I just watched the newest episode of “The Grapevine,” a Youtube series I often watch. The episode revolved around the very public and quite timely, backlash against toxic masculinity. As the topic unfurled, what I found most interesting was the emphasis on understanding the nuances of displaying that degree of masculinity. Humans inherently have both feminine and masculine energies within the same body; they are then either nurtured through positive feedback or quelled through “auto-correction,” as Doug said. What we fail to realize on a grand scale is that by favoring either of those energies within one person, we inevitably force them to choose which of the two becomes their lifeline.
Subconsciously, a man who is told he cannot play with dolls, or a girl reprimanded for playing kickball, will choose the energy that at best, allows them to survive in the space allotted to them by society. Notice I’m emphasizing that the choice is a subconscious one; one does not often decide “this is how I need to act to function in my gender-biased society.” Instead it is the fanaticism in our approval or disapproval of certain behaviors and activities that slowly form little beliefs within a person that guide their future actions. Over time, a little boy denied a doll will learn that dolls cannot be for boys via negative feedback. He will subconsciously reason that he was not allowed to have a doll because he is a boy and therefore, no boys should have dolls; the same can be said for many women who experience the same feedback as children. Often, it will be these very people that will perpetuate the same narrow concepts forced upon them and reinforce their subconscious behaviors by imposing those engrained beliefs onto a new group of unsuspecting children. The same can be said for boys and girls who received positive reinforcement about their “supposed” gender-appropriate likes, seeing them also grow to believe that the way they are is how men/women simply are.
In both instances, the subconscious beliefs reinforced throughout life will influence the ways in which these people associate with gender. The biggest difference is that for those who received negative feedback, their eventual acclimation to societal standards is by force and simultaneously creates resentment towards anyone that does not adhere, themselves included. This is the basis of toxic masculinity and it shows itself as intolerance, aggression and apathy for the experiences of the other side. The latter group often acclimates without the same resentments and also reserves the choice to redefine gender if need be. This is a luxury we misunderstand, and so we continue to make boys/girls think being a boy/girl is more about their actions than their self- identification.
When we feel gender needs to be a specific way that is by definition, toxic. Anything without balance is toxic. A man who thinks to be a man means forceful exertion of his energy is a problem. A woman who projects those views onto a man by calling him effeminate for grooming himself for example, is also toxic. Regardless of the sex of the instigator, when it comes from a place of rigidity, toxicity ensues. What we need to emphasize more than actions, are mindsets that encourage children to just enjoy what they like. However deeply we are committed to that is one thing, but we must collectively acknowledge that gender is so wrapped up in these abstract ideals that make people fit into them when it should be the reverse.
Gender roles do not need to be banished, but there needs to be a fluidity that allows someone to be who they are and still identify as they please. Life is not a puzzle with right and wrong configurations, it is forever dynamic. It cannot be appropriate for us or our larger society to tell anyone that they can only be one way to be themselves. We damage our children first, and hinder our future selves when we decide that A is for one, B is for another, and never the twain shall meet.