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The Beginning of the End for the Hard, Tough Guy Revolution in Gender Roles

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If you poke around in the darker corners of the Internet – places where the new »manfluencers,« online machos with big audiences, are wreaking havoc – you might get the impression that the struggle to find a fairer form of coexistence between the sexes has been lost. Here, in the so-called manosphere, hatred of women and archaic notions of gender roles predominate. Yet the backlash against pro-female movements conceals a more deep-seated, irreversible social transformation.

Masculinity has become a target of critique. At least since the ongoing #MeToo movement got underway, the concept of »toxic masculinity« has become firmly embedded in our vocabulary. Up until now it has focused mainly on women’s perspectives. Discussions of the ways in which notions of the »strong sex« also harm men have only just begun. But the facts tell a different story. Characteristics perceived as masculine, such as dominance, aggression, and competitiveness, are quite likely to send men to prison, the hospital, or the graveyard. Far too many young men who have not learned to show weakness and articulate their emotions end up later in life burned out, addicted to substances, or clinically depressed. Discarding old images of masculinity has the potential to empower men, too.

Socialization shapes gender roles. In particular, a person’s upbringing may define the path he or she will follow later in life. »That’s just the way boys are.« »Well after all, he is a man.« »Boys will be boys.« A whole series of such generalizations are applied to boys from early childhood to legitimize destructive behavior. This may happen in a variety of contexts: when kids scuffle over toys, when youngsters try to outdo each other in drinking games or act on a »dare«, or when teenage boys objectify women.  There is no female equivalent to such stereotyping. Male children are brought up differently. Violence is not sanctioned as strictly, while tears, weakness, or insecurity are disapproved. That’s because »big boys don’t cry.«

»A girl who is scared is smart. A boy who is scared is a coward.« Christian Gesellmann

Weakness, doubt, anxiety, helplessness, fear, shyness, softness, neediness, and even excessive euphoria are all considered unmanly traits. Not only are boys less likely to be cuddled or taken into the arms of an adult; they are even far less likely to be spoken to in metaphorical language, which demonstrably vitiates their linguistic competence. They are instructed much more frequently to be strong, brave, and assertive.
Even as small children they are called »young man,« whereas nobody would address a little female child as »young woman.« On the contrary, women even in their late thirties continue to be »girls.« As a general rule, language betrays a great deal about unconscious gender clichés. We would not talk about »men on a power track« or »family moms,« since those are understood to be normal roles for the respective sexes. Nor would we talk about »career men« or »women who are connoisseurs of men.« We do call young men »junior« or »mama’s boy,« but we would not say »mama’s daughter« or »daddy’s girl.« Meanwhile, there is no male equivalent for terms like »slut« or »floozy.« Generally speaking, terms such as these (or, as the case may be, their absence) bring to light unconscious ideals of masculinity and femininity.

Men suffer

These gender roles cause women a great deal of suffering, as when they are with men who explain things without being asked, laugh too loudly at their own jokes, and get upset or aggressive when confronted by questions of »gendering.« But of course, they suffer still more among men who harass, hit, and rape. Yet the problem of masculinity does not concern only women. In most cases, violent acts committed by men victimize other men, and not only in a physical way. Even the psychological pressure that men must endure to count as real men is exerted primarily by other men.
The traditional ideal of masculinity puts a strain on men’s health, friendships, and romantic relationships as well as their mental states. It makes them more susceptible to criminality and more dependent on their careers, even up to and including death. Suicide is the most frequent cause of death for men under 35. As the journalist Christian Gellmann writes: »Being a man is something you have to earn. It is an inherently precarious achievement that is always in jeopardy and constantly has to be defended. Chickening out in a test of courage, even once ordering a cocktail with the little umbrella in it, or crying at the wrong time – all of that can cost you years of being a manly man.« 

»The real problem with the ideal of masculinity is the fear of not living up to it.«

The real problem with the ideal of masculinity is the fear of not living up to it.  Worry that they are not being manly enough haunts many boys and young men. As the journalist Jack Irwin observes, »Basically, toxic masculinity emerges from the fear of emasculation, which is seen as the worst thing that could happen to a man.« He adds that »There is no real equivalent for this among women. Why not? Because they are already at the bottom of the pecking order.« That’s why women can drink beer, listen to punk bands, wear pants, or work as pilots without worrying about downward mobility, whereas men risk loss of status by drinking a prosecco, listening to boy bands, wearing skirts, or working as beauticians.
This sort of male chauvinist conduct does not originate in the competition for potential partners, but in the fear that other men will think less of them. In everyday life, when men get together, they generally tend to demand or evoke toxic masculinity »by condescending smiles, ridicule, belittlement, condemnation, injury, showing others up, insults, name-calling, and discrimination against men who don’t live up to the idea of being a real man,« as Jacy Fortin puts it in the New York Times.

