Candace Owens speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Owens is a conservative political commentator and author. GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR VIA CC BY-SA 2.0

“Bring back manly men,” tweeted conservative author, Candace Owens, on Nov. 14. When first reading this tweet, my eyes transfixed on the words “manly man.”

A wave of flashbacks came over me — memories of every time I was told to “man up” or “be a man.” I thought of the times I cried as a young boy or when I’ve struggled to talk about my feelings. At an early age, I realized that being emotional was taboo. 

Whenever I cried, I instinctively knew to run and hide whether it be behind a row of bushes, under my pillow or to the opposite end of the soccer field. I grew up thinking there was something wrong with showcasing my sensitivity.

Owens’ tweet is essentially a call back for traditional masculinity, otherwise known as a “macho” set of behaviors and traits culturally appropriate for manhood. This “macho” masculinity toxically limits strength to dominance and aggression, but never raw emotion. And most notably, traditional forms of masculinity view vulnerability as a sign of weakness.

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Projecting the idea that to be a “man” one needs to have this stoic strength is harmful. This brand of strength already damages individual mental health and stunts progress toward gender equality in society.

Assigning gender starts at birth. When parents first learn the sex of their babies, they know what balloons to buy — blue or pink — and what toys to ask for. As children get older, they grow to understand that boys and girls are different. 

Society implies that boys “naturally” belong in sports such as lacrosse, wrestling and football but not dance because it is too “girly.” Boys are “naturally” stronger, so they are chosen to carry the chairs in class. Boys are “naturally” assertive, so they must always make the first move. Girls are “naturally” emotional, so they are more expressive.

The process of “gender socialization,” in which these internalized, biased beliefs are passed on by others, creates unhealthy expectations that establish how we define and act on concepts such as “strength” into adulthood. 

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One way our internalized idea of “strength” becomes toxic is when emotional stoicism is more accepted than vulnerability. We see this through the commonly referenced gender norm that women cry more than men. 

Studies about the relationship between masculinity and femininity have produced a consistent pattern where men are more comfortable displaying hostile emotions such as anger and less comfortable displaying vulnerable emotions such as sadness, shame and fear. Meanwhile, women are more comfortable displaying vulnerable emotions over hostile emotions. 

This internalized prescription of “toughness” further manifests in mental health. Generally, men have more negative views toward the use of mental health services compared to women and seek less mental health treatment. Influenced by the pressure to conform to conventional masculine traits such as self-reliance, stoicism and invulnerability, men are discouraged from seeking help when they need it. 

A strong focus on masculine norms branches out to how we view societal issues. When we focus too much on gender being hard-wired to strict expressions of masculinity and femininity, we normalize these expectations, often to the point of accepting them as facts. 

In particular, there are issues when we equate aggression or dominance with strength. Whether it be “boys will be boys” or “locker room talk,” this justifies poor behavior based on the notion that aggression and gender are tied together, and presents problems with how we deal with issues of violence. 

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When boys are “naturally” strong and aggressive, it means that they can’t be held accountable for something in their biology. 

If a guy assaults a girl, it can be excusable legally (such as in the case of Brock Turner, and many others). The responsibility, therefore, shifts to victims; girls are taught to watch their drinks, carry mace and rape whistles and be vigilant always.

This shift in accountability only worsens the problem; perpetrators aren’t responsible at all and assault continues to be an issue.

Although one might think that stereotypes such as these serve to solely harm girls, they prove a double-edged sword. The expectation for boys to be “strong” and aggressive creates a system that hurts victims in all cases of assault.

If a boy is assaulted, a common reaction is to blame themselves, saying that they should have been “strong” enough to fight off their attackers. Even more, they struggle to share their experiences because they fear it will make them “less of a man” or “weak”. 

For boys and girls who are victims of sexual assault, there is rarely justice and the victim doesn’t win. 99.5% of perpetrators of sexual assault will walk away without any consequences.

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Perpetrators of sexual violence are also less likely to go to jail than any other criminals, while only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assault cases are reported to the police.

Since there are little to no legal repercussions, perpetrators have little to no fear of consequences. A cycle of assault and trauma therefore continues without end.

People are much more than the guidelines they are supposed to follow. When people such as Candace Owens, with millions of followers on far-reaching platforms such as Twitter, tweet limiting views about what it means to be a “manly man”, they help to perpetuate harmful masculine stereotypes that hurt society across all levels. 

Society can survive without manly men. However, it cannot survive with toxic manhood.

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