What is toxic masculinity?

Tom Ross-Williams is a volunteer for GREAT Men, a project that aims to engage men and boys in the movement towards gender equality. In response to the themes explored in The Writer, he looks at the term 'toxic masculinity' and how men can resist the stereotypes and create a new kind of male identity. 

When people read the phrase “toxic masculinity” they think about Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Harvey Weinstein – men portrayed so odiously they might as well be Marvel villains. Those men have nothing to do with us, the modern theatre-going man – we eschew lad culture, proudly support gender equality, have plenty of friends who are women and happily define as feminist. But only seeing the most explicit hyper-masculine behaviour as toxic is actually part of the problem because ultimately it just lets us off the hook.

I conceive of toxic masculinity as a pyramid of violence – with explicit and manifest violence at the top and a very different kind of violence at the bottom. The violence we find at the bottom is latent, insidious and often arises from a place of passivity rather than action. It’s the violence of men taking up space – literal or metaphorical, it’s the violence of forcing yourself to be a certain type of man, it’s the violence of calling a woman a ball-buster. And it’s these little fumes of toxicity that rise from the very bottom of the pyramid which concentrate to uphold the extreme violence at the top. 98% of all mass shootings in the US are committed by men, 2 women a week in England and Wales are murdered for by former or current partner and 1 in 4 women worldwide have experienced sexual violence. It’s time for collective responsibility.

I run a lot of workshops with young people and I find myself constantly struggling to dismantle the patriarchy in the room. The boys just do take up more space. And of course, I would never blame the individual – they are, after all, children – but we, as adults need to make concrete interventions. I am delighted when a child feels entitled to have his voice heard but when it’s for the fifth time and we haven’t heard from so many of the girls in the room – I realise that I’m not doing enough to challenge this environment of entitlement. Unless we actively do something to adapt this behaviour, we are essentially giving the subliminal message that male voices are more important, have more worth and that speaking is a more valuable contribution that listening.

This last point is especially key for me. In The Will to Change bell hooks says “men cannot change if there aren’t blueprints for change”. We have to start to be better role models and promote a new type of masculinity – a masculinity that I believe should be rooted gentleness. To so many men, gentleness is by no means an admirable quality because it has been used as a signifier to oppress those who fall outside of the “man-box”. The gentle husband is a “beta” male, the gentle boy is the one who is bullied for being gay, and the gentle man is the ineffectual man. But to me gentleness is about flexibility, allowing yourself to shift and adapt to the situation you find yourself in. It takes the pressure off being a leader, the front-footed person and gives you permission to breathe, reflect, listen and reconsider. Ultimately it gives you permission to be vulnerable. And embracing vulnerability is one of the most useful tools to combating toxic masculinity.

Suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45. Research suggests that men are so much more likely to commit suicide because society encourages them to be risk takers. Men are valued by society by their ability to make bold decisions – indecision or flexibility, like gentleness, are undesirable male traits. How often I have heard my friends say, “who wants to go on a date with a man who can’t even decide where to go for a drink?” It’s this skewed emphasis on decisiveness that I believe is such a big contributing factor to the violence enacted on themselves and others. The more we can encourage men to say “I’m not sure”, to ask for help, to learn from listening to their peers – the more we will be able to combat this environment of having to have the answer and feeling like there is no other option.

I volunteer for an organisation called GREAT men, a charity working with boys in schools to tackle gender stereotypes. I run workshops that cover a host of topics from pornography, to violence and trans/homophobia with a key part of each workshop is dealing with consent. We talk about it terms of enthusiastic consent – that you are not looking for a “yes” but a “yes, yes, dear god yes”. And one of the responses I get most frequently is that asking someone if they want to have sex can be really scary. So I have to remind them that consent works both ways and you are not just receiving permission from the person you are asking, you also have to want to have sex as well. And maybe if it feels too hard or scary to ask the question, perhaps you might not be ready yourself. And both the confusion and sighs of relief I see going across the boys’ faces is always such a spectacle – It’s ok not to know if we want sex? We don’t have to decide now? This is an instance that always confirms just how emancipating it can feel to be allowed to say, “I’m not sure”. And it’s not just in intimate relationships where such a little phrase can have such a profound effect.

In a work context, when a man in senior position says, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know”, it creates space for someone else to speak and challenges the perception of an individual figure of authority. In fact, I would argue that “being the authority” is a myth made up by men to exploit their power. Locating power with an individual (rather than the position) is the basis for creating an immoveable hierarchy upon which consent becomes compromised – I have more experience than you and so you need me in order to progress in this industry. Was this not the narrative of so many men who are now being held accountable for their heinous abuses of power in the wake of #metoo?

So what can we do to dismantle these power dynamics? First and foremost, acknowledge that you have power, acknowledge your male privilege. But with so much of privilege manifesting as unconscious micro-aggressions – it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Let’s take an example of a male director – a male director who thinks he is acknowledging his male privilege by choosing to direct a play by woman playwright. Let’s say it’s a feminist play. The director even calls himself a feminist – after all he is championing work by a woman! But how does he run his rehearsal room? Does he claim to be the authority, feeling embarrassed to say he’s “not sure”, feeling undermined by even the very thought of deferring to the women in the room for their experience? Does he take up physical space by placing himself behind a large desk or surrounding himself by a crowd of creatives? Does he speak more than the rest of the people in the room? What does this speech look like? Does he make more statements than questions? Does he hold the door open for an actress with a casual “ladies first”? Does he casually comment to woman, “oh, you’ve made an effort today”? Does he shout about doing a feminist play and relish the opportunities to speak to the press rather than offering them up to female voices? Does he publically acknowledge the women creatives who may not hold the visible role of director but without whom the production would be impossible?

We have to start thinking about the minutiae of our actions. As men we have to be more rigorous. What seems like a generous act of opening a door, complimenting a t-shirt is the process of othering and the gateway to objectification. In the arresting episode from This American Life about the women who were abused by Alternet’s Editor, Don Hazen, one woman tells the story of Hazen forcing himself on her and when she asks him to stop he verbally lashes out shouting, “I am the most feminist man you know” before going into the kitchen and smashing everything in sight, leaving her terrified in the bed. Let’s be critical of feminism as fashion and hold to account those who perpetuate the same toxic behaviour behind the guise of allyship. Tokenistically programming women writers in theatres doesn’t let you off the hook from really interrogating your everyday behaviour. Let’s be aware of the benevolent sexism, the misogyny that deifies women too and makes them inhuman. This is our communal responsibility as men. Let’s not make the women do the emotional labour for us again and get them to write the rulebook. Let’s be active bystanders, step out of our comfort zone to challenge even the smallest of acts and work together to tackle the root of toxic masculinity. 

Tom Ross-Williams is an actor, theatre-maker and campaigner. He is actively involved in LGBT+ and Gender Equality activism. He writes about these issues for a number of publications, including Huffington Post, Attitude and Diva Magazine. He is an ambassador for Great Men and the Creative Director of The Advocacy Academy. www.tomrosswilliams.com


The Almeida Questions panel discussion 'Masculinity: Toxic or misunderstood?' is taking place on Monday 30 April, click here for tickets and info. 

The Writer runs until 26 May, click here for tickets and info.