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Reimagining standards of masculinity



On May 14 2020 one hundred of the world’s top academics penned a letter to U.S. governors urging them to ‘require cloth masks to be worn in all public places, such as stores, transportation systems, and public buildings.’ By this time the United States had long already been world-leader in COVID-19 cases. The #MASKS4ALL campaign looked to decrease transmissibility and therefore dramatically reduce the already-devastating death-toll.

Atlas holding up world and breaking it, while several people hold up the world together. Illustration Chris Johnston

One computer forecasting model claimed that if 80 per cent of Americans wore public masks the infection rate would ‘plummet‘ — a recommendation the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention had advocated since the start of April. 

Public mask wearing — including ‘a piece of cloth, a scarf, bandana, t-shirt, or paper towel’ — was hot on the global public health agenda. One major demographic, however, had trouble fashioning this expert advice: men. 

A Gallup poll from mid-May showed that only 29 per cent of men ‘always’ wore a mask outside their home, compared to 44 per cent of women. Majority of men sampled (38 per cent) further reported never wearing masks (compared to 25 per cent of women). This reporting seems almost nonsensical when factoring in that men are more likely to have worse symptoms and die from coronavirus. One study looked to probe the ‘messaging and gender on intentions to wear a face covering to slow down COVID-19 transmission.’ It found that men were more likely to self-report negative emotions when wearing a face covering: finding it ‘shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness, and a stigma’. 

‘Another sign that toxic masculinity kills,’ wrote Arwa Mahdawi for the Guardian, ‘the fact that a significant number of men (including Donald Trump) think masks make them look weak is yet another reminder of how damaging gender stereotypes are. The pressure to seem tough doesn’t just prevent men from wearing masks, it prevents them from expressing their emotions and seeking help for mental health problems’.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen men struggling with population-based behaviour change. 


'Men should want to wear masks, carry reusable bags, and consider the implications of their diets, not because it fits into some fragile and imaginary idea of what masculinity looks like, but because it’s the right thing to do. Men should want to care, and we should expect them to.'


Last year a study declared that men were less likely to recycle or bring reusable shopping bags because they feared it would make them ‘look gay.’ Much like mask wearing, making the world a little greener was deemed a weakness, something contradictory to their idea of manhood. Viral tweets like ‘Wear a mask. It’s patriotic, manly and the right thing to do‘ by Douglas Emhoff (husband to former Democratic Presidential Candidate, Kamala Harris) quickly start making sense. 

An appeal to masculinity seems like an easy fix. If men aren’t doing something because it’s supposedly gay or girly, convince them that it’s actually incredibly masculine. This is a popular strategy utilised by emerging beauty and makeup brands — something I’ve written about before — where ads will feature hyper-masculine bodies and hyper-militizarised language to dispel any lingering stench of femininity. 

The Netflix ‘go-vegan!’ documentary, The Game Changers, is another example. The film showcases interviews from elite athletes and special ops soldiers who speak to the benefits vegan diets have had in their training. A variety of cherry-picked studies (of questionable validity) are peppered into the programming and have spurred much media attention. One claimed that vegan diets can help boost erections

The film finds success by appealing to men’s interest in muscle mass, masculinity and member-size — over and above tired vegan values, such as animal welfare, climate change, morality or ethics. After all, sustainable living, environmentalism and care for the planet is largely feminised. But this then points to a dangerous aspect of gender… If to care is feminine, is to care only for oneself masculine? As women are rigorously primed to believe that they must put others needs first for the collective good (wear a mask, bring a bag), men are continually sold the idea that their behaviours should be for the sole benefit of themselves (#kalegains). 

But is it so wrong to play into men’s already fragile sense of masculinity and manhood? If the net benefits are the same (a cleaner, greener environment, a dampened pandemic) shouldn’t we continue nudging our men with arcane ideas of what it really means to be a man? Should we continue growing a nation of vegan bros

This sets a precedent. Arguably a harmful one. Because by appealing to a mighty sense of individualism and leaning into traditionally toxic aspects of masculinity, we are further entrenching and normalising a set of behaviours, values and attitudes that work directly against our common goals. 

