What both sides on the APA and Gillette debate can learn from each other

The past weeks have been significant regarding men and their masculinities. Firstly, the American Psychological Association (APA) made headlines as, for the first time ever, they released recommended guidelines for working with boys and men. A few days later, Gillette released a shaving advert that had little to do with shaving but instead challenged men to do and be better. Both of these initiatives were guided by the belief that there is a prominent and harmful version of masculinity. This is what the APA calls “traditional masculine ideology,” taught to boys and men that hurts them and those around them. Supporters of these initiatives heralded them as representing a much needed and long overdue cultural shift in how we conceptualise and talk about masculinity. Opposition generally saw this as an unfair and one-sided assault on men, or as identity politics being used by the left to ideologically brainwash everyone else.  

You may be wondering what authority I have to write on the subject. More than most, but much less than others. I have worked as a high school teacher with boys with behavioural disorders (among other things), and I am currently a PhD student researching emotional issues relating to adolescent boys at school.

Both sides of the debate want to help boys and men. Social media posts from some individuals on the internet aside, academic discussions of men and masculinities come from a desire to help support boys and men. Whether they are pro-feminist researchers like Michael Kimmel or more in line with the thinking of Jordan Peterson, they can agree that boys and men are struggling. Gender disparities regarding mortality, diseases, and suicide rates for males are especially alarming for all. Certainly, there is disagreement as to what is best for boys and men, but they share a mutual concern for them.

At some level, this should unite us. But there are significantly more downvotes on the Gillette commercial on YouTube than upvotes, and this should make us pause.  There is clearly a disconnect between the two sides of the debate and this could be preventing help from reaching those who might need it most.

 There are three things that I think some of the supporters of these movements can understand better and learn from the backlash. Firstly, it is worth noting that critiquing one’s masculinity can come at a great cost. Traits of hyper-masculinity are often so embedded in a male’s identity that asking him to deconstruct notions of what “being a man” is, can lead to great inner turmoil and an identity crisis. Ask someone who deconstructed concepts from their religious identity whether they had a lot of doubt, uncertainty, feelings of loss, purposelessness and desire for meaning? The likely answer is yes because change is difficult. The same is true for hyper-masculinity. For example, a boy who challenges his peers’ sexist changing room talk or behaviour could be more susceptible to bullying or isolation himself. Or a male, who presents himself as being vulnerable to his friends, may experience shame. Obviously, these things need to change, which is part of the impetus behind the APA’s guidelines and the Gillette commercial, but let’s not ignore the initial cost that the changes being asked of boys and men might create.

Additionally, it is important to recognise how big of a paradigm shift it is to not view one’s masculinity as inexorably linked to one’s sex. Those of you who believe gender is at least partially socially constructed likely did not grow up believing that, and most of the world still doesn’t. There’s a potential danger when we forget how gradual our own process was to change a previously held belief while expecting others to change immediately. Change is not always a slow process, but often it can be.

Moreover,  females are also involved in perpetuating toxic masculinity. The onus falls on men, but females also promote harmful and contradictory expectations for men and their masculinity. This could range from laughing at men when they are emotional to putting men on a pedestal who epitomise the desire for dominance or objectification of women. Let’s also not forget, that in war especially, societies have often benefited greatly from and even celebrated the emotional stoicism of men. More acknowledgement of these mixed messages may be helpful.

Here are three things I think some of the opponents of these movements could understand better and learn from the APA and Gillette. Firstly, critiquing masculinity is necessary. I started researching this subject quite unintentionally. I was researching students with behavioural needs and discovered that 81 per cent of them are male. This led me to explore masculinity and to 40 years of research which show that men are more likely to believe and rigidly adhere to norms of masculinity, particularly emotional stoicism, autonomy, and dominance, and are much more likely to suffer negative psychological and physical problems. They are also more likely to hurt other people. Let’s be clear: these traits aren’t healthy for anyone to adhere to in excess, but males are significantly more likely to be expected or pressured into being that way.

It should also be understood that critiquing masculinity is not critiquing men. Regardless of what you see someone post on Twitter or Instagram, the research behind the APA guidelines is clear in saying that there is a harmful form of masculinity, not that men are inherently bad. If it feels like it’s a personal attack, then perhaps it has been presented that way by a polarised source, or you have certain traits of masculinity deeply ingrained in your identity. The hard work for men can be staring at themselves in the mirror, and figuring out who they would be if they didn’t always have to be emotionally stoic, autonomous, or dominant. Chances are they already have lots of amazing qualities, but what may have been beyond criticism in the past but is no longer good for you or others.

Finally, it should be made clear what belief in a ‘toxic-form’ masculinity doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying things which are stereotypically characterised as being masculine unless they promote harmful messages. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean you have to call yourself a feminist or like the Gillette advert. Rather, it indicates that you believe the research that things like emotional stoicism, autonomy, and dominance can be harmful when rigidly embodied and you will do your best to not promote them for yourself or for others.

The controversial nature of this topic is neither surprising nor avoidable but adding to the polarity of it is. My hope is that this article contains even one point of reflection that contributes to its depolarisation.


Image U.S. Army photo via army.mil

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8 Responses

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  1. Ahsan Rathore
    Feb 03, 2019 - 08:06 PM

    For me, the problem is the fact that the APA guidelines are clearly ideologically driven. It is based off a set of assumptions that are not scientific, psychological, or empirical, but instead epistemological. It is using critical theory, which is a very political and unscientific paradigm. this can be seen with the constant talk of power, privilege throughout the guidelines. These are not psychological concepts and have no place in psychology, psychological research, or empiricism. This is the danger of the guideline, and why it should not be trusted, because it has taken an ideological stance, not a scientific one based on enquiry.

