Navigating Past Toxic Masculinity

On the Screen

As I go to watch the comedy sit-com Community on Netflix, its eccentric plot and lovable characters never fail to bring a smile to my face. But its main protagonist, Jeff Winger, is a prideful and deviant millennial who is meant to represent the cool and stoic archetype that many of us associate with masculinity. His strong will to fight for what he believes in, aloof attitude, and multiple romantic engagements all contribute to creating what many of us would see as desirable. While Jeff is undoubtedly an essential character who adds value to his social relationships through his courageous demeanor, he also implicitly encourages viewers to idealize these stereotypically masculine images. Dramatized scenes of him coming to save the day by jumping into the action are a constant theme of Community episodes, with Jeff praised as a hero by his fellow peers. And I don’t mean to specifically pick on Jeff, because he’s only one of the thousands of examples of this one-dimensional, masculine character the entertainment industry portrays. From John B in Outer Banks to pretty much every guy in All American, these series show how embedded this picture of, “what a man should be,” is in today’s society.

To add a disclaimer, this article is not meant to say that the qualities of a stereotypically masculine person are intrinsically harmful, nor is it meant to be my personal vendetta against the television industry. What I mean to shed light on is how we have set this warped standard for what validates someone as a man, leading many people to feel inferior and/or overcompensate. This is known as toxic masculinity, and as teens in our formative years still searching for identity, it is particularly dangerous. To some, it can be extremely alienating when everyone else seems to have conformed to a certain set of rules that govern what makes someone masculine. In others, they take it in the opposite direction and begin to shame qualities, or even people, who don’t fit their version of, “what a man is.” Whatever end of the spectrum you may be in, it’s clear that toxic masculinity has a rooted presence in today’s society that makes it difficult for a lot of people to feel secure about their identity. I hope by reading this that you all learn more about how we can remove this stigma, and find closure in being yourself.

Picture of a Man

I talked broadly about what traits and qualities are seen as masculine in today’s society, but I’ll reiterate with more specifics. Most commonly, masculinity is associated with strength, yet this idea of strength can be interpreted in several different ways. From a physiological perspective, it can mean someone’s physical strength or image. While maintaining a healthy lifestyle is undoubtedly important, there’s this overwhelming idea that a man needs to appear as bigger or dominant. Along the same lines of appearance, what someone wears, what they like to do, or even how they talk are all things that we take into account in determining masculinity. To many, these restrictive guidelines limit their self-expression out of fear that their reputation will come into question. This is, in a simple sense, how overcompensation evolves.

Overcompensation is when someone takes excessive measures to prove, justify, or correct any signs of weakness or insecurity they see in themselves. As I referenced earlier, it can often feel like we need to live up to these expectations of what it means to be a man. Sometimes, this can go too far and lead to people desperately trying to fit into the status quo. When we try so hard to conform to our description of masculinity, we begin to push away everything that doesn’t fit into the picture. For example, let’s say you like to dance, but are afraid that your fellow peers will interpret you as feminine for participating in it. As a result, you might feel the urge to disassociate yourself from it, or even belittle those who share a similar interest. You might even pick up an entirely new sport that fits the stereotypical masculine image just to prove to others that you are strong. While this scenario sounds extreme, it follows a similar train of thought that exists in this culture of toxic masculinity. So often do we change who we are to gain the validation or acceptance from those around us. By creating a distance from our authentic selves, we are only encouraging these types of behaviors to repeat themselves. Overcompensation is never about others; it’s always about our self-image and how we want to be seen as something else.

Opening Up

As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, conflict is a ubiquitous occurrence in our daily lives. From our work to our social relationships, to our interpersonal struggles, conflict exists in every facet. But what has been normalized is the masculine response to such conflict: the non-emotional, aggressive solution. Whether it’s getting into an argument because of a clash of opinion, or refraining from speaking up about feelings that have been labeled as “weak,” it’s clear that this side of conflict resolution is what we view as stronger and more masculine. Rather than being empathetic and trying to understand the other’s viewpoint, toxic masculinity encourages people to impose their ideas onto others as a way of showing their power. While there are times when sticking up for your beliefs is necessary, the constant doing so leads to people overcompensating and failing to gain a sense of compassion for others. It becomes this competition of who can assert their dominance, leaving little room for agreement or compromise. 

Conversely, there can be times where toxic masculinity restrains people from speaking up, as is the case when discussing their emotions. In many instances, this level of vulnerability is interpreted as weakness, causing many people to suffer in silence out of fear that they’ll be seen as less of a man. While there has been a push for more men to speak up about their feelings, it often comes off as forced or non-authentic. To reference the entertainment industry again, a recurring motif in shows is when a male character reaches an epiphany along the lines of, “I was man enough to show my feelings,” which actually misses the mark in counteracting toxic masculinity. Rather than breaking the association between self-expression and masculinity, these shows paint it as a cliche act of courage that only serves to promote the image of the character. While I can appreciate the attempt, these ultimately fail to show the true nature of vulnerability.

As someone who writes his feelings for the internet to see every week, I’m surprised I haven’t addressed toxic masculinity by now. In a way, I think what makes Heads Up Teens so special is that we are so unabashedly open about our personal experiences and aren’t afraid of being labeled as overly emotional or dramatic. We know deep down that voicing our thoughts on mental health is essential in normalizing it, and we shouldn’t be deterred from doing so by a fear of being called names. While there have been moments in my life where I have felt the overwhelming pressure to, “fit in,” what helps reassure me is knowing that fitting in isn’t always the ideal choice. There’s a lot of value in individuality and being different; doing what feels right to you is more than enough. Acknowledging the presence of toxic masculinity around me is what makes me realize how senseless it is. Expressing how I feel doesn’t make me any less of a man, much in the same way it doesn’t make me soft to be open. It’s once we begin to feel confident in our identity that we can stop trying to be someone else and start being our genuine selves.

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