“Man Up”: How Social Frameworks Reinforce Toxic Masculinity

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

By Radheesh Ameresekere | Canada

(TW) Suicide, domestic violence, sexual-assault

The old adage “man up” has been used to reinforce traditional albeit toxic ideals of masculinity, especially in young men.

It is repeated when a boy cries, when he lacks aggression, when he expresses interest in typically feminine hobbies, or when he does not fit within the confines of the gender binary. It is employed in response to actions that contradict the “superman” of the 20th century; the use of this phrase has heavy implications on masculinity.

Simply put, you have to “man up” if you’re not man “enough”. This belief is largely a byproduct of the society we live in, which normalizes men as the primary holders of power and demonizes any deviation from these norms. Unfortunately, these frameworks are killing young men at an increasingly alarming rate.

What does it mean to be a “real man”?

Generally, this “real man” is reminiscent of a rather emotionless stoic: a Nietzschean Ubermensch. Machismo, dominance, and strength are seen as assets in real men. A real man ought to not show much affection, for that is the role of a woman. If the real man is unable to provide, he is certainly a failure. Just to name a few.

The issue with these myths is that they actually paint a rather negative profile for men. They have a dangerous tendency to isolate men in society, dehumanise them both at a microscopic and macroscopic level, and cripple them emotionally rendering them numb and apathetic.

However, the problem is far from merely being some sociological paradigm, only meant to be an exercise-in-thought for those pursuing a liberal arts degree. The “real man” and his demands are having lethal and intergenerational effects on women, children, and men themselves.

What are the physiological effects of toxic masculinity?

Generally, the problems first sow their seeds in the youngest of men. There is an incredible pressure on young boys to be emotionally stoic leaders and to emulate the traditional archetypes of manhood. Boys don’t cry. Boys will be boys. So on and so forth.

Now, these are by no means inherently negative traits; strength and capability are excellent traits in anyone. However, those expectations dangerously obscure our vision to the needs at hand. The issue is that young boys actually require more emotional support and stewardship in childhood and adolescence, not less.

Neuroscientist Allan N. Schore found that boys who develop slower neurologically later have a predisposition to struggle with emotional intelligence and regulation. When we collectively impose an expectation on our boys to be emotionless and detached we fail them on both a biological and social level. The minute we teach boys that kindness is weakness, we dehumanise them and alienate them at a neurological level. We set a dangerous precedent which will stay with them throughout their lives.

This issue doesn’t just disappear as our boys grow into young men. Male youth are committing suicide at an alarming rate. The Sandford Children’s Clinic reported that boys are 4 times more likely to die from suicide than girls, and the trend continues well into adulthood. The World Health Organization reported that nearly 40% of countries report an alarming 15 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 men. While it is naïve to suggest that men have some natural predisposition to suicide, it is more than fair to isolate the correlation between masculinity and suicide.

The lack of emotional communication and transparency in boys later manifests itself as men seeking fewer mental-health support than their female counterparts. This trend seems to encourage dangerous coping mechanisms, as men are nearly two times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence than women. We emotionally damage young men, but still expect them to be self-sustaining.

Read this article about Anthony Bourdain and the burden of toxic masculinity on men’s mental health.

However, these frameworks are not only ruining men in death. These conceptions have dangerous implications against men in life too. With men facing domestic and sexual violence at an alarming rate, the lack of social recognition is appalling. We have collectively agreed to make the abuse suffered by men and boys a taboo subject, better dealt by a 5th of Jack than through social support systems. The narrative here needs to change to protect all vulnerable parties in society – not just those who fit the conventional build of a victim.

Now, this is not to suggest even for a moment that the focus should be shifted away from women and children, but must extend its scope to include men. Cathy Young, writing for Time, criticized contemporary social movements for their double standards in addressing the treatment of male victims of physical and sexual abuse. It’s time to start paying attention to such criticisms. Justice does not have to be a zero-sum game to be equitable – we do not have to ignore one party to help another.

How the international system is failing young men

Violence against men is a tragically standard occurrence in international affairs as well.

In her work for International Criminal Law Review, scholar of internal law Solange Mouthaan argues that there is a clear double standard in addressing violence against men in cases of conflict, with such cases being ignored in favour of considering violence against women and children.

In his work Gendercide and Genocide, Adam Jones argued that men and boys are disproportionately targeted victims of structural violence in terms of war and genocide.

Non-combatant men and boys are far too often slaughtered at vastly disproportionate rates.

Wartime sexual violence has also been used as a means of psychological warfare during combat, meant to demoralize the enemy. In every sense, sex has been weaponised against those in the fray, and is in complete violation of international law. The international community is complacently ignoring mass atrocities against men and boys. The narrative needs to change. The norms need to change. They need to change not merely to soothe some postmodern rejection of tradition and gender-canon. They need to change to protect all those victimized in society. We need to do a better job of protecting our men, women, and children from the ugly shadow of patriarchal violence, depression, and apathy.

Criticisms of toxic masculinity, starting from the very roots of childhood extending as far as international law, do not have to be criticisms of masculinity in general. There is plenty to be celebrated, and this reformation can be a positive project. Strength, stoicism, and capability do not need to be synonymous with isolation, apathy, and aggression to paint a picture of the new “superman”.

The emotional needs of young men can be met without making them weak, and both domestic and international law reformation is necessary to stop treating men like second class citizens. We can preserve the things that make men who they are, without forcing them into an arbitrary box of masculinity. We can do better.


The views and opinions expressed in this entry are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Zeitgeist. Assumptions made in the analysis are not reflective of the position of any entity other than the author(s). The Zeitgeist does not verify the accuracy of any of the information contained in the entry. The Zeitgeist is not to be held responsible for misuse, reuse, recycled and cited and/or uncited copies of content within this entry.



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