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Opinion

What research in south Wales reveals about ‘toxic masculinity’ and why it isn’t a useful term for understanding male behaviour

18 Oct 2023 5 minute read
Image by Dice Me from Pixabay

Richard Gater, Postdoctoral research fellow at the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data, Cardiff University

There seem to be as many interpretations of what “toxic masculinity” means as there are uses of the term.

Some believe it’s a way to criticise what they see as specific negative behaviour and attitudes often associated with men. Others, such as broadcaster Piers Morgan, claim that media interest in toxic masculinity is part of a “woke culture” that aims to emasculate men. Others believe toxic masculinity is a fundamental part of manhood.

My research into working-class young men in south Wales shows how masculinity is changing. Some men remain hostile to the notion of toxic masculinity and see the term as a vehicle for shaming men. And some are caught in a conflict between changing ideas of masculinity and traditional, unhealthy expressions of manhood. This is further complicated by the term itself.

Overemphasis 

In its simplest sense, toxic masculinity refers to an overemphasis or exaggerated expression of characteristics commonly associated with masculinity. These include traits such as competition, self-reliance and being stoic, which produce behaviours such as risk-taking, fear of showing weakness, and an inability to discuss emotions. These have negative implications for both men and women.

For example, a rejection of weakness and vulnerability may prevent some men from discussing issues such as mental health. Similarly, an inability to express emotion may expose itself through frustration, anger and acts of physical violence.

But masculine traits such as being stoic can equally be valuable in some circumstances, such as emergencies and making lifesaving decisions. In essence, masculinity is complex, diverse and can be expressed in multiple ways.

More than one type of masculinity

However, masculinity that involves courage, toughness and physical strength has historically been held in high regard by society.

Masculinity is socially, historically, culturally and individually determined, and subject to change. It can be influenced by a person’s status, power, place, social class and ethnicity. So, a person’s differing circumstances establish or enable different expressions of masculinity.

For example, traditionally high rates of manual employment in heavy industries and family relationships helped establish the gender roles of the male breadwinner and female homemaker. This reinforced masculine traits such as toughness and stoicism in men.

In recent decades though, the way people in western countries work has changed a lot. Manual jobs have decreased while service sector work has increased. These alterations have contributed to the increase in the number of women working, and their wages have became an important part of household incomes.

Movements like #MeToo and brands like Gillette and its We Believe: The Best Men Can Be advert have led to further examination of masculinity. They have challenged negative expressions of masculinity, encouraging men to change their behaviour and instead adopt a more positive version of masculinity.

Against this backdrop, we urgently need to reassess what the current research tells us about men and masculinity.

Men are changing

Some studies suggest that men are changing their behaviour as society and the economy change. For example, studies of white, middle-class men who attend university have found that they are more likely to express their emotions verbally and physically.

But critics of that idea say that such young men can transgress typical notions of masculinity because of their higher social status.

A new wave of qualitative research has shown that some working-class young men are changing their behaviour. They are more open about their emotions, admit to feeling vulnerable and have more egalitarian views on housework. However, they still sometimes use sexist and homophobic language.

My recent study is part of a growing criticism of how masculinity is defined and talked about. I carried out my research at a youth centre and focused on a group of working-class young men aged between 12 and 21. I talked to the young men about their school experiences, work ambitions and looked at their behaviour.

The study was based in the Gwent valleys, a former coal mining community. It is a place known for its traditional ideas of masculinity, such as being strong and tough. But also I found that these young men showed softer sides of masculinity, such as empathy, compassion and sensitivity.

These changes and softer sides of masculinity coexisted with behaviours often linked with negative expressions of masculinity, such as violence and crime. I describe this as “amalgamated masculinities”.

My findings strengthen the idea that positive changes in masculinity are happening socially.

Changing the narrative

We must be aware of the harm caused by exaggerated masculine traits but language like “toxic masculinity” can be unhelpful. We should focus on promoting the benefits of positive expressions of manhood, such as emotional openness and empathy.

We should also do more work to try to understand why positive changes in masculinity are happening. Once we understand this, we can think about how to encourage these positive changes to make them more common in society. This could help to make masculinity better for everyone.

This article was first published on The Conversation
The Conversation


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Sarah Good
Sarah Good
8 months ago

I’m not sure I agree with the definition of toxic masculinity at its most simple. Most men are not toxic. They are still courageous and responsible and kind. More and more of them are talking about their mental health and their fears and feelings and being more involved in the upbringing of their children. Whereas TOXIC masculinity is a manifestation of young men groomed by the likes of creepy men like of Andrew Tate; Piers Morgan; Jordan Peterson; Matt Walsh; Ben Shapiro and many other baseball cap wearing, laughably self-appointed “Alpha Males”. They throw tantrums, they gather in herds of… Read more »

Last edited 8 months ago by Sarah Good
Sarah Good
Sarah Good
8 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Good

Oh and whilst this is an excellent article, I must take issue with this comment “But masculine traits such as being stoic can equally be valuable in some circumstances, such as emergencies and making lifesaving decisions.” I am not deriding or decrying men, stoic or otherwise, but Stoicism is not a masculine trait. As a defined and studyable approach to virtue ethics, perhaps. At least in popular culture and usually only the bit about self control and acceptance of the world as it is, not the other bits. Bu this is the everyday life of every woman everywhere. We are… Read more »

Last edited 8 months ago by Sarah Good
Alice Williams
Alice Williams
8 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Good

There are plenty women who would not describe Matt Walsh creepy; on the contrary, they applaud him for calling out the true entitled creeps who, despite their different plumbing, think they have the right to appropriate the language, sports and safe spaces of women and girls.

