Recognize toxic masculinity’s negative effects on men
What really makes Donald Trump’s impending presidential term so grave a prospect? It is that for many groups in America — and the world at large — the man is the common villain in most of their narratives.
For individuals whose gender or sexuality does not conform to traditional, heteronormative standards, Trump represents that father or uncle they just found it so difficult to come out to, for fear of being disowned. For working women, Trump is that boss who would slap their backsides or call them “sweetheart,” despite being in a patently formal office space and lacking the women’s consent. For people of color, he is that white man subsumed in so much privilege that the idea of racism — let alone him being racist — is laughable. All of these people are fearful, because America has given the most unstable and unknowing of their antagonists the most important office in the country and, arguably, the world.
However, when people think that Trump and white men — particularly straight, cisgender men of Christian and upper- or middle-class backgrounds — will come out of the next four years somewhat unscathed, they should think otherwise. Because Trump and the other individuals reported to be in his administration exhibit aspects of toxic masculinity, they are likely to also be victims of this destructive social construct.
The term “toxic masculinity” first appeared in the mid 1990s men’s movements and literature aimed to help boys and men overcome negative aspects of traditional masculinity. In social psychology, toxic masculinity is the harmful behavior and practices that are traditionally associated with men. From a very young age, men are encouraged to adopt traits like aggression, competitiveness and dominance.
From history to popular culture, society has glorified the idea of a rugged, apathetic, violent and virile man. This is seen in popular films like “Fight Club” or “The Fast and Furious.” As renowned feminist scholar Judith Butler posits, gender is not real: It is imagined. Thus, Trump’s ideal concept of a man is not only difficult to attain but also unrealistic. One example of toxic masculinity exhibited in Trump’s campaign and future administration is the aggression of his rhetoric. Trump takes hostile and violent stances on various minority groups in America. During his campaign, he described Mexicans as “rapists” and Muslims as “terrorists.” In a 1991 study conducted on Latin American men, Ingoldsby Bron, a child and family development doctor, uses the term ‘‘machismo’’ to describe this aggression together with other sets of characteristics exhibited in toxic masculinity. Bron noted that aggression in his subjects was a mechanism to cope with inferiority complexes. As such, it could mean that Trump’s aggression is a manifestation of an inferiority complex, and that such a defense mechanism is deterring him from appropriately dealing with feeling vulnerable or incomplete. Hiding behind a veneer of hate, he may be overcompensating for what he lacks, and this has clearly divided him from the people he is going to lead. If he continues to endorse toxic masculinity in his presidency, he will have to live with half of his constituency abhorring him.
A competitive attitude and desperation to win can also show a tendency toward toxic masculinity. From his obsessive talk of “winners” and “losers” to his unwarranted insistence that he only lost the popular vote as a result of illegal voting, Trump perfectly embodies this aspect of toxic masculinity. Trump’s philosophy on winning does not only stem from his background in high-stakes business. It comes from the idea that it is not enough for a man to be good at what he does: He should always be the best. It is an idea that is substantiated by research conducted for the MenEngage Alliance advocacy brochure “Sports and the Making of Men: Transforming Gender Norms on the Playing Field.” In this publication, sociologists, with the aid of major sport scholars, theorized how the over-competitive and violent behaviour of men in sports is an effect of the aggressive competitiveness that is an aspect of toxic masculinity. Just as in sports games, toxic masculinity makes everyone a player, life a game. This results in a clear binary of winner and losers. Boys are taught that for them to succeed, someone else has to fail. For men like Trump who adhere to this value, life is reduced to a series of challenges which they must ultimately win to prove their masculinity.
American writer and human behavior educator Alfie Kohn writes that, in being aggressively competitive, one’s character is not built as much society thinks. In a September 1987 piece, she posits that “competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth.” Thus, in men like Trump dividing everyone they meet into winners or losers and turning everything into a competition, they are unnecessarily creating animosity between others and themselves in the pursuit of an ideal that does nothing to give worth to their character. It also means that losses and setbacks, inevitable parts of any presidential term, do not become the lessons or teachers of experience that they really are. Because everything is a game and losses equate one to a loser, the slightest failure for Trump may wreck him personally — which would be destructive to not only him but also the larger country.
The president-elect also exhibits the idea that a man does not admit to being wrong. Despite the vast plethora of convincing evidence gathered by scientists on the reality of climate change, Trump remains an unwavering climate-change denier, refusing to admit that he may be wrong. Men knowing more than other individuals around them, the idea that they must be infallible is an idea discussed in sociology. In this discipline, knowledge is equal to power. American sociologist Henry Rubin theorizes that knowledge is an indicator of masculinity in a similar way to how physical activity or having multiple sexual partners is. Just as a man’s worth is measured by the degree of his dominance, a man’s worth is also measured by how much he knows about certain fields. For example, society largely expects men to know about machinery in general and how it functions, leading to the expectation that all men should be able to fix cars.
It is true that Trump’s belief that climate-change is a hoax is illusory. Not wanting to admit he may be wrong narrows his world a lot. Where he could be open to perspectives different from his own, thus gaining a lot in learning about them, he is content with only his opinion. Toxic masculinity narrows understanding.
Perhaps the saddest thing about toxic masculinity is that it has seeped into the consciousness of many men so much that they cannot separate it from themselves. Where it should be viewed as a social construct that should be fought against just like homophobia, its victims have internalized it so much it is hard for them to imagine themselves without it. Beyond that, many men have never heard of it while others think it is merely radical feminist propaganda.
A man’s worth should not be judged by his physical abilities, virility, lack of emotion or knowledge. In an ideal world, specifically cis-gendered men are conscious of the fact that being a man simply means that one has a penis between their legs. It does not mean they are any stronger, wiser or more successful. Trump has perpetuated toxic masculinity, and because of its pernicious effects, Trump’s victory puts everyone at risk — including Trump himself. He is both villain and victim in his own story.