Unmasking Toxic Masculinity in Adolescence

(From left)Ileana Jiménez, Henry Gonzalez, Adrian Pinos, Walker White, Justin, Rafael (Photo Credit: ?)

Earlier this fall, I had the amazing opportunity to sit on a panel on toxic masculinity at the Calhoun School in New York. There, we watched the documentary film The Mask You Live In, which examines the toxic messages that boys are exposed to on a day-to-day basis in the U.S. It encapsulates the ways in which the hyper-masculine culture of athletics, families, media, politics, and schools plant the seeds of misogyny and violence in boys from a young age.

After the screening, I joined a classmate of mine, Adrian, and three male students from Calhoun in discussing how we’ve been personally affected by these dangerous messages, and the ways in which we see destructive gender roles being perpetually enforced around us. 

The Mask You Live In Poster
Poster for The Mask You Live In (Photo Credit: The Representation Project)

The Mask You Live In was an astounding, but draining documentary. It argues that from a young age, boys are taught that the defining characteristics of toxic masculinity are characterized by unhealthy expectations of external success and domination, both physically and psychologically. To be anything but athletic, emotionless, wealthy, and sexually active (particularly engaging in heterosexual sex) is to be inferior. This causes many boys to hide behind a “mask,” never openly discussing their emotions in fear of being ostracized as many boys are when they do discuss their feelings. What is created, then, is room for violence, misogyny, queerphobia, and transphobia to grow.

The boys who conform to this idea of a “man’s man” are often plagued by violent and misogynistic tendencies. They fight in order to exemplify their domination, and often feel a great deal of pressure to play sports. According to stopbullying.gov, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Services, boys between the ages of 12-18 are 2.5 times as likely to bully and be bullied as girls.

Because masculinity is likened to strength and success, femininity is likened to weakness and failure. Women, because they are not men, are seen as inferior. Boys sexualize women because they are taught to be sexually predatory and women exist merely for their pleasure. Queer men are also seen as inferior because they are seen as gender non-conforming and are stereotyped as “feminine,” which already implies a sexist attitude towards girls and women.

Even heterosexual males who do not conform to gender roles are harassed and abused. Because of this, many boys feel the need to hide much of themselves. They hide their emotions, their sexualities, and much of their entire identity. They put on a false personality and act tough. This causes many psychological problems in boys, and plays a large part in perpetuating even more violence. Out of the notable school shootings profiled by Wikipedia, 97% were conducted by young men. These are boys who never felt like they could truly express themselves, and turned to violence.

The documentary goes on for nearly two hours discussing all the ways in which society creates these toxic ideas of what it means to be man. What resonated with me the most was not a single topic but rather, the fact that I could personally relate to every single segment in the film. I found myself tearing up more than once, sympathizing with the boys whose stories were being told. I also found myself thinking a lot about the messages in my own life and environment.

I became mindful of how these messages have affected me throughout my life. I became mindful of how little I have spoken to my friends about my family’s alcoholism, or my parents’ divorce, and how little they have spoken to me about any of their issues. I became mindful of the pressure I felt from my father when I was growing up. He’d always tried to get me into sports, placing me into several baseball and football leagues, despite the amount of times I told him I didn’t enjoy playing sports. I became mindful of how often he asked if I had a girl or if I’d lost my virginity yet. When I didn’t have a girlfriend by the age of fourteen, he asked if I was a “little fag.” He often referred to anything that was stereotypically feminine as “gay” in a demeaning tone of voice. In middle school, I became mindful of the use of the word “gay” to mean stupid or strange.

I also became mindful of all the pornographic images I’d been exposed to. I remembered my sister cheekily showing me a Playboy magazine when I was six. I remembered all my friends showing me how to find nude pictures and pornographic videos on the Internet when I was eleven. I remembered the words used to describe women on these websites: “Slut gets dominated,” “Bitch gets fucked in the ass,” “Big tit whore loves cock.” It’s all degrading and violent imagery, perpetuating the exact expectation of male dominance that we see everywhere in our culture, not just in pornography.

I became mindful that I was simultaneously a part of the problem and a victim of these toxic messages.

During our all-boy panel at Calhoun, which included four boys of color and one white boy, we all shared the sentiment that the film in its entirety was completely relatable. My classmate and I then read pieces we had written in our feminism class about how toxic masculinity affected us as boys and young men. I had never spoken about these issues on such a personal and open-ended level. It was a liberating experience. It felt as if I had been given a voice for the first time. I hope to continue to talk about this problem and work towards finding a way to solve it. Looking at education, the media, and pop culture, we must find a way to eradicate this troubling ideology.

We cannot live in a world where being a man is equated to being an emotionless, violent, disgusting being, and being anything outside of that expectation is cause for being harassed and abused. 

7 thoughts on “Unmasking Toxic Masculinity in Adolescence

  1. In your post, you describe how you went from being bombarded by toxic masculinity and victimized by it to self-actualized. That is an incredible transformation! I admire how comfortable you have gotten at telling your story.

  2. Your analysis of hyper-masculinity in relation to “The Mask We Live In” was extremely eloquent as you discussed how you related with many of the boys in the film through these experiences. Your acknowledgement of the ways in which gender messages affect all men, no matter how they identify, is very eye-opening.

  3. This was an amazing blog post. Your analysis of the violent pornographic images that you’ve come across and its relationship with hyper-masculinity really opened my eyes to how sometimes many violent events that are considered male rites of passsage can implement hyper-masculinity and can also be sexist.

  4. This is a beautiful analysis of the type of “toxic” relationships and expectations young men and boys are expected to take part in. Being constantly exposed to pornographic images and videos as if it was a real way to behave with women and the unrelenting pressure to be a man and never show emotion are a very real problems that are overlooked a lot in our culture.

  5. “I became mindful that I was simultaneously a part of the problem and a victim of these toxic messages.” Such a powerful line and a powerful story. Your analysis and narrative on how toxic our society’s notion of what a man should aspire to be is very well done. I felt myself nodding at every single line you wrote because it made me realize just how multifaceted sexism and misogyny is. Much like other forms of oppression, it victimizes everyone who is involved with it.

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