Research Blog: Shaving Toxic Masculinity

By Jessica Lin

The recent #MeToo-inspired Gilette commercial has stirred up quite the controversy with responses ranging from positive feedback to pledges to boycott Gilette products. The razor ad shows boys bullying and fighting, men touching women and dads saying, “Boys will be boys.” It questions, “Is this the best a man can get?” and cuts to scenes of men intervening to stop violence, sexual harassment and bullying. While some praised the message that men can be great role models for kids, a lot of men took offense and felt attacked. Personally, I can’t help but first question the authenticity of a company that has for centuries, made women feel bad for having body hair and described men’s grooming like an intense action movie. Still, I think it’s great that a big brand is highlighting traditional (toxic) masculinity and how it hurts people. The reception, however, made me wonder why so many men were outraged over a razor commercial. Maybe there was too much focus on the violence, bullying and sexual harassment that some men engage in? Even in research, the negative effects of rigid masculine norms on men’s physical and emotional health is well documented. For instance, men are victims of physical violence by other men; they are also 3.5 times more likely to die from suicide than women. With so much emphasis on the problematic side of traditional masculinity, we forget to look at the positives.

Luckily, a group of researchers[1] were also curious about how traditional masculinity may have a potential positive effect on men’s well-being. They analyzed data from 278 18-20 year old male college students. The participants self-reported how much they conformed to masculine norms (like being stoic, having to win at all costs, being hypersexual, taking risks, being aggressive, prioritizing work, dominating women and presenting as completely straight), how much they experienced gender role related conflicts (like having a hard time expressing feelings, measuring self-worth through wins and stress from overworking), and several components of psychological well-being: autonomy (“my decisions are not influenced by others”), positive relationships (“I can trust my friends and they can trust me”), personal growth (“it is important to have new experiences”), environmental mastery (“I have created a lifestyle that is to my liking”) , purpose in life (“I enjoy making plans for the future”) and self-acceptance (“I feel confident and positive about myself”). Six months after the first time they took the survey, the participants answered the questions about psychological well-being again.

So was masculinity only detrimental to men’s psychological well-being? Well yes and no. The researchers found that the young men who endorsed being a playboy, having power over women and hiding emotions (elements of toxic masculinity), ended up with a lower well-being score after 6 months. This makes sense since men who support these masculine norms would feel constant pressure to establish dominance and power, which might lead to more risky behaviors like violence to assert their masculinity. They also might feel pretty angry and depressed if they felt they didn’t have as much power as they thought they were supposed to have to be successful men. Additionally, restricted emotions can cause strain in relationships as well as identity.

But there were also some positives to masculinity! Men who believed that winning was important had an increased well-being after 6 months. Striving towards personal success may be connected to a sense of achievement and accomplishment, which could boost happiness in general. I do think it’s important to note though that even though norms like success in one’s career was rated as positive, it could still lead to problems depending on how it is enacted. If followed too rigidly, it might still have bad effects like overwork and stress.

Based on this research, it seems that although there is a lot that is harmful about traditional masculinity (for men and women), in certain contexts, some masculinity ideals can contribute positively to mental health. Not all of traditional masculinity is bad and we still need to identify more positive aspects. In another study[2], for instance, researchers used online surveys and collected responses from men and women to identify potential positive masculine role norms. The resulting list of masculine traits included: protecting others, being courageous, being confident, being a leader, being straightforward and being successful in one’s career.

So as we work to get rid of toxic masculine norms like not expressing emotions and needing dominance and power, let’s remember to foster and encourage the development of really great traits associated with traditional masculinity, traits like courage and a drive to succeed. Maybe we can encourage men to be more courageous in stepping up and standing up against men who are enacting sexual or physical violence or dominance. And let’s not forget that women can have traits associated with traditional masculinity and men can be feminine! Keeping an open attitude about gender overall would be a step towards detoxifying masculinity and benefit social and mental well-being for everyone, allowing them to be who they want to be.

With Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad controversy, people are talking about the topic and hopefully gaining a more flexible view on masculinity. Despite it’s capitalist intentions, the Gilette ad was trying to foster the good in masculinity: desires to protect others and stand up for what’s right. Let’s shave off the toxic traits and accentuate the positives to be the best humans can be.

[1] Kaya, A., Iwamoto, D. K., Brady, J., Clinton, L., & Grivel, M. (2019). The role of masculine norms and gender role conflict on prospective well-being among men. Psychology of Men & Masculinities20(1), 142–147. https://doi-org.proxy.wexler.hunter.cuny.edu/10.1037/men0000155

[2] McDermott, R. C., Pietrantonio, K. R., Browning, B. R., McKelvey, D. K., Jones, Z. K., Booth, N. R., & Sevig, T. D. (2019). In search of positive masculine role norms: Testing the positive psychology positive masculinity paradigm. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 20(1), 12–22. https://doi-org.proxy.wexler.hunter.cuny.edu/10.1037/men0000160.supp (Supplemental)

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