When Masculinity is Toxic by Rev. Anthony Makar


It never starts with a finger-crushing handshake, which is how toxic masculinity is announced.

It always starts in innocence.

Sometimes it’s young boys who seek out rough-and-tumble play, and risk taking, and they aren’t into dolls but they do like gadgets.

Other times it’s young boys who, for their birthday, ask for make-up and a My Little Pony sweatshirt and they do like dolls and they do like tea parties.

It always starts in innocence.

Children begin free.

But then comes the world. It is a rigid taskmaster in its vision of what true masculinity means. Which means: Being in control. Independence. Never showing weakness.

The poet Rumi says,

Very little grows on jagged rock.
Be ground. Be crumbled,
so wildflowers will come up
where you are.

You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different.
Surrender.

The world hears this, and in its rigidity laughs.

Surrender? Be crumbled? Wildflowers? You have got to be kidding.

It does not matter that the world is changing around men. For example, that women are beginning to show up in places that had once been off limits: boardrooms, the military, the ministry, Congress. Culture shift is happening; women are escaping the traps of toxic femininity; and may there be more of it. Many men, for their part, schooled in toxic masculinity, can feel confused by it, or threated, but even so, the old toxic view remains.

Doesn’t matter whether you are gay or straight.

Gay or straight, boy children start in innocence, but the world makes sure they learn the finger-crushing handshake.

Since the 1950s, political messages have reinforced over and over again the toxic view. Amanda Hess, writing for The New York Times, reminds us that “Early in the Cold War, the threat of Communism was cast as not only a red scare but also a pink one. At the same time,” she continues, “cultural critics warned of a sinister feminizing threat from within: the defanging of the middle-class man in office buildings. In 1956, William Whyte’s ‘The Organization Man’ denounced the ‘soft-minded’ harmony of a corporate life that was predicated on ‘togetherness.’ […] In the American political imagination, Republicans became men and Democrats became women — one group associated with the West and ‘real’ masculinity, the other with the East Coast, with intellectualism and elitism, with femininity. The New York Daily News called Adlai Stevenson ‘fruity’ but also an ‘egghead,’ dismissing his supporters as ‘Harvard lace-cuff liberals’ and ‘lace-panty diplomats.’ Today, when conservatives razz liberals for their markers of high-class cultural refinement, from John Kerry’s windsurfing to Barack Obama’s arugula, they may call them ‘out of touch,’ but the subtext is that what they’re really alienated from is their own manhood.”

That’s Amanda Hess. The theory of trickle-down economics might be fantasy, but what’s not fantasy is how the finger-crushing values of the larger social and political scene trickle down into our relationships and our parenting.

“Be a man,” the entire world says to a boy. The message comes from fathers, mothers, teachers, peers, together with the TV, movies, the Internet, and on and on. Also from the only kinds of initiation rites that are generally available to men today, centering primarily around team sports, military life, gang life, and prison. All of them are sources of a surprisingly consistent message, which the following scenario tries to convey. It comes from The Oakland Men’s Project. Here it is: imagine a ten-year-old-boy in a chair at home watching television. Dad walks through the door holding a piece of paper:

DAD: Turn off that set.

SON: Aw Dad….

DAD: Turn it off. Now! This place is a mess; why isn’t it cleaned up?

SON: I was going to do it after this show.

DAD: Excuses. You always have excuses. Do you have an excuse for this? What is this?

SON: My report card.

DAD: Look at this right here: math, D.

SON: I did the best I could.

DAD: Sure you did. You’re just stupid. You know what D stands for? It stands for Dummy.

SON: (Starting to get up) That’s not fair.

DAD: Sit down. I didn’t say you could go anyplace.

SON: (looks down, near tears)

DAD: What’s the matter, you gonna cry about it? Poor little mamma’s boy. You’re just a wimp. (Pushes him off the chair onto floor) When are you gonna grow up and act like a man around here? (Storms off)

SON: (Picks himself off the floor. He’s angry, confused, hurt, says to himself:) “He’s always coming in here yelling, pushing me around, shouting at me to be a man. I hate it! It’s not fair!”

And that’s the scenario. A terrible classroom in which a boy is taught to numb his feelings, to stay sitting down when he wants to stand up, to be suspicious towards his tears, to ridicule himself whenever an emotion emerges that registers vulnerability.

“Be a man.” Kill the instinct you have to take your confusion to other people, so you can get clarity about what you are feeling. Kill your need for real friendship and intimacy. Learn to be lonely.

“Be a man.” Feel entitled to success, or feel abject shame at your failure. Control and conquer. There can be no excuses, ever.

That’s training in toxic masculinity. Success is the goal, but the problem is that what we have here is a perfect recipe for failure. Toxic masculinity is at war with everything we know about what it means to be a healthy human being. One cannot possibly be strong unless one is whole in oneself and connected to others, but “be a man” means having your feelings cut off and being cut off from others. “Be a man” is all about power and control, but this creates a sense of entitlement that can’t be satisfied in the real world. It makes men do desperate things.