Last year family violence advocacy group, OurWatch, published ‘Men in focus’ an extensive review of global research around masculinities which aimed to build a deeper understanding and offer guidance for those working with men and boys. The report’s analysis found that ‘attachment to a rigid set of ideals about masculinity — dominance, control, risk-taking, hypersexuality, heterosexuality, stoicism, aggression — is associated with a range of harmful behaviours, including violence against women.’

At a time when groups such as OurWatch are looking at behaviour change tactics to prevent family violence, ones that resist dominant and damaging ideals around masculinity, an appeal to these same ideals would only undermine such fundamental efforts. 

Men should want to wear masks, carry reusable bags, and consider the implications of their diets, not because it fits into some fragile and imaginary idea of what masculinity looks like, but because it’s the right thing to do. Men should want to care, and we should expect them to. 

This ultimately calls for a radical reimagination of masculinity away from dominant and abrasive ideals that carve undue pressures in men to act and behave in certain ways. Masculinity is fragile because it’s constantly being threatened, by cloth around a face or a ban on single-use plastic. If we agree that caring for each other, ourselves and the planet is a human condition — one unplagued by traditional formulations of gender — then it’s time we stopped pandering to these ridiculous threats. Behaviours can be changed, but only by the standards we set for them. Masculinity can be changed, but only by the standards we imagine for it. 



Dejan JotanovicDejan Jotanovic is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, whose words spin around feminism, gender theory, queer history, policy and pop culture. Flick him at a tweet at @heydejan. 

Main image credit: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Dejan Jotanovic, masculinity, COVID-19, masks



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Existing comments

So do you go in by a toxic channel to get at the hearts of men or try to point out a more noble way? What you are describing is a very fragile conformist group of uncertain dependent men. They have to believe their safety comes in conformity rather than being who they are. When I went to a private college football match I tentatively approached one of the women in the tuck shop. "I knew the boys had to wear a uniform; but I didn't know the dads had to as well'. She turned away spurningly. A lot of mens' behaviour is reinforced by women who do not want to be associated with wimps. That's the system.

Michael D. Breen | 23 June 2020  

The unacceptable spectre of domestic violence perpetrated by males, the men in positions of power who use their status to coerce women into sexual encounters, the men who commit atrocities in war. These are all signs of profound weakness. Sharing joys and sorrows, not hiding behind a facade and, most importantly, respect for the inherent value of another vulnerable human being should be high on the agenda of boys' education. Both in the home and at school. People are loved because of who they are, warts and all, and not because of dominance and control. More (real) power to you, Dejan.

Pam | 23 June 2020  

It seems that 'masculinity' (along with 'whiteness') has been proclaimed 'guilty' until proven innocent - by the woke crowd - which also seems to include Christians. It may be worth remembering - that since the Family Law Act 1976, men have lost almost complete 'agency' over their own children, including the life or death of their own unborn children. Fatherhood has been subjected to a form of patricide which is in epidemic proportions all over the western world. Almost half the children in the western world do not live in a nuclear family with their fathers. Masculinity is blamed for the violence perpetrated whilst the state is in the process of separating fathers from their children. The state demands that fatherhood only take place with the permission of motherhood. In many ways 'masculinity' is defined by the feminist animus - which requires men to be socially Gay and physically heterosexual - every girl has a Gay best friend. In an attempt to rid the world of Patriarchy - feminism has killed fatherhood. Fatherless boys do not know how to be masculine ... and are instructed in their schools and universities by feminism and Gender theory. Heterosexual boys and men have been silenced and excluded by the ruling class and post modern theories of social justice. Perhaps men do not like to wear masks and take plastic bags to the supermarket because many do not feel included in the woke world. Masculinity may just want to die (or be banished to caravan parks in the outback) rather than try to live behind a mask. Perhaps male violence is simply an involuntary muscle re-acting to a world which has stolen their children and dismembered their families ? Perhaps men cannot be de- masculinised ? Perhaps masculinity is an essential part of being male ? Perhaps feminism should not be trying to tell men how to be masculine ? If men believed that their children and families would be harmed by their not wearing masks - they would wear the masks regardless ... because unbelievably ... men actually love their children.

Patrick McCauley | 23 June 2020  

This could have been a wonderful article detailing all those men who have cared so much that they have given their own lives - in a Jesuit magazine in a time of pandemic why not mention St Aloysius Gonzaga - now surely you can’t accuse him of toxic masculinity? Yes masculinity is fragile because humanity is fragile. So we could all look to the Innocent One who gave his life for all of us that we all live life to the full. Perhaps that is the real model?

