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What is toxic masculinity and how can it be addressed?

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch says society needs to ‘examine the reason’ behind men’s behaviour

Sabrina Barr,Saman Javed
Thursday 25 November 2021 13:15 GMT
Benedict Cumberbatch attends Deadline’s The Contenders Film at DGA Theater Complex
Benedict Cumberbatch attends Deadline’s The Contenders Film at DGA Theater Complex (Getty Images for Deadline)

Men need to “shut up and listen” to women if they want to address toxic masculinity, actor Benedict Cumberbatch has said.

In a new interview with Sky News following the release of Power Of The Dog, in which Cumberbatch plays a wealthy ranch owner in 1920s Montana, US, he said there is currently not enough recognition of the advantages men have over women in society today.

“There is not enough recognition of abuse, there’s not enough recognition of disadvantages,” he said.

“At the same time, somewhere along the line, maybe not now, but somewhere along the line, we need to do maybe what the film does as well, which is examine the reason behind the oppressive behaviour.

Dismissing the argument that “not all men are bad”, the actor said: “You get this sort of rebellion aspect [from men today], this denial, this sort of childish defensive position of ‘not all men are bad’, but no, we just have to shut up and listen.”

But what is toxic masculinity, where does the term come from, and how can it be addressed?

What is toxic masculinity?

The term toxic masculinity refers to a number of cultural norms and harmful behaviours that have historically been associated with the gender stereotypes of being “masculine”.

An example of these behaviours is the suppressing of emotions, which stems from a history of being taught from a young age that it is “unmanly” to cry, that sensitivity is a “feminine” trait and that showing emotion is associated with “weakness”.

This stereotype has been compounded by many different aspects of society throughout time – from comic book writers creating superheroes that are both physically strong and do not require emotional connections (like Batman) to male musicians using traditionally “feminine” traits as insults.

“I would say there’s lots of forms of masculinity,” says Tom Ross-Williams, actor, activist and ambassador for the Great Men project, a school workshop project run by gender equality organisation the Good Lad Initiative.

“One of the ways that masculinity sometimes manifests is through toxic behaviour which ultimately ends in violence, and that violence either is enacted on men themselves, or on other people.

“I think it’s a process of microaggressions that escalate to a point where violence is enacted on the world.”

In recent years, awareness of the harm caused by these perceived gender norms has increased. Some high-profile figures have challenged the stereotypes with men, like Harry Styles, increasingly wearing traditionally feminine clothing, such as skirts and dresses.

This year also saw the release of Prince Harry’s Apple TV documentary, The Me You Can’t See, during which he spoke openly about his mental health struggles.

The Good Men project, an initiative that aims to challenge public perception of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, describes toxic masculinity as a form of manhood that’s “defined by violence, sex, status and aggression.”

Toxic masculinity doesn’t solely affect the boys and men who exhibit “toxic” behaviour, but also those around them who may not identify with or relate to conventionally masculine traits.

“It affects anybody outside of a very narrow ‘man box’. So that includes queer boys, gender non-conforming people and women,” Ross-Williams tells The Independent.

“I think it is especially harmful in that it holds structures of patriarchy that stop women from accessing certain positions of power or more fundamentally challenges their basic human rights.”

Where has toxic masculinity come from?

The term “toxic masculinity” was reportedly first used by psychologist Shepherd Bliss in the 1980s and 1990s, explains writer Emily C. A. Snyder.

Bliss sought to separate the negative traits of men from the positive traits, and used the term “toxic masculinity” as a means of making the distinction.

Traits that Bliss defined as being “toxic” to masculinity included “avoidance of emotional expression”, the “over-aspiration for physical, sexual and intellectual dominance” and the “systematic devaluation of women’s opinions, body and sense of self.”

Toxic masculinity and the notion that men must act in a dominant and aggressive manner in order to command respect is a concept that may stem from the perpetuation of the patriarchy, Ross-Williams states.

It may also come from a cultural shift in attitudes towards gender norms, explains Jack Urwin, author of Man Up, a book about modern masculinity.

“The fact is, a lot of men seem to feel their place in the modern world is becoming less purposeful,” he says in an interview with charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).

“So in an attempt to claw back some sense of manliness a lot of them are perpetuating what we’d refer to as toxic masculinity – a sort of overcompensating form of behaviour that has its roots in ideas of traditional masculinity – such as strength and stoicism.

“But because our understanding of these has become so warped and removed from context they end up just being very unhealthy ways to act.”

How can toxic masculinity be addressed?

One of the ways toxic masculinity can be addressed is by changing how boys and young men are raised in today’s society, says Christopher Muwanguzi, CEO of charity Working With Men.

He explains that dominance and aggression are both traits that are frequently imparted on young boys from an early age as “necessary parts of being a man”.

“By helping young men and boys understand that they don’t have to conform to archaic aggressive stereotypes of masculinity, we can reduce antisocial behaviour, mental health struggles, suicides, gender-based crime and domestic violence,” he says.

Ross-Williams also believes that men have a duty to recognise their privilege in modern society, and that doing so will have a knock-on effect on the current state of toxic masculinity.

“In order to dismantle toxic masculinity, people would have to be willing to challenge their own privileges, which is not something a lot of people want to do because it gives them an advantage in the world,” Ross-Williams states.

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