Mental Health and Toxic Masculinity – Negative Social Constructions

“Are you a man?” (3.4.)

– Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

The idea of normative masculinity characterises classical literature and its concomitant archetypes  – indeed, from the hero of patent stoicism all the way to virtues defined by ‘courage’ and ‘fortitude’. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth spurs Macbeth to commit regicide under an appeal to his ‘manhood’, characterising such violence as the culminatory manifestation of masculinity.

In contemporary society, many toxic elements of masculinity persist, and are arguably inhibitory in the development of mental health and positive wellbeing. The notion of gender and mental health is one that is very much intertwined.

Masculinity as Traditionally Defined – The Good and the Bad

What does it mean to “be a man”? Gender essentialism has long been a notion, yet biological precepts can only reveal so much.

The rise of social constructionism and feminist theory (e.g Simone de Beauvoir) has brought public attention to ‘performed’ elements of gender. Nonetheless, dominant discourse on masculinity drives certain expectations of men: ‘strong’, yet reticent in the expression of vulnerability.

However, ‘norms’ do not have to be negative per se, the American Psychological Association recognizes some positive characteristics associated with masculinity: strength, courage, leadership. Perhaps, the devotion to work and sports, provision for the family, etc. These ‘expectations’ can be transcended but are not inherently damaging. What are toxic characteristics then?

Toxic Masculinity – “Man Up!”

Phrases such as “Man up!” and “Don’t cry like a girl!” reinforce not only the essentialist notions of gender, but simultaneously, perpetuate a culture of toxicity – detrimental to both women and men themselves. Fundamentally, such phrases delegitimize your emotions by parameterizing them under the binary of female and male – a false dichotomy. 

The issue is then whether there is room for reconciliation between these positive and ‘toxic’ characteristics – is there mutual exclusivity? With strength and courage, is there simultaneous room for emotional expression? Indeed, it does not seem as if the former is a natural corollary of the latter. However, it is within the less obvious that we may find an answer. In fact, when one accepts their vulnerabilities – no matter how long it takes – it would eventually allow them to feel comfortable with their perceived imperfections. Such a process takes courage and builds courage, allowing for immense self-development; emotions are what makes us human.

Perhaps then we are confined by our own normative definitions of strength and courage. Perhaps the parameters of masculinity should include the expression of emotion.

The 21st Century and Mental Health

“I am depressed”, “I need help”; these utterances are rarely vocalized given the aforementioned ‘norms’ of emotional repression and self-reliance pervasive throughout society. Indeed, the challenge in the development of mental health coincides with the gradual re-evaluation of the notion of gender, and by extension, the diminution of toxic elements existent within the normative conceptions of masculinity.

MALCOLM. Fight it like a man.

MACDUFF. I shall do so. But I must also feel it as a man.

–   (4.3) Shakespeare’s Macbeth


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