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How Toxic Masculinity Explains The Trump Presidency

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How Toxic Masculinity Explains The Trump Presidency

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about the Supreme Court at the White House in Washington

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

It is impossible to talk about Donald Trump—his election victory, his personal brand, his public persona—without also discussing toxic masculinity. This is a man who brought up the size of his penis during a political debate, who bragged about using his fame in the service of sexual assault, who recently interrupted a call with another world leader to hit on a nearby female reporter. Trump rode toxic masculinity and racial demagoguery to the White House, and he continues to embody and inflame both as a key strategy of his presidency.

But Trump is more than just a case study in male posturing and fragility; he’s a reflection of the culture that elevated and embraced him. As a society, how are we planting the roots of toxic masculinity, and how can we root it out? How do we force boys and men to perform manliness, and what are the consequences? What does the denigration of femininity—a genuine emotional component of every human being—do to men? Now, more than ever, is the time to grapple with these questions.

“The three most destructive words that every man receives when he’s a boy is when he’s told to ‘be a man.’” —Joe Ehrmanncoach and former NFL player

If we are being honest with ourselves, we have long known that masculinity kills men, in ways both myriad and measurable. While social constructions of femininity demand that women be thin, beautiful, accommodating, and some unattainable balance of virginal and f**kable, social constructions of masculinity demand that men constantly prove and reprove the very fact that they are, well, men.

Both ideas are poisonous and potentially destructive, but statistically speaking, the number of addicted and afflicted men and their comparatively shorter lifespans proves that masculinity is actually the more effective killer, getting the job done faster and in greater numbers. The death toll of masculinity is attributed to its more specific manifestations: alcoholism, workaholism and violence. Even when it does not literally kill, masculinity causes a sort of spiritual death, leaving many men traumatized, dissociated and often depressed. (These consequences are heightened by marginalizing factors such as queerness, nonwhiteness and socioeconomic inequality.) To quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “tis not in death that men die most.” And for many men, the process begins long before manhood.

The emotionally damaging “masculinization” of boys starts even before boyhood, in infancy. Psychologist Terry Real, in his 1998 book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, highlights numerous studies that find parents often unconsciously begin projecting a kind of innate “manliness”—and thus, a diminished need for comfort, protection and affection—onto babies as young as newborns. This, despite the fact that gendered behaviors are absent in babies; male infants actually behave in ways our society defines as “feminine.” As Real explains, “[l]ittle boys and little girls start off… equally emotional, expressive, and dependent, equally desirous of physical affection. At the youngest ages, both boys and girls are more like a stereotypical girl. If any differences exist, little boys are, in fact, slightly more sensitive and expressive than little girls. They cry more easily, seem more easily frustrated, appear more upset when a caregiver leaves the room.”

Yet both mothers and fathers imagine inherent sex-related differences between baby girls and boys. Even when researchers controlled for babies’ “weight, length, alertness, and strength,” parents overwhelmingly reported that girls were more delicate and “softer” than boys; they imagined baby boys to be bigger and generally “stronger.” When a group of 204 adults was shown video of the same baby crying and given differing information about the baby’s sex, they judged the “female” baby to be scared, while the “male” baby was described as “angry.”

Intuitively, these differences in perception create correlating differences in the kind of parental caregiving newborn boys receive. In the words of the researchers, “it would seem reasonable to assume that a child who is thought to be afraid is held and cuddled more than a child who is thought to be angry.” That theory is bolstered by other studies Real cites, which consistently find that “from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurtured less.” We begin emotionally shortchanging boys right out of the gate, at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

It’s a pattern that continues throughout childhood and into adolescence. Real cites a study that found both mothers and fathers emphasized “achievement and competition in their sons,” and taught them to “control their emotions”—another way of saying boys are tacitly instructed to ignore or downplay their emotional needs and wants. Similarly, parents of both sexes are more punitive toward their sons, presumably working under the assumption that boys “can take it.”

