This is Sea. I’ve asked Peter to write his own definition of toxic masculinity – and I have written my own definition of toxic masculinity (see below). We have not seen each other’s definitions. We will use this exercise to launch our conversation.
Sea: Peter, this is the definition I came up with for toxic masculinity. Utilizing a sense of masculinity or maleness in order to avoid one’s own vulnerable experiences, or to diminish the experiences of others, particularly female-identified persons.
What is your definition? (I must admit, I’m dying with anticipation!)
Peter: Oh geez. That’s a great one Sea, and feels very operative. The conciseness of your answer and the way you’ve set this up is putting pressure on me to be concise, and I realize there is a defense mechanism involved for me here: if I ramble on and try to cover every possible angle and/or potential disagreement, then hopefully I won’t look like an asshole. And as much as I don’t want to cause any damage or wounding with this conversation, for anyone, part of that is just protecting my ego and my ‘rep’ – how people view me… And here I’ve already started rambling. How about: Toxic masculinity is any unhealthy, unbalanced or damaging manifestation of traits or behaviors traditionally associated with men or masculinity. Examples of this might include attributes like aggression and strength, roles like “hero” and “leader,” or drives like competition and sex.
Again, none of these is inherently masculine or feminine, male or female, but I feel like those examples give me a lot to work with in terms of deconstructing social and psychological baggage.
Sea: It was very generous and authentic for you to share the vulnerability with which you responded to my definition and noticed your own internal responses to it. Thank you, too, for putting out there how many disclaimers you wish you could insert so people don’t have certain responses to you. It made me realize the privilege with which I arrive at this conversation, and I wanted to acknowledge that you are at an automatic disadvantage before you even show up. So, I thank you for showing up and allowing yourself to be seen.
During our brainstorming around this topic, you shared a link to a delightful e-book you wrote for your son around the topic of maleness and what it means to be a “boy” or a “man.” The writing, illustrations, and messages in the book are SO good that I purchased it and also wanted to share it here for our readers: click here.
I think it is helpful before we get too far for you to know how I perceive myself. I am a female-identified person who is queer (married to another female-identified person). My wife possesses more layers to her experience as a woman than I do. People oftentimes mistake her for a male, so she receives lots of strange looks when she goes into a women’s restroom and is regularly (ie., daily) called “sir” in public. This is the framework from which I am entering into today’s conversation.
Is there anything you wish to add about yourself that might be helpful for our readers to know as they engage in this topic with us?
Peter: Well, you offered to link to my little Kindle book I wrote for Moses about being a man, and that’s a great start for me to talk about my experience as a man. I am a male-identified person who is heterosexual. However, into my thirties, my self-perception as a man was that I was lacking something – that I didn’t “measure up” to other men. I was a small kid, and as an adolescent gravitated to theatre, dance and the arts in general. As a teenager and adult, I habitually compared myself to other men, “sized them up” in a sort of “threat level” way (i.e. is this guy going to kick my ass?) and I also actively judged other men for what I projected onto them. I made assumptions about taller men, muscular men, confident men, angry men… I internalized a lot of insecurity, and it led to overcompensation in all sorts of unhelpful and unhealthy ways.
I wrote and illustrated a book for Moses to help me begin to introduce him to these concepts early, and hopefully provide some tools that may help him get “stuck” in some of the ways I did.
Sea: I have a confession at this juncture. I always thought of being female-identified as being multi-layered, but I never realized being male-identified was also wrought with internal struggles, conflicts, worries, and, yes, layers. I think I had an internal bias that for men it was just easy. I am grateful we are in this conversation.
My son (aged 20) oftentimes expresses he doesn’t have the freedom to share his struggles with maleness simply because he identifies as male. The privilege eats up his experience. This is one reason I love the book you wrote for Moses: you give space to that experience of maleness so it doesn’t get lost in the social dialogue swirling about us.
As a female, I oftentimes feel dismissed – and certainly perceived as being “emotional” or “overreacting” – when I have a strong response to something in my environment. Passion and leadership are reframed into emotionality, and it steals the gifts that oftentimes lie within a person. This makes me wonder, what is overlooked or misunderstood in your experience of being male? And how might that be related to toxic masculinity?
