It’s so hard to talk about toxic masculinity with your younger brother when everything around him centers around the idea that those toxic masculinity qualities are what determine your maleness
UNDER FEMINISM: MODERN MEN'S IDENTITY IS IN CRISIS
By Jason Trinh
I would like to thank ContraPoints for the inspiration.
Please check her out because obviously she is smarter than I am.
Growing up as a male transgender, the idea of masculinity and what consists of a man’s identity have been haunting me as much as, or even more than, any other cisgender male. There are many things that cisgender men, and women too, take for granted. Imagine that there are people struggling with the way they are addressed: just being called “Ma'am” by a stranger would potentially ruin their day, or being invoked their birth name would make them seriously uncomfortable. Or remember that small “M” and “F” letters in the “Sex” section in your ID/passport/visa?
You would never really care about it as long as it’s not mistaken, but there are people who never want to show their document because of that small letter, and those same people are fighting restlessly in different countries everyday to get that part of their document changed. And trust me, for those who know me personally, maybe some of you would be surprised that I struggle with all of the aforementioned too. That’s just the gist of what it’s like to live as a male transgender, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make in this article.
As you can see from my own anecdote, male transgenders, like me, are generally even more anxious about how we appear in front of people than our cisgender counterparts. We want to be addressed and to be treated as males. It’s a real kind of anxiety. And under such anxiety, many male transgenders don’t even know how to signal to others that they are men. Being a member of a Vietnamese transgender group on Facebook, I have seen many naive posts from younger transgenders, and sometimes even older people. “I like playing with stuffed animals, am I really a man?”, “I cry a lot, does that make me feminine?”, “I don’t like playing video games or going to the gym, am I qualified enough to be a man?”, etc. Those kind of post exists, and although I admit that I have laughed at some of them, I know that underneath those naive thoughts is a serious issue that is not talked about enough among the community of people who identify themselves as man (which means both male cisgenders and male transgenders): the identity of a modern man. What does it mean to be a man?
If you ask my great grandfather, who was a part of the nationalist Confucian movement fighting against the encroachment of “Western thoughts” from the French colonials, he would say that it is “Tề gia, Trị quốc, Bình thiên hạ” (Settle his Family, Rule his Country, Stabilize his People). It is a literal quote from the Vietnamese Confucians in the past, and I believe that other Eastern countries that are influenced by Confucius can relate as well. From the East to the West, there are historical and mythological figures that glorify this role model of a man - the breadwinner of the family, the politician of his country and the “bigger person” who is capable of bringing peace to his society. In the West, although maybe not influenced by Confucius, one can clearly observes that similar thoughts had been applied.
Media-wise, the Hollywood has a history of upholding those thoughts into their movies, resulting in movies after movies about the same model of the white, cisgender male hero who fights the evil to protect his family or his lover and the wider society. Many of the heroes like that still exist today in modern media. Politics-wise, almost all famous politicians are men. And then you might say, but it’s because those men deserved their positions, because women didn’t get there. If that’s what you think, maybe you should carefully examine the role of privileges in a system that clearly has this idea of the “Tề gia, Trị quốc, Bình thiên hạ” men.
However, in the past few decades and especially in the past few year, things have been rapidly changing. The feminist movement has become stronger and stronger everyday, the #MeToo movement is considered seriously at many places and the female representation in media, in politics and in jobs that are traditionally considered “for men” like engineering or hard science is increasingly encouraged day by day. Girls who once did not really have any role models to look up to, now have new female role models in various channels. Maybe she loves Wonder Woman. Maybe she loves Captain Marvel. Maybe she loves Hillary Clinton. In terms of political representations, there are many examples, but think about it this way: Sciences Po Paris, the most elite political institution in the entire France and the third in the world that aims to educate future world leaders, is having more female students than males (or at least that’s the case with our Le Havre campus).
Analyzing from an intersectional side of feminism, it is observed that people are becoming more familiar with the idea of non-binary gender identity and gender expression: people who neither identify as man or as woman exist, and they sometimes are very famous people (have you seen Sam Smith?). Gender activism in the 21st century is literally the Eureka moment of “Oh, so gender is a spectrum, not binaries!”. Obviously, though not enough, the modern movement of intersectional feminism is making the life of women and LGBTQ+ people better than what it used to be half a century ago.
