Anthropology: Examining Masculinity as a Concept Through a Sociocultural Lens

Candid shots of men holding up a sign at a women’s march in Los Angeles 2017
Candid shots from a women’s march in Los Angeles in 2017 credit: Samantha Sophia

There are many tragedies that exist in the world today; from world hunger and global warming to the systematic oppression of human rights. Thus, as a natural result of these morbid truths, people participate in various forms of activism. In conversations about gender equality, the role of men can sometimes appear blurry. Some men actively participate in conversations about equality and are excited by the prospect of helping. While others, for various reasons, appear more reluctant to have heavy conversations about gender or race. Additionally, the reasons behind these patterns of resistance towards activism can be attributed to many things. Primarily, the social conditioning boys are exposed to within patriarchal societies. One of the contributing factors of negligence among men is the discouragement of emotional intelligence. In society, men are forced into the role of “protector”, which entails them being tough and never crying or showing emotions. In fact, they are encouraged to repress their feelings, which is what feeds the idea of toxic masculinity within different cultures. This ideology of what masculinity should be defined as is deeply harmful to boys and men everywhere. It can lead to depression, an increase in suicide rates and other untreated mental illnesses. Therefore, analyzing the sociocultural conditioning men are raised with is crucial to unlearning the self-destructive habits taught to them.

What Is Toxic Masculinity? 

A poster with the words toxic masculinity on it and the side effects of it

Toxic masculinity refers to the cultural norms that are considered harmful to both society and men themselves. In academic and media discussions, this term is used to examine the definition of masculinity and the harmful stereotypes attached to it. Traits like misogyny and homophobia are common within traditional stereotypes for men. Often, these attributes are connected to the deeply seated idea that men need to constantly assert their dominance, whether they want to or not. Largely, this type of masculinity is condemned because these characteristics promote violence, hatred, domestic abuse and sexual assault. This type of behavior is common within patriarchal societies and socializes boys to believe it is normal. For example, expressing various forms of rage and violence is deemed tolerable to a certain extent. Claiming “boys will be boys” while referring to bullying and their general aggression is an acceptable excuse. 

Another mark of toxic masculinity is the act of emotional repression and the paramount need to be self-reliant. Through research studies, these two traits have been definitively correlated with increased physiological problems in men. Some of these problems include depression, increased substance-use disorders and stress. As a consequence, some men take out their anger and frustration on the women in their lives. This is the side of masculinity that is considered “toxic”.

In general, toxic masculine characteristics exist in the unspoken code of behavior among men. However, other traditional masculine traits such as devotion to work, excelling at sports and providing for their families are not inherently toxic traits. The habits of “toxic masculinity” refer to focusing on the oppression of others and oneself. There is also some miscommunication and misunderstanding surrounding this term. Some believe it incorrectly implies that gender-related issues are caused by male traits. Whereas, conservatives feel this term condemns traditional masculinity all together and any “improvement” just makes men less masculine. Additionally, some liberal feminists refer to this term as an essential concept that ignores consent and perpetuates harmful behavior and attitudes related to masculinity. 

Sociocultural Environments

The sociocultural upbringing of an individual is important to consider when analyzing their actions or behaviors. While it is easy to label all men as misogynists and blame them all for gender- related violence, it is not accurate or true. Some men that believe in the enforcement of double standards and the natural inferiority of women are conditioned to be that way. In most South Asian cultures, men are taught that, in order to be masculine, you must be stoic. They are taught that appearing emotionless gives others the impression that they are strong. Additionally, any kind of emotional declaration among men is frowned upon. They are told to be warriors, and providers at the expense of their own emotional development. Moreover, patriarchal cultures teach boys about women’s submissive role early on, and in the long term it affects their platonic and romantic relationships with them.

