One thing that the long quarantine has revealed to us is that a lot of “guy” things are kind of ancillary to survival. Stripped of the necessity of doing them, where does that leave men who define themselves by those parameters?
Toxic masculinity is defined as a collection of cultural norms that are harmful to the men who perpetuate them and to society in general. It does not mean all masculinity is poisonous. Instead, it’s a way to look at what is “manly” and assess whether it actually helps or hurts.
One good example is sorting various activities into men’s duties and women (or effeminate, usually rendered as “gay”) ones. I’ve seen men question whether things such as cooking or washing their buttholes is gay. President Donald Trump, who desperately wants to be perceived as an aggressively macho dude, once claimed that changing a baby’s diaper made men “like the wife.” Even artistic endeavors like painting and playing the piano get lumped into the “is this for pussies” existential crisis despite the fact the vast majority of celebrated artists and pianists are male. This is a great example of the toxicity because it shows how men can dominate an arena and still punish men for being in it. It’s not only harmful; it’s galactically stupid.
This is all a general overall problem in society, but the quarantine has put it all under pressure. With kids and parents home all the time we don’t need as many tires changed, or little league games coached, or grill masters for Sunday ball game get togethers. We need diapers changed, buttons sewn, meals prepared, houses cleaned, and most of all families under stress emotionally cared for. There is only so much puttering in the garden or minor fixes that you can do to stave off addressing the domestic needs of the moment.
Toxic masculinity has left men ill-equipped for the crisis because on the extreme end of the spectrum is the notion that feelings and vulnerability are the domain of the female. Melanie Hamlett wrote a tremendous article in Harper’s Bazaar last year about how men increasingly disconnect from each other and rely on their wives and girlfriend’s entirely for their emotional needs. That’s a burden at the best of times, but when everyone is stuck in close proximity with nothing to do it can become unbearable. Men’s emotional needs go unfulfilled, as do the needs of the women they make responsible for them and who neglect their own needs in return.
The good news is that this crisis might have finally started the damn to break. Without game days or bar trips a lot of men are starting to embrace more face-to-face activities… albeit virtually. Keeping in touch with male friends through Zoom or WhatsApp and other more intimate means besides focusing on exterior stimulus like watching a fight on television is putting holes in the walls that men have pointlessly built between themselves due to toxic masculinity.
That said, it needs to extend to the home. This is a time to discover the joy and pride of domesticity while helping families get through this. It’s a chance to redistribute the household labor more equitably now that seeing how hard it is to do is impossible to miss. There is nothing inherently unmasculine about making the kids’ lunches, straightening up the living room, or holding someone when the most terrible aspects of this long pandemic overwhelm them.
There’s also nothing un-macho about being the one who is overwhelmed and afraid or needing a long hot bath to unwind from the pressures of the moment. We can use this moment in history to re-write what it means to be a man and to answer the call of duty instead of insisting the world change to preserve a narrow interpretation of ourselves. When 2020 gets left behind, one of the things in the tall kitchen scented garbage bag should be the cultural norms that only made it harder.