Rob McCahill | 23 June 2020  

Batman and Robin, The Lone Ranger, Spiderman, The Phantom? Masked childhood heroes for this unashamed male.

Chris | 24 June 2020  

Good piece, but two steps need to be made clear. We said .. certain behaviours are wrong. They are wrong, whoever does them and wherever. And call them out wherever and whoever does them . You'll automatically spend most time, working with men. Focus must be on the behaviours.. not the gender of the person. Blokes like me still work day to day, on what we picked up from other men, 40 or 50 years ago. Some was toxic, but Much is still useful. We will always add to that and refine it .. but tell us to throw it out .. Feels threatening. Balance, as always, is the thing.

Mike B | 24 June 2020  

I think the only Christians who would endorse the sentiments and putative solution of this piece, Patrick McCauley, are those Modernists who have been affected by the gender studies deconstructionist line which is basically Marxist in origin and intent on tearing down our society and totally reconstructing it according to their template. Jesus sought to reform society, not to destroy it. Christianity reformed the brutal Roman Empire but kept its fabric of Law and Administration which survive in the Catholic Church today.

Edward Fido | 25 June 2020  

Men defend; women nurture.

roy chen yee | 25 June 2020  

Christianity may or may not have reformed the Roman Empire Edward (I'll take your word for it) but it did precious little to reform the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, German, Russian, Belgian, Italian, or American Empires.

Ginger Meggs | 26 June 2020  

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is understood to have purposely involved humans in the work of creation by creating them male and female. Accordingly, humans' relationship with their Creator and this created differentiation have direct relevance to any re-visioning, setting of standards, or imaginings affecting our understanding of masculinity and femininity, and the complementary roles played by both male and female in furthering the good of all. Elimination from discussion of humans' relationship with their Creator clears the way for gender constructions usually based on the anti-family assumptions and methodologies of cultural Marxism or commercial industries of sexual commodification, both of which degrade human dignity.

John RD | 27 June 2020  

If one stands outside the blinkered position of the Judea-Christian tradition one can see that sexual reproduction is not peculiar to the human species but has evolved in many species including some plants, that sex is not bi-polar and exclusive but continuous and that many species indeed change sex, that ‘caring’ and ‘defending’ roles are not biologically assigned, and that the nature of ‘complementary roles’ are socially constructed, usually by the economically dominant class. Such a stance certainly ‘clears the way’ to re-imagine and re-define relationships, including the nature of ‘family’ and associated roles and responsibilities, some of which will be helpful, others not.

Ginger Meggs | 29 June 2020  

Ginger Meggs: “many species indeed change sex”. They do, without drugs and surgery, not that drugs and surgery actually change (human) sex. Anyway, many species also kill their young, or the young that gets out of the egg first kills the other young. And none of them wear pants. So, what is it that we are supposed to learn from ‘many’ species?

roy chen yee | 01 July 2020  

As art critic and cultural commentator Roger Kimball observes in his book that bears the title, "experiments against reality" are becoming the order of the day in the heady world of the West's avant garde. Some years ago CS Lewis observed: "Once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slavess and puppets of that to which we have given our souls." Robert Bolt's Thomas More expresses a very similar idea, echoing the Gospel's question: "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses himself?" (Mark 8:36).

John RD | 02 July 2020  

Thank you Dejan for a very reasoned argument about the problems we face because of "toxic masculinity" that leads some men not to cooperate with effective prevention procedures. The fact that Donald Trump is part of this problem should come as no surprise. Having worked in occupational health and safety (OH&S) for 25 years, I saw this as a major problem when some men refused to use effective PPE&C (personal protective equipment and clothing). When I first read the article and readers' comments, I decided to consult a dictionary to check basic termimology. Masculinity is defined as "qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men" while machoism (or machismo in Spanish) is a concept associated with "a strong sense of masculine pride: an exaggerated masculinity" It seems to me that throughout history responsible men and women have worked together to make society safer from all types of problems - eg gender and other forms of inequality, un-necessary wars and violence, environmental disasters, pandemics (such as the COVIS-19 virus) etc. Responsible men gave support to the votes for women and the women's liberation movements because they knew that the way women were treated was unfair and unjust, I do not see this as making the standing of men in society weaker. What it has done is to help make society safer, more equitable and fairer for all. And sadly as we see domestic violence still being a huge problem, we still have a long way to go to make our society safer for all. it is true that some women may encourage men to display exaggerated masculinity, but their position should be rejected along with the irresponsible actions of the men they support. In the 1960s, I remember meeting a Spanish woman who thought I was weak because I supported the peace movement against the US war in Indochina. "War makes men out of boys" she told me. It was no surprise that she was a stromg supporter of General Franco. At the outset of the 21st century, humanuty faces many dire problems. Responsible human beings - men and women - see the need to adopt precautions against all forms of hazards whether they come about because of a pandemic, physical danger, pollution or discrimination.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 05 July 2020  

