Harmful masculinity narratives

Meltem Osman and A.J. Walker write.

There are three points in Martin Seager and John Barry’s letter ‘Toxic acts, not toxic masculinity’ (June issue) that we would like to discuss. 1) There are male specific issues that need to be addressed (which we can agree there are). 2) Their treatment of masculinity and its inherent link to maleness (which we accept is certainly the societal narrative). 3) Their claim that masculinity is being stigmatised and treated as toxic (which is where we disagree).

‘Boys and men are diverse.’ Five words that open the 2018 American Psychological Association (APA) Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, which go on to discuss the many ways in which men suffer more acutely, such as suicide rates. The APA targets only some aspects, for instance criticism of men who act in a ‘traditionally masculine’ way (exemplified by but not limited to Trump, Mad Men etc). We are somewhat surprised that Seager and Barry view these guidelines as a ‘stigmatisation of masculinity’. Is masculinity really so fragile as to merit such defensiveness over any criticism at all?

If masculinity is entirely positive then it cannot cause suffering. But if certain narratives, especially those around strength, risk and self-reliance can hurt men, if they can in any way contribute to many of the awful outcomes like depression, suicide and abuse, then there is something harmful in those narratives. Such narratives, if not sufficiently diluted, can become, at their extremes, toxic.

Seager and Barry’s treatment of masculinity has two problems. First they have read the term ‘toxic masculinity’ and proceeded as if it means ‘masculinity = toxic’. But ‘toxic’, to most who use the term, is an adjective. A modifier. ‘Toxic masculinity’ refers to masculinity only when it drives men to behave in harmful ways (to the individual or others). Men falling into ‘the trap of patriarchal masculinity is not only hurting the people they wish to be involved with in life, but it’s also hurting themselves by not allowing them to explore themselves and define themselves beyond the status quo of gender’ (Everyday Feminism: http://tinyurl.com/edfeminism).

The claim is not ‘masculinity is toxic’, rather that some expressions of masculinity can become toxic. Second, Faith Newton (July issue) demonstrated the limits of their characterisation of masculinity as ‘protection to women, children’ and how that promoted inequality. This dichotomy of protector/protected, as well as the addendum ‘in times of war and peace’ evoke an expression of masculinity that is rooted in violence, where men must shield women from the aggression of (presumably) other men. The nature of this characterisation is a helpful demonstration of how masculinity narratives can become harmful.

If masculinity is inherently linked to maleness, and we want to talk about men’s issues (we do!), then there’s a choice. Either masculinity is part of the conversation, both linked to maleness and open to criticism, or it’s completely irrelevant to men’s issues. We can’t have it both ways.

Meltem Osman
Trainee Clinical Psychologist
A.J. Walker

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