Man of the House: Challenging the Pandemic of Toxic Masculinity
In 2005, Larry King asked Donald Trump if he looked forward to being a father again following his marriage with Melania Knauss. Trump’s reply:
The way I look at it, there’s nothing like a good marriage. And there’s nothing like having children. I have four great children. If you have the money, having children is great. Now I know Melania, I’m not gonna be doing the diapers, I’m not gonna be making the food, I may never even see the kids, frankly… She will be an unbelievable mother. I’ll be a good father, but I’ll be, you know, doing my deals. (Fast forward to 4:40 on CNN’s video for proof that this is not fake news)
In the president’s defense, this was 15 years ago, and as the leader of the free world, and as a man and father, I hope that his cumulative experience since 2005 has broadened his definition of what makes a good parent and good marriage. Societal trends indicate that the traditional gender norms, which President Trump once described, are outdated. Indeed, Marlo Thomas’s 1972 record album, Free to Be…You and Me, published in 1972, rode the waves of the Civil Rights Movement and post-1960s gender neutrality to retire traditional gender norms for most people alive at the time. Come to think of it, perhaps no one should be coming to the president’s defense.
The Issue with Toxic Masculinity and Gender Norms
According to the Social Security Administration, women’s participation in the labor force went from 37% of women (aged 20–64) in 1950 to 71% in 2011. To be clear, this statistic reflects women spending more time outside of the home and in the workplace, though they still do the majority of unpaid labor outside of their professions. Now in 2020, the agency of women continues to grow–as it should–yet, with what Liz Plank calls the “masculinity moral panic,” the message that some men seem to be absorbing “is that if marginalized groups have more rights, they [those in the majority] will have fewer, which is of course not at all how human rights work” (2019, p. 52).
A simple truth remains: women, who make up half of the world’s population, are entitled to the same human rights and opportunities as men, and too many men still believe otherwise.
In her 2019 book, For the Love of Men, Liz Plank writes, “Although the news often focuses on the threats of terrorism, natural disasters and nuclear war, there is no greater threat to human kind than our current definitions of masculinity. It’s a bold statement” (p. 1). While I imagine she might have added “pandemic” to her list of threats if her publishing date was pushed back a few months, she does discuss the pandemic that is toxic masculinity, which she links to some of the most pressing issues we face today as a global society.
Toxic masculinity is not a new and unfamiliar concept anymore. It’s a common topic in literature, education, and the media, and we see its most ugly and vivid manifestations on the news with stories and images of sexual violence and abuse, murders and mass shootings, and countless other acts of harmful aggression, oppression, and cruelty.
Although I believe that toxic masculinity is like a mutated infectious deficiency disease, highly communicable and exhibiting a lack of empathy and respect (sometimes, it’s so advanced that it becomes terminal), I also believe it is curable. Mind you, I write this as a work-in-progress, cisgender male who once asked his 8th grade Spanish teacher why there wasn’t an international men’s day, once believed that being gay was a damnable sin, and once avoided getting too close to transgender people.
Who knew that an entirely different pandemic in the form of COVID-19 would produce an unprecedented opportunity to redefine gender roles and to detox masculinity?
An Unprecedented Opportunity for Change
We are experiencing a sudden and tectonic shift in daily life. The word of the day is indeed “unprecedented,” and this brave new world is challenging the code of traditional masculinity in dramatic ways.
Plank says, “The housework gender gap exists in every country across the world. Even in gender equality utopic countries like Denmark, men spend an hour less on domestic chores than women per day. In the United States, women still do 40 percent more housework than men” (p. 169). She explains that we send the message that a man’s place is at work, not at home, that men are not naturally caring parents, that they don’t clean or cook or change diapers.
Meanwhile, Caroline Criado Perez (author of Invisible Women) cites that women, globally, do three times more unpaid care work than men, twice as much childcare and four times as much housework, and though women have been earning more income over time, they still have done the majority of unpaid work irrespective of the proportion of the household income they bring in (2019).
Flash forward to COVID-19. For millions of people around the world, it’s time to work from home. It’s time to be with your family, your partner, your kids, all day, every day. For men, it’s time to be the man of the house.
A Better Man of the House
What does that even mean for fathers and husbands? For mothers and wives? For anyone, of any gender or sexuality, in any kind of relationship? For single dudes? For children, and particularly, for boys? Let’s start with fathers.
Back in 2009, Richard Weissbourd said that in order to build moral communities in the future, America needed to expect more from fathers:
Research suggests that fathers who are involved in basic care are more likely to have children who are empathic, generous, and altruistic–and when fathers shirk basic care, it can erode their moral authority–yet little is expected of fathers in their day-to-day interactions with other adults. Fathers are routinely let off the hook for basic care by adults in schools, healthcare institutions, and religious organizations, as well as by employers and colleagues and many other adults who have contact with fathers day to day. (p. 199)
Fathers today are now definitely not off the hook, and we know that boys’ emotional intelligence and mental health are also at stake when it comes to the kind of masculinity they learn from and grow to emulate. Because health concerns have forced many dads to be at home across the world, they now have an unprecedented and tremendous opportunity to redefine gendered parenting roles.
They will have the chance to do their share of the work when it comes to taking care of their home and their children, to communicate and collaborate with their partners, embracing the mutual responsibility that is parenting. Men cannot hide behind the antiquated model of being the primary financial provider. If they do, it will be painfully obvious to everyone observing. It will be selfish and lazy, for we know that whomever is left taking care of the house and kids is not slacking off. My fellow men, during these trying times, ask not what your family can do for you. Ask what you can do for your family (please know that you can do more than make money).