    • Brendan
      Feb 05, 2019 - 07:25 PM

      I can definitely respect that you have concerns with the guidelines, I was not and am not defending the APA guidelines in their totality, there’s a reason why I only focused on: emotional stoicism, autonomy and dominance; because these three traits have, in my opinion, the best well-rounded research (using a number of theoretical approaches) that supports the assertion that these, in excess, are harmful and more likely to be held by males. For instance much of the alexithymia research is the type of empirical research that I imagine you would be able trust. Sure, every paradigm used for research needs to and should be critiqued, but labelling and dismissing all the research that is connected to critical theory as “un-scientific” is a major epistemological claim in itself.

  2. Randy Tate
    Feb 04, 2019 - 08:36 PM

    In this article, you mention “the research” numerous times yet none of this is given a citation. The fact is, much of the science on these traits (at least their origin) speaks counter to your argument. You’ve outlined your position here as if it’s accepted a priori that these traits all exist on a single spectrum ranging from toxic to beneficial. Scientifically speaking, these traits all come form different places, some socially constructed but many as an imperative to biological survival. The APA guidelines and your article seem completely unaware of this. Many of these traits are observed in male primates across the entire genetic order. This cannot simply be the result of culture. Also, the most violent and aggressive males who comprise our prison population are overwhelmingly raised by single mothers. There’s a really good scientific reason for that and it isn’t that they’ve had toxic masculinity being modeled for them when they were boys. Please reference the work of Dr. Leonard Saxx for more information.

    • Brendan
      Feb 05, 2019 - 07:32 PM

      Thanks for your response. To be honest I don’t think I really outlined my position in any detail at all, as that was not the purpose of this article but I recognize there are a lot of complexities and factors I did not discuss. It seems my footnote citations that I initially had did not make it into the online article (I don’t know why) but a citation was Chapter 1 in O’Neil’s (2015) book where he summarizes the findings of around 90 studies over the last 25 years.

      I definitely do not want to mitigate the influence of biology in this conversation either. The recent research on how father loss affects telomere length moreso for sons than for daughters is particularly fascinating (Mitchell et al., 2017), although epigenetic factors always complicates interpretations. Moreover I think the three things I focused on: emotional stoicism, autonomy, and dominance; definitely have biological/evolutionary functions, particularly for survival (as you said). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t re-assess them for their adaptive viability when living in a non-survival based contexts. For example, a child growing up in an abusive household might very well need and benefit greatly from having these three things in excess. But later on in life, assuming the danger of abuse has passed, these once protective, more survival-based qualities will likely pose challenges to current and future relationships.

      And of course there are more reasons for violence and aggression in males than just because toxic masculinity was modelled to them, I would never suggest otherwise. I imagine you will quite like Dr. Warren Farrell, who has extensively outlined the importance of fathers for both children.

      • Randy Tate
        Feb 06, 2019 - 09:39 PM

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I’ve given this more thought and I’ve come to the conclusion that even the term “toxic masculinity” is problematic once we try to look closer at the issues being addressed here, particularly if we are introducing clinical or scientific evidence into the equation. The reason is because it’s metaphorical. A toxin is a substance poisonous in biology. Although we can agree it’s a fitting metaphor for pathological behavior, it needlessly introduces generalizations where they would not otherwise exist. Metaphors are concepts, which spill the banks of their definitions. They are, by their subjective nature, interpretive. An epagogic mudslide of inductive reasoning spreads to all the other aspects, tainting them. I’m not convince masculine behavior even resides on a spectrum from bad to good but the word “toxic” implies it does. My sense is that had this movement been sincere in its intent to address these issues it might have used a term like “pathological” instead of “toxic”, to keep its meaning more precisely defined. That’s just my opinion.

        • Katina
          Feb 07, 2019 - 03:15 AM

          I like and support your idea of using the word “pathological” rather than “toxic.”

          May I point out, that at least in the case of the advert, the intended audience is assumed by the marketers creating the advert to be, well stupid. It was likely decided that the terms needed to be catchy rather than precise. I will heartily agree this should not have been the view point of the APA.

          I may go as far as to point out that “toxic masculinity” seems to be an established term in the public. I do not claim to know where it came from. I wholeheartedly support the idea of using a more precise term such as “pathological.” But I do wonder if perhaps “toxic” has been used because of the recognition by the public.

        • Brendan
          Feb 07, 2019 - 10:28 AM

          I like your thoughts on this. I too, find the term “toxic masculinity” somewhat problematic, even though I did opt to use it mostly because, like Katina mentions below, it’s recognized by the public. In fact, I have yet to find a term I am fully satisfied with using. My current personal favourite is “restrictive masculinity” because it more directly describes what I see as the core of the issue, which is a masculinity that places limitations on self and/or others.

  3. Bryan
    Feb 12, 2019 - 04:41 AM

    Hey Brendan,

    I wasn’t surprised when the Gillette commercial came out and was received with little welcome to the open market of ideas. While my studies come from a business stand point, here are my thoughts of where Gillette got it wrong. They showed regular guys as part of the #metoo problem, as bullies, and called us “all to do better.” In reality, I would argue the vast majority of men are not part of this problem and do not deserve to be called out. Regardless of the intent, the commercial labelled all men as part of the problem.

    In the business world, we would never coach and mentor a new employee by asking them not to be a horrible person. We would show examples of prominent men and women in society both contributing to the betterment of society and each other. The Gillette commercial has a strong leftist feminist push which is not only not welcome, it further works to the detriment of boys and their development.


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