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Boys will be boys: The problem with toxic masculinity

When Gillette released their recent ‘The Best Man Can Be’ ad campaign, it was expected that it would cause a little bit of a stir but who could have expected the reaction it sparked?

The ad challenged men to step away from the stereotypical tropes of what it is to “be a man”, and embrace other sides that are sometimes seen in culture as being sensitive, too caring, or too emotional.

In theory, the idea is great and a much-needed stand from a brand as influential as Gillette. However, opinion was divided on if the advert takes a positive look at masculinity or is just simply anti-male. In fact, many were quick to bring out the pitchforks and to possess the exact toxic nature that Gillette was asking us to ditch. Piers Morgan threatened to stop buying the product (We’re sure they’d be up for that, anyway…) while others called it out for trying to make men “weak”. The backlash has only certified its necessary message.

To talk more in detail about the supposed “ideals” of being a man, and how toxic masculinity is frayed and manifested is Dan Robertson, Director of VERCIDA Consulting, who is known for his expertise in workplace diversity and inclusivity.

Think of the ideal man – who comes to mind? Sean Connery as James Bond? Brad Pitt in Fight Club? Or perhaps Clint Eastwood as the all-American action hero?

What these images have in common are a certain type of maleness – one that is repeated in Hollywood movies, in TV dramas, and in men’s style magazines. It’s a limited version of masculinity, that reduces maleness to a library of boxed-set stereotypes, such as:

  • The Action Hero: This one has been on a constant loop since ever since Hollywood began. Think Charlton Heston as Ben Hur, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo or Will Smith in Men in Black.
  • The Adventurer: Think Bear Grylls, the former SAS survival instructor. He’s the embodiment of the outdoor “Wildman.”
  • The GQ New man: This is Daniel Craig as James Bond. The action hero who’s not afraid to show some emotion (although not too much.) He’s the six-pack body beautiful guy; the Hackett wearing, Martini swigging, Aston Martin spy, who always has ‘hot chick’ as his number two accessory.

The problem with these types is that they are just that; idealised cultural constructions of what men are and what society thinks men should be. They work as a set of narrow cultural reference points, constraining men to conform to one stereotype or another. They are reductive and harmful in equal measure.

The dark side of masculinity

Toxic masculinity plays out in two inter-connecting ways: the first is masculinity as a ‘sexual predator’ – men who abuse their power status for self-gratification. Let’s name a few – Bill Clinton, Harvey Weinstein and Ray Kelvin – the founder and CEO of fashion company Ted Baker, who was recently accused of creating a culture of ‘forced hugs’ and harassment.

It’s a type of behaviour that runs deep in the corporate culture, as witnessed in the case of Oxfam. Just this month an independent commission interim report, Listening to People: Rebuilding Trust, concluded there was a “toxic work environment” at Oxfam, that allowed bullying and sexual harassment to go unchecked.

The other way in which toxic masculinity plays out is personified in what I call the ‘corporate tough guy’. The City banker, the corporate lawyer, the advertising executives that rule their teams through bullying. These guys are 24-hour uber-competitive corporate dudes. Leaving work before midnight can be seen as a sign of weakness, as can spending time with children. I once met a Corporate Lawyer who hadn’t had a holiday in 22 years – it was his badge of honour. He was “the man”.

The harmful effects of toxic masculinity on men

Of course, women, and sometimes gay men, are the obvious victims of unwanted sexual advances and toxic masculinity. The other victims are clearly men themselves.

Toxic masculinity harms men in three key ways:

  1. Boys don’t cry: The suppression of emotions, or rather what society portrays as female emotions are a cultural no-no. Men can express anger, but an expression of tender emotions is seen as weak and unmanly.
  2. Express femininity at your peril: Masculinity is policed by other men – and women – through hate speech – boys and men who project what society views as female traits are punished with words such as ‘fag’ and ‘queer’.  These words are loaded with power and work to keep ‘real men’ in check by dehumanising gay men as not real men.
  3. Men as a disposable commodity: From an early age, boys are trained in the art of warfare. The toys we play with, the computer games we play. These games manifest in real-life gang violence on the streets of London and other cities in the U.K and beyond.
It's not about the weights you can lift at the gym, it's about the weight of your actions - and their consequences.
It’s not about the weights you can lift at the gym, it’s about the weight of your actions – and their consequences.

Where do we go from here? How to challenge toxic masculinity

Gillette’s current ad campaign “We Believe: The Best Man Can Be”, seeks to challenge these forms of toxic masculinity by questioning male norms. Clearly working within a context of the #MeToo movement, one of the aims of the current campaign, according to the brand’s The Best Men Can Be website is “to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette” in “the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose, and so much more.”

One of my favourite ads is Ariel’s ‘Share The Load’, as it challenges gender stereotypes in Indian society, by exploring changing gender norms and traditions.

Based on my experience of working with male leaders in corporate cultures over the last 20 years, here are three very simple things we can all do to challenge toxic masculinity:

  1. Lean into the idea that masculinity, just like femininity, is nothing more than a cultural and historical construct; it is a learned behaviour and as such, it can evolve and change.
  2. Explore in your workplace, through discussion groups and workshops, the impact toxic masculinity may be having on your corporate culture. How does it play out? What impact does it have on team performance and the psychological wellbeing of both male and female colleague?
  3. Men are not bad. They (we) are simply conditioned to think and act in certain ways. Celebrate the positive sides of maleness but call out and challenge toxic masculinity when it presents itself in your workplace.

‘Boys will be boys’ is one of the most powerful and psychologically limiting phases in human language. It perpetuates gender types as natural therefore OK. The ‘boys will be boys’ attitude, when unchecked, provides men with a dark-sided rulebook leading to what can only be described as toxic masculinity.

It’s time to stop using the argument that ‘boys will be boys’ as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. Boys might be boys, but ‘boys’ are allowed to show their emotional and caring side and express their femininity, while also not needing to form toxic displays of masculinity that affects others at the same time.

Written by Dan Robertson

Dan Robertson is the Director of VERCIDA Consulting. He is widely regarded as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership, and spends his days supporting executives to turn diversity theory into meaningful actions.

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