Words || Hugo James and Pip Broadhead
I’ve got an irrational fear of shopping in the ‘health and body’ section in the supermarket. When I skulk out of there, I refer to the sorbolene I’ve bought there as ‘boysturiser.’ I also refer to my satchel as a ‘man-bag,’ and you can be damn sure I’ll never order a cocktail that comes with a fruit garnish. Not because I don’t like fruity drinks, or because I love gender puns, but because, like so many of my male peers, I’m trying to reject femininity at all costs, lest I be labelled a ‘great big pussy.’ The idea that men who are not strong or dominant are not ‘proper men’ is often referred to as ‘toxic masculinity.’ The term originated in the early nineties from psychologist specialising in male health and wellbeing such as Frank S. Pittman – he discussed toxic masculinity in terms of a father-son relationship. Today though, toxic masculinity usually refers to this ‘ideal man’ image, he’s as strong, stoic, unemotional and dominant. And in Australia’s brand of toxic masculinity, sport reigns supreme.
Sport encompasses the core traits of traditional masculinity – physicality, aggression, and a desire to win. Sport also encourages team bonding and a mob mentality, which can be both help the fuel the toxicity. Most children join sport teams around the age of four or five. At this age, children start to exhibit a need for approval by observing and repeating the traits and competencies they see in society. For athletic children, particularly boys, participation in team sports becomes an avenue for success, recognition, and popularity. On the other hand, the boys who lack the ability or interest to pursue sports are doomed to remain on the fringe of traditional masculinity, are labelled ‘effeminate,’ and pushed to the social periphery.
The term ‘toxic’ is certainly appropriate in relation to men’s mental health – in Australia, one in eight men are formally diagnosed with depression. Men are also three times as likely as women to commit suicide. These statistics perhaps highlight that while men are being told that they aren’t cutting the mustard, they’re also being conditioned out of feeling like they can seek emotional support. Seeking out assistance is often seen as admission of weakness.
This may sound like another case of men whinging about how hard it is to be a man. It’s undeniable that the marginalisation we face isn’t anywhere near comparable to women, but the collateral damage of perpetuating ‘manhood’ disadvantages everybody. Masculinity studies aren’t at odds with feminism, the two work hand in hand. As Australian gender academic Dr. Michael Flood said, “If we keep on implying to men that there’s something wrong, or weak, or lesser, about doing something that women stereotypically have done, then we keep buying into gender inequality. We keep telling men that there’s something wrong with women, and that men should do their damnedest to avoid that.”
I inherited my mum’s throwing arm, and I spent my youth on the sidelines, hating myself for the overwhelming femininity in my character. When I look back on my formative years, I wonder what person I could have been if I wasn’t so petrified of looking girly. Perhaps I could have been a good dancer, an accomplished pianist, or an apt artist. I’ll never know because despite my desire to try all of these things, and my parents’ encouragement, I never had the guts – they were what the girls did. Instead I flailed about on football fields and embarrassed myself in local basketball comps, because the boys played sports. So please forgive my absence at your NRL grand final party, I’ve already scheduled that evening to dye my hair pink and gawkily dance to Taylor Swift.