Peter: Sea, I have been having an ongoing conversation with my son for a couple of years now about anger. Because I often got caught up playing the “golden boy” growing up, I didn’t have a lot of use for anger. Anger didn’t fit the mold of a “good boy.” This unfortunately led to a lot of “shadow-leaking.” Shadow is anything I hide, repress or deny, and anger is something I have worked hard to hide. This denial has lead to inopportune “leaking”: if I’m not paying attention to my shadow, then it inevitably is going to surprise me – and others – and make a mess when it leaks out from wherever I’m hiding it. As a child, Moses experiences this viscerally. I have sat in my men’s circle and talked about anger and the fear of it, and the consensus between all of us men was this: “It’s scary when a man is angry.” And every one of us there – 30 years old or 80 years old – had a story about the fear of an angry man.
More often than not, that anger is a secondary emotion, masking fear or grief – emotions that patriarchy deems unsuitable for men. But sometimes it is just simple anger about a small thing, and my efforts to stifle or suppress some mundane frustration often lead to overreaction if I’m not keeping that anger out in front of me: out of the shadow.
Sea: I’d like to interject here that I oftentimes describe anger with the metaphor of golf. The flag at the hole, also called a pin, symbolizes the anger a person feels. As you stated above, anger is a secondary emotion. But the flag is pointing to something deeper. That thing (the thing that lies within the hole) represents the primary emotion. A primary emotion is usually pretty raw, such as sadness or fear. And I found your insight about expressing those primary emotions being unsuitable to the patriarchy. That creates quite a double-bind for male-identifying folks to just have basic human emotions! I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts about the intersectionality of maleness and how it overlaps/interacts with anger.
Peter: Yes, I’ve experienced that double-bind in some of my relationships. As strange as it sounds, there are times when I don’t feel safe expressing anger, because I know that anger makes someone else feel unsafe. But often I have to get through the anger to figure out what’s underneath it. If I can’t tap the anger, then it’s hard for me to discover the fear or sadness or other emotion underneath.
So how does a man show anger in a way that is acceptable to others, and safe for his loved ones? I don’t have an answer for that, but recently, after frustration with multiple drink spills in the back seat of the car on a long road trip, Moses said, “Daddy, I don’t like it when you’re mad. It scares me.” A couple of years ago, that pronouncement would have sent me spiraling into shame over my failures as a father. Instead, I realized that my seven year-old feels safe enough to tell me how he feels. I couldn’t have done that with my dad when I was seven. So I asked Moses to think about times he feels mad (there are plenty), and I reminded him that anger is something we all feel. It’s not a bad feeling. It’s a human feeling. And we can feel mad and even show anger without hurting people.
With anger, I think toxic masculinity manifests in two extremes: the man who bottles up his anger until he explodes (a ticking timebomb to everyone around him), and the man who is perpetually exploding (a violent, combustible force). The first man denies his anger, denies his right to be angry, and can’t see it till it’s too late. The second man identifies with his anger because, indeed, anger for many is the only acceptable “masculine” emotion (i.e. it isn’t perceived as “weak”). So his anger hides his fear, his vulnerability and his sorrow.
I can relate to the first example more, but I can absolutely see both in me. So my work is to keep peeling back layers of skin and scar and look at the raw, vulnerable skin the anger is masking. My prayer is that Moses can feel his anger without shame, without violence, and without self-identifying with it.
Sea: I really loved your example of how your shadow self leaked out in the road trip interaction – and how Moses verbalized his experience of it. Thank you, again, for being so real in this conversation. I know it will encourage others to be real. And your integration of self is so apparent in how you observed your own growth in this area and were able to acknowledge it. Wow.
So, I just looked up a definition of toxic masculinity defined by a study cited in the Journal of School of Psychology. It is: “the constellation of socially regressive [masculine] traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.” (You may find the citation at https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/toxic-masculinity) Additionally, a “manly” person will work to emphasize “strength, lack of emotion, self-sufficiency, dominance, and sexual virility.” Peter, I think our definitions were pretty spot-on!
Peter: Absolutely, I think it’s interesting to start from where we did and then loop back to that definition. Sea, I’d like to continue this conversation because there’s so much to unpack. We haven’t even touched on domination, devaluation of women, homophobia, although I think a lot of specific topical conversations will run parallel to where we’ve already come. Maybe we can create some transitional space to move into a second follow-up post based on our experiences with other aspects of toxic masculinity. It may seem strange to say, but thank you for making it safe for me here to name and reflect on parts of me that I’m not particularly thrilled about.