But, what about men? What about the cisgender, straight men? One might criticize me for bringing this question up, “Why does everything have to be about men? Why can’t we have the feminist movement for ourselves?”. As a male feminist, I hear you, because genuinely saying there have been some very horrible trolls making the “men suffer too” or “what about men?” kinds of comment on every debate about feminism, and I dislike them as much as you do. While I agree that the feminist movement is one focusing on the empowerment of women and changing social attitude towards women in power, the intersectionality element of the movement (which affected the issue of LGBTQ+ people as well) cannot really ignore the cisgender, straight men; because as much as this movement affects the life of women, it also rapidly affects the life of men.
Once educated to be the man of “Tề gia, Trị quốc, Bình thiên hạ”, now the feminist movement is calling out behaviors and ideas of what consists of being a man “toxic”. Toxic masculinity is a real social term, and it is being used a lot by both the progressive press and people on social media to criticize some toxic elements of masculinity. Remember what I mentioned earlier in the article about some male transgenders asking the kind of “I cry a lot, does that make me feminine?” questions? It turns out that cisgender and straight men ask those kind of questions too!
Men are generally affected by the idea of masculinity and what makes us men: like women who feel compelled to wear makeup or high heels to feel feminine, men also feel compelled to do certain things to feel masculine, like lifting some weights or dressing like Thomas Selby in Peaky Blinders (that’s an extreme example but you get my point). And are those things toxic? Absolutely not! When you use the term “burger”, you are referring to the general idea of burgers; and when you say “chicken burgers”, you are specifically pinpointing to the chicken burgers, not all kinds of burger (vegetarian, beef, ham, etc). Just like masculinity, when people refer to “toxic masculinity”, they don’t mean ALL kinds of masculinity are toxic, just a certain kinds. As a male feminist (yes, I have to emphasize that again), I understand this. I myself personally uphold certain traditional qualities of masculinity too.
However, do other men who might or might not be very involved in the feminist movement understand that? The young men, the middle school boys who are just exposed to the culture of internet? Toxic masculinity is a very complicated issue that took me years to really recognize and understand, and granted I am a progressive male transgender who easily sympathize with other marginalized groups. How about the men and the boys who are admittedly privileged in our society that is still very patriarch at many places? As ContraPoints, my favourite female transgender youtuber, has argued, the feminist movement has been focusing on the negative sides of being a man and especially being traditionally masculine: which makes sense, because toxic masculinity is a thing and its consequences such as male’s high suicide rate, emotional repression and gender related crimes affect many women and this is a movement of women and argurably other intersectional marginalized groups.
Nonetheless, the emphasize on positive male role models is seriously lacking and there are serious consequences to that. Why do you think young men (and older men too) are drawn to the right wing more than women? Why do you think right-wing political figures such as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro attract so many of them?
Why do you think those very same men are responsible for so many hate crimes and mass shootings? Why do you think there are cases of terrorists who were raised by independent females but are very drawn to ‘powerful’ male figures like Hitler? The answer is simple: the feminist movement and the left are forgetting about the effects you are changing on men’s identity and men’s life, but the right wing doesn’t -
what they’re doing is exactly to preserve the old, glorious and familiar role model of the “classic”, “intellectual” men like Peterson or Shapiro, or the “soldier” men like the way Fox News is glorifying the military. By any means, I am not trying to blame feminists and the left in general for the moral corruption of some men, but rather arguing that the exclusion of the modern, feminist men’s identity in the discussion is genuinely harmful.
So. let's get back to our question. What does it mean to be a man? Under a new feminist era, this question hasn’t been answered properly. Feminists have talked a lot about the “Don’ts” for males, but rarely the “Dos”, and obviously there aren’t a lot of progressive role models that can appeal to the generation of young men. It’s so hard to talk about toxic masculinity with your younger brother when everything around him centers around the idea that those toxic masculinity qualities are what determine your maleness. Keanu Reeves and Justin Trudeau might be two very good options, but 1) they are all figures that kids don’t really care about and 2) Keanu is not well known enough and appeals more to (straight) women than men and Trudeau literally just got into some racist scandal.
The role model of modern men’s identity is lacking, and it is obviously not something that can be solved in a day. But, feminists can’t create such models for men. Men have to take that serious responsibility to redefine what masculinity means in a modern era.
This is indeed a feminist problem, but this requires the involvement of many men to solve.