A new form of coexistence

Hence, we will find the key to overcoming toxic masculinity mainly by developing new ways for men to coexist with one another. And right now, their relationships are undergoing radical changes. An enormous leap in the evolution of masculinity has been occurring from one generation to the next. Young men differ from their fathers and grandfathers in fundamental ways. What mainly sets them apart is the fact they are incredibly nice to each other.

Many teenagers of the woke generation have developed completely unique ideas about how to deal with their peer group: no machismo, no competitiveness, no more »dares« and »bragging rights,« no competition. What is more, the younger generation talks about feelings! They express affection, speak to one another, embrace each other. These are seemingly small, insignificant gestures, but they mark the demise of the strong, tough guy.

To cite one example, we can observe this new form of coexistence in young people’s social media bubbles. Influencers such as Theo Carow, Jordan Stephens, Jon Gustin, or Waldemar Zeiler provide models for this new kind of man. In their crews people talk about emotions, fears, and weaknesses. Tears are normal. They laugh not at others but only at themselves. They are the living opposites of the toxic incel bubble where apparently the whole point is to beat up on oneself and on others.

»A revolution in role models – for both sexes.«

These new men often talk about helplessness, nail polish, ED, meditation, shame, psychological illnesses or Disney movies, and by doing so they violate taboos dating back decades. Their interactions are loving and supportive. Even boys cuddle and hold hands. For many men of the younger generation such open displays of affection are normal, while they would have been unthinkable in their fathers‹ time. This new type of interaction signifies a revolution in role models—one that applies to both sexes. J. J. Bola writes in his book, Sei kein Mann. Warum Männlichkeit ein Albtraum für Jungs ist (Don’t Be a Man: Why Masculinity is a Nightmare for Boys): »In a society where men behave in mostly violent ways toward each other, being a man who loves other men is a radical, progressive act.«

These new men have seen for themselves that propaganda in favor of images of masculinity and role clichés no longer serves their interests. They are liberating themselves from such images with an ease that comes from having like-minded peers around them

.New men everywhere

More and more young men are breaking out of the straitjacket of gender roles. The fact that we are seeing men in skirts more often is more than just a fashion statement. It indicates the beginning of a new era in gender role relations. In progressive TikTok bubbles, urban party and artists‹ scenes, and pop culture generally, an increasing number of men are adopting feminine fashions. Prominent representatives of the younger generation – consistently hetero-cis men like Harry Styles, Jaden Smith, or Jared Leto – are breaking down old gender barriers, and not only through their choice of clothing. 

The shift is evident in sports, as well. For decades sports idols just oozed traditional masculinity: strong, successful hetero men, who had fought their way to the top and know what they want. The coming out of professional soccer players Robbie Rogers and Thomas Hitzlsperger, Olympic victor Tom Daley, or football player Carl Nassib constituted significant milestones not only for the LGBT community but also for society as a whole.
Moreover, top athletes who have shown themselves to be weak and vulnerable also mark a turning point where hard masculinity is concerned. When the NBA star Demar DeRozan tweeted about his depressions or when fellow NBA player Kevin Love spoke publicly about his attacks of panic and anxiety, they were breaking with old clichés and displaying a new openness. In soccer too, people like Martin Hinteregger or Francisco Rodriguez are violating taboos by talking about their psychological problems. And more and more frequently we see sports greats crying in front of the camera: For example, basketball legend Michael Jordan shed tears while expressing his thanks for being inducted into the Hall of Fame, and tennis star Roger Federer has done so on numerous occasions.

Constructive masculinity in the media too

Even the media landscape is gradually being becoming more open to figures who embody a rather  new, more constructive masculinity. Apple’s successful Ted Lasso TV series sees itself as an instruction manual for a new kind of masculinity. Also, the Netflix hit Queer Eye offers a live and authentic look at a new, more upbeat and friendly kind of masculinity. In playful and unforced ways, the protagonists combine masculine and feminine attributes and make respectful, appreciative communication a focal point of the series. And the figure of »bros for decarbonization« haunts the international media: men committed in brotherly solidarity with one another to reduce their carbon footprint.

»The fight for just distribution of caregiving work is more and more frequently being led by men.«

Transformation is not easy, but there is hope for the future. The most powerful leverage that these pioneers of new masculinity have is the role they play as fathers of the next generation. Fathers who are emotionally accessible, communicative, and caring will raise a new generation of men (and women). Accordingly, the fight for a more just distribution of caregiving work, once motivated by feminism, is now more and more frequently being led by men who are demanding the freedom to prioritize their families.
They have declared their opposition to classic career ambition and are cutting loose from an image of masculinity defined by success in one’s career. This reinterpretation of fatherhood away from the model of man-as-provider and toward the assumption of familial responsibility introduces a radical change in the order of sexes because, as we have said, gender roles arise though socialization.

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