Beverly I. Fagot, the late researcher and author of The Influence of Sex of Child on Parental Reactions to Toddler Children, found that parents gave positive reinforcement to all children when they exhibited “same-sex preferred” behaviors (as opposed to “cross-sex preferred”). Parents who said they “accepted sex equity” nonetheless offered more positive responses to little boys when they played with blocks, and gave negative feedback to girls when they engaged in sporty behavior. And while independent play—away from parents—and “independent accomplishments” were encouraged in boys, girls received more positive feedback when they asked for help. As a rule, these parents were unaware of the active role they played in socializing their children in accordance with gender norms. Fagot notes that all stated they treated sons and daughters the same, without regard to sex, a claim sharply contradicted by study findings.

Undeniably, these kinds of lessons impart deeply damaging messages to both girls and boys, and have lifelong and observable consequences. But whereas, as Terry Real says, “girls are allowed to maintain emotional expressiveness and cultivate connection,” boys are not only told to suppress their emotions, but that their manliness essentially depends on them doing so. Despite its logic-empty premise, our society has fully bought into the notion that the relationship between maleness and masculinity is somehow incidental and precarious, and embraced the myth that “boys must be turned into men… that boys, unlike girls, must achieve masculinity.”

Little boys internalize this concept early; when I spoke to Real, he indicated that research suggests they begin to hide their feelings from as young as 3 to 5 years old. “It doesn’t mean that they have fewer emotions. But they’re already learning the game—that it’s not a good idea to express them,” Real says. Boys, conventional wisdom holds, are made men not by merely aging into manhood, but through the crushing effects of socialization. But Real points out what should be obvious: that boys “do not need to be turned into males. They are males. Boys do not need to develop their masculinity.”

It is impossible to downplay the concurrent influence of images and messages about masculinity embedded in our media. TV shows and movies inform kids—and all of us, really—not so much about who men (and women) are, but who they should be. While much of the scholarship about gender depictions in media has come from feminists deconstructing the endless damaging representations of women, there’s been far less research specifically about media-perpetuated constructions of masculinity. But certainly, we all recognize the male traits that are valued in film, television, videogames, comic books, and more: strength, valor, independence, the ability to provide and protect.

While depictions of men have grown more complicated, nuanced and human over time (we’re long past the days of “Father Knows Best” and “Superman” archetypes), certain “masculine” qualities remain valued over others. As Amanda D. Lotz writes in her 2014 book, Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century, though depictions of men in media have become more diverse, “storytelling has nevertheless performed significant ideological work by consistently supporting… male characters it constructs as heroic or admirable, while denigrating others. So although television series may have displayed a range of men and masculinities, they also circumscribed a ‘preferred’ or ‘best’ masculinity through attributes that were consistently idealized.”

We are all familiar with these recurring characters: the fearless action heroes; the prostitute-f**king psychopaths of Grand Theft Auto; the shlubby, housework-averse sitcom dads with inexplicably beautiful wives; the bumbling stoners who still manage to nail the hot girl in the end; and still, the invincible Superman. Even loveable everyguy Paul Rudd somehow “mans up” before the credits roll in his films. Here, it seems important to mention a National Coalition on Television Violence study that finds on average, 18-year-old American males have already witnessed some 26,000 murders on television, “almost all of them committed by men.” Couple those numbers with violence in film and other media, and the figures are likely astronomical.

The result of all this—the early denial of boys’ feelings, and our collective insistence that they follow suit—is that boys are effectively cut off from their emotions, and thus, their deepest and most vulnerable selves. Historian Stephanie Coontz has labeled this effect the “masculine mystique.” It leaves little boys, and later, men, emotionally disembodied, afraid to show weakness and often unable to fully access, recognize or cope with their feelings.

In his book, Why Men Can’t Feel, Marvin Allen states, “[T]hese messages encourage boys to be competitive, focus on external success, rely on their intellect, withstand physical pain, and repress their vulnerable emotions. When boys violate the code, it is not uncommon for them to be teased, shamed, or ridiculed.” The cliche about men not being in touch with their emotions says nothing about inherent markers of maleness, but instead identifies behavioral outcomes that have been rigorously taught, often by well-meaning parents and society at large. As Terry Real told me, this process of disconnecting boys from their feminine—or more accurately, human—emotional selves is deeply harmful. “Every step… is injurious,” says Real. “It’s traumatic. It’s traumatic to be forced to abdicate half of your own humanity.”

