Masculinity in the Face of a Pandemic

Image of street art from Andrew Milligran of PA Images

Last week some of my male relatives and close family friends got together online to play poker and connect during the Covid crisis. Despite my horrible poker abilities it was a lovely occasion to connect with family. However, the event turned sour for me quickly as one older family friend of my father’s enjoyed using “locker room talk” at every chance he had. Anyone who raised (bet higher than) him would quickly hear some string of “Fuck you” or “Stop being gay”. Six months ago I wouldn’t bat an eye at this kind of language in a boys poker night setting. Now however, I understand this commonplace behavior to be a defense mechanism trying to uphold “The Veil of Masculinity”,“Boys Club” or “Toxic Masculinity”. Whatever you have heard “it” called, at best, it keeps men sheltered and confused about their emotions and, at worse, it leads to binge drinking, substance abuse, sexual assault, and now death by pandemic.

What is “it”?

Everyone today is influenced by society and all that society entails: television, peers, school, parents, siblings, and even clothing brands just to name a few. Bobbie Harro described this process as “The Cycle of Socialization”. Harro describes the process as such, “we are each born into a specific set of social identities… These social identities predispose us to unequal roles in the dynamic system of oppression. We are then socialized by powerful sources in our worlds to play the roles prescribed by an inequitable social system” (15). A large part of the “powerful sources” we are often impacted by are the subliminal messages from society. A prime example being product placement with movies and celebrities. The can of Coke with the logo facing out in the scene of the movie, the celebrity showing off a new clothing brand or phone, the luxurious car being driven by luxurious celebrities in luxurious magazines. All of these subliminal messages can make us crave fancy cars, new phones, and even Coca Cola  at times. The “Veil of Masculinity” as mentioned earlier has done a very similar thing for decades through “The Cycle of Socialization”. With messages of “suck it up” or “don’t be a bitch” boys are taught from a young age that “to be a man, you have to be tough”. Many men who grew up playing baseball like myself will tell you they heard the phrase “there is no crying in baseball”. All of these messages have socialized boys and men into having a twisted sense of what being a “man” is all about. Peggy Orenstein, author of Boys & Sex and A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and AFAR, interviewed hundreds of teenage boys across America on these topics of masculinity to write her book, Boys & Sex. She found that “boys felt there was only one narrow pathway to successful manhood. They still equated the display of most emotions, as well as vulnerability, crying, or appearing sensitive or moody, with ‘acting like a girl’…A third of boys surveyed agreed that they should hide or suppress their feelings when they were sad or scared. Another third, like Rob, had felt pressure to ‘be a man’ and ‘suck it up’. Only two percent associated maleness with qualities such as honesty or morality” (12). Many men and boys are socialized into thinking that men can only show two emotions in public, anger and happiness. Most of my life I never even questioned these standards, I just believed that was the way being a “man” functioned. I can not tell you where I learned it, but I knew that I could not show any other emotion but anger and happiness so I showed either a lot of happiness or a lot of anger. Whether I was screaming with joy after scoring a goal or screaming at a ref after a bad call, my athletic life was certainly definitely dominated by two emotions. Men being socialized into hiding a majority of emotions might not seem like the worst thing in the world but the implications are far reaching. 

Side Effects May include… 

Ignoring our emotions and problems has never been thought of as a “good idea”. However, as Orenstein points out in an interview with a teenager in her book, men are taught they are supposed to ignore most emotions, “‘My dad wasn’t sexist,’ he said. ‘I didn’t learn ‘toxic’ or homopobic behavior from him. But I certainly learned the emotionally stunted side of masculinity. He never showed emotion: he was more of a sigh-and-walk-away guy than someone who would talk to you about what was going on’”(12). The problem about redirecting our emotional output from sadness, grief, vulnerability, love, or compassion into nothing but a sigh and walking away is that we lose the purpose of emotions. Gregg Henriques, Ph.D. and director of the Combined Clinical and School Psychology Doctoral Program at James Madison University describes the purpose of emotions, “consider a mouse exploring new terrain, and imagine that it gets a whiff of a cat. The perception of a cat in the vicinity activates the motive to avoid the cat. This will likely first cause the mouse to freeze in an attempt to avoid being detected, and then if the mouse senses the coast is clear, it will run back to where it came from. The fear will diminish as it returns to a safe haven and its ‘distance’ from the cat increases. We can see that fear energized avoidance behavior, which is why it is a ‘response set’. Emotions become active when we perceive changes that relate to our needs or goals.” While there are many different conflicting views on emotion throughout the psychology world, the general idea that emotions help “perceive changes that relate to our needs or goals” is universal. When men are socialized into not showing emotion, they no longer have the chance to change their needs or goals. Orenstein lays out the side effects of being an emotionally stunted man as well, “Young men who most internalize masculine norms are six times more likely than others both to report having sexually harassed girls and to have bullied other guys. They are also more likely to have themselves been victims of verbal or physical violence (including murder). They are more prone to binge-drinking and risky sexual behavior, and more likely than other boys to be in car accidents. They are also painfully lonely: less happy than other guys, with fewer close friends; more prone to depression and suicide” (13). The dangerous side effects of internalizing masculine norms and being emotionally stunted could also been a large factor as to why men commit suicide in the US 3.56 times more often than women. Yet breaking the cycle of toxic masculinity is difficult because men reinforce the dangerous masculine norms with their everyday speech and actions.

