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Should we really be surprised by yet another display of toxic masculinity?

Opinion / by Marco Ricci

Maybe it's just me, but such a public example of toxic masculinity isn't new.

Don't get me wrong, I was just as surprised as anyone when I first saw it happen. When I first tapped on the 'Trending' section of Twitter, then onto the '#WillSmith' hashtag, then onto a video that was posted with an accompanying caption of 'Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the Oscars' – even with the forewarnings of what I was about to see, I wasn't truly prepared for it.

Even when, after delivering what was a poor joke both in terms of taste and actual humour (likening a woman with alopecia to a female character from a movie that came out 25 years ago is pretty uninspired comedy) and the slightly panicked 'Uh-oh' escaped Chris Rock's equally slightly panicked smile, I still couldn't quite believe what happened next.

To witness the man who has been ever-present in my life since I was a child growing up in the 90s – from the baby-faced Fresh Prince, to the cool ex-cop-turned-galaxy defender, to the even cooler, a-lot-less-PG Bad Boy, to the now intriguing, deep, and incredibly complex individual I read about in his autobiography Will to see that man partake in what is one of the most perfect examples of toxic masculinity in front of millions of people around the world really did shock me.

Perhaps contrary to his intentions, Will Smith's attempts to protect his wife's dignity have ensured the moment, along with Chris Rock's joke, is now immortalised

But this opinion that I'm sharing isn't really about Will Smith. Because ultimately, the shock of Will Smith doing what Will Smith did probably isn't a true reflection of who Will Smith really is. Every single one of us can do incredibly stupid things at times, the likelihood of which tends to increase when the stresses of life get to us. That isn't in any way excusing his behaviour – which is completely and utterly inexcusable – but it is merely pointing out that there is likely a lot more to his actions than any of us will ever know.

Instead, this opinion is about what his actions represent.

A common thread in everyday life

As someone who has lived most of his life dealing with the effects of anxiety – a condition which is about as contradictory to the show-no-weakness, show-no-fear male stereotype as possible – I can safely say that almost every single day of my life, I witness the manifestation of toxic masculinity in some form. Whether on social media, the news, or my day-to-day, there is never a shortage of the societal norms that continue harm us all.

In part, I suspect I'm quite sensitive to the ever-present shadow of toxic masculinity thanks to my upbringing. I spent my childhood and teenage years surrounded by male figures, growing up in a household with two older brothers and spending my secondary school years at an all-boys school. As you can imagine, it was an upbringing littered with examples of homophobia, misogyny, bullying, and general playing up to the 'boys don't cry' stereotype, much of which, whether deliberate or note, was often delivered in a casual 'banter' tone.

Thankfully, I had a strong mother to guide me. A single mum bringing up three boys on very little money, my mother nurtured my emotional intelligence, making sure I developed into the man I am today with an empathetic outlook and appreciation of how my actions could affect others.


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The missing ingredient: empathy

As far as I'm aware – and I'm by no means an expert on this subject – one of the many character traits that fosters toxic masculinity is a lack of empathy. The inability to place oneself in someone else's shoes and see things from their perspective goes hand-in-hand with being void of emotion. Will Smith's actions are a perfect example of the former, displaying a distinct lack of empathy for what Chris Rock, his peers, the audience, and perhaps most notably, his wife, would feel when they witnessed his actions. Instead, in that precise moment, he did what he thought was the right thing to do, regardless of the impact on others.

But his example is one of countless public instances in recent times. Scrolling through social media content on topics like Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly present you with an endless supply of content stained with toxic masculinity, as legitimate debate or concerns are shut down with calls to 'toughen up', 'cry more' or even 'man up'.

So what's driving these attitudes? Why is there such a distinct lack of empathy, perhaps even a lack of urgency to be empathetic toward others, in public discourse? In my opinion, it comes down to our leaders.

The figureheads of our societies wield perhaps the most power in guiding societal behaviours, and in the Western world, two of the most prominent figures in our lives over the past 10 years have been Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Trump – whether you agree with his politics or not – demonstrated intensely chauvinistic and severely unempathetic behaviours to a global audience during his term as President (and continues to do so). Meanwhile, Johnson has frequently used unashamedly sexist language to describe female colleagues, while his insistence on being a stubborn, immovable political figure plays up to the traditional portrayal of men as strong, emotionless beings.

On multiple occasions throughout his career, Boris Johnson has used language steeped in toxic masculinity. In the instance above, the term 'girly swot' associates being female and hard-working with weakness

These two men alone hold a significant sway over societal norms, acting as role models who we all are influenced by. Their actions are reported through mass media which is then broadcast to, and consumed by, millions across society. And because – whether we like it or not – humans are social animals that are susceptible to what they see and listen to, it's seems unsurprising to me that toxic masculinity would rear its ugly head in our day-to-day lives and in public places. Even at the Oscars.

Breaking the stereotype, once and for all

With all that said, Trump and Johnson aren't the originators of toxic masculinity. Instead, their actions have acted as the fuel to a fire that has continued to rage throughout society for generations, despite only earning its official label in the 1980s. And therein lies the problem: this is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed once and for all.

For me, a member of the general public with a superficial understanding of the issue compared with experts on the matter, providing a solution to this issue isn't something I'm qualified to do. But I would suggest something that actually forms part of the argument against the very concept of toxic masculinity: we have the ability to choose.

Whilst toxic masculinity is an absolute presence in our lives, we shouldn't allow ourselves to give in to it, or even become so overwhelmed with its presence that we begin to ignore it. We can choose to challenge toxic masculinity, seek to understand its underlying origins, and encourage a more empathetic perspective.

Because even though our leaders might be significant influences in what our society looks like, it's up to us whether we conform to their standards.


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