Similarly, in Western cultures, men are forced to take up the role of protector. Their masculinity is defined by how poorly they treat others “inferior” to them, and the number of women they can manipulate. These types of messages are prevalent in both ethnic cultures and different forms of media. All of which applaud men for their lack of emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence, also known as emotional quotient (EQ), is the ability to accurately acknowledge what emotions you are feeling and manage them accordingly. The purpose of having EQ is to use it as a tool for positive outcomes. Examples include communicating effectively, defusing tension and conflict, and stress relief. Moreover, encouraging emotional intelligence can only benefit young boys and men. Once they are able to identify what exactly they are feeling and analyze the reasons behind it, they can make more informed decisions about how they react. Thus, when they are being fed misogynistic conditioning, they may be able to recognize this and resist. 

History and The South Asian Cultural Aspect

A map of South Asia
                           Countries in South Asia credit:

South Asian culture refers to the societal standards and values within the following countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Within these cultures, there is a built-in belief that young boys should not be in the presence of feminine influences. This ideology is implemented through culture, tradition, religious practices and is even prominent in the way a child is raised. 

In South Asia, the act of separating boys from girls begins at an early age at home and is further emphasised at school. The concept of masculinity is first introduced in this type of setting. At school, it is stressed that to be masculine or male is to be the exact opposite of feminine. It is taught that the two must always remain parallel, never intertwined. Following this line of logic, boys are taught they will be more likely to achieve success in their life if they avoid feminine energies. This is slightly ironic considering the intense homophobia that is practiced and preached within these regions. Moreover, this type of segregated environment is the breeding ground for lessons of superiority and dominance. 

an illustration of an all-boys school and how they are breeding grounds for toxic masculinity

It is here,within these schools, that boys are taught to uphold a system based on power and patriarchy. This critical stage of a boy’s life defines his view of both sexuality and masculinity. In these types of cultures, a boy’s gender identity is formed through socialization with his family, at school and the forceful influences of mass media. Seeing as masculinity is dependent on values and beliefs, different forms of masculinity emerge from these segregated schools. Furthermore, family is the most important factor in South Asian culture. In the private sphere, family structures the concept of masculinity. For example, women internalize these stereotypes and traditional roles of men the way they do ideas about womanhood. Therefore, masculinity is also shaped by the women in the family.

 At home, mothers and other female relatives continue the cycle of pampering their sons and raising their daughters. As a consequence, boys grow up with a very one-dimensional understanding of a woman’s place in society from a young age. Growing up, boys tend to stay away from domestic chores as they are taught by their mothers and other family members that it is a woman’s sphere of work. Therefore, it is both men and women in these patriarchal societies that are responsible for fostering toxic masculinity. 

In addition, even caste systems and the general social hierarchy can not taint the fixed perception of masculinity within these cultures. Even in positions of the lower caste, men were still given a certain level of power and entitlement over women. In India, for example, women of the lower caste would be forced to work in farms or other people’s houses. This unintentionally gave men the impression that these women were more available than those of a higher caste (although men of any caste still harassed women in higher positions). Even women who were a part of the lowest caste, the untouchables, were not free from the advances of high-caste men. This sense of entitlement to a woman’s honor is extremely normalized among men in South Asian cultures. 

An illustration of the caste system in India
Caste hierarchy in India credit:

Furthermore, it was common for a man’s masculinity to be defined by his sexual encounters with women. In fact, in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, there was a common custom where a low caste woman walking on the road would be forced to put her pallu (the loose end of a sari) down if she came across a high caste man. This was done in cases when men couldn’t physically touch women but still felt it important that the women should present themselves. Thus, the concept of a woman’s honor and masculinity are intertwined. 

While in this case the masculine construct may be specific to South Asian culture, it is also heavily influenced by other cultures. Historically speaking, the construction of masculinity in South Asian history is directly tied to the colonial period. During the era of colonial rule, there were contrasting ideas of masculinity between the British rulers and their Indian subjects. As they had the utmost power, British men were seen as the epitome of powerful men. In comparison, they considered the native men weak and feminine. As such, the men in India felt the need to reestablish their masculinity, which in the historical context was connected to their nation’s struggle for freedom. 