Protecting “The Boy’s Club”

Remember that poker game I had with my family and the guy who kept using homophobic language? Such language is actually him trying to protect his masculinity. Homophobic language sets the rules for what men are allowed to do and not to do, with the worst offense for a man acting like a girl or “gay”. Yet the homophobic language has nothing to do with homophobia, as Orenstein describes, “Most boys today have no problem with gay people: they’re supportive of LGBTQ+ rights and same sex marriage. At the same time, ‘fag’ is the worst thing they can be called; it has become less a comment on their sexual orientation than a statement about their manhood… Much like ‘slut’ for girls, its definition is fluid, elusive, which only intensifies its power: ‘fag’ keeps guys perpetually vigilant (though it’s not always clear against what) and shuts down any challenge or objection to the ‘boy code’” (23). The homophobic language described that is used by many guys at every turn is protecting their sense of masculinity. It is a defense mechanism they use to avoid coming close to any type of emotion. The man in my poker game wanted to avoid showing any anger or frustration at someone making a move that he did not expect so he used the typical masculine defense, “that’s gay”. The use of homophobic language is not the only way men protect their “boys club” or sense of masculinity. One way men have been socialized into living up to the dominant, aggressive masculine ideal is through defiance of the rules, specifically when putting oneself in harms way. And COVID-19 has given the president and vice president front stage to show how “masculine” they are.

Death by Pandemic

Vice President Mike Pence refusing to wear a mask during his visit to the Mayo Clinic. Photo Credit: Jim Mone AP Photo

If the “Boy’s Club” was a real thing, Donald Trump’s face would be on the sign. As Orenstein describes in Boys & Sex, “If emotional suppression and disparagement of the feminine are two legs of the stool that supports ‘toxic masculinity’, the third is bragging about sexual conquest. In the now notorious video of an interchange on an Access Hollywood bus, leaked a month before the 2016 presidential election, then candidate Donald Trump bragged about forcibly kissing women (‘I don’t even wait’), claiming that when you’re ‘a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.’”(27). President Trump and Vice President Pence seem to stand on all three “legs of the stool that supports toxic masculinity”, most recently during the pandemic. A recent article in Scientific American written by Peter Glick, Ph.D Senior Scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute and professor of Social Sciences at Lawrence University, detailed the President and Vice President’s recent actions and the relation to masculinity. According to Glick, when visiting the Mayo Clinic Vice President Pence refused to wear a mask, citing that “he wanted to be able to look health care workers in the eye”. Meanwhile Trump flat out said, “I’m choosing not to do it [wear a mask]”. Trump and Pence’s dangerous behavior is a prime example of trying to show that they are the strongest and most “macho” leaders out there, all while risking more lives. As Glick describes, “In our research, the show-no-weakness principle manifests by acting like you always know the answer. Admitting uncertainty or that you rely on anyone else’s opinion seems ‘weak’. Trump’s resistance to experts’ advice stems from a constant need to demonstrate that ‘I alone can fix it’…For leaders like Trump, each situation is a personal masculinity contest that he ‘wins’ and others must ‘lose’. Admitting a past mistake or receiving criticism are intolerable. Scores must be settled with anyone who fails to pump up the leader’s ego. For example, in the current crisis critical supplies are more likely to be delivered to states where governors fawn over rather than criticize Trump”. Trump’s incessant need to prove he is the most macho out of any member of the “boys club” has been proven time and time again, in the past with Trump “staring at the sun during an eclipse. Defying experts’ warnings about personal danger signals ‘I’m a tough guy, bring it on’” (Glick). However, Glick points out that in 2017 staring at the eclipse would only harm himself, “In the current corona crisis, his continuing need to deny the experts and the danger to prove that he’s a tough guy harms us all.” Ignoring the political aspects of Trump’s decisions, (that’s a topic for another time) his personal choices to not wear a mask is hurting his followers as they mimic his macho attitude towards the pandemic. Dan Cassino, the associate professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, has studied and written about the statistical correlation between men, women, Trump supporters and their perceived risk of getting or dying from COVID-19. The results of Cassino’s surveys were that, “It turns out that partisanship doesn’t really matter. Politically, what matters is support for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Individuals who support Trump – male and female, across the partisan spectrum – are about 10 points less likely to report washing their hands than those who support presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, or haven’t decided. This is rather larger than the expected difference between men and women, which, controlling for all other factors, is about 6 points.” While men were less likely to be washing their hands than women, anyone who supported Donald Trump was much less likely to wash their hands frequently. Trump’s individual acts of machismo to satisfy his own sense of masculinity is hurting those who support him the most.