That trauma makes itself plain in the ways men attempt to sublimate feelings of emotional need and vulnerability. While women tend to internalize pain, men act it out, against themselves and others. Real said that women “blame themselves, they feel bad, they know they feel bad, they’d like to get out of it. Boys and men tend to externalize stress. We act it out and often don’t see our part in it. It’s the opposite of self-blame; it’s more like feeling like an angry victim.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that across race and ethnicity, women are twice as likely to experience depression as men. But Real believes men’s acting-out behaviors primarily serve to mask their depression, which goes largely unrecognized and undiagnosed.

Examples of these destructive behaviors range from the societally approved, such as workaholism, to the criminally punishable, such as drug addiction and violence. Men are twice as likely as women to suffer from rage disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control, men are more likely to drink to excess than women, leading to “higher rates of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations.” (Possibly because men under the influence are also more likely to engage in other risky behaviors, such as “driv[ing] fast or without a safety belt.”) Boys are more likely to have used drugs by the age of 12 than girls, which leads to a higher likelihood of drug abuse in men later in life. American men are more likely to kill (committing 90.5 percent of all murders) and be killed (comprising 76.8 percent of murder victims). This extends to themselves, according to studies: “males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and comprise approximately 80 percent of all suicides.” (Interestingly, suicide attempts among women are estimated to be three to four times higher than that of their male counterparts.) And according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, men make up more than 93 percent of prisoners.

The damaging effects of emotional severing even play a role in the lifespan gender gap. As Terry Real explains:

“Men’s willingness to downplay weakness and pain is so great that it has been named as a factor in their shorter lifespan. The 10 years of difference in longevity between men and women turns out to have little to do with genes. Men die early because they do not take care of themselves. Men wait longer to acknowledge that they are sick, take longer to get help, and once they get treatment do not comply with it as well as women do.”

Masculinity is both difficult to achieve and impossible to maintain, a fact Real notes is evident in the phrase “fragile male ego.” Because men’s self-esteem often rests on such a shaky construct, the effort to preserve it can be all-consuming. Avoiding the shame that’s left when it is peeled away can drive some men to dangerous ends. This is not to absolve people of responsibility for their actions, but it does drive home the forces that inform behaviors we often attribute solely to individual issues, ignoring their root causes.

James Gilligan, former director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School, has written numerous books on the subject of male violence and its source. In a 2013 interview with MenAlive, a men’s health blog, Gilligan spoke of his study findings, stating, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo that ‘loss of face’—no matter how severe the punishment, even if it includes death.”

Too often, men suffer alone, believing that revealing their personal pain is tantamount to failing at being a man. “As a society, we have more respect for the walking wounded,” Terry Real writes, “those who deny their difficulties, than we have for those who ‘let’ their conditions ‘get to them.'” Yet the cost, both human and in real dollars, of not recognizing men’s trauma is far greater than attending to those wounds, or avoiding creating them in the first place. It’s critical that we begin taking more seriously what we do to little boys, how we do it, and the high emotional cost of masculinity, which turns emotionally whole little boys into emotionally debilitated adults.

When masculinity is defined by absence, when it sits on the absurd and fallacious idea that the only way to be a man is not to acknowledge a key part of oneself, the consequences are both vicious and soul-crushing. The resulting displacement and dissociation leaves men yet more vulnerable and in need of crutches to help allay the pain created by our demands of manliness. As Terry Real writes, “A depressed woman’s internalization of pain weakens her and hampers her capacity for direct communication. A depressed man’s tendency to extrude pain… may render him psychologically dangerous.”

Society has set an unfair and unachievable standard, and in trying to live up to it, many men are slowly killing themselves. It’s time to move beyond these outdated ideas of masculinity and start seeing men as innately human, with no need to prove who they are, to themselves or anyone else.

