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Even as the isolation of quarantine deteriorated my mental health, one positive aspect was that I had time to sit with myself and work on my insecurities. One insecurity I have held close to me since my youth is how I present my masculinity. I’m not traditionally masculine, and I always saw that as an issue. What I’ve noticed is that I’m not the only man who seems to feel this. Other American men are experiencing anxiety about their masculinity, sometimes leading to violent consequences. This must be addressed or else the wave of toxic masculinity that is taking hold of a portion of men will only evoke more alarming actions, including increased acts of gun violence. There needs to be a reconceptualization of American masculinity if we are ever to get out of this crisis of masculinity and anger.

Looking at society at large, it doesn’t seem that American men are doing okay. Out of all recorded mass shootings in United States’ history, 98% of them were perpetrated by men. Men are more likely to externalize their problems than women, which typically culminates in aggressive behavior. On a less extreme level, boys are more likely than girls to engage in bullying and be physically victimized. This wave of violence is alarming, and it is systemic. Men in this country are struggling. Further, the immensity of incel culture — an incel being a man who claims to be “involuntarily celibate” — is evidence that an alarming portion of men in our society have turned anger about their own insecurities and faults onto women. This is a cause for concern. We’ve even seen this affect our campus with the Oct. 4 shooting threat that makes direct reference to Plymouth, England. This threat was demonstrative of the tenets of incel ideology. These men with their twisted worldviews and proclivity to violence are not doing well. Masculinity is in crisis.

The main argument as to why men have been plunged into distress is that these men are acting out in the name of anti-feminism and the men’s rights movement. This is a movement whose followers believe that feminism is based on the despisement of males and the promotion of the supremacy of women. I do not need to delve into how this line of thought is unfounded. Men such as these have only been empowered further in their political advocacy during Donald Trump’s presidency. Scarily, there’s also been a rise in affiliation with alt-right groups among men. Masculinity is struggling because a portion of men are disenchanted with the cultural climate of feminism and the fight for gender equality.

I’d like to add another reason for the masculinity crisis: Masculinity as a concept is too rigid in its current state which leads many men to develop insecurities in regards to their manhood if they do not fit into the depiction of the “perfect” man. Over the past decades, the definition of femininity and womanhood has expanded. Being a single mother, a working woman and a housewife among many other ways of living are validated as “acceptable” expressions of womanhood. The ideal of masculinity that was presented to me in my youth was more stringent. I was presented with the image of the ideal man as straight, athletic, dominant et cetera. And it wasn’t acceptable to stray from this template in any way. With such an inflexible idea of masculinity pervading our culture, it’s difficult for many men to feel comfortable in their expression; many valid forms of masculine expression are shunned. 

Growing up, I never felt like one of the boys. Never the most athletic or intensely masculine kid, I never felt compelled to be a part of traditionally male-dominated groups or activities. Rarely did I feel welcome. Theater, choir and the creative extracurriculars were always more my cup of tea. Whether it was because of me or the boys that I had access to in my potential pool of friends in primary and secondary schooling, I had one sole male friend. I was never fully accepted by the other men in my social circles and I felt out of touch with other men often. Bullying was not an issue, however, the slight judgments I received from the other boys were impactful. My gender expression never veered extremely feminine but even my slight deviation from the masculine status quo left me feeling slightly ostracized from other men. Thankfully, I no longer feel shame in how I express my masculinity now that I understand that the identity of man has many shades of gray.

However, putting all my cards on the table, I still feel an intense compulsion to mold myself into the stereotypical masculine archetype of American manhood. It’s difficult to discern my own wants from societal pressures. Do I want to settle down with a wife and have children? Or are those the effects of heteronormative masculinity? I think a healthy version of masculinity is one that allows for that sort of questioning to take place. As has been illustrated, contemporary masculinity in the United States is rigid. Allowing for flexibility in masculine norms would create a more inclusive space for men and masculine-identifying people such as myself that find the rigid stereotype of masculinity constricting. It would further facilitate dialogues surrounding masculinity that are not rooted in heteropatriarchy. Masculinity itself is not toxic; there are many masculine traits that I am proud of possessing. But a rigid sense of masculinity is.

Men are in crisis and a solution is to rewrite the definition of masculinity. It’s no wonder that many men are experiencing deep-seated insecurities given how stiff the idea of manhood is in American culture. If we allow more men to express themselves authentically rather than force them into constricting boxes, it may help pull masculinity out of the crisis it currently is in. A great deal of men seem to be struggling. A more open view of masculinity, along with other strategies, may help alleviate said crisis. A society more accepting of people expressing themselves as they are is a better society for all.

Ben Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at bendav@umich.edu