In the 1920s, author and explorer Blair Niles described male explorers who touted their masculinity and heroism with the phrase, “we-white-men with red-blood-in-our-veins.” In the twentieth century, men often viewed masculinity as an essential trait for an explorer. It was a time when exploration was synonymous with white supremacy and colonization.
Wildlife filmmaker Armand Georges Denis met many women explorers during the filming of his feature-length films In the 1930s. Later, he would tell a reporter,
“I welcome the opportunity to tell women what is wrong with them, as explorers. And I hope that what I have to say may be discouraging enough to stop their wander-lust.”
He thought that women were much more reckless than men. “A man makes a cold calculation, and if the danger is too great, he will not take it.“ He explained:
“The average woman doesn’t think. She takes unnecessary chances or forces man to. Either he has to appear cowardly or follow after. It’s embarrassing.”
For instance, Denis cited a woman who sees lion cubs. She says, “Oh, aren’t they cute” and walks up to them.
“Trouble begins. And then the timid man has to rescue fearless woman again.”
To justify the exclusion of women from explorer clubs, another man claimed, “One woman can cause more trouble on an exploring expedition than a whole horde of wild elephants, a tribe of wild and bloodthirsty savages, or a dozen lions and tigers ready for food.” As another man explained, “The secret’s out. One can live comfortably in the African jungle. We could formerly come back and tell our lady friends almost anything about our perilous adventures and fights with tigers and boa constrictors. Now we can’t get away with it.”
Toxic masculinity remains a problem nearly one hundred years later. A 2015 study found that when a man’s masculinity is threatened, he downplays feminine characteristics, avoids feminine products, and exaggerates his masculinity.
For example, when men were told that they scored low on a masculinity test (regardless of the actual score), they showed little interest in receiving products perceived as feminine (clothing and beauty products). They also added inches to their height and exaggerated their aggressiveness, athleticism, and the number of their sexual partners.
Men who were told they scored high on the test did not so exaggerate, and they were equally interested in “female” and “male” products. One of the researchers, Benoît Monin, said that the study may “explain why some men react to frustration on the job or to a threat to status at work by lashing out at employees or coworkers.” It could help managers prevent hostile reactions.
And as the New York Times notes, toxic masculinity is evident today in many men’s refusal to wear a mask. Gender reporter Alisha Haridasani Gupta quotes Anand Giridharadas, the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World”:
But there has been a very dominant strain of men who clearly feel that wearing a mask would so expose their vulnerability that they would rather risk death from the virus than what they perceive as the humiliation of not being invincible.
Giridharadas notes that society “is teaching men that the only way to have dignity is not be a woman, not be weak, not be gay, always hit first and never present yourself as vulnerable or in need.” His words echo Armand Georges Denis’s words from nearly a century ago. This male vulnerability leads to sexual abuse, domestic violence, and the glass ceiling that keeps women from attaining positions of authority. It dehumanizes women and places the focus on the aggressor rather than the victim.
According to Giridharadas, a “culture of toxic masculinity ... trains so many men to turn their sense of vulnerability into a fraudulent performance of strength, and ... a desire to hurt those who take pride in giving love.”
He hypothesizes that women leaders in other countries are performing better than some male leaders with respect to the Co-vid crisis because either they see the world differently than men or they had to be three times better than men to get to a position of power.