Thus, men that were more active in the fight against colonial powers appeared more manly compared to those who chose not to engage in politics. Through British rule, the construct of masculinity was redefined into the image of the white colonizers. This insight is crucial in examining men’s understanding of masculinity today, as it reminds us of the long-term influence the colonial powers had on their colonized countries. As a result, the definition of masculinity in these countries is influenced by Western culture and also mirrors conservative and traditional gender roles. 

Western Culture and Research Studies 

A map of the Western world
                                            A map of the Western World credits:

Western culture refers to the traditional customs of the countries in Europe, the Americas and Oceania. In terms of masculinity, the West has a divided understanding of what makes a man. Some with conservative religious beliefs still encourage the old stereotypes of gender roles, while some more progressive believe masculinity should no longer be so restrictive. While in South Asian cultures there are some men who subscribe to the more modernized version of masculinity, those countries are still overwhelmingly traditional. Whereas within Western cultures, the discussion of toxic masculinity is more publicized. 

However, even with those more open conversations, the West has a history of enforcing harmful ideals of masculinity on men. It is understood that within the realm of all things masculine there are certain societal expectations reserved for men. They are expected to be physically strong, be comfortable with violence and their sexual “conquests” with women are recorded as markers of their manliness. Additionally, men are not allowed to grieve or be victims of any kind of abuse.

In the United States, there is an astronomical difference between the treatment of female and male victims of abuse. In cases of sexual assault, men are never thought of as victims because it seems unbelievable that a man could have been in a position of submission, rather than one of power. Especially if the abuser was a woman, men are told by others that they should have “enjoyed” it or that they are lying. The relationship between men and women in society has always been portrayed as men being dominant and women being naturally submissive. This outdated version of reality is still to this day a common stereotype portrayed on different media platforms. This cultural idea of men constantly needing to be dominant and assertive is damaging to both men and women. For men, constantly being told to “man up” and expected to suppress their feelings can make them more vulnerable to a number of mental illnesses. 

A Research Study on Masculinity and Mental Health 

An illustration of men's mental health as a result of toxic masculinity

Between the years 2003 and 2013, 78 studies on masculinity and mental health were conducted in the United States. The findings of these studies were published in the journal of Counseling Psychology. It confirmed there was a definitive link between men’s deteriorating mental health and their personal view of masculinity. The participants for these studies ranged from age 12 to over 65, and were predominantly white men with only some African Americans and Asian Americans. Researchers quickly identified eleven characteristics that were considered traditionally masculine among the participants: the desire to win, need for emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, sexual promiscuity/playboy behavior, self-reliance, power over women, primacy of work, dislike for homosexuality and pursuit of status. The researchers then examined these traits to see if they were associated with any specific mental health outcomes.

 The results of this study showed that the men who practiced these norms were more likely to experience depression, body image issues, negative social functioning, substance abuse and stress. These men were also less likely to get help for those problems through counseling or therapy. The negative toll on mental and physical health was particularly strong for those that practice power over women, self-reliance and playboy behavior. This provides proof that the social conditioning surrounding men is linked to numerous health problems. Additionally, men who commit domestic violence are more likely to embrace dominance and emotional control, while also believing men who seek emotional support are weak. 

The Anthropological Significance 

In the struggle for gender equality worldwide, the significance of understanding the sociocultural forces that enable and condition men is important to acknowledge. While not all men are raised in the same conservative environment, the social conditioning inflicted on them through culture and tradition can be incredibly harmful. By analyzing and acknowledging the differences in which boys are raised compared to girls, more direct action can be taken to correct the regressive ideals they are taught to aspire to within patriarchal societies. Especially, since the traditional characteristics of masculinity negatively impact men’s mental health. Furthermore, encouraging self-awareness among men and applauding emotional intelligence can aid in the reversal of this lifelong social conditioning. 

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