By Helena Adeloju
When the term ‘toxic masculinity’ went to air in the controversial Gillette ad earlier this year, it prompted yet another round in the battle of the sexes. Fast forward three months and a recent incident at a school in the United States saw young women initiate a masterful response to inappropriate male behaviour. Addressing what they called ‘cultural toxicity,’ the results for all concerned were encouraging and productive rather than unnecessarily inflammatory.
Let’s start back at that Gillette ad in January. In hindsight, the male outrage that it provoked is understandable, given that men largely interpreted it as an attack on their identity.
Data Analyst at Forrester’s Consumer Energy, Anjali Lai, duly noted the male shaming tone of the ad, writing in her blog: “Aligning toxicity with masculinity immediately connotes disease and implies that there is no degree of masculine behaviour we can celebrate in this era of #MeToo.”
It’s fair to say that none of us would have been wildly rejoicing if femininity had been labelled ‘toxic’. Afterall, not all men condone or participate in objectifying and degrading behaviour towards women, and they are not each responsible for the actions of every man simply because they share the same gender. It is also worth considering that offending males are not on some island of manhood, void of influence from significant women in their lives – grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends – the whole other half of the population to be exact, so how exactly is this ‘toxicity’ simply a male problem?
The complexity of the issue is immense, and despite being a catchy and somewhat accusatory hashtagable term, ‘toxic masculinity’ raises more questions than the number of societal problems it can be blamed for. Is it men or masculinity that is intrinsically toxic? At what point does masculinity become toxic? What causes ‘toxic masculinity’ to rear its head? These are just some of the queries that remain without answers following Gillette’s induced moral panic.
Although women are in most cases on the receiving end of toxic behaviours such as sexual harassment, as Silvana Scarfe’s recent blog showed, sometimes women choose to participate in toxic cultural environments. Thus, the toxic masculinity view seems to be an over-simplification of much deeper cultural issues that need to be addressed.
Toxic masculinity as depicted in the Gillette ad is a disempowered concept, one that tells women that the things that undermine and degrade them are simply men’s problems that only other men can possibly fix. It’s also disempowering to men, telling them that they are the source of toxicity in society, rather than recognising that culture is curated collectively, and that negative cultural influences (such as pornography and sexualised media images), are the real source of toxicity.
Surely it is possible to create a climate where women feel that they can influence culture and help men to improve their ethical and moral capacity to treat all people with respect, and in the process, become better people themselves?
If the recent example at a school in the US of young women standing up for themselves, supporting one another and re-educating ‘the boys will be boys culture’ is anything to go by, things are looking up for the next generation.
Female students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School made headlines in the Washington Post and on CBS when they took decisive action, refusing to dismiss what was once considered boys just being boys.
Female students responded to what they saw as the ‘cultural toxicity’ behind the creation of a list ranking female students’ appearances, which began circulating in the school’s corridors.
The female students placed this behaviour in a broader context – one which required a dialogue about the culture that enabled it to occur in the first place – and responded to the incident by calling a class meeting, “not to patronise”, but “to educate”.
This strategy allowed male students to consider the wider cultural context of their actions, as their female classmates shared their struggles with body image and eating disorders, experiences of sexual abuse, misogyny, degradation, objectification and harassment inside and outside of school, to illustrate how disrespectful behaviour has real life ramifications in the lives of girls and women.
After listening to the female students’ testimonies, the 18-year old male student who created the list apologised for the hurt that he had caused, describing his actions as a “stupid decision.”
Speaking to the Washington Post, the teenager addressed how culture had influenced his previous mindset.
“When you have a culture where it’s just normal to talk about that, I guess making a list about it doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing to do, because you’re just used to discussing it,” he said.
This young man has a point. Women and men are raised within a culture that they trust to model acceptable behaviour for them, we are all involved, each of us by our action or lack of action contributes to culture.
Given the chance to understand, there was nothing intrinsically toxic about this young man, his was simply a case of ignorance, which was quickly replaced by regret as well as gratitude for the courage female students showed by speaking up.
“It’s just a different time and things do really need to change,” he said. “This memory is not going to leave me anytime soon.”
By focusing on the wider framework of ‘cultural toxicity,’ rather than ‘toxic masculinity’ and recognising their collective responsibilities, these senior students didn’t get bogged down in meaningless powerplays. Instead, they worked together to forge new understandings between one another. They have since combined to leave a positive cultural change program as their final year legacy, so that their school community is equipped to prevent incidents of cultural toxicity in the future.
Although the symptoms of toxic culture make it easier to fight across the gender divide rather than combat the roots causes which we all share responsibility for, perhaps we can take a leaf out of these young women’s book, and aim to educate and work with positivity to contribute to the change we want to see in our culture.
Helena Adeloju is a journalist and a freelance writer from Melbourne.