In the wake of the recent mass shooting at Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the national conversation has turned to preventing mass shootings. This conversation has been mostly focused on gun control measures. There has also been some talk about the importance of mental health services, although it's important to understand that mental health issues do not cause gun violence.
I want to discuss one important piece of puzzle that often gets overlooked: the definition of what it means to be masculine is often too rigid and unhelpful. Just as women in our culture are taught that their value lies in their beauty and sexuality, men in our culture are taught that their value lies in their strength. They are required to fit the masculine stereotype of being physically, emotionally, and mentally, and sexually strong. Boys in our culture are expected to be tough. They are taught that becoming a man means not crying and being totally in control, even at the expense of others. The term that describes this phenomenon is toxic masculinity. While this term is somewhat controversial, it describes a real phenomenon that requires a remedy. One definition of toxic masculinity from The Good Men Project is "a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression." No matter what you call it, the concept is the same. Men are attempting to fit into a narrow cultural ideal that causes problems for them and those around them. If you want to know more about how toxic masculinity manifests itself in our culture, check out the documentary The Mask You Live In. There's a trailer on YouTube, and it's free on Netflix right now.
One example of this unhelpful definition of masculinity in our culture is the continued success of football as a sport when it has been proven to cause serious medical problems, including concussions. This sport needs to be significantly changed in order to protect the physical and mental health of its players. Yet, we still allow developing children to play the sport and submit themselves to possible serious injury. The message we're sending to our boys? Being good at your sport and toughing out your injuries is more admirable than protecting your physical health. It's more important to be strong and tough than it is to be safe. Those are the wrong messages. Now I'm not saying football is evil. I'm just pointing out examples in our culture where masculinity needs to be redefined. We can still play football safely AND redefine masculinity. It simply requires effort to change the culture of the sport. And sometimes putting in the effort is hard work.
The most deadly example of masculinity gone wrong is mass shootings. When a man perpetrates violence, especially mass shootings, it's important to consider how our culture perpetuates the idea that men need to use violence to be masculine. That violence is an understandable outlet for anger. That the one who wins is the one with the most power and strength. Winning is everything. Go big or go home. Might makes right. All of these messages contribute to the problem.
I've put together some ideas that will help redefine masculinity to a more inclusive, pro-social, and healthy definition. These will include a wide range of experiences and traits that men share.
Allow men and boys to express a range of emotions. When a boy cries (or a man for that matter!), comfort him. Refrain from saying, "Tough it out" or "It's not that big of a deal." Men feel a range of emotions just like women.
Stop using the phrase "boys will be boys" to excuse disrespectful behavior. Bullying, vandalism, and other disrespectful "mischief" isn't funny and it isn't a phase. Boys don't need to "sow wild oats" in order to become men. Respect for others is a value that can be taught early and often.
Encourage the men in your life to seek help when they are struggling with a mental illness. Men refrain from seeking therapy and taking medication because they are afraid of being "weak". In my field of eating disorder work, men with eating disorders often go undiagnosed and untreated because of the stigma that it's a woman's disease. Men who get the help they need with mental health issues will have a better quality of life.
Allow more flexibility in gender roles. Allow men to foster their nurturing skills. We are seeing more work flexibility that allows fathers to take time for their families, and this is good! Men who share in household labor and take on tasks to help raise children are happier and healthier. Teach boys to prepare meals and change diapers.
Stop assuming that boys with feminine traits are gay. And stop assuming that all gay men are effeminate. Men and women have more overlap in their traits than we typically think. Some men don't enjoy sports. Some men like chick flicks (another cultural phenomena to redefine, but that's for another time). Some men aren't competitive and aggressive in their careers. Some men are sensitive. Some men have low sex drives. All of this is ok. There are so many ways to be a man!
Teach boys the power of humility and the dangers of pride. Teach boys that forgiveness is better than revenge or getting even. Forgiveness isn't weakness. Revenge isn't necessary to prove your manhood. Sometimes the manly thing to do is to stand down, admit you were wrong, walk away, or let it go.
Do not accept rape myths. Teach boys the importance of consent. Let them know that a sexual relationship isn't about proving their manhood. It's about sharing, giving, and honor.
Do not accept domestic violence or bullying. Violence in actions or words is a way to control and manipulate and assert dominance. Did you know that about 50% of mass shooters are also domestic violence perpetrators? Men don't need to be dominant to be masculine. Instead, learn the art of defending some who cannot defend themselves.
All of these items will allow for a more inclusive definition of masculinity that our cultures desperately needs, but I'm sure there are many more. What would you add to this list?