A man stands locked in a cage suspended in the sky.
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From the time they are young boys, men are taught not to talk about their feelings for fear of showing weakness. This mentality robs them of the opportunity to explore their feelings and ultimately causes them to push those feelings aside or reject them entirely. Those emotions tend to become bottled up rather than talked about and worked out in healthy ways.

Many statistics are available to demonstrate this learned emotional repression. For instance, only about one-third of people in therapy in the United States are men. In 2020, the suicide rate among men was nearly four times higher than that among women. Most alarmingly, 98% of recorded mass shootings in the United States have been committed by men. Over 93% of federal inmates are men, compared to 6.8% being women.

The problem lies in our society’s association of masculinity with athleticism, power, money and sexual conquest. It is not far-fetched to think these associations could be related to historical gender roles, which still prevail today. Men were historically entitled to power while women were subordinates. This power dynamic has caused disturbing gender inequality impacts across the globe. These impacts range from female genital mutilation to removal from the home during menstruation and “honorable” murder as a way to rid families of the shame from a woman’s rape.

While we are less likely to experience those extreme examples of gender inequality in the United States, the flawed characteristics we associate with masculinity are constantly reinforced in pop culture, thus creating a breeding ground for hypermasculine values to flourish. For example, the language in hip-hop music leans toward violence and sex, including derogatory remarks toward women and homophobic slurs. With hip-hop being the most commonly consumed music genre in the United States, the ideas represented in this music are widely available to impressionable youth. While the negative impacts of this are manifest, many rappers are simply imitating what society tells them is mainstream masculinity.

Harmful depictions of masculinity are not exclusive to the music industry. Modern movies and TV shows include various male character tropes that promote hypermasculinity. Think of any blockbuster movie or film franchise: “Top Gun,” “James Bond,” “Marvel” or “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The leading male characters range from strong, silent, mysterious men who are always in control to muscular, fearless superheroes to men who find highs through money, drugs and sex. These characters are rarely accompanied by a woman who is seen as an equal counterpart to them. Instead, they have a woman by their side to fill a side character or trophy wife role.

Aside from influences within the entertainment industry, children’s early access to pornography further skews young boys’ perception of masculinity. Though it is often unintentional, a child’s first exposure to online pornography is, on average, 13.37 years old, with 10% of Pornhub’s visitors being under the age of 10. Without any sexual experience, this early exposure serves as a flawed form of sex education for young children. It desensitizes them to sex, ultimately leading them to objectify the human body. Studies have shown that the younger a heterosexual boy is when he is first exposed to pornography, the more likely he is to one day seek power over women.

Considering these influences, it is alarming, but not entirely surprising, to learn that 35% of male college students indicated some likelihood that they would rape someone if they knew they could get away with it. Every nine seconds, a woman is assaulted or beaten somewhere in the U.S. — an unnervingly high rate. These statistics arise because women are disrespected at a fundamental level. I have observed and experienced various degrees of this disrespect in my own life. At my high school in a Pennsylvania suburb that was rife with ignorance, I remember being told my only purpose in life was to “cook, clean and lay on my back.” Unfortunately, raising boys to become more masculine often takes the form of rejecting and disrespecting the feminine.

Boys’ tendencies to reject the feminine are carried into adulthood, thereby causing some men to view women as not fully human. These tendencies further dichotomize gender norms into strict categories: hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity. With hypermasculinity comes the origin of ingrained homophobia.

In fact, a somewhat recent study found that heterosexual men tend to be more homophobic toward gay men than gay women. The stereotype of a gay man being feminine could contribute to the straight man’s rejection of being or seeming to be anything close to that — ultimately leading to the elevation of hypermasculinity. There is also speculation that this may be due to the fetishization of same-sex relationships between women paired with the lack of any similar exemplification for same-sex relationships between men. Moreover, 38% of gay men in a study claimed violence or assault due to being perceived as gay while 13% of gay women made the same claim.

These exaggerated forms of masculinity can be seen on our campus in the hegemonic masculinity within Fraternity & Sorority Life. Hazing creates horizontal solidarity between brothers and a vertical hierarchy perpetuating the idea that men are superior to women, as women cannot build that same brotherhood through blood, sweat, tears and who knows what else. There are forces at work within fraternities that keep brothers silent in instances of sexual misconduct and hazing deaths, arguably the two most serious issues of fraternity life. By being the one who rats out the brotherhood, you lose status in that culture — and who would want to do that, after being trained to prioritize loyalty to other men in the most hypermasculine of contexts?

It is sad that many boys and men are forced to grow up in a society that asks them to repress their feelings. This can cause them to explode on the wrong thing or person at the wrong time, leaving them to deal with the drastic consequences of those actions. For this reason, I prefer to speak of hypermasculinity rather than toxic masculinity. The toxicity in this situation lies in our society: pop culture, history and close-minded parents, peers, coaches and teachers who engineer a particular process of  socialization for young boys.

As a woman, it is impossible for me to truly understand what the pressure of masculinity is like, but I can say I have dealt with the consequences of it in the context of relationships with various men in my life, whether those relationships were romantic, platonic or familial. I can also say that my most everlasting friendships were not formed by sharing my strengths and boasting my accomplishments but, rather, by sharing my weaknesses, fears and insecurities. Strength is found in the darkest, most vulnerable of places. A lack of vulnerability renders us powerless, with power ironically being the trait that stereotypical masculinity most desires.

We all have a role to play in creating a healthier culture that will benefit people of any and all gender identities. When we remove the gender barriers that society places around us, we will realize that we all share the same capacity for emotion, self-empathy and compassion for others. Acknowledgement of these barriers is an important first step toward creating productive societal change. It is our responsibility to break these limiting generalizations down in order to create a healthier society in both the present and future.

Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at annatrup@umich.edu