Lucy Roth | Guest Reporter
This article is dedicated to those of us who have lost any loved ones at the sight of or thereafter a mass shooting. Forever in our hearts.
“He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it,” is a quote by George Orwell in his famous essay “Shooting an Elephant.” This idea of wearing a mask and eventually characteristically succumbing to this mask is what is inevitably happening to the generation of boys and men living in our society today. These ideological men, or the idea of “man,” are becoming obsessed with the prospects of dominance, power, authority, but most prevalently, violence and the supplements of violence.
Power. Authority. Dominance. All can be gained by committing these cruel and vicious acts. To name a few of the more famously recent acts: Sandy Hook, Orlando, Sutherland Springs High School, Parkland. To name a few perpetrators of crimes against women: Charlie Rose, Larry Nassar, Kevin Spacey, Brock Turner. The lists go on and on.
Picture a serial killer in your mind. This person is usually a young Caucasian man with matted hair and crazy eyes. We see the picture of James Holmes sitting at the defendant stand with no remorse. He is the product of his environment. He is the product of this globalization and normalcy of toxic masculinity. This is the way men manifest their innate struggle–through violence. It isn’t the guns, and it isn’t the direct mental illness; it’s how these men were raised and treated.
Let’s take the most recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for example. Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old white male who was expelled from the school early in his time as a student, shot and killed 17 teachers and students on Feb. 14. He grew up a “weird” kid, former classmates and peers said. He didn’t have many friends or anyone he really related to.
Friends are necessary for a boy’s success and development. They provide brotherhood, respect and justification of one another. Cruz did not revel in the gift of friendship ever in his life. After investigations of Cruz’s mental state, the results came back inconclusive. No signs of schizophrenia or other naturally debilitating diseases were found. The supposed rationale was temporary insanity or depression.
The problem with this thesis, though, is that not every depressed man is going to find an assault rifle and randomly shoot up a school. A small percentage of the perpetrators of mass shootings were previously found to have serious mental health problems. Crying mental illness at the sight of a mass shooting is simply not always correct.
In a recent documentary by The Representation Project, called “The Mask You Live In,” this idea is analyzed. Even before a boy begins kindergarten, he is taught that he is inherently different than his girl peers. He is taught and shown that the girls get the natural privilege to cry and express their sadness and remorse, but he is not. With the well known phrases, “boys will be boys,” “be a man” and “grow some balls,” both girls and boys are exposed. He is to be strong, capable and intelligent. He is to be brave enough to not have to share his emotions.
The easiest way to start a fight on the playground between a group of boys is to ask which one of them is a “wussy.” They will point each other out until one boy is finally picked as the most “wuss,” and he either fights or cries home.
No one wants to be a wuss because it is a sign of femininity, and masculinity is the rejection of all things feminine. To be less of a man is to be more of a girl. Mothers are told they shouldn’t hold their sons too close, as this closeness is not something they should want or desire as a male. In the documentary, Kimmel explains the only time it is socially acceptable for men to show affection and intimacy, is when they are belligerently drunk or high. This is the convention for college-age binge drinking and substance abuse. All they are seeking is that friendly closeness.
Another interesting idea the documentary expresses is power through sexual abuse and violence. Because we are constructing an idea of masculinity in America that is so destructive and “toxic,” we are forcing these men to go prove these ideas to us. They believe that somehow they are not masculine enough to just simply call themselves “man:” it must be “I am man because….” They assert dominance through rape, crime and violence, whether it is consummated or not.
There is a three-pronged scale of masculinity Dr. Ehrmann sees all men who aspire to fulfill their manhood should thrive in. They are athletic ability, economic success and sexual conquest. A hierarchy is formed out of a male’s ability to perform on these three levels, and any man who has seemingly failed to perform has inadvertently failed as a man.
There is an idea of learned behaviors included in the realm of masculinity. The boys are loop-holed into the contrived concepts as they age and grow as men. Painting a room blue when you find out your baby is a boy, giving him Nerf guns and toy soldiers to play with, buying him shirts and clothes with superheroes or dogs or firefighters decorating them, bringing them to movies, all of these are things parents are doing to instill a misshaped idea of masculinity in their sons. The problem with this though is gender is a social construct, and sex is a biological term. It refers to what chromosomes you have. Other learned behaviors are what our teachers, peers, and siblings teach us.
Loneliness is a one of the largest shared feelings of the male gender. They feel lonely in their feelings, thoughts and emotions because it isn’t socially acceptable for them to share them freely, without some level of fear. These are not societal outcasts. These are boys and young men who are surrounded by peers who are as equally lonely, depressed and desperate for human intimacy. Embedded in societal teachings of manhood is a code of allegiance to toughness. Virility is defined as maintaining an emotional silence, remaining deadpan and unmoved by emotional pain. Tears are for women to shed. With so much pent-up, unresolved feelings coursing through a young man’s chest, the most natural human outlet is through violence, quite often at the cost of others.
In the 2016 novel, “Loner” by Teddy Wayne, the author paints a very clear picture of what atrocities can result from toxic masculinity. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Smith, Wayne expresses his motivation behind writing such an upsetting story where the protagonist stalks and rapes a Harvard classmate. The perpetrator, David, is classically white, 19 years old and comes from an affluent family. Wayne says, “It’s turned into something that’s associated with young men who live at home with their parents, who blow up a high school cafeteria or commit sexual assault or do something else horrible. … try to understand what’s going on in their head and what cultural forces influence them to act this way. … it trains them to be dominant, to be aggressors, to be violent, to not betray any vulnerability or sensitivity.” Wayne speaks as well about the over-romanticization of the “loner” stereotype, when in actuality, being a loner is what is causing these devastating acts to occur.
Our fathers play a huge role in who we grow up to be. He is our first love, our first real example of how a man should look, act and treat other people. The father I was blessed enough to call my own, who grew up in the 60s and 70s, had a fairly similar view of masculinity. “When I was a boy,” he says, “you took care of business, if someone didn’t treat you right, you dealt with it. My father taught me to love all girls and respect them as my equals. We played games, but largely he let us do our own thing. He never forced any belief down our throats.” This shows through with his parenting.
Your father is the person you will try to model the most, whether it be personally or in your day-to-day life. The ideas of masculinity are rooted in our boys from a young age, and if these boys do not have a male role model growing up, where will they learn how to be a man? Where will they learn what being a man in today’s society means? The answer is that that they won’t, and they will be stunted, positively or negatively, because of it for the rest of their lives.
Toxic masculinity is affecting prisoners as well. In “Toxic Masculinity as a Barrier to Mental Health” in The Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2005, Terry A. Kuper discusses how the mental scars of toxic masculinity are still affecting those behind bars. Kuper says that “Male prisoners tend to under-report their emotional problems and often do not request help until their condition has deteriorated to the point of psychotic decompensation or a suicide crisis.”
The “man box” is the net of the socially accepted ways a man acts. Living in this “man box” can make one feel incomplete, rudimentary and fake. Once one becomes free of this box, they are capable of anything. Drama, theatre, producing, music, art, science, the possibilities are endless. If a man never is released of the “man box,” he can be caught in indescribable amounts of violence, hate and sadness.
We must be better. We must teach our boys that it is okay to feel. It is okay to cry, be angry and afraid. To stifle one’s emotions is to stifle one’s humanity, and it all starts in how we bring our boys up.
We must prevent these shootings from happening, and it starts much earlier than the gun. Michael Ian Black tweets, “Deeper even than the gun problem is this: boys are broken. Even talking about this topic invites ridicule because it’s so scary for most men (and women). Men are adrift and nobody is talking about it and nobody’s doing anything about it and it’s killing us.”