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.



  1. Dominick Vila August 16, 2017

    What everyone saw yesterday had little to do with masculinity, and much to do with a presidential meltdown reminiscent of Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech. Trump demonstrated, once again, that he is devoid of moral values, and does not understand the difference between right and wrong. The biggest problem we have as a nation is not North Korea or healthcare, but the fact that we elected a president incapable of moral leadership because, among other things, he does not understand the meaning of morality.

    1. Eleanore Whitaker August 16, 2017

      The problem is his base consists entirely of wild eyed middle aged men Trump needs. He needs their anger. He needs their virility and he needs them to threaten, intimidate and keep the rest of us “in line.”

      1. FireBaron August 16, 2017

        Actually, his base are the vast “disenfranchised”. I put that in quotes because they are the only ones who see themselves in that light. They believe their problems started with the 13th Amendment and went downhill from there.

        1. Eleanore Whitaker August 16, 2017

          I have southern and midwestern relatives. I rarely visit them for one reason: I cannot abide that “victim” card they haul out and then blame all of those who work hard for what we need and want.

          When Trump blew his guts and tore off Kelly’s leash yesterday, he unwittingly made victims of Neo Nazis. Not unlike what Hitler did in Germany.

          Hitler knew precisely which of the downtrodden to incite to violence. Like Hitler, Trump, a NY City born real estate crook, never visited the south or midwest unless it was Mar-a-Lago. This is what a liar he is. He is doing exactly what Hitler did…make himself look like their savior. So they can pin the blame for their laziness and lack of ambition and initiative on us. I don’t buy it.

          If we can create jobs up north, why can’t they?

          1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 16, 2017

            It’s as though the Civil War is never supposed to end. Many Southerners have a morbid fascination with reliving antebellum South up to and including Reconstruction.
            “The South Shall Rise Again” is a silent refrain heard in code in social interactions.

          2. Dominick Vila August 16, 2017

            In all fairness, some companies have been building plants in “right to work for less” States for decades. Having said that, the states with the largest segment of population dependent on welfare are in the South.

        2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 16, 2017

          Right on! The 13th Amendment was used an excuse create further divisions, and it indirectly set in motion a downward spiral as a reaction.

  2. Eleanore Whitaker August 16, 2017

    If you watched Kelly standing behind Lard Ass, you’d have seen the look on his face was not exactly approving. Here is a decorated US military general who thought he could reason with insanity.

    For women who have parented sons, Trump’s behavior is easily identifiable as the “fair haired boy” syndrome. Trump had 4 other siblings, 2 sisters and 2 brothers. One brother, I believe is since past away.

    However, as you’ve all seen. Not one of his siblings has shown up at any presidential campaign rally or in any way supported him. You can guess why.

    Trump is a grossly insecure individual with the maturity level of the age at which his Mommy Mary Ann died and left behind the human wreck she coddled, overindulged and favored above 4 other children. Her “Not MY son” attitude is where his belief in elite entitlements come from.

    The problem now is that you have Republicans who see another HItler tyrant in the making who will do nothing. Once more, the men of the south and midwest prove they cannot take a stand against the biased, bigoted culture they grew up with and their great granddaddies felt entitled to.

    Like the Biblical Legion, the Neo Nazi anarchists have been unleashed. This is what Trump needed. The same solid anarchist base Hitler amassed in his early days. Like Hitler, Trump has alienated both political parties and knows without a publicly threatening base to take control of dissenters and people who criticize him, he goes down in flames.

    His defense of Neo Nazis and his inability to take a stand has more to do with his need for his own party “BASE” who will do what Hitler’s brown shirts did. Or what one right wing site online has already threatened. “Keep a list of anyone who doesn’t vote for Trump in 2020.”

    1. idamag August 16, 2017

      I got the feeling that trump’s behavior shows a person whose parents blamed the school and the other kids for all his follies. I feel he has never paid the consequences of his actions. Mommy and daddy bailed him out.