I think that you've answered your own question Roy. Ours species is just one of many in a biological continuum; our cultural norms are not hard-wired or God-given but human constructs, responding to the situation. The 'laws of war' would be a classic example.

Ginger Meggs | 07 July 2020  

Ginger Meggs: “our cultural norms are not hard-wired or God-given but human constructs, responding to the situation.” If you mean that some norms constructed by humans are delusions, sure, because all norms, to be true, have to reflect the underlying hard-wiring, whether given by evolution or by a god. When a seahorse changes sex, it changes sex. There’s nothing blinkered about saying once a human male, always a human male. Claiming to be different in gender does not change the reproductive system. As for “laws of war”, they’re not a construct. They are instinct put into words, the explication of what is innate to lesser creatures, where physical conflicts exist to establish hierarchy, and that the duration and severity is managed by rules of instinct so the hierarchy can be established without death or injury.

roy chen yee | 08 July 2020  

"Our species is just one of many in a biological continuum . . ." Based on scriptural revelation and tradition, the teaching of the Catholic Church contradicts this assertion, Ginger. Humans are distinguished from other life-forms on this planet in virtue of their human soul, created in the "image and likeness" of their Maker. There is, too, a difference between "cultural norms" and the moral or natural law written in the depths of every human. As usual, the difference in our views stems from very different starting points on God and creation, and on the sources we draw on for understanding.

John RD | 10 July 2020  

Yes John RD, you're right, our differences do stem from those very different starting points and we shall probably never be able to reconcile those differences. Yet there many things, I think, that each of us can learn from the traditions of the other if only we can bring ourselves to listen. I'll certainly try to do that.

Ginger Meggs | 10 July 2020  

Fair enough, Ginger.

John RD | 11 July 2020  

In one of the articles immediately preceding this one (Kate Galloway's 'The right to be an agitator', ES, June 11) the editors have clearly decided not to proceed with publishing a correspondence that has extended to 49 comments. One assumes that this decision is precipitant upon the fact that the author's position, like this one, has been hotly contested by the same persons taking an equally conservative position in both arenas. My objection to such editorial decision-making is this. Given the fact that ES clearly has a handful of conservative commentators who seem to work off one another whenever an issue arises of which they disapprove - and notwithstanding their right and undoubted ability to frame positions that are highly articulate as well as persuasive - what chance do readers of this august journal have to savour an evenly balanced debate when opposition to the idea being canvassed is so consistently and regularly lampooned? After all, it wouldn't test the skills of a statistician to note that in such instances it is one side that consistently gets a say, while the other is almost permanently assigned to the status of a minority. Surely editorial fairness requires a more 'balanced' approach?

Michael FURTADO | 05 August 2020  

I write to gratefully acknowledge that, in response to my earlier post, the editors of this e-journal not only published my post but re-opened the correspondence that Kate Galloway's article so urgently brought to the forefront of our collective conscience after George Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets to voice its protest at a time when it was wrongfully accused of contributing to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Meantime, it helps to review the record of opposition that the young man who wrote this article triggered, especially from men, and presumably elderly men like me, who at the time equated the author's criticism of stereotypical alpha male behaviour in response to the virus with an attack on the traditional ways in which the Judeo-Christian gendered world view has been ordered. It is sobering to observe in hindsight how that archetypal male chauvinist, Donald Trump, who currently crusades as the Republican Party's champion for God-fearing traditional anti-communist values, has contributed to the worst outcomes that the virus has wreaked on the American people. What cost support for a God locked into the avenging mindset of the Old Testament rather than One open to the New?

Michael FURTADO | 08 September 2020  

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