Some psychology researchers have identified several characteristics thought to be traditionally masculine, but when psychologists consider these masculine qualities collectively — such as when men need always to be the alpha male in every situation — they label them toxic masculinity. For the traditional man, expressions of emotion and affection suggest weakness, compassion and empathy convey vulnerability, and anger and rage remain as the only acceptable expressions of emotion.
Y. Joel Wong and his colleagues identified elevens traditionally masculine characteristics in a recently published meta-analysis of 78 studies of masculinity and mental health. These traits are:
• A desire to win
• A need for emotional control
• Sexual promiscuity
• Primacy of work
• Power over women
• Disdain for homosexuality
• Pursuit of Status
When I was about nine years old, I tearfully called my widowed mother at work to say, “I can’t get the lawn mower started.” She responded, “Of course you can. You’re a man, aren’t you?” I felt as if she’d torn away one testicle.
As an adult I can now see that she had intended to encourage my emerging manliness, but at the time all I felt was that I could never measure up to being a man. My mother intuitively knew these values because they have been incorporated into a cultural stereotype through which all men and women have experienced our world.
Women assimilate this same stereotype — men and women are all raised in the same culture — and they learn that our culture expects women to be submissive and to defer to the man’s dominant role. Their mothers might very well have said to these girls, “Of course you can. You’re a woman, aren’t you?” Men and women pay a penalty for straying from the roles prescribed for both men and women.
What Wong discovered that my mother did not know was that men who cling strongly to these traits also pay a penalty. They are more likely to experience depression, stress, body image issues, substance abuse and negative social functioning. Their need for self-reliance erects a barrier to seeking counseling for these problems. Although men are told they should make themselves vulnerable and express their feelings, when they expose their under-bellies they often get the emotional crap kicked out of them. They feel like I did when I made that call to my mother.
As I wrote in Finally Out, maturity permits men to re-think those values, reconstruct a softer approach to being a man and not feel threatened by letting go of their alpha status. Grandfathers often relate to their grandchildren more gently that they did to their own children causing adult children to wonder, “Where was that man when I was growing up?”
I recall having had similar discussions that questioned the validity of traditional characterizations of masculinity and femininity beginning in the 1970s, but the recent United States presidential election troubles me because we have elected a person who champions unhealthy, stereotypical masculine values. He has modeled them in front of millions of men and women, girls and boys, who are being led to believe that misogyny, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia are essential parts of the masculine ideal. With his anti-political correctness rhetoric, he has unleashed men to once again become warriors.
We can predict a resurgence of the toxic alpha male, and this new research suggests that the prospects for these men include increasing long-term problems with depression, substance abuse and violence.