How to Dismantle Toxic Masculinity (One Step at a Time)
A "we're all in this together" approach is the answer.
By now, most of us are familiar with the concept of toxic masculinity. (But in case you’re not: it’s the result of our cultural norms that end up hurting every person it touches.) We know that it feeds the myth that “real” men are supposed to act a certain way; that sensitivity and vulnerability and any aspect of femininity aren’t masculine (and are therefore shameful), that to be “soft” is to be “weak,” that violence is an acceptable outlet for anger, and that sexism – and sexist, misogynist behavior – is merely an example of “boys being boys,” which further perpetuates the cycle, and makes everything worse.
Ultimately, everybody loses because of it.
But the idea of dismantling toxic masculinity is daunting, especially when we see the way it reigns supreme in every industry, in every age bracket, and in everyday situations. It feels big and all-consuming because it is. And that’s why it’s easy to lose hope: because if it’s permeated everything from politics to pop culture to a day-to-day exchange with some guy while waiting for the elevator, it’s obviously still thriving. And then, if you’re someone like me, that whisper of “What’s the point of even trying?” becomes an internal scream.
And the thing is, everything feels terrible because it is. And everything feels hopeless because some situations are truly completely devoid of hope. But while it’s easy to use toxic masculinity as a type of catch-all – or as a means of categorizing men as the only problem, instead of crediting the society that elevates and celebrates dangerous patriarchal ideals – it’s also counter-intuitive. And it’s lazy. Because to sift through, break down, and incinerate anything, we can’t just treat a real problem as a type of buzzword reserved for the behavior of a single gender, or make grandiose write-offs because “the future is female” is a popular slogan tee. We have to remember that everybody is in this misery marathon together, and that it will take all of us to confront it, talk about it, and call it out when we notice that it’s happening.
"To sift through, break down, and incinerate anything, we can’t just treat a real problem as a type of buzzword reserved for the behavior of a single gender, or make grandiose write-offs because 'the future is female' is a popular slogan tee"
Which was exhausting to even type, if I’m being honest. Sometimes I’m tired of doing work that can feel pointless when faced with news that so-and-so is thriving professionally amidst their penchant for sexual harassment. Sometimes the last thing I want to do when hearing about an incidence of femicide or domestic violence or sexual violence is to take to my computer and remind everyone that as soon as we wash our hands of our broken society, we’ve lost. (Because it feels like we’ve lost already.) And sometimes I want to dismiss men entirely with a defeated exhale because it’s easier to be inaccurate than it is to feel so disappointed all the time. But then I remember that would only make it even worse, because the problem is all of ours. Every single person touched by the hand of toxic masculinity suffers. So back in I go because that’s what you do.
But what do you do? The fastest way to lose steam, when declaring an all-encompassing ideology the enemy, is to see it for what it is: inescapable. So instead, I try to make it as small and personal as possible. And I tell myself that even changing the mind of one person might be the key to changing it all. And then even more radically, I don’t correct myself. Because I need delusional hope. I need to believe that in conversations, in writing, in listening, and in relaying information I know we’ve all shared a thousand times, we’ll eventually untangle ourselves and be set free.
"The fastest way to lose steam, when declaring an all-encompassing ideology the enemy, is to see it for what it is: inescapable"
So start small – start with language and the seemingly non-harmful norms that help lay the foundation for the casualness in which toxic masculinity thrives. Comment on the ridiculousness of “man caves” or “she sheds” or the notion that any job, style, behavior, or tastes are reserved only for women and men. Remind yourself – before reminding your family or friends – that emotions are a vital part of the human experience, and aren’t reserved only for girls or women. Celebrate expressions of self, pronouns, and someone’s choice to explore or broaden their sexuality. Stop diminishing one’s qualities or achievements by aligning them with phrases like “good…for a girl.”
And then go another step further: advocate for reproductive rights. Stop treating sex like a rite of passage that defines one’s masculinity, or takes away from a woman’s worth or that anyone “should” look or be or exist in a certain way. Champion and teach consent. Refuse to fall into the pit of victim-blaming, regardless of how anything’s being framed. Teach anybody who will listen that sex work is real work, and that those who work in the industry deserve nothing but respect and safety and the vital knowledge that they, like anybody at work, are protected. Believe women. Believe men. Believe trans and non-binary folk. Ensure your feminism is intersectional because if it isn’t, it isn’t feminism at all. And explain to anybody who asks why this is important, and why they should be doing the same. If they don’t like it, they can take a hike.
"Remind yourself – before reminding your family or friends – that emotions are a vital part of the human experience, and aren’t reserved only for girls or women"
I know it feels like so much and also like nothing. It also feels like common sense, which is hilarious because we wouldn’t be in this mess if it was. But the pattern of toxic masculinity was built atop a foundation of indifference and apathy and made-up gender norms that work only to warp the minds of anyone affected. (Like, say, all of us.) It was born from small things that made big things easier to sustain. It continues to thrive because of acceptance.
So refuse to accept it. In your own way and the best you can, begin to push back or call out or recognize your own participation. And take it one step at a time, knowing these are the steps that are helping get us further away from this terrible place. You’ll be surprised that you aren’t actually walking alone. Because we’re in this together, and can’t – and won’t – get out of it alone.
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