Column

Toxic Masculinity Is Going to Get Us All Killed

Men have a history of putting their health — and the health of those around them — at risk for fear of seeming unmasculine

President Trump at a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 7, 2020. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the Covid-19 pandemic drags into May, we have yet to see the president of the United States wear a mask. Donald Trump has reportedly told his allies that he has no plans to wear one for fears that it would make him look ridiculous. And he’s not the only one.

Since the pandemic started, I’ve heard people give a lot of terrible reasons for not wearing masks to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus: Some claim it’s an infringement of their rights, others think it won’t really help. But perhaps the most distressing justification behind not wearing a mask is the one the president seemed to be getting at: Men don’t want to seem weak.

When feminists say toxic masculinity kills, we aren’t kidding.

One man told an Arizona reporter, for example, that wearing a face mask is “submission.”

“It’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak, especially for men,” he said.

Make no mistake: This is macho bullshit at its most lethal. Donald David Abrams, a psychologist and professor of social and behavioral science at New York University, told CNN that for some people, “Putting on that mask is about as blatant as saying, ‘Hey, I’m a scaredy cat.’”

There’s not enough research yet to know whether it’s mostly men who are refusing to wear masks (though there is a stark ideological divide), but there is some history to give us a clue of what’s to come.

Make no mistake: This is macho bullshit at its most lethal.

In the past, men have put their health — and the health of those around them — at risk for fear of seeming unmasculine. Research shows that during both the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks, women were more likely to wear face masks than men. During the 1918 flu pandemic, public health officials had to create specific messaging for men so that they would follow basic hygiene rules: The fear was that cleanliness was associated with “school marms and Sunday school teachers,” and to prevent the spread of disease, officials needed to replace that idea with “more modern, manly form of public health, steeped in discipline, patriotism, and personal responsibility.”

This fear of appearing feminine (read: weak) despite life-or-death risks extends to other areas of life as well. American men are more likely to eschew wearing seat belts and more likely to smoke. Men are also less likely to seek help when suffering from mental health issues — thanks largely to stigma and masculinity norms — and much more likely to commit suicide.

Right now, with a pandemic still in full effect, men’s decision to not wear masks in public will have a demonstrable impact on public health.

Of course for some men, the decision to wear a mask is a life-and-death issue of a different sort. Black men, who are justifiably concerned about police bias and violence, have raised the issue of profiling and feeling unsafe wearing face coverings in public. And it’s not only men refusing to wear masks: one woman was even recorded after she cut a hole in her mask because she claims she couldn’t breathe well otherwise. (You know what else makes it hard to breathe?)

Those who are ignoring state guidelines (and common sense) because it might hurt their self-image, though, need to be reached. I hope the culture is not so far gone as to need a 1918-style “masks are manly” initiative, but at this point I’m open to anything. The issue is too important, the risks too great, to allow men’s narrow view of what it means to “be a man” to hurt other Americans.

We already know that the contemporary Trumpian brand of masculinity is bad for men and women. It’s unhealthy for young boys to internalize messages that they always need to be tough, even at the expense of their own health, and it’s bad for girls and women to be exposed to men who believe the only way to feel sure of themselves is to behave recklessly or violently. In the middle of one of the worst pandemics in U.S. history, the president’s cartoonish performance of masculinity is setting a horrible precedent, and putting American lives in danger. All for fear of, well, showing fear.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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