By Jolie Day
In “American Male,” a short film written and directed by Michael Rohrbaugh, a persona is created: an American male college student who is tough, fit, aggressive, and definitely not effeminate. The short film applies a narrative of the different expectations our society has for men and women. This young man is struggling to come to terms with his identity and sexuality within the narrow confines that society provides. The context of this short film is an important discussion, as forms of toxic masculinity arise and have lasting effects for men and societal ramifications for everyone.
Boys are told from an early age to “Be a man”. As they grow, they hear rhetoric like “don’t be a bitch” and to never “run/hit/throw like a girl”. This is not only problematic because it equates weakness or failure with womanhood, but it also perpetuates a belief that being anything less than what is currently considered manly is not acceptable. The framework for what a man ideally should be is very narrow; men are expected to be strong, successful, and dominant. They are taught to be not embrace their emotions, unless that emotion is anger. Men are expected to be aggressive—readily challenging anyone to a physical dispute. They are taught to be go-getters, rarely taking “no” for an answer. Traditionally, they have been trained to be the head of the household, which makes the pursuit of an egalitarian relationship challenging. All of these pressures add up to an unattainable ideal that affects not only men, but our society as a whole.
These expectations may render themselves in a more dangerous form known as toxic masculinity. I want to be clear when I say that toxic masculinity is different from being a man. This is a more extreme and harmful form of masculinity that is focused on dominance and violence. It goes without having to say that not all men would do these kinds of things, but it is the select few that are so geared by utter power that there becomes a problem.
In the U.S., toxic masculinity has come to the forefront due to devastating amounts of gun violence, sexual and domestic assault continually going without proper sentencing, and presidential hopefuls, namely Donald Trump, brushing off their threatening and derogatory statements towards women as ‘locker room talk’. All of these instances we hear about in the news are calling attention to the devastating effects of normalizing violence, bullying, and rape culture.
The ‘boys will be boys’ effect starts early, and this spawns behavior that is pervasive and hard to undue. This not only causes violent and dominating behavior amongst men, but also has a severe impact on women and girls, as well as other marginalized groups. Men are taught to devalue all forms femininity, and thus women and girls devalued as well. Women become dehumanized in a culture with hypermasculinity. Our culture has also taught men to feel entitled, and for some, that sense of entitlement is extremely destructive. Cases of bullying, abuse, racism, hate crimes, sexual assault, and murder can often be tied to someone feeling entitled of their power over someone else, especially if the victim is seen as weaker or inferior.
In Rohrbaugh’s “American Male,” we see a man who is conflicted in his desire to be the ideal man while struggling with his sexual orientation. In our culture, gay men are often made to feel like they are not equal, not masculine enough. Men’s lives, like Matthew Shepard’s, have been taken away because of this epidemic. Violence against the LGBTQA community rang out as Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orland, Florida earlier this year. This was the deadliest mass shooting in our nation’s history, and will always be remembered as one of the most horrific hate crimes of all time. This kind of violence is fueled by pure obsession with violence and dominance over others. This behavior seeks to submerge another group, identity, race, class, and so on to feel more to powerful, and is completely unacceptable. Everyone deserves the right to feel safe, and this issue needs to be addressed swiftly.
When the narrator in “American Male” states: “I am no longer a person, but a path of least resistance,” I couldn’t help but think how poignant it is. Both men and women are made to feel hollowed-out by the expectations set forth by gender roles. They tell us what to like, how to act, what to wear, even how to talk. The more dangerous forms of these gender roles contribute to the unacceptable violence in our culture. Toxic masculinity has become so pervasive and damaging to those who are on the fringes that they are targeted for bullying, abuse, and even murder. For men especially, it is important to be more aware of the effects of toxic masculinity, and to challenge the cultural expectations set forth in order to create a safer and more accepting society.