"Getting Down to Brass Tacks"

Looking at the real problem behind toxic masculinity.

A couple of nights ago, I was talking to my best friend Brian about all the commotion behind the “toxic masculinity” chatter that has stemmed from the infamous Gillette commercial. Like me, he hadn’t seen the commercial when it came out and knew relatively little about it. I described it to him and shared my initial impressions, which ranged from intrigued to slightly uncomfortable.


He asked me why I felt uneasy about it, so I explained that I found it heavy in terms of the negativity it reflected (not the message, but the imagery). I told him that while I believe in “toxic masculinity,” as a concept, it did feel like men—in general--were taking a bit of a hit. Of course, this was enough for him to finally take a look. It didn’t take long before he responded, “I don’t see the problem.”


Being the neutral social worker that I am, I pointed out that, while there was a lot of relevance in the commercial’s message, some men may perceive that the "proverbial net" may have been cast too far and wide, snagging some of the “good guys” up in its tangles. A very polite debate ensued.


He made some excellent points about how women have been treated very poorly throughout the years and still are to this day. According to him, bringing attention to the issue of “male toxicity” was a good thing. Necessary. I agreed.


An advocate at heart, Brian spoke of male oppression of women and egregious disparities in power. He spoke of the silencing of women’s voices and their systematic disempowerment. Again, I was onboard. To him, masculinity’s toxicity was inherent; therefore, addressing it in a public forum was just the ticket to get that message across to the targeted audience.


While part of me saw the rationale in that argument, I felt the need to play Devil’s Advocate. I supported the idea of bringing awareness of toxic behavior to men’s consciousnesses: I am all about using barometers to self-regulate our own stuff. However, I don’t think that there is anything organic about the bad behavior in question. Men aren't born as abusive oppressors. That behavior is generally learned.


I told him that I disagreed, clarifying that “masculinity” is a filter through which men’s choices, based on their values and beliefs, are demonstrated. It is how we (men) express things within the contexts of our culturally and socially endorsed gender roles. It's about how we do things not what we do. We decide if what we do is taken to a toxic place. What we really should be talking about is having and maintaining good characters.


Men (for the sake of argument) decide whether they will be assertive or aggressive, ambitious or cut-throat, empathetic or apathetic. Our masculinity has nothing to do with the crossing of such blurry lines, but our minds and ethics do. Essentially, masculinity is just the frosting on that cake. Now, said cake can be a lovely red velvet number or created, entirely, of crap. Which is really up to each one of us.


Then, something that never happens happened. He was silent. If you knew Brian, you would know that this was quite disarming. Either he dropped dead from disgust or he was stymied. Luckily, it was the latter. Checkmate!


That conversation got me thinking, though. If it is men’s characters, values, and beliefs that are, ultimately, the things that drive their behaviors, is masculinity getting a bum rap? Does finding fault with it (or any aspect of it) actually diminish the entire gender that it interconnects? It just may for those who put the blame where it belongs, which is on the toxic choices we all can make.

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