The Man Box: Fact or Fiction?
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Welcome to my weekly Q&A roundup. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)
If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions—tough questions, brave questions, you name it.
The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. So each week, I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.
The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusivity.
• Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.
• Inclusivity: bringing others along in the journey.
A Tragic Price to Pay for Toxic Masculinity
Note: This is a heavy topic; please proceed with courage.
Why do people say that traditional masculinity is toxic? It sounds like a self-serving myth more than an honest cause.
We need to start by defining our terms. Masculinity is not inherently malevolent or virulent. Nor is it inherently singular—there’s more than one way to “be a man.”
What is malevolent, virulent, and singular, however, is the Man Box. The Man Box is a rigid set of behaviors and beliefs that men are expected to adhere to. These behaviors, beliefs, and expectations form the foundation of traditional masculinity. Men are not the problem. Toxic masculinity is.
Society pressures men to fit inside this narrow, toxic Man Box, and it’s not easy.
Here are some of the rules men must follow:
Cannot show emotion
Cannot show weakness
Cannot be vulnerable
Cannot depend financially on others
Cannot hug puppies (or kittens)
As the American Psychological Association (APA) discovered, these rules come with dire consequences. Here’s what they Tweeted in January of 2019:
Did you catch that?
“...traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage.”
The message that the APA wanted to get across in 280 characters or less epitomizes why gender equity matters to men as much as it matters to women.
Now, let’s use data to illuminate the hidden costs of traditional masculinity. (If you’re a man, know a man, or love someone who is a man, then the following consequences will matter to you.)
Men in the US:
Commit 90% of homicides
Represent 77% of homicide victims
Account for 79% of all suicides even though they report less depression than women
Have a life expectancy that is 4.9 years less than women as a result of poor self-care
“Because of the way many men have been brought up—to be self-sufficient and able to take care of themselves—any sense that things aren’t OK needs to be kept secret,” says Fredric Rabinowitz, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Redlands in California.
The toxicity of the Man Box increases as issues of race and sexual orientation are added to the mix. Here are two reasons to help explain this intersection.
First, men from communities of color must contend with racial stereotyping. For example, society views Asian men as less manly than Black men. Similar stereotyping holds true for non-heterosexual men compared to heterosexual men.
Second, psychological stress from fleeing one’s home country, navigating immigration systems, and coping with historic racism adds a layer of emotional suffering for men.
The Man Box’s economic consequences are dire, too. Suicides cost the US $93.5 billion in 2013 alone. And yet, we could save $2.50 for every $1 invested in better psychological, medical, and counseling integration—a measure that would support the mental health of people around the country.
There’s nothing mythical about the millions of men who suffer under the pressure of conformity. All men deserve the freedom that’s waiting for them outside the Man Box.
If you or someone you know aspire to experience this freedom, here are a few resources to guide your journey:
A Call to Men: promotes healthy and respectful manhood by providing educational programs and technical assistance. (This organization formally supports the UN’s Sustainable Development goals, especially as they relate to Goal Five: Gender Equality.)
The National At-Home Dad Network: combats the loneliness that comes with being a stay-at-home dad by advocating for and educating fathers who are the primary caregivers of their children.
The Mask You Live In (movie): a gripping illustration of how society’s narrow definitions of masculinity impact the daily lives of men and boys; includes insights by experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education, and media.
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