Men all their lives wondering, Am I a man yet? Have I finally made the grade?

It’s why, as author Paul Kivel says, “the fabric of men’s lives is interwoven with violence.” When you’ve been bullied, you bully others, you pass the hurt around to counter the feelings of powerlessness. No wonder that almost all mass murderers are men. Girls aren’t pulling the trigger at schools. It’s boys.

Boys having learned the finger-crushing handshake.

And not just this. That handshake also translates to sexual violence towards women. It happens along a spectrum, from unwanted come-ons, comments, touching, leers, all the way to rape and worse. And usually, the abuser is a partner or family member or friend. The abuser is known.

One of these abusers everyone knows. I’m not talking about Harvey Weinstein. Or Bill Cosby. I’m talking about our current President, who once bragged during a conversation with an “Access Hollywood” host that he could sexually assault women and get away with it—this is a man who was accused by 11 women before the election of inappropriately touching or kissing them.

A few weeks before the election, Michelle Obama had a few words to say about all this, and we need to hear those words again. She said, “The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect […] It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. […] It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they’ve said no but he didn’t listen — something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day. It reminds us of stories we heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how, back in their day, the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to the women in the office, and even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough.”

“We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we? And so many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect, but here we are in 2016 and we’re hearing these exact same things every day on the campaign trail. We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done: We’re trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak.”

And then Michelle says, “In our hearts, we all know that if we let Hillary’s opponent win this election, then we are sending a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly okay. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s okay to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated. We’re telling all our kids that bigotry and bullying are perfectly acceptable in the leader of their country. Is that what we want for our children?”

It’s so hard to hear Michelle’s speech, post-election. Because the clear message did get sent.

Toxic masculinity prevails. The finger-crushing handshake is still the preferred one. It is validated by nothing less than The President of the United States.

Even though, as Rumi says so accurately:

Very little grows on jagged rock.
You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different.
Surrender.

Men, we need to. We need to find a better way.

You may remember the name Brock Turner. He was a competitive swimmer at Stanford University who, back in 2015, was convicted of felony sexual assault. We need to find a better way, and what this way is—the start of it—is suggested by a 14-year-old who was profoundly disturbed by the Brock Turner case and wrote something in response. The 14-year-old is named Royce Mann. Listen to how he comes to terms with the crushing handshake the world has taught him. Listen to what he’s choosing to do next.

Maybe we can, too.

His piece is titled, “Becoming A Man.”

Recently, I became a man. 

I didn’t have a bar mitzvah. My dad didn’t take me fishing or hunting. I didn’t hit my first homerun, grill my first hamburger, or have my first wet dream. But recently I became a man.

It happened the first time a woman avoided me on the sidewalk. I had just had baseball practice and I was walking to meet my mom at a restaurant when the woman 10 feet in front of me glanced back. I knew she was looking at me but I had no idea what she was seeing. The separation between us was undeniable but the distance wasn’t enough. 

She changed direction, crossing the street like Moses did the Red Sea. Trying biblically to find freedom from me? Her footsteps taught me the danger of my own hands. 

Taught me what it truly means to be a man, though I may never know what it means to fear one. You know in that moment, I finally understood Peter Pan. You see I wanted to stay a boy not a become man because a man, as I now knew, was a mix between a father, brother, and attacker, mostly the latter. 

I wonder, the first time a woman avoided him on the street, did Brock Turner feel the same way? I mean, we can’t be that alike. He was a star swimmer, in that moment I was trying not to sink. But then again, you can’t spell rapist without an I. … You know there is something in the air of a locker room that makes me feel sick. Something about hanging with the guys that makes my throat constrict. And it’s not the body odor, it’s the toxic masculinity. It has a distinct smell. A little something like the high school junior who grabs an ass every time he walks down the hallway. Trying to colonize female bodies like his ancestors did these lands, he is fully aware of the power of his hands. It smells like emotions bottling up until they form bruises. Like unsolicited dick pics. It has a distinct smell. It smells like a dugout. Like the guys inside talking about girls the same way they do baseballs. Telling each other to smash both. It smells like my baseball jersey used to. Like punchlines to my old jokes. 

It smells like every time I didn’t speak up.

To the first woman who avoided me on the sidewalk: Thank you, and sorry. I should have crossed instead. And I want to let you know that the second time I did, and the third as well. Each time momentarily mistaking the cracked street for my own reflection and the other side for your safety. Silly me.

To my fellow boys: It is time that we cry. Cry for ourselves and for what we’ve done. It’s time that we question our own innocence, because Brock Turner wasn’t born a rapist. When he was a kid he played with girls on playgrounds. It wasn’t until he grew older that he learned to treat girls like playgrounds. For every student there are many teachers. We must confront our own complicity. Then, only then, will we truly be men.