The Percentage of expected washing of hands by gender against the groups of people who responded to percentage chance they believe they have of dying from COVID-19, from Cassino’s research.

What do WE do?

Breaking the “norm” of masculinity just begins with conversation. It begins with taking a look at our own language, actions, and sharing them with others around us. It means taking that scary first step and sharing your emotions, problems, fears, or anxieties with your dad, mom, friend or whomever. I implore you the reader to watch this TED talk from actor Justin Baldoni on his journey of breaking out of the old norm of masculinity with a family member that you are quarantined with and have a conversation that you normally wouldn’t have. Having an uncomfortable conversation is the first step in stepping out of the “masculine norm”. I started my journey by watching Baldoni’s TED talk, visiting his website and then having these conversations with my parents. As Baldoni says, “I’m done trying to be man enough”.

Baldoni’s TED Talk

4 thoughts on “Masculinity in the Face of a Pandemic

  1. Caroline Uhlig May 22, 2020 / 9:59 am

    I think there’s something to be said about how men feel the need to be correct about everything. While it’s obvious in ‘mansplaining,’ it’s just as prevalent when you see men breaking certain rules. Donald Trump thinks that he is smarter than thousands of researchers on the virus, climate change, and probably more. Parents and schools should start teaching everyone (men and women) how to ask for help, admit a lack of knowledge, and most importantly, how to take responsibility for our actions. I could write my own blog based on this comment, but what I’m trying to say is that yours did a good job. The story about your family friend was very representative of your topic and I appreciate your candor.


  2. Sam Shin May 26, 2020 / 11:47 pm

    Amazing job Joey. You broke down toxic masculinity well by connecting Orenstein with your life. You also had a fascinating analysis of Trump and Pence: I now can see how their refusal to follow safety guidelines connects with their desire to look manly and independent. Wearing a mask is a sign of respect to the people around them, and a sign of leadership by example. You quoted Orenstein saying that only 2% of boys associated maleness with honesty and morality. Our view of what it means to be a man has been completely skewed: it’s not a question of how we treat others, but rather a pathetic and childish game of trying to appear tough and cold. This is why the answer to sexual violence is not to simply say “don’t rape”. This is why our political leadership is so screwed up, with priorities completely out of place. I learned a lot from your gallery installment!


  3. Ms. Henrich May 28, 2020 / 11:30 am

    You included some really interesting additional research (wasn’t sure where the cat/mouse stuff was going for a minute there, but it works!) and your connections and analysis regarding masculinity and Covid were really interesting to read about. I try to imagine us having had this conversation way back in September before we’d had any discussions about ‘How to Defend Yourself’ or Orenstein, but I don’t think you could’ve written a blog like this back then. It says a lot about who you are and how thoughtful you’ve been in response to the multiple perspectives you’ve opened yourself up to.


  4. Lara Pick May 28, 2020 / 8:48 pm

    I love your bold start by describing a personal experience of yours with toxic masculinity, especially including the F-bomb in the first paragraph. Considering that this book was a popular choice (I chose the same one), you did such a good job of creating a unique blog post based off of your personal experiences as well as how you applied the topic to modern politics. You also do such a good job of including an entire section addressing “where do we go from here” that really stands out.


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