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Toxic Masculinity Says, “I’m Weak”

I watched the Gillette video about toxic masculinity and my take on it is simply that it reflects how our society is changing: The general trend is that bullying is being increasingly understood to be a show of weakness. This has been clarified in the last few years by some high-profile bullies and their actions. Gillette is simply appealing to its customers and potential customers by revealing that it sees what they see.

This morning, I saw a video of a podcaster railing against the apparent movement against toxic masculinity. He was saying, very angrily, that men and women are different and do different things. He said that boys don’t want to sit quietly inside. He said that boys want to go outside and put other boys in headlocks.

It seems as though, as with so many of these kinds of topics, what is being discussed is being misunderstood and even mischaracterized. None of the following things are toxic masculinity: wrestling with your friends, drinking alcohol, watching football, liking cars, or being attracted to women. To conflate these behaviors with toxic masculinity would be to completely miss the point. Even if inadvertent, it also seems to try to invalidate the growing awaress of actual toxic masculinity.

At its essence, toxic masculinity is about bullying and pretending that bullying is somehow manly. It’s okay to bully people, but it’s no longer understood to be a sign of strength. It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s just a way to signal insecurity and lack of leadership. It’s basically a way of saying to everyone, “I’m weak.” There’s nothing wrong with being weak, and there’s nothing wrong with telling everyone about it. What’s happening with the movement characterized by the Gillette advert is simply that it’s being called out for what it is.

Since I don’t harass women on the street, I didn’t realize how pervasive street harassment of women was until a few years ago; other men generally don’t do it when I’m present. I learned from Cindy, my wife, how frequently she gets harassed on the street. When she walks down the street, every few minutes a guy whisles at her or calls out to her or starts following her: “Smile, why don’t you smile!”; “Show me your pretty face!” She has been followed through cities and harassed late at night by all manner of weirdos. That these people think it’s okay to do that, and even somehow manly, is a demonstration of toxic masculinity in action.

Women are generally smaller and weaker than men. Men often don’t realize how intimidating they can be to women. To a woman, any unknown man making advances is a rape threat, which is related to the threat of death. But beyond all that, why would anyone harass someone else that they don’t know? We can just leave people alone to live their lives. If someone feels attracted to a stranger, then they can simply keep it to themselves.

Saying, “Smile for me baby,” to a stranger has no useful effect; it’s just invasive and disturbing. This is basically another way of saying, “I don’t care about you at all. I’m just using you to let everyone know that I’m a heterosexual man, even though I’m very unsure of that.”

If a man really wants to express attraction to a stranger, then he could try to do it vulnerably, which signals power. Given some emotional intelligence, a leadership trait, it’s possible sometimes for a man to approach a woman in a way that signals that he actually is attempting to be considerate and non-threatening. For example, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help noticing you. You’re so gorgeous to me. It’s not just how you look; you move with a confidence and power that is inspiring to me.” Even then, being a grown man means being okay with that comment being taken as invasive. She might tell him to “fuck off” or just ignore him.

Toxic masculinity would take a rejection like that as a personal attack, because it’s fake manliness on shaky ground. Then he would suddenly change his tone from a passive form of aggression to a more direct form, “Fuck you, bitch. I don’t even like you.” Sometimes men also spit at women when their uninvited attention is ignored. I’ve seen videos of this, and it’s amazing to behold; I have also heard many stories from Cindy. This is a way that insecure men externalize their internal battles and try to play them out with strangers in the street. Taking responsibility and going to therapy is infinitely more manly.

I witnessed this live once. I was walking with Cindy through London when a guy started cat-calling her; he looked like an educated professional. I guess I must have been walking a few paces behind Cindy. I’m much taller than Cindy, a different ethnicity, and older, so sometimes people think we’re not together. This guy was clearly trying to demonstrate to his friend that he was heterosexual. To achieve that, he was directing passive aggression at Cindy, harassing her with inconsiderate and threatening behavior.

When I saw this happening, I put my arm around Cindy. The guy looked shocked and stammered, “Uh, good job,” as if to say “I respect you because you somehow managed to trick a beautiful woman into respecting you and not being terrified of you.” It’s interesting that street harassment of women actually tends to invoke those feelings in the women: disrespect for the man and fear (perhaps terror). This may also be what the street harasser is feeling: disrespectful of the woman and fearful of women in general.

Rape is not a sexual act. It’s an act of violence. It’s an attempt to feel powerful and to humiliate the victim. It has nothing to do with sex. Rape reveals the insecurity and rage of someone who has not yet gathered the courage to integrate their inner-demons. In a similar way, street harassment of women is an act of pure aggression. It has nothing to do with dating or attraction. It’s an aggressive act; a form of bullying. It says, “my body is bigger and stronger than yours but I’m not confident about that, so I’m going to try to prove it to myself and my friends by abusing my position of power.”

Toxic masculinity is indefensible. Those who defend it are clearly just doubling-down on their expression of insecurity: “No, I really am a weak!” It’s totally okay to be weak. It’s just that the majority of people today are not willing to pretend that they’re not hearing the message loud and clear.