Rugby, beer, and “she’ll be right”. It’s not hard to define masculinity in New Zealand. A total stranger to our country, after watching about ten minutes of TV ads, would come up with some variation of those three things. Every day, the ‘right way’ to be a man is socially enforced.
That’s where toxic masculinity comes in. Underlying the ‘kiwi bloke’ stereotype, there are numerous problems with the way we socially define standards of masculinity. To break the term ‘toxic masculinity’ down, the societal concept of being a man is, in my view, poisoned. The poison is a problematic definition of who a man is or should be. That definition includes dominance, ignored emotions, and violence. Everyone in New Zealand is hurt by those ideals.
The existence of toxic masculinity does not deny male privilege; nor does it imply that all masculinity is bad. It shows the flip side of male privilege and how it is distributed. Where men don’t live up to the socially constructed standard of masculinity, they lose some of that privilege as a kind of social punishment.
At its worst, toxic masculinity leads to death. By reinforcing dominance and violence, it contributes to the offences of domestic violence and murder, which are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. Not only does it contribute to those awful statistics, but it also fuels the male suicide rate by stigmatising attempts to ask for help. Those might seem like extreme examples, but toxic masculinity influences everything from the penalising of young boys for displaying their emotions to the 'locker room talk' bonding ritual. As long as we ignore that toxic masculinity is a pervasive problem, and allow dangerous concepts of ‘manhood’ to shape male identity, violence is an inevitable result.
Even when it doesn’t cause death or violence, toxic masculinity still affects everyone you know. It’s the reason you’ve only seen your dad cry once, men’s clothing options are limited to wearing some version of a shirt and pants, and men refuse to use self-care products like moisturiser unless they have a black label and a masculine name like bulldog. Men are uncomfortable with stepping outside of a construct that has been enforced against them for a lifetime.
Every time men reinforce these harmful norms against one another, they’re perpetuating the cycle of toxic masculinity. I’ve witnessed young men change or hide their interests in order to fit in with Dunedin ‘scarfie’ culture. Men who binge drink until midnight, then sober up and study in secret to avoid criticism. Currently, some men exclude themselves from the things they love by maintaining that those things aren’t manly enough. Every time that happens, they reinforce the problematic standard and force others to conform.
That cycle is largely unconscious, so it requires awareness to break. Who is raising that awareness for men? Mental health campaigns are trying. Making it okay for men to ask for help is an important step in the process. But to prevent the harm that toxic masculinity is creating, we need to re-evaluate our whole standard of masculinity. Men need to criticise the standards they’re measuring themselves against. Toxic masculinity doesn't have to be a fact of life. It is a problematic culture that we can change.
Bravery – and not the stoic, “she’ll be right” type of bravery – is required to change that culture. Our ideas of masculinity are deep-set traditions that have existed for the last 50 years or more. To change the culture of toxic masculinity, men need to point out the problems with the standards and acknowledge that they do not fit the mould. Speaking out against these problems is vital. Let’s get rid of the poison that distorts New Zealand’s definition of masculinity.Support Villainesse