Maybe it’s that November chill, or the calm before the seasonal storm, or the fact that the news cycle has died down just long enough to give me a chance to reflect, but I thought I’d post something a touch more introspective on here. Off-brand, I know. I’d entertained writing a piece about the sexual assault controversies currently plaguing Hollywood, but I feel ill-equipped to tackle that subject. It could be that social media is so inundated with new allegations of assault, think pieces about those allegations, and reactions to those think pieces that it becomes difficult to even process information anymore let alone talk about it with any insight.
All of this also comes at the tail-end of two very exhausting years that contained an aggressive presidential campaign, the deaths of countless beloved celebrities, terrorism, rampant racism, a shocking political upset, rumblings of corruption, and the continued friction between a culture that is desperate to move forward but also fixated on the past. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have created an echo chamber, amplifying all of these stories and our responses, blurring fact and fiction and creating an intolerable and seemingly endless stream of bad news and anger. It has been a demoralizing moment in Western civilization.
As you can imagine, it has been very hard to be funny.
At the heart of all of these news items is our culture’s troubled relationship with masculinity. “Toxic masculinity” gets tossed around a lot in our clickbait culture, and much like any buzzword that ends up overused on social media, it can start to lose its meaning. It becomes framed as an assignation of blame, or a dividing line in culture rather than a reflection on identity and the systems we use to define ourselves and others. It becomes an us versus them, or a new versus old, or natural versus unnatural. And no one wants to question any of it because to do so gets at the very power structures of our society. It gets behind the closed doors, it exposes biases, and it pulls back the curtain. It also leads to a lot of yelling on social media.
But interrogations of masculinity are very necessary, and not just because this toxicity has contributed to the continued oppression of women, people of colour, and queer people. As it is currently configured within our society, masculinity shortchanges men. It deprives them of the ability to speak openly about their emotions – with women or each other. It alienates and isolates them from society. It discourages affection between men, coding such interactions as sexual and taboo. It encourages men to pursue unhealthy outlets for repressed emotions, and sanctions physical and sexual abuse because anger and arousal are the only permissible male behaviours in our society.
If all of this is so natural, why do these ruptures keeping happening? Why, as an intelligent species, do we keep falling back into destructive cycles of behaviour again and again? Why are men so deeply unhappy?
This year, I’ve encountered two long-form pieces that really resonate with me, and both tackle this subject from different perspectives. One is from The Huffington Post on The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness, and the other is Medium’s Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys? And both are fantastic.
Both deal with masculinity, and the friction that occurs between the expectations placed on men in society and their emotional and lived realities. One deals specifically with post-gay marriage gay men, while the other explores the pressures of conformity placed on straight men. And both meet somewhere in the depressing middle, exposing a culture that deprives men of the emotional support they need to survive as they age. It’s a culture without love.
They also gesture to something very specific. In the world of social media shouting matches and political divisiveness, it can be easy to point to the extremes. The worst examples of toxic masculinity, whether we’re talking about gun violence, or sexual assault, or legislative maneuvering designed to strip people of their rights. It’s easy to blame the folks on the other side of the political spectrum. Y’know, individuals we would like to believe aren’t as informed as we are in our more liberal-minded circles.
But what both of these articles highlight is the smaller and equally problematic gestures of masculinity that we take for granted in our day-to-day lives. It’s a toxicity without a political party that eats away at male friendships, and influences the opinions of otherwise open-minded or well-meaning men. It informs assumptions of “correct” behaviour. It’s the toys we give our kids. It’s gay and straight. It’s male and female. It’s parent and child, and specifically father and son. It’s the privileging of the romantic over the platonic, and it’s present on our social media platforms, in the news cycle, in our workplaces and in our homes. It’s in the very language we take for granted.
It’s here, for all of us to face. Shifting the cultural definitions of masculinity gives us an opportunity for a wider vocabulary with which to understand ourselves and each other. It’s an opportunity to widen the definitions of love, and to express that love without judgment. It’s a chance for men to love without shame. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a chance for men to love and still be considered men.
I promise I’ll write something funny tomorrow. It might help not to read the news.