A lot of feminist discussion focuses on the fact that women need to be treated more equally, not just by men, but by everyone. A lot more feminist discussion focuses specifically on how men need to treat women differently. I agree with both these statements. The resolution to a lot of feminist grievances would be for men and women to treat women differently. However, this resolution leaves out a key underlying problem: when we raise boys to be “men” we raise them to treat women poorly. This statement may not make sense, especially to good parents who have done a lot to ensure that they raise their boys to “treat women right”. I’m not trying to insult anyone’s parenting. I’m just saying that when we raise boy to be “men” as the patriarchy defines “men” we are raising them without the qualities that allow them to treat women well.
Let’s examine the picture of the “man” given to us by the patriarchy. These “men” are supposed to be stoic, unemotional, aggressive, and domineering. Of course the patriarchy would say that a “good man” shouldn’t be any of these things to the extreme. A “good man” should be stoic and unemotional, but not unfeeling. He should be aggressive, but not violent. He should be domineering, but not controlling. Being a “good man” is probably infinitely confusing. Where are the lines between these qualities? Which actions make you a “good man” and which actions cross the line? This standard is called toxic masculinity and as long as we’re raising our boys in an environment of toxic masculinity they will never be able to treat women compassionately as equals.
The qualities associated with the patriarchy’s version of a “man” make men unable to connect with women as equal partners. Let’s break this down by quality. Men are supposed to be stoic and unemotional. This means when they are in relationships with others, romantic or otherwise, they are unable to express their feelings or empathize with the feelings of others. This leads men to view displays of emotion as weak and they view those who display emotions, often women, as weak. When the woman is identified as weak for her emotions this triggers the domineering quality men are taught to have. The man seeks to dominate the weak woman in order to protect her. This is seen as noble rather than predatory, so the man believes he is “doing the right thing”. Men are also taught to be aggressive, which puts them at odds with other men by creating conflict, which reinforces their masculinity. Aggressiveness with women can also turn to violence, which is complicated for men to process because they are never given the tools to deal with the aggressiveness they are taught. In all cases, the qualities associated with “masculinity” leave men incapable of relating with women in a way that allows them to be seen as equal partners.
In order to change the way men treat women it is essential to change the qualities that we expect from men. It’s not totally fair to blame men for acting the way they were taught to act in order to be masculine. It’s also not totally fair to villainize men for not being able to see the lines between the acceptable and unacceptable expressions of these qualities. How can we ask men to constantly negotiate the difference between not displaying emotion and being totally detached from emotion? Or the difference between being aggressive with their words and aggressive with their actions? It’s easy to say “never hit a woman”, but is the right response to break objects instead or display aggression through emotional abuse? The obvious answer is no, but we are asking men to navigate these decisions all on their own on a constant basis, while still asking them to live up to the definition of masculinity.
We need to reject toxic masculinity and teach boys to be different kinds of men in order for men to treat women differently. For the most part, the problem is not men, it’s the system under which we raise men.