The Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch in Trafalgar Square in London, among statues of prominent men in English history.
By Taggert Smith
September 14, 2020
In our class discussion of the shared terminology we will be using in this course, among concepts like feminism and the patriarchy, the term “toxic masculinity,” with its various associations and assumptions, called for a more thorough investigation.
Obviously, the phrase connotes a malignant effect on gender politics and society as a whole, as well as on the men themselves who fall under its banner. Crucially, denoting this masculinity as “toxic” implies the parallel but perhaps shrouded existence of a non-toxic, “healthy masculinity.”
We spent some time listing traits and behaviors of toxic masculinity, alongside contrasting characteristics of healthier alternatives (for the sake of brevity, I’ll spare the details, though these articles–1,2–mention and build on much of what we discussed). The Hahn/Cock seemed an elegant symbol of the traits we came up with–suggestive of the male sex, bold, inflated, and propped up above all its observers.
The traits and effects we associate with the term ‘toxic masculinity’ seem to center around, spring from, and recursively feed a culture of masculine dominance–of men over women as a given, and also of men over less (toxically) masculine men. This narrow description of masculinity has been set as the axis along which a hierarchy of social dominance is also defined.
Still, after having established a solid description of the toxicity, the question remained: Why and how has this narrow, toxic definition of masculinity become so prominent? And how may it, and the patriarchy it promotes, be dismantled? How to lower the grand blue cock from its pedestal?
In investigating this dilemma after class, this is what I found:
According to a study by the journal Sex Roles, young males severely overestimate the sexism of their peers. When given a series of problematic statements about women and asked to rate how much they agreed with them, then how much they thought the average man agreed with them, the study found that the subjects thought their peers held far more sexist beliefs than they themselves did. Because men, like all humans, have a psychological tendency to remain silent, or even pretend to agree, when they feel they are solidly in the minority, this erroneous belief–that a vocal minority of toxic men are really the overwhelming majority–perpetuates itself. Men have to understand that when they recognize a statement or behavior of a peer to be toxic, they are not alone in doing so, and should always speak out rather than nervously go along.
This will have a radiant effect on other men complicit in these unhealthy behaviors, as studies show that when men see social proof in other men who unashamedly defy the restrictive, toxic definition of masculinity, they are more likely to follow suit, relieved from the insecure need to defend their own masculinity within an archetype that doesn’t truly fit them.
Toxic masculinity is, of course, a complex and vexing issue, and will not be defeated in one decisive stroke. However, it is clear that the greatest step forward in dismantling the coupling of toxic masculinity and social dominance starts with men who strive to be confident and vocal in embodying their own, healthy constructions of masculinity.