Sarah Good
Sarah Good
8 months ago
Reply to  Alice Williams

Then they have never met him. He is despicable across a whole range of issues, not just your single cause du jour. He’s pretty appalling on women’s rights too, and just as much of a liar. Your enemy’s enemy is truly not your friend. But you do you.
I remain an intersectional feminist despite the rotten meat the right wing media has successfully fed you

TomTom82
TomTom82
7 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Good

The fact you lumped Matt Walsh and Jordan Peterson in a group of creepy men tells me one thing and one thing only. You have obviously never read their work or viewed any of their content. Peterson wants the best for everyone. The fact he focuses more on young men is primarily due to articles like this one.

Doctor Trousers
8 months ago

“But masculine traits such as being stoic can equally be valuable in some circumstances, such as emergencies and making lifesaving decisions.” The capacity to be stoic when stoicism is appropriate is simply a desirable adult trait. The suggestion that this is a masculine trait carries the implication that women lack this capacity. Even just examining traditional gender roles, this is easily contradicted. The traditionally feminine role of nurse has always been the first to calmly deal with the blood and trauma when wounded patients are brought into hospital. If this isn’t considered stoicism, it’s only because we associate that term… Read more »

Sarah Good
Sarah Good
8 months ago

I agree wholeheartedly. Well said

Steffan ap Huw
Steffan ap Huw
8 months ago

This article is guilty of demonstrating the same inconsistent, boring, and indeed harmful, logic that today’s progressive ideology is rife with. Why are only men (presumably, cis-gender males) under scrutiny when talking about toxic masculinity? Surely, with transgender thought-mode engaged, masculinity (toxic or otherwise) is a purely subjective term, and therefore may it not be applied to females just as well (since they may be trans-gender men)? And why do we not ever hear about toxic femininity? Of course, because it’s the biologicial males who are the villains of humanity, and need re-programming, whereas women have never portrayed an iota… Read more »

Sarah Good
Sarah Good
8 months ago
Reply to  Steffan ap Huw

Men are singularly best placed to inflict harm on women. Whilst most men don’t, 97.5% of violent crimes reported against women are carried out by men. 2.5% by women and a tiny amount by the transgender people you felt the need to drag in as a distraction (are you and Alice both in the same single interest Facebook group?) We don’t hear about toxic femininity because the likes of Tate, Walsh, Morgan, Shapiro et al, have not built up an army of tantrumming, belligerent, emotionally confused young women like they have with men. JK Rowling’s had a go, but most… Read more »

Steffan ap Huw
Steffan ap Huw
8 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Good

Men are singularly best placed to inflict harm on women. You’d need to qualify this statement a bit, as it’s otherwise a bit difficult to accept. Harm comes in many flavours, not just physical violence. Certainly, men are biologically stronger than women, so will have an advantage physically, if violence is inflicted. I wonder how much woman-on-woman violence goes unreported? And when a woman inflicts violence on a man, he is at a disadvantage to report it, since it is emasculating, and often not taken seriously. I find it offensive to label physical violence as a toxic masculinity. It’s toxic,… Read more »

Sarah Good
Sarah Good
8 months ago
Reply to  Steffan ap Huw

Violence against Women and Girls report every single year since it was released. It is compiled from data reported by the police authorities of England and Wales on reported violent crimes against women and girls. EVERY YEAR men account for 97.5% of all violent crimes against women and girls up to and including rape and murder. (And the NUMBER of violent crimes against W&G continues to rise). Women are responsible for 2.5%-ish and the transgender people you dragged in apropos of nothing, about 0.02%. These are the facts. The data. Should you want to post data to support your claims… Read more »

Last edited 8 months ago by Sarah Good
Jeff
Jeff
8 months ago
Reply to  Steffan ap Huw

I was shocked a few years ago when I saw the official figure for harm either way. Male violence on women is in orders of magnitude greater than women on men, that was reported and events evidence through the legal system.
The problem is men. My gender.

Shân Morgain
8 months ago

When the test result arrived tellng me I was carrying a male I was horrified. But I set to investigate how to bring up a real person not just a mere man. My beloved was right there with me, an exceptional man. I learned that in societies where men are expected to be tough, and separate from home for long periods for hunting, war or working elsewhere, little boys are removed from mothers to live with men. I learned that we touch boy babies less, talk to them less and in rougher tones. So I kept my babe close, and… Read more »

Bethan
Bethan
7 months ago

This is a very interesting topic but it gets out of hand fast. Both sexes are equally on the defensive I think as a result of a historical and ongoing reinforcement of stereotypes. We hear a definition that doesn’t remotely resemble ourselves or people we know and it just rubs the wrong way. There were stereotypes in this article that grated on me. I’m an adult, heterosexual, cis-female. Self-sufficient, stoic, pragmatic, logical. I practice combat sports, make things out of wood, enjoy outdoor stuff, like my own space. I exhibit a lot of traits that would suggest I’m a toxic-male… Read more »

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