On the first day of October 2017, a gunman in Las Vegas killed 58 concertgoers and injured more than 500 others. On the 31st, a man drove a rental truck down a bike path in New York City, killing 8 people and injuring 11 more. A few days later, a gunman walked into a church in Sutherland, Texas, and killed 26 parishioners. In a little over a month last fall, nearly a hundred people were lost to unimaginable acts of public violence. And amid the discussions of gun control and mental illness that inevitably follow tragedies like these, some pointed out that the three murderers had something in common: All were men.
As educators, we need to be ready push back against some of the more perverse ideas about gender that sometimes surface in the aftermath of violence. Seeking an explanation for the mass shootings that happen at a rate of almost one per day in the United States, we have to get away from the idea that “men are just naturally violent.” Instead, we need to recognize statements like this as manifestations of “toxic masculinity,” and we need to push back against these ideas and the ideology behind them.
Toxic masculinity, the idea that there is only one way to “be a man”—strong, tough, unfeeling and aggressive—is a double-edged sword. First, it harms the boys and men who fail to live up to gendered expectations of who they should be. Then, sometimes, these men perpetrate violence in response, leaving innocent victims in their wake. Because gender expectations amount to a moving target that no one can hit, no matter how hard they try, toxic masculinity is always a losing game. A vacuum is created when we tell a boy over and over that he is “not a man,” that he needs to “man up” or “grow a pair.” What if that vacuum is filled by a need to prove his power? What if the proof is violence?
As educators, it is time we decouple sex from gender and talk about how this twisted brand of cultural masculinity—not biological maleness—plays a role in creating violence in our classrooms, hallways, workplaces and sanctuaries. Once we shift the discussion away from sex and biology and toward gender and culture, then we can begin to work toward solutions.
Sex? Sexual orientation? Gender identity? Gender expression?
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Educators can push back against toxic masculinity in any number of ways. We need to teach our boys that they deserve better than to be pigeonholed by cultural gender norms.
We need to stop telling the boys and the men in our lives to “man up” when they dare to show emotion or pain. We need to encourage them to drop the “tough guise” and let them grow up with space for tenderness.
We need to disrupt teasing when we hear someone call a boy “pussy,” “girl,” “wuss” or “wimp” and explain to boys that having a heart or a fear or an emotion is a human need, not a liability.
Schools across the country are engaging boys and men in conversations about gender inside and outside the classroom. Having direct dialogues about the dangers of toxic masculinity can empower students to see the limits and myths of societal gender norms.
We can bring these lessons into our classrooms using resources such as the films Tough Guise 2 and The Mask You Live In, which are appropriate for most secondary students and come with teaching resources that can really engage students.
We also need to use our curricula to show boys—and all of our students—that there are many versions of masculinity. Not all texts need to have male protagonists swashbuckling, colonizing or warring.
In our own classrooms, we need to create space for boys to know that there is more than one path to becoming a man, and that those paths do not have to lead to violence. We need to teach them that boys are not destined for aggression. To do so, we will need to stay vigilant and persistent in our conversations about gender. It is my hope that such constant conversations will lead to a safer world so that we will never see another 36 days like we saw in 2017.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.