Unmasking Masculinity

Two summers ago, I killed a chipmunk with a hatchet. Earlier that day, my dad had set a trap for culprit rodents outside my grandmother’s vegetable garden. To the misfortune of this particular chipmunk, its hind legs had been caught, and broken. My dad brought me and my brother outside to carry out obvious boy-scout protocol and commit a mercy killing. He reminded us that the chipmunk would be lucky to live half an hour if we set it free. While my brother rambled on about how unnecessary the trap was in the first place, I took the hatchet from my father’s hands and swung it down onto the chipmunk’s neck.

When I look back at this episode, I find my actions completely irrational. Why would I willingly commit an act that I gain nothing from? I knew that killing something with a hatchet would be a reasonably disturbing thing to do. But instead, I was singularly compelled to pick up the hatchet by my own desire to show more strength than my brother in front of my dad.

I use the chipmunk story as an example to show that uncharacteristic actions can be elicited by unreasonable standards of masculinity. But, the effect of these standards aren’t always as obvious as in the aforementioned story. What oftentimes makes these uncharacteristic actions especially difficult to subdue is the subtlety with which they are perpetuated.

For example, while you and a friend comment about a long-anticipated hookup in a room of guys, you may be completely unaware that the conversation is making someone else in the room feel insecure or uncomfortable. Or if “the guys” all think that you absolutely must be able to throw a football 50 yards in order to be cool, you’re most likely on your way to the stadium with a friend to practice your toss without a second thought regardless of how much you actually like football. Needless to say, the perpetuation of toxic masculinity is a destructive cycle that is highly capable of independent reinforcement.

It has become very clear to me that most responses to toxic masculinity remain, for the most part, undetectable outside of rare, honest, and deliberate conversations. And in general, these conversations are rare because most guys don’t want to admit to others that they are being influenced by societal expectations of what it means to be conventionally masculine (which, ironically, is also a result of these harmful expectations). Most of the time, we don’t even end up admitting to ourselves that our ideas and priorities have been made more uniform due to these expectations.

As a prefect in a Junior boys dorm this year, the effect of these stresses has become a recent concern of mine. In an ideal dorm community, everyone would be respectful of one another and comfortable being themselves at all times. Of course, this is not the case. I constantly see kids in the dorm pushing themselves to be someone that they are not, just for superficial respect from their peers. They make snide comments about girls so nobody doubts the unbelievable amount of sex they claim to have and use derogatory phrases and words just to show that they aren’t afraid to. As much as I try to be someone who speaks out against these kinds of comments in the dorm, sometimes I feel as if I’m not changing the status quo. There are days when I’m in studying my room, and I hear a problematic comment from the hallway that I know I should do something about, but I do nothing. Instead, I think, “What’s the point? They probably won’t listen to me, anyway.”

They are not bad kids. It would be a little easier to call out toxic behavior if a stranger were making these comments. But most of the times these comments are made, it’s a kid that I have a lot of respect for or a close friend, and sometimes it’s me.

After watching “Now That We’re Men” this past weekend, a close male friend of mine came up to me after the show and said, “I have had all of the conversations that those guys on stage had in the play; I’m not any different from them.” And it’s true. Hearing the similarities between the comments made by the actors on stage in a deliberate production and post-sign-in chats made me realize how I must not turn a blind eye in these situations. My hope is that more guys will start to have these realizations and speak up. We all understand on some level that the things that we’re saying and doing are damaging and undignified. We just don’t do anything about it, and it’s time for that to change.

Isaiah Lee is a three-year Upper from Stanley, Hong Kong.