Yesterday, Matt Lauer was terminated from NBC News and became the latest in a long-growing list of high-profile men who are facing the consequences of allegations of sexual harassment, assault and molestation. Call it the "Weinstein ripple effect." The problem has been identified and a reckoning is here—a global outpouring of confessions, rage and personal #metoo stories that are rallying against this widespread misconduct.
It seems now, we've entered the phase where the newsmen who first reported on a handful of Hollywood dirtbags are now themselves embroiled in their own shit storm of accusations. Men like Lauer, Charlie Rose and Mark Halperin—trusted journalists who we all came to rely on for their seemingly sound judgement and humanity. And yet, another day, another one falls. Why? Or perhaps a better question is "how?"
How the hell did we get to this place where so many men of different stripes all felt that they could do these things? Where a man with 16 sexual assault allegations against him can become the President of the United States? Perhaps it has something to do with our outdated blueprint of masculinity. Let's face it, Trump is hardly the only elected official with a sorted history of sexual misconduct. But he is the first to be seen bragging about it on camera and then merely explaining it away as "locker room talk." As if that's what all men do when in the presence of other men.
Welcome to toxic masculinity—a deep-rooted idea to which even the most woke dude can fall prey if not careful. I get it. The idea of being the powerful alpha male who shows up and owns a room can be kind of appealing, right? Most of us would like to be known as a man who is strong and self-reliant. But there's an important distinction to be made. Masculinity is a real phenomenon, natural and biological. But toxic masculinity is a contrivance created to reinforce and exploit it. And I think it's fair to say that we're drowning in that bullshit.
Toxic masculinity centers around three fundamental tenets: strength, sexual conquest and violence—qualities that a pre-teen male might regale as manly and virtuous. Who's the strongest? Who's had the most sexual experience. These do not tell you much about a man. If sex and aggression are the accepted measuring sticks of manhood, it's not surprising that sexual assault education revolves around teaching women how to get out of dangerous situations. When in reality, shouldn't we be focusing more attention on teaching young men about the importance of consent? How can we hope to stop violent sexual behavior if violence and sexuality are still considered the cornerstones of manliness?
This idea of hyper-masculinity is merely a performance," ex-NFL quarterback and feminist activist Don McPherson told USA Today. "We don't raise boys to be men. We raise boys to not be women or gay men. We don't affirm what a loving man is ... We're not supposed to be effeminate or care or love or be sensitive, and it's all utter B.S. because we are all these things."
The stereotype of a real man's man is essentially at odds with everything we know about what it means to be human. It's not about what you can do, especially now when women can fight in combat, change their own tire and run for president. It's about what you can't do: the invisible borders that must never be crossed. You're to suffer in silence, instead of talking through your pain or trauma to heal. You're never to express physical affection for other men (including male children) despite science proving how important touch is to any human's emotional well-being. And you're to cover any insecurity with insults and dirty jokes. This, we're told, is the price you pay to be a man.
We brutalize [males] and then tell them the tradeoff is you get to be in a more powerful position," says CJ Pascoe, a professor at the University of Oregon and author of Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.
But this all catches up to us and explains why so many men get seemingly angrier as they get older. A recent scientific study has concluded that older men who've followed the standard roadmap of overtly macho living will actually have significant difficulty dealing with the stressful challenges old age will bring. The findings come from a literature review that mined data from nearly 100 previous studies into men and and their relationships with masculinity. "Men have trouble dealing with older age because they've followed a masculinity script that left little room to negotiate unavoidable problems," says Kaitlyn Barnes Langendoerfer, a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University and author of the findings. "We're all aging; but as men age, they're unable to be who they were, and that vulnerability creates a dissonance that is hard to reconcile."
So let this be a warning to our future selves, men. Don't end up like those sad, scared and angry men who couldn't handle being older and wiser if it mean't they couldn't dominate any longer. That ends badly, as we've now learned from the disgraced men on this page. Over the last decade, there's been a revolution in gender equality that's resulted in many positive changes in the lives of women. I think we need that for men as well. It's not about losing power or opportunities to women. It's about widening the spectrum of what it means to be a man. And I think the younger generations are proving that it's possible. You don't have to be the straight, white quarterback to be the most popular guy in high school anymore. You can be a gay YouTuber. Or just a guy who is more into video games and sneakers. I'm confident that when those boys grow up, they are going to be better men than us because they'll know better.
After all, the mark of a gentleman isn't his refinement or education or the clothes he wears. It's how he treats those around him. I think we can get to a place where the mark of a good man is how he can be relied on to do the right thing. In the meantime, we'll keep striving and hold those who don't act like gentlemen accountable.