H4D takes on toxic masculinity

An undergraduate student leads a talk about the societal views on masculinity in Oak Hall. (Hanaisha Lewis/The Daily Campus)

An undergraduate student leads a talk about the societal views on masculinity in Oak Hall. (Hanaisha Lewis/The Daily Campus)

In the controversy surrounding Gillette’s short film, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” the term “toxic masculinity” was thrown around quite a bit, as it one of the issues the film attempted to highlight. While some students may not be familiar with the what the term means, Honors For Diversity (H4D) decided to host a discussion Tuesday night, unpacking the concept of toxic masculinity so that students are more prepared to confront it.

“I think people should take away what toxic masculinity looks like and how it’s defined so they can be more aware,” H4D treasurer and fourth-semester physiology and neurobiology major Wesia Malik said. “That’s the goal of most of the discussions like this, getting people to know how do you define this, where do you see it and how can you be more proactive.”

Toxic masculinity, according to the presenter Kevin Okifo, a sixth-semester biology major and the president of H4D, doesn’t really have a single definition, which is why discussion is so important. The main idea is that society prescribes certain roles to men and women, and when men enforce “masculine” roles upon one another it can have serious consequences for everybody.

Okifo asked students to come up with examples throughout the presentation, not only of how toxic masculinity manifests, but more specifically how they’ve seen it manifested on campus.

In general, students discussed how men are expected to be unemotional, strong, courageous, independent, assertive and controlling. Attitudes like “boys shouldn’t cry” and calling boys who exhibit fewer traditionally masculine traits “gay” both exemplify toxic masculinity.

“My favorite color used to be orange,” Okifo said, giving an example, “and someone told me that orange was too much of a girly color … from so young, with so many things that are gendered in our society, you’re already forced to box in your ideas of the world.”

According to Okifo, these attitudes are harmful to people of all genders. Not only are many supposedly masculine traits harmful to women, but they’re unhealthy for men as well. If they don’t act “masculine” they’ll get bullied and pressured. If they do act “masculine” but don’t feel comfortable with those actions, they’ll feel insecure and out of place. Ultimately, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Participants identified examples of toxic masculinity that they’ve seen on campus as well. They mentioned male students feeling like they need to outperform their female counterparts in the gym and the assumption that when guys go out to a party, they should come back with a girl. Some of the examples included blatant misogyny as well.

“There are so many stereotypes,” Malik said, “so it’s good to talk to people about it.”

Okifo also played the controversial Gillette film as part of the presentation, to get more dialogue moving. Students discussed why they thought the messaging could be offensive to some people, but none of the participants expressed anger or disagreement with the video.

One student who wished to remain anonymous said that he thought “it has good messaging even though it’s easily misinterpreted.” He was surprised so many participants agreed with the sentiments of the video, saying he had expected the event to attract more male students who would argue with the concept of toxic masculinity.

The students who did come, however, all contributed to a back-and-forth with Okifo, sharing anecdotes and posts they’d seen on social media, with everyone bringing a different perspective to the issue.

The goal of H4D in hosting the event is similar to the message of the Gillette commercial: Men need to stop being bystanders to toxic masculinity, and need to start breaking down dangerous stereotypes. Although that may seem like an intense and lofty goal, as Malik said, it all starts with just increasing awareness.


Alex Houdeshell is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.