Just when you thought today’s culture wars couldn’t get any weirder, far-right Republicans are having toddler-like meltdowns over purple M&M’s.
The manufactured Fox News crisis came as Mars, the candy makers of M&M’s, released a new all-female character package with the slogan, “celebrate women everywhere who are flipping the status quo.”
Admittedly, I never expected the serious topic of modern masculinity to be provoked by a candy the size of my pinky nail. But as humorous as it might be to watch overly puffed-up men deflate at the sight of female chocolate, toxic masculinity is no laughing matter.
As feminists, we’ve achieved a lot. For centuries we’ve fought a patriarchal narrative of what it means to be a woman. We’ve won ourselves the right to vote, have credit cards and purchase a house. We’ve fought for women to have the equal opportunity to work, lead and be paid the same as men in any career we choose, and we’ll keep fighting for it until we get it.
Yet for all of the successes we’ve had to date, overcompensating men remains the largest barrier to women’s equality, not to mention our safety. Now, it’s time for feminists to consider the role healthy masculinity plays in our success.
If it seems odd for feminists to advocate for men, I understand. The first time I was introduced to this concept was in a 2016 Op-Ed titled The Men Feminists Left Behind. Yet the message was deceptively simple: “Women changed. Too many men didn’t. What happens next?”
Evidence of what happens next has become easy to find since the column was published. Not only did Americans go on to elect the man who promoted sexually assaulting women as president, but members of his party now openly pander to outdated standards of masculinity.
Of course, men with real masculinity don’t need to pander for authority or tote oversized guns to prove their strength. But knowing what modern masculinity isn’t hardly tells us what modern masculinity is, and it’s clear there has been confusion.
Widening a man’s role and emotional spectrum in society directly supports the advancement of women. For example, we’ve placed far less emphasis on normalizing the domesticity of men than we have on promoting working women. As a result, surveys reflect that women still maintain the bulk of home and child duties, despite having full-time work outside of the home. Notably, this finding is most applicable to heterosexual couples as traditional gender roles have been found to be less prominent among same-sex partnerships.
Similar negative impacts were also seen during the pandemic. Surveys consistently showed women were four times more likely to exit career tracks to care for children, a setback of epic proportions for women’s advancement, all because we’ve failed to advance men’s domestic roles, too.
Limiting men’s domestic and emotional spectrums doesn’t impact only women; it has tangible negative effects on men’s quality of life.
On average, men have shorter lifespans than women, in large part due to not seeking out preventative health care, including mental health, out of fear of appearing weak. More men also report a lack of close friendships, also out of fear of being perceived as too emotional. Over time, falsely teaching men that strength means bottling up their feelings has only led to their increased risks of coronary disease, violence, depression and more.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in defining a modern, healthy form of masculinity is the lack of readily available examples to point to. But times are changing, if slowly, and young men do have more healthy role models than ever, including America’s first Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff.
So back to the question at hand: What is healthy masculinity?
Certainly, this question deserves far more elaborate discussion. But ultimately I believe that just as we’ve promoted the right to expand women’s roles, we must now work to equally expand the roles for men, too; as much as men still hold the privilege in most areas, they are absolutely flailing in others.
For example, as we seek to normalize women being doctors and CEOs, let’s also normalize men being kindergarten teachers, dental assistants and day care providers. As we seek to normalize women as the primary breadwinner, let’s also normalize men making less or choosing to be stay-at-home dads. In other words, let’s normalize the full spectrum of choices for everyone.
Most of all, just as we should support women in expressing their full emotional spectrum in healthy ways, we must empower men to do the same. True strength comes from learning how and when to be vulnerable, and supporting men in taking equal ownership of their domestic and emotional selves will help everyone flourish.
I can’t say if the M&M campaign will actually help women. But I do know that its presence has helped to reiterate why we can’t achieve women’s rights without also working to redefine masculinity. So what does healthy masculinity mean to you?
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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