic” Masculinity

toxic masculinity
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By Matt Barnes-Smith: matthew@equaliteach.co.uk

In January 2019, Gillette released an advert directed by Kim Gehrig, the same advertising creative who made Sport England’s influential This Girl Can campaign in 2015. The advert was produced in response to the #MeToo movement and urged men to hold themselves to a higher standard and step up when they see other men acting inappropriately (Gallagher, 2019).

The advert shows men fighting, bullying, objectifying women and talking over female colleagues, and follows with examples of men encouraging each other to be better. The video changes the brand’s well-known slogan: “The best a man can get” to “The best men can be”.

It sparked a huge online debate about the concept of ‘toxic masculinity,’ with some condemning the advert for seemingly criticising the behaviour of all men and exploiting customers by using a progressive conversation to sell products. Others praised the campaign and its addressing of a topic that society should be tackling and talking about more.

So, what is toxic masculinity? Let’s try and be clear first on what we mean by masculinity.

Masculinity is a gender expression seen as attributes, behaviours and roles associated with boys and men. What this looks like is shaped by socio-cultural processes and varies across different countries, religions, classes and historical periods. Separate from biological sex, masculinity is a social construct that is debated, expressed and interpreted in different ways.

It’s probably more appropriate to refer to masculinities rather than masculinity, as this illustrates that there are a variety of forms that masculinity is observed in groups and individuals. Toxic masculinity can therefore be thought as a version of masculinity expressed through a rigid and negative understanding of what ‘being a man’ means.

The term toxic masculinity was reportedly first used by psychologist Shepherd Bliss in the 1980s and 1990s, who sought to separate the negative traits of men from the positive and used ‘toxic masculinity’ as a means of making the distinction. Barr (2019) describes toxic masculinity as “harmful behaviour and attitudes commonly associated with some men, such as the need to repress emotions during stressful situations, and to act in an aggressively dominant way.”

The concept is widely used in psychology and media discussions of masculinity to refer to certain cultural norms that are associated with harm to society and to men themselves – such as misogyny, homophobia and the promotion of violence. Heading into the ‘00s and beyond, more people have joined the conversation and varying definitions and interpretations of toxic masculinity have started to emerge.

Ryan (2017) writes about the importance of masculinity and toxic masculinity being separated, stating, “two concepts that have little to do with one another. Masculinity is real, natural…Toxic masculinity is a performance invented to reinforce it…Toxic masculinity is built on two fundamental pillars: sexual conquest and violence – qualities men regale as manly and virtuous.”

Some people prefer to avoid using the term all together as it can create notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ men including Tony Porter, known for his 2010 Ted Talk, “A Call To Men.”  Tony instead describes how the collective socialisation of men has created what he refers to as ‘The Man Box;’ a set of ideas and expectations of what being a man entails. He believes all men are conditioned into this world, and it is their responsibility to break free from it and support others to do so.

In the ‘Man Box,’ traits such as physical strength, toughness, dominance, power and being heterosexual are seen as masculine, and to be attained and conveyed over more traditionally feminine characteristics such as kindness, vulnerability, empathy, sensuality and absolutely at the expense of expressing weakness or emotion, aside for anger. Anyone who falls outside of these expectations may face exclusion, discrimination, physical and emotional abuse, such as that aimed at men who do not relate to these conventional traits, women and LGBT+ people.

It is fair to say that the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is broad and nuanced, opening a wide range of different discussions and debates. However, the common theme that runs throughout these is the notion that men, knowingly or unknowingly, may be adopting and ‘performing’ a stereotypical, damaging and toxic portrayal of what they believe their gender to be.

We define toxic as poisonous – something capable of causing illness or death to a living organism when introduced or absorbed – and the damage of ‘performing’ masculinity in this way is representative in society.

Statistically, men and boys are more likely to:

  • Be violent towards others –not all men are violent, but the vast majority of violent acts are carried out by men. (Office for National Statistics, 2018)
  • Commit sexual assault –the vast majority of sexual assault, rape and sexually violent recorded crimes are commitment by men. In the UK and Wales, 20% of women have experienced some form of sexual violence since the ages of 16. (Rape Crisis, 2017)
  • Be imprisoned, with 95% of the British prison population being male. (House of Commons Library, 2019)
  • Never seek help for mental health problems. Suicide is the single most common cause of death among men under 45, with current statistics showing that almost 85 men per week take their life through suicide. (The British Pyshchology Society, 2018)

Having just read those shocking statistics, it’s clear that discussions that unpacks what ‘being a man’ means (which should involve addressing toxic behaviours) is important for boys, men and society in general.

So, where and how do we start to unpack this conversation in a healthy way, address the issues and tackle the statistics? Here’s some ideas:

  • Start a Conversation. Bringing the subject to attention is the starting point. Many people will have never had the opportunity to unpack what ‘being a man’ means to them, possibly through fear of being ostracised. It’s therefore important to create ‘safe spaces’ that these conversations can be had, where men and boys can practice emotional literacy, speak honestly with fear of judgement, and become comfortable with vulnerability being the ultimate test of strength.
  • Separate Sex and Gender. Understanding the difference between biological sex and gender is important. Sex refers to someone’s biology: male, female and intersex, gender is a social construct and refers to the expectations placed upon people based on their biology, for example roles, clothing, hobbies and interests. Expectations of gender vary across the world and have changed throughout history. It is important to be able to separate the two and recognise that many of the expectations that we place on children are not based on biology, but on these artificial constructs.
  • Reflect on Language. What are phrases such as ‘boys will be boys’ telling boys and men about the way they should act? Boys will be boys is often used as a get out of jail free card when expressing the view that mischievous or aggressive behaviour is typical of boys or young men and should not cause surprise when it occurs. “Man up” is another slogan that when boys and men hear it shouted at them, they instantly know what is expected of them in the situation they’re in. Often, it’s a case of ceasing to express any form of emotion and get on with, or adopt to, the behaviour that confronts you.

These small actions could make a big difference in the long run and will help young men grow into their true selves. In his book ‘Mask Off,’ Bola (2019, pg118) describes how;

 “the mask that men how worn for decades, even centuries, has to be fully removed for us to see the true face that lie beneath; once we remove it, we will see that what lies beneath is a reflection of our true selves, however we chose to be.”

Tony Porter concurs, and finishes his Ted Talk by describing how he asked a young boy, “what would life be like for you if you didn’t have to live up to all these rules?” The answer the young boy gave?

“I would be free.”

EqualiTeach’s resource Outside the Box provides a whole-school approach to promoting gender equality and tackling sexism and sexual harassment and is available to download free of charge here.


Douglas, Ryan (2017) “More Men Should Learn The Difference Between Masculinity and Toxic Masculinity.” Huffpost Website, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-difference-between-masculinity-and-toxic-masculinity, accessed 22nd October 2019.

Gallagher, Sophie (2019) “Gillette Faces Backlash For ‘Me Too’ Advert Asking: ‘Is This The Best A Man Can Get?’” Huffingtonpost Website, https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/gilette-campaign-divides-the-internet-as-it-asks-is-this-the-best-a-man-can-get_uk_, access 23rd October 2019.

Barr, Sabrina (2019) “what is toxic masculinity and how can it be addressed?” Independent News Website, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/toxic-masculinity-definition-what-is-boys-men-gillette-ad-behaviour-attitude-girls-women-a8729336.html, accessed 23rd October 2019.

Bolla, JJ (2019, pg 118), Mask Off – masculinity redefined, London – Pluto Press

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