Men today are struggling. Though few will show you what’s truly stirring inside, we don’t have to look far to see just how fragmented we’ve become. Thanks to the brave survivors behind #MeToo and #TimesUp, and in the wake of the unprecedented (and growing) rate of mass shootings, mainstream media is finally addressing one of Western society’s most shadowy subjects: masculinity.
While feminists and other social justice activists may be breathing a miniscule sigh of relief, many men, especially those who hold a more traditional view of masculinity, are now feeling more under fire than ever. I’d guess that most of these men are silent and avoid the conversation at all costs, but some are not. Many are angry and making it known. Others are confused. And yet all of us are suffering, whether we’d like to admit it or not.
All the talk of “toxic masculinity,” a seldom-used term until the last year or two, seems to have touched upon a particularly soft spot with many men. Ironically, when properly defined, the term is meant to describe a particularly extreme form of masculine identity characterized by the complete absence of sensitivity, among other anti-social and unhealthy features. Unfortunately, the stereotype has stuck with us through the generations and can still be glimpsed in media, pop culture and common behavior among males.
I’ve personally avoided using the term in my writing and professional spaces to reduce the barriers for men to engage in their gender-identity related work. Upon first glance or uttering, most assume it is an assault on masculinity as a whole, and thus, a personal attack on their character. Thankfully, it isn’t hard for me to relate to this perspective. I, too, have a very difficult time engaging in conversations in which I feel that a core part of my identity is being challenged. What shifted for me was the realization that the masculinity I had been practicing wasn’t really mine — that my being a male has only as much to do with our culture’s concept of masculinity as I choose.
Stoking the fire, the recent Gillette ad is proving to be a perfect illustration of what I’m now describing as the modern male identity crisis. If you haven’t seen it yet, pause your read and search YouTube for “Gillette: The Best a Man Can Get.” Sexual harassment. Kavanaugh. Bullying. Bystander intervention. It’s got it all. Without question, Gillette kicked the beehive with this one. And we’re now seeing the swarm.
Within 48 hours after its release, I had around a dozen different people bring it to my attention. Among my circles, most seemed to be excited, inspired, grateful. However, a few others received it very differently, resorting to ad-hominem attacks on P&G (Gillette’s parent company) or nitpicking scenes that felt triggering to them, personally. Reading through the YouTube comment thread, one could accurately describe it as “outrageous.” But is it real?
A frequent writer on the subject of masculinity, Mark Greene has dug up significant evidence suggesting that at least part of the backlash is due to another wave of foreign meddling. With the major elections behind us, “troll farms” from Russia and the likes are taking to particularly volatile issues (like this one) to intentionally create chaos and incite political instability. Interestingly, Greene and others active in tracking the “manhood” space have begun connecting the dots around why this issue (and those like it) are easy targets for manipulation.
Lacking a solid sense of self outside the “man box,” many men are unwilling to entertain alternative images of how to be in the world. Even in its more moderate form, a masculine-only identity is rigid, competitive and outwardly focused. In isolation, masculinity is inherently vulnerable to tampering.
In their liminal state, angry men are routinely radicalized toward extreme ends of the political spectrum. This is how genocidal armies have been mobilized for hundreds if not thousands of years, and this is why we have militarized groups of disenfranchised angry men today. This needs attention. But to adapt a timely message from Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps it is even more important to recognize how this same pattern is prompting all of us “good guys” into complicity.
What if we’ve all been sold a lie? What if our real power was hidden in the embrace of whole selves, including (especially for men) our feminine side? My hope is that we men seize the opportunity for our individual and collective liberation. That we accept those authentic aspects of ourselves we have long denounced as non-male: our tenderness, our sensitivity and our nurturing. Whether we like it or not, it is all in there. And it needs our love.
— Nicky Wilks is a mentor, teacher, father, Vashon native and co-founder of Journeymen Institute.