Is masculinity toxic for boys?

Sunday 23 October, 16.00 - 17.15 , Frobisher 4-6 Gender Wars

In Association With:

Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

Where have all the good men gone/And where are all the gods?/Where’s the street-wise Hercules/To fight the rising odds? – Bonnie Tyler (‘I Need A Hero’)

The three most destructive words that every man receives as a boy is when he’s told to be a man—Joe Erhmann, former American footballer

What does it mean to be a good man today? The answer has never been less clear. Traditionally, young men were supposed to aspire to be strong protectors and providers. But in a more equal, post-feminist society, many feel they should reject old-style masculinity based on physical strength, sexual conquest and economic success, and instead embrace their own vulnerability. There are particular concerns that bastions of ‘masculine culture’ such as sports clubs or computer gaming indoctrinate boys into misogyny, homophobia and rape culture.

Because society has become deeply ambivalent about traditional masculinity, how we are raising boys has become a focus for concern and intervention. Once desirable qualities like strength, stoicism and self-reliance have been recast as harmful gender stereotypes that promote violent behaviour, emotional dysfunction, and social isolation. As a result boyhood is under the microscope as never before and ‘boyish’ behaviour, such as preferring the company of other boys to girls and enjoying active, aggressive, physical play – especially with toy guns – is seen as something to be strongly discouraged. Encouraging gender nonconformity, on the other hand, has become the hallmark of enlightened parenting. Meanwhile, schools promote emotional literacy in boys through anti-bullying education discussions of masculinity, through films such as The Mask You Live In or workshops such as those run by The Great Men Project.
It really does seem boys and young men face certain challenges today: declining academic performance, higher rates of behavioural problems, substance abuse and even suicide. But are these the result of a ‘toxic masculinity’ or rather of difficulty adapting to a world increasingly dominated by feminine gender norms? Are traditional masculine values now redundant and even harmful, or is there something to be said for manning up – perhaps even for girls and women?