      1. Eleanore Whitaker August 16, 2017

        Not Trump’s parents. Trump’s Mommy Mary Ann. If you were to go back to his preteen days, you’d see that even though he had 2 brothers and 2 sisters, only the favored Donny Boy got face time with Mommy in photo ops. His father actually had to separate those 2 by sending Donny boy to military school. He punched a fellow student in the face as an excuse to get himself expelled. His father found another military school and he got expelled from that one too. So it was right back home with Mommy.

        The only reason Trump EVER sidled up to his Daddy Fred was because his father was so fed up with him and Mommy always plotting against him. So he handed Donny $325 million to get rid of him. That’s when Donny “loved” Daddy.

        1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 16, 2017

          That monetary gift to Donald was the kiss of death in hindsight, for Trump and for humanity.Donald clearly had mental/emotional issues as a youth, and giving him that much money compounded the problem. Fred made a tragic error born of laziness one would say, when instead he could have prevented young “Voldemort” at a young age from growing up to be the bane of humanity he is today.

          That’s a Western way of handling a problem—give out some money.

          1. Eleanore Whitaker August 17, 2017

            Of course you are so right. Trump grew up fighting for Mommy Mary Ann’s attention. Fred Trump and Trump’s grandfather have a legacy tied to the Nazis.

            Back in the day when Fred and Donny Boy rented apartments on their way up the corporate ladder, they refused to rent to a black couple. They got sued. But, to show what scumbags they both were, they set about making life so miserable for that black couple while they rented that apartment, they eventually realized it just wasn’t worth it. Daddy and Sonny both tried to evade NY City’s rent control regulations by increasing the couple’s rent when they didn’t increase any other rents.

            At best, Trump is a Nazi sympathizer and at worst, a racist.

            What the right wing big mouths want is something they know we will never allow: Violations to the Civil Rights Act. To let them take even an inch, means they’ll go for more mileage.

            The foreign media was as shocked at that Right Wing rally in VA as Americans were. As one German said through an interpreter, “It was like watching it all over again.”

  3. idamag August 16, 2017

    I witnesses at a gathering, when a person holding several frisbees, was offering them to some five-year-olds. A little boy grabbed a pink one and his father made him take it back and get another color. Boy babies and girl babies’ diapers all stink the same.

  4. FireBaron August 16, 2017

    So as our president, we have a man-child who grew up hungering for his father’s attention and love, watching his older brother slowly deteriorate due to his lack of “manliness”. Now we have this man-baby who demands instant gratification and has no filter!

  5. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 16, 2017

    This article raises in a different style of expression a key aspect of a central theme which forms the basis of the Revelation of Baha’u’llah—that basis being “The Oneness of Humankind”.

    This fundamental Reality has been ever-present in human history, yet wasn’t fully articulated because of the general state of spiritual maturity. For example, women throughout most of our existence were by convention shunted into certain roles, outside of which it became impermissible for them to venture. Religious Texts accommodated this lack of our development at that stage, by allowing for men to assume a dominant role. Even when the Prophet Muhammad showed less than “masculine” tendencies in particular situations, He was ridiculed for not pressing a “manly” advantage to resolve an issue in a way expected by the status quo. At another moment in affairs in Arabia, when Meccans were stealing the property of the early Muslims, loading the belongings unto the camels for transport and to sell along caravan routes, the Muslims entreated Muhammad to fight back. At which point an intimation was felt by Muhammad(read as “inspiration”), and which spurred Muhammad to gather men together to attack the caravan at Badr.

    This expectation of men to assert themselves was necessary in our early development, and is a common feature world-wide; every culture displays this duality in responsibility and expectation of the roles of women and men.

    But now this has been resoundingly reversed by Baha’u’llah. By His pronouncements throughout His Writings, He maintains that there exists, and always has existed, an equality of women and men. The key proviso is that “equality” does not equate as “Sameness”, and that different priorities in certain circumstances are the prerogative of women and men.

