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HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. This semester, students in our Inequality in America, Art for Social Change, and Making Media, Making Change programs are writing a series of blog posts on a topic of their choosing. We asked Inequality in America students to consider a theory or reading that intersects with their lived experience. Making Media, Making Change and Art for Social Change students will offer a window into their creative processes, and describe how what they are learning guides their art. Over the next few months we’ll publish a number of these powerful reflections from our students. Please share them widely! You can find all of the posts by searching the HECUA classrooms category on our blog.
Toxic Masculinity and Domestic Violence in the Trump Era
by Tara Livesay
I grew up owning many Barbie dolls, dressing them up and giving them life stories that usually involved a Ken, a baby, and a family. As an adult, however, I began to see how Barbie’s image could contribute to a violent and sexist culture. Her hyperfemininity is a symbol of the feminine standard thrust upon us, and contrasts with the hypermasculinity that is dangerously sold to our society. The toxic masculinity I refer to is a gender stereotype, highlighting the perception of men as dominant, aggressive, and unemotional. This concept not only reflects a heteronormative framework (only recognizing heterosexual relationships), but potentially contributes to domestic partner violence in all types of relationships. I am particularly drawn to this issue in a time when our president, serving as a role model to young kids, serves as an example of a cluster of dangerous male expectations.
Being a sociology major, I have studied the gender roles we are socialized to perform. Starting from before we are born, expectations of the way we should behave are based on our determined sex. How does this contribute to violence? I will begin with the role of femininity. This was something that we discussed in my Anti-Violence training at OutFront Minnesota, and guess who came up? Barbie. During the training, we talked about the well-known and unrealistic beauty ideals that Barbie portrays, and how with any job she takes, she always looks good doing it.
Now, she has had jobs that aren’t classically feminine, but her beauty is always at the forefront. Does this send messages to children that a woman’s looks are still the most important part of her? This may not seem obvious at the surface level, but the continuous objectification of women’s bodies is insidious. It starts tarnishing people’s minds from the time they begin playing with dolls.
This is where the idea of toxic masculinity comes into play, as well. In contrast to the pretty, mild-mannered, caretaker role of a woman, men get to see themselves represented as unemotional, strong, and aggressive. Something like a doll will probably not cause violence by itself, but reinforcing messages of accepted behaviors of men and women has the potential to be very dangerous for the receivers.
The idea of toxic masculinity is that these rigid stereotypes placed on men create harmful images of what it means to be a man. There is a constant need to prove oneself as tough, never accepting defeat, and never crying or asking for help. This macho behavior is part of our own president’s identity. Trump’s large yet fragile ego and his “locker room talk” sum up the effects of toxic masculinity, and I have seen many men and women praise his actions. This is a man whose position kids often look up to as a role model. What does it mean when their role model is someone who acts as a bully and lacks respect for women? We can’t pretend that excusing his comments doesn’t have an effect on the way we treat each other.
The effects of a hyper masculine image are huge. In the instance of domestic violence, men not only can begin to normalize power control as perpetrators, they can also ignore or not recognize when they are the victims of violence because they are taught to believe they should be able to handle physical and emotional abuse. The lack of recognition of their own abuse leads to a large underrepresentation of male victims of domestic partner violence. This doesn’t only apply to straight couples. There is also stigma against non-masculine men in the gay community, which reflects oppressive concepts of misogyny, and internalized homophobia. This brings stress to men in general, and more aggressive behavior is seen when their image may be threatened.
We need to dismantle these harmful projections of gender roles on our culture. Assigning only certain behaviors to men and women is extremely harmful because it ostracizes those who do not fit the roles they are given. It also excludes and discredits other gender expressions (for example: those who do not identify as one or the other gender). As a society we need to demonstrate the ability to break out of these restrictions, because a narrow definition of what it means to be a man or a woman contributes to a sexist and heteronormative framework. I am concerned that these damaging roles are validated by being normalized by our leaders in the mainstream. We must question the effects of images of masculine violence, and question the people who perpetuate the messages.
Tara Livesay is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Sociology and minoring in Political Science. She’s spending the semester with HECUA in the Inequality in America program.