As a feminist male ally, I’ve been in a continuous cycle of internal evaluation and analysis of my feminist ideals.
As Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mentions in her TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,”: “We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity becomes this hard small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability.”
Growing up as a boy, I’ve lived and breathed toxic masculinity. Hyper-masculinity policed the halls and playground at my elementary and middle school. As kids, we were constantly on guard to protect our immaculate masculinity from anything that was not hetero-normative. We lived as actors. Day in and day out, we played our hyper-masculine roles by selectively choosing the words we used, by being conscious of the tone of our voice, and by carefully choosing the way we walked, stood, and sat. As time passed and we grew closer, the all too familiar phrase, “no homo,” was thrown around as a safety phrase. It was a toxic environment that was difficult to challenge due to the stigmatized notion of queerness.
In my high school’s feminism class, one of our first assignments was to write a story in response to “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and Guante’s “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’.” I chose to write about my experience as a boy growing up under toxic masculinity. When we shared the next day, I was surprised that Henry, another male ally in the class, had a similar piece to mine. But in retrospect, this was not a coincidence. Toxic masculinity is a global phenomenon, and it is through this perspective that my passion for feminism has grown.
But to say that I am a feminist because “men are oppressed by male supremacy too,” not only is far from the truth but it is exactly the type of ignorance that perpetuates the patriarchy! To say this is much like the racist declaration that #AllLivesMatter in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Earlier this fall, I attended a screening of the film The Mask You Live In, and I learned a lot about what it means to be a boy growing up within our toxic environment.
In the film, educator Ashanti Branch, ran a workshop with a group of boys that demonstrated the mask we live in. Ashanti handed the boys a sheet of paper with a blank mask on it. On the front of the mask, he asked them to write the emotions that they show on the outside. Once they were done, he then told them to write on the opposite side of the paper, the emotions they hide on the inside. After this exercise, the boys traded their papers and shared what each had written. Many of the boys shared the same emotional conflicts. They found that they show their happiness, anger, and “toughness” on the outside, but on the inside they were hurting and emotional. They hid their pain and sadness as they were afraid of being judged.
Breaking the silence is essential to the liberation of boys and men. It is through inspiring teachers like Ashanti, that schools can foster an environment based on true brotherhood as opposed to toxic masculinity.
While we are hurt by the patriarchy, it’s not the point. The point is what becomes of all that toxicity. Toxic masculinity is relevant to feminism because the way we are brought up is based on a very degrading view of women and girls. It defines male gender role as violent, emotionless, and sexually aggressive.
When I try to explain my feminist views to my friends and family, I get mixed reactions. I am aware of my privilege as a male, and when I raise issues of toxic masculinity, I understand how it can be misunderstood as an attempt to put male needs first; which of course, is not true feminism. Instead, I want to explain why examining toxic masculinity is important for me to do as a male feminist.
Toxic masculinity strips men and boys from their humanity which leads to an entire realm of violence. When we define masculinity as an emotionless, physically and psychologically coarse personality, it is no wonder why there are so many violent crimes committed by men that are related to misogyny and homophobia. Take school shootings for example, recent studies have shown that 97 percent of school shooters are male and 79 percent of them are White. Additionally, for female rape survivors, 98.1% of the time a man was the perpetrator, and for male rape survivors, 93% of the time, a man was the perpetrator.
I have had to battle many internal conflicts in order to understand my position as a feminist, and have come to understand one essential rule that I think all male allies must understand: It would be sexist and patriarchal of me to support the dismantling of women’s oppression only when it has to do with my own experience of toxic masculinity.
Patriarchy has created toxic masculinity for me to oppress women and other marginalized groups. In other words, I am a boy living in a male dominated society, and calling myself a feminist does not stop me from perpetuating issues related to patriarchy. Men are expected to be hard and strong, yet because we are not taught to examine and share our feelings, we become internally fragile and externally coarse. The liberation of boys is one step that we, as a society, should strive towards as it would eliminate a great deal of violence and hatred.