    To illustrate this, biology dictates that women are positioned and expected to be the first educators of the children. As such, Baha’u’llah has commanded as a requirement that if a family only has enough money to educate one child, and if the children consist of a boy and a girl,then the funding should go to the girl in order to help her fulfill her role as the first educator. Of course, Baha’u’llah stipulates that education should be made mandatory, and therefore clearly delineates the responsibility of the Baha’i communities at the local, national, and international levels, should consult on means to obtain the necessary funding to assist those families without the means to guarantee that all the children are educated.

    Also, in cases where women have been culturally/historically excluded from achieving the means to progress and to educate themselves, then society again has a role to see to it that the long-term damage inflicted over generations be gradually, or abruptly as deemed fit, reversed and expediently.

  6. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 16, 2017

    To continue my earlier thread, by having given some background, we need to relate to how age-old biases against women fit into today’s world, understand some of the incongruities that arise by trying to adapt ancient attitudes about women, and to seek ways to counteract the damage done by the insidious influences of gender bias and the continued overemphasis on masculinity.

    The posture required of the male in earlier times demanded for the protection of the earlier generations of humanity to be more forceful and to dismiss negotiation. How can one negotiate when one side is dead-set on forcing its agenda on the other. The idea of consulting and.or reaching consensus, and displaying a conciliatory aspect, is seen as a sign of weakness, both in the West AND in the East. There are perhaps only a handful of hunter-gatherer types still alive today who don’t follow this pattern of male domination.

    Greed, and the motivation to acquire, requires a dominant stance and the strength and weapons as means to conquer those who have what the stronger person/group wants. This behavioral trait has become woven into family relationships, and between men and women in how they interact.

    What Baha’u’llah, and the other Central figures in the Baha’i Faith, has written and demonstrated in His behavior, is that men need to learn how to develop the atrophied qualities which women have mastered and strengthened. Donald Trump is an excellent example of failure to strengthen qualities such as intuition, awareness of the feelings of others, empathy, altruism, reciprocity, and similar attributes. There are, alas, many women who wish to be brutish in order to advance in the world, because our twisted society demands women adopt adversarial traits of men; men are ridiculed if they so much as display feelings of compassion and concern for the well-being of others.

    In the Baha’i communities around the world, men are openly being challenged by Baha’u’llah to reverse this dichotomy between male and female. There is no escape for Baha’i men from this duty to work towards embodying the equality of women and men in their gatherings and in the deliberations/consultations which take place to discuss and resolve issues. But again, certain priorities in human affairs and child-rearing are assigned to women and some to men—changing a tire or lifting heavy objects is something expected of men. But changing diapers and doing dishes are things men should dive right in and perform, as I have done on many occasions.

    Mopping the floor, playing with the kids, and vacuuming are therapeutic for men—so guys, don’t deny yourselves this privilege.

  7. Mama Bear August 16, 2017

    While this is a nice and educational piece….Trump’s behaviour has nothing to do with masculinity and everything to do with malignant narcissism. There are just as as many female narcissists as there are male. This is an excuse and again trying to blame someone besides the person who should be blamed.

  8. yabbed August 17, 2017

    Trump is a weakling. His absurd posturing proves just what a weak nothing he is.

    1. 788eddie August 17, 2017

      What I am most concerned with is that the leaders of other nations are beginning to realize this.

    2. 788eddie August 17, 2017

      What I am most concerned with is that the leaders of other nations are beginning to realize this.

    3. johninPCFL August 17, 2017

      The tyrants of the world will wake up to the fact that dealing with the Obese Orange Nazi will best resemble Stalin’s dealing with Roosevelt. By the time Yalta came around, Roosevelt was unable to best Stalin and gave away eastern Europe. China has undoubtedly recognized the early stages of Alzheimer’s that Orange displays.

  9. FT66 August 17, 2017

    I don’t blame Trump much as I do to those who put him into power. I don’t know what were they thinking? What qualifications and qualitiies they saw in this man that attracted them? If it was not voters, Trump would be now sitting in one of his towers and not in people’s house that everyone of us highly values.


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