I am by no means the world’s greatest husband, but I am fortunate to be married to a wife who holds me accountable and challenges me to be a better person (I could not have written this without her feedback and support). Recently, I spoke to a friend who is also new to the marriage scene, but he was working from his apartment before the stay-at-home orders, so he may be one of the not so many men who are now doing less housework this spring. It may be worth noting that he is married to a woman, who has agreed to continue her usual workplace responsibilities while also helping to divide the tasks at home equitably.
Though his relationship has not changed in fundamental ways during COVID-19, my friend did share that he and his partner communicate much more, that they are more mindful of each other. They eat lunch together and talk. He also admitted that his standard for cleanliness is lower, (same for me) but how fair and equitable is it if the man’s standard of cleanliness is the standard?
I saw a wife post on her Facebook a conversation where she asked her husband to do a really thorough cleaning of the kitchen, and the husband made a disclaimer that he would clean to the standard that he felt was best. Sure, this may be a display of a couple who lovingly disagree, but what is the message we send when women have to adapt to the standards of men, or when we let women know that their standards for men are unrealistic or unreasonable, rather than meeting in the middle, or maybe even inconveniencing ourselves to meet someone else’s needs? And who is receiving the message?
Our partners are watching. The next generation is watching. Children are watching. COVID-19 will be a bolded term in future textbooks, and the example we set now will have lasting implications. Another one of my friends recently had a newborn, and while he is struggling with the combined stresses of raising a healthy baby and navigating a global pandemic, he is grateful for his non-toxic version of masculinity: “I’m being very open and candid and straightforward and not being passive aggressive and expressing feelings and not casting judgement,” he said. Right now, he would much rather be showing his newborn to his family and friends, but in the meantime, his ability to communicate honestly with his partner is getting him through this crisis, and it is validating the foundation on which his relationship is built.
Relationships will be tested during this time. For men who have learned to be open, compassionate, vulnerable, and compromising–like my friend–they will grow stronger. For men who suddenly find themselves in an upside-down world but are unwilling to let go of an ideal patriarchy, their relationships may very well deteriorate.
They will need to ask for help, listen even more carefully, admit their weaknesses, name their fears, own their mistakes, and struggle to redefine themselves in a reality that does not cater to their comforts, or they may end up very, very alone. Considering the fact that men have the greatest difficulty asking for help when it comes to mental health issues–and if your day is filled with virtual meetings and screen time, you’re experiencing the struggle–normalizing honesty and vulnerability for men has never been so essential.
Calling All Heroes
Children are going to see adults under a great deal of stress in the coming weeks and months, and they are going to be studying their parents closely. They will take note of which parent does what, of how they are dealing with adversity, of the attitudes they display. It is a lie that men cannot be kind and caring and present fathers. It is a lie that they cannot contribute as much to a household as a mother can. It is true that men have failed to do these things as well as mothers over the course of human history, but it is also true that humanity is progressing. Now is a pivotal time to progress, not digress, as a human race.
Everyone will face a unique set of challenges and hardships on the road ahead, and a great majority of people have been or will be knocked off their metaphorical horse in some fashion. Moments of great crisis have a way of allowing us to be at eye level with our fellow humans, and while we are all standing on the ground together, it is important that we seize this opportunity and emerge stronger and more resilient. It is important that the jobs of caring for one another and putting others before ourselves and treating others as our equals supersede outdated gender roles.
When it comes to outdated gender norms, men have the most self-reflection to do. Liz Plank says, “The future of boys is riding on the current behavior of men. It’s not just about helping fathers be present parents; it’s also about ensuring that all men take radical responsibility for the next generation of boys. Too much is at stake for them not too” (p. 190). Like everyone else, boys are watching, and history is recording.
How we handle and emerge from this crisis will be very telling. There will be countless studies and stories about humanity’s trial with COVID-19. There will be lasting consequences, and, very sadly, not everyone will live to see them. But, hopefully, from our current vulnerability, we will learn to live vulnerably in the future. We’ll hear a lot of talk about things going back to the way they were, but we can do better than that.
We can make it normal for boys to have what some might label “feminine” experiences–sing with them, smile at them, show them tenderness and affection, teach them the difference between right and wrong, which is not a difference between masculine and feminine.
We can have conversations with our family about what needs to get done and split responsibilities equitably so that we can stay sane and not resent one another in silence.
We can reflect on how we can be kinder, more helpful and respectful people, and if you’re a man, please consider asking a woman you love for help.
What TV do you watch? What music do you listen to? What books are you reading? Who are the authors? And what are their perspectives and messages and goals?
Toxic masculinity is not going to save us. It values personal wealth, suppressed emotions, and power over others, while we need to be sharing resources, showing emotions, and putting the needs of others before our own. And we need to keep doing this beyond the current crisis.
The heroes of this pandemic will be compassionate. They will be self-sacrificing. They will be celebrated for what they gave, not what they got, and I believe there will be billions of unsung heroes. I am hopeful that a new model of masculinity will emerge with them, a model that the children who survive this moment in history will follow and refine.
CNN. (2005, May 17). Donald and Melania Trump as newlyweds. CNN entertainment.https://www.cnn.com/videos/entertainment/2016/05/06/donald-trump-melania-trump-2005-entire-larry-king-live-intv.cnn
Criado Perez, C. (2019). Invisible women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. New York: Abrams Press.
Plank, E. (2019). For the love of men: A new vision for mindful masculinity. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Weissbourd, R. (2010). The parents we mean to be: How well-intentioned adults undermine children’s moral and emotional development. Boston: Mariner Books.
Wu, A.Y., Karamcheva, N.S., Munnell, A.H., & Purcell, P.J. (2013). How do trends in women’s labor force activity and marriage patterns affect social security replacement rates?. Social security administration. https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v73n4/v73n4p1.html