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UIS Professor Unpacks 'Toxic Masculinity'

Lou Fine for Fox Feature Syndicate
Comic book panel showing young boy (Dan Garret, aka Blue Beetle) being told not to cry after the death of his mother. From page 3 of Blue Beetle #1.

Googlesearches for the term "toxic masculinity" reached their peak following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida earlier in February, according to the search engine's analytics.

Social scientists and psychologists use the concept to explain why men are more prone to violence, for instance. But there are also real-world, negative consequences for men who might feel pressured to maintain the social status quo when it comes to presenting their gender identity.

So says professor Michael Murphy who teaches gender theory at the University of Illinois Springfield. His new book, which will be released in April, is called Living out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History Society and Culture.

Murphy recently spoke with us about masculinity and why some are calling it "toxic":


MURPHY: By sex, we usually mean the physical or biological traits of the human body. They would allow a person to be distinguished as male or female, most commonly. By gender, we're usually referring to the social, cultural and psychological aspects of what it means to be a woman or man, most commonly, in a given society - in a given time or place. So we're talking about the difference between biology and socio/cultural characteristics of being a man or a woman.

OTWELL: As you've studied and written about, gender is a more fluid concept, that changes from culture to culture, but even from country to country perhaps?

MURPHY: Oh completely. Yes. What it means to be a man differs dramatically from society to society and it also differs dramatically over time

OTWELL: So gender studies in an academic sense often deals with females and non-binary people, that is people who don't identify as simply being female or male. What are some of the key things we know about masculinity though in particular, and why is that not as often discussed?

MURPHY: We tend not to talk about it as much because academic women's studies was started as a corrective to the male-centered nature of teaching and knowledge production inside universities. History was usually all about men, and women's studies was a correction to that. There's been a reluctance to extend some of the knowledge and learning that has been developed inside academic women studies to focus on boys and men and masculinity. Nevertheless starting, I think in the 1980s or so, there was a greater willingness to do that. So it is now not unusual for men and masculinity to be covered in say an "introduction to women and gender studies" course. There are quite a few things that we've learned about men and masculinity by studying them through the lens of feminist thinking. One of the most basic things is that being a male and being a man are not the same thing.

That being said, a "man" is not the inevitable outcome of biological "maleness." In fact, in order to be a man, you have to both identify as a man and you have to act like a man. So there's an identification or a psychological aspect of being a man, and there's a performative aspect to being a man as well. We also know that men regulate other men's status as a men; that men are performing masculinity for an audience of other men, and men have the power to grant and withhold other men's status as men. So globally, there are some traits that we've identified. They're usually called the three P's. They are "provide, protect and procreate." For a man to be considered a man in his society, he needs to be demonstrating those three traits or characteristics. In the industrial west, there are some refinements to that that we have noted and they include things like: the requirement that one control or suppress one's emotions, a high value placed on social dominance, a willingness to be violent, sexual assertiveness or aggression, risk taking, extreme self-reliance, the subordination of women, misogyny and homophobia. So there are a number of traits and characteristics that are associated with the masculine ideal that men are judged against on a day-to-day basis.

OTWELL: So one of the things that I've noticed popping up more recently, and I think part of it has to do with conversations around mass shootings - in particular, the one that recently happened in Florida, is the term "toxic masculinity." So I was hoping you could help us unpack this and explain what people mean when they are throwing around this term.

MURPHY: So the term toxic masculinity is one that's being used both inside academic circles, especially in sociology and psychology, but it's also being used in activist circles and it shows up a lot in the mass media, especially around incidents of violence, like mass shootings in schools, et cetera. So the term toxic masculinity implies that the pursuit of a particular masculine ideal can be harmful to both the man who's attempting to pursue that masculine ideal, and to the society more widely. In other words, the effort to be a man according to how man is defined in your particular society can actually be harmful to oneself. And it can be harmful to the wider society. It can cause harm in both a physical and a psychological sense. And the pursuit of this masculine ideal can lead to less rewarding friendships or romantic relationships. It can cause higher rates of depression, higher rates of injury from violence, a higher incidence of suicide, and overall lower life expectancy for men who attempt to live up to an ideal that for many men is really an impossible thing to ever attain.

Let me give you an example of toxic masculinity that can help us understand this. If you are a man who believes that being a man requires you to be extremely self-reliant, in other words, to not rely upon others, but to only rely upon yourself in order to be successful, then during a crisis that might happen to your life, for instance, a death in the family, or relationship trouble or the appearance of some kinds of health symptoms, you might be less likely to seek out help from a doctor or a counselor. In fact, we know that men are less likely to seek out help from doctors and counselors during these times. So psychologically, one of the effects of this can mean poor relationship quality, poor mental health with higher rates of depression. It can cause loneliness, it can cause isolation. Some of the physical consequences are the later detection of diseases like cancer, with worse health outcomes because diseases are detected later and those lead to a lower life expectancy.

OTWELL: When it comes to mass shootings, we know the majority, the vast majority are done by males. Talk about the connection between toxic masculinity as some people understand it and mass shootings, if there are correlations to be drawn.

MURPHY: It's one of the arguments that have been made about mass shootings for quite some time now. They are overwhelmingly committed by men. There's no question about that, and one of the arguments that has been made is that very often mass shootings are being done by men who were attempting to live up to a kind of masculine ideal that they feel they have been denied. One aspect of the masculine ideal in industrialized western societies is power and dominance and control, and for men who feel that they are not able to achieve power, dominance and control, or men who have felt that they were humiliated in the workplace or humiliated in an educational institution - humiliated in the military, for instance, men who don't feel that they are enjoying the kind of power, dominance and control that they believe they deserve as men - some of those men are taking up arms to demonstrate their dominance.

In other words, they're performing the masculine ideal by using guns to dominate, control and overpower other people. So that does seem to be a connection and this is not just a theoretical connection. When we look at the writings, the social media postings; when we learn about many of the men who commit mass shootings, there's a pretty clear connection between a sense of what we think of as aggrieved masculinity and a sense of entitlement that has not been realized, and the actions that these men take. They are, in their minds, acting like men by picking up a gun and shooting other people.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.