This is my first collaborative piece on Thoughts of a Metanoia Bum, written in tandem with Jason Streit. A native of Florida who converted to Orthodoxy from Judaism, Jason and I attend the same parish, where we both serve in various roles; Jason is in the restaurant business, and I have the joy to be the godfather to his infant son. Both of us have an interest in the intersection of Orthodoxy and social justice. Combining Jason’s interest in ascetic practices as an antidote to social injustice, with my research background in the impact of masculinities in family and work life, we felt compelled to write the below essay as a starting point for larger discourse on masculinities and manhood within the Orthodox world.
In January 2019, a new ad campaign for Gillette razors was unveiled to the public. Known for its trademark phrase “The Best a Man Can Get,” the ad featured a group of men and boys engaging in behavior that, while destructive, has been frequently depicted as “men being men,” or “boys being boys.” Fighting. Bullying and picking on others (while being watched by a group of men behind a line of grills). Sexual harassment (both verbal and physical). Speaking (often incorrectly) for the perspectives of women, rather than providing women the opportunity to speak for themselves (known to many as “mansplaining”). The ad shifts to clips of television interviews discussing the #MeToo campaign, with the intention of presenting the pervasive problem of sexual harassment in everyday life. This part of the ad ends with one former professional athlete saying that men need to hold other men responsible, before shifting to another important segment of men who are stopping these problems from taking place. Men pushing harassing men away from their female targets. Fathers pulling fighting kids off of their hapless victim. Men stopping people in the street from trying to go after another man. All of this goes on while children watch- not just boys, but also girls- their fathers/father figures doing what is purported to be the right thing.
It ends with the phrase “It’s only challenging ourselves that we get to our best.”
Rather than being universally accepted, however, the ad has been eviscerated by many people, with nearly 1.2 million YouTube dislikes (versus nearly 700,000 likes at the time of writing). The video is currently one of the most disliked videos on YouTube, and has sparked a storm of anger from many men, vowing to never buy a Gillette product again. It has also sparked a large discussion about the concept of “toxic masculinity,” a term that has long existed in the field of gender studies, but is only now being more heavily discussed among the general public. Toxic masculinity includes a variety of manifestations, including the suppression of emotions and feelings, a propensity for maintaining an attitude of toughness, and behavior that is driven by violent actions, whether physical or social. Toxic masculinity’s core is control, power-seeking, and domination, and bearing that definition in mind, the behaviors presented in the ad- bullying, fighting, harassment and mansplaining- all demonstrate how toxic masculinity is manifested in everyday life.
Toxic masculinity is a sub-segment of what is referred to as “hegemonic masculinity”- behavior that justifies the domination of men in society, and that reinforces certain behaviors as masculine, and behaviors outside of those parameters to be feminine. Toxic masculine behaviors such as bullying and mansplaining are considered part of the socially destructive forms of hegemonic masculinity; whereas behaviors such as providing for one’s family and building a sense of solidarity for fellow men are considered socially constructive and a part of building community; toxic masculine behaviors instead promote division, separation, and “othering” of those who do not fit into a specific category of manhood. A simple example could be the bullying that takes place when a boy chooses music lessons over a sport like wrestling. This type of masculinity has proven to be psychologically damaging to males, especially for young boys; in recent studies, the American Psychological Association went so far as to condemn toxic masculine behaviors for their sometimes irreparable harm to men.
Discussions about toxic masculinity, especially between men, are difficult. Some claim that there is “toxic femininity,” turning the tables and placing the blame on victims. This is a similar rhetorical strategy to discussions of “reverse racism,” or claims of anti-elitism: when challenged, accuse the opposite group of doing likewise. The problem with that discussion is that there is the capability among all of us to express toxic behaviors. Women can bully men. People of color can commit racially-charged acts. The poor can commit acts against the rich. However, when you look at statistics, those are far less likely to occur. Yes, anyone can commit a sin. But some people commit sins more often than others, and when it’s destructive to a group of other people on a wide scale, the fact that women can harass men (yet don’t as frequently) is a distraction technique from the subject at hand.
Effective change also comes from within systems, rather than from the outside. Through targeting men in their ad, Gillette is asking men to be responsible for themselves. Due to the dynamics of both hegemonic masculinity and toxic masculinity, the backlash towards this campaign, personally, is not surprising. As the United States’ legacy regarding racial and women’s rights can attest, change of any sort is difficult for the dominant population. It is a lot like the old political cartoon I saw of Mikhail Gorbachev asking a giant bear (which symbolized the Soviet Union) to jump through a tiny hoop (which symbolized perestroika and its sweeping changes). It is painful to admit that you have been contributing, whether directly or indirectly, to a larger injustice. Societies debate this long after the injustice occurs, as can be seen in nations like post-World War II Germany, post-apartheid South Africa, or- more recently- Canada’s turbulent history of residential schooling for indigenous peoples.
If we bring it down to a personal frame, however, we have to ask the question: how hard is it to admit our faults, to take our sins to a spiritual elder, and work towards changing our behavior to avoid repeating our mistakes? Metanoia- either meaning “change of heart” or “repentance”- is constant, and is not a one-and-done deal. Once someone admits their sexism, that’s only the beginning, just as an alcoholic starts the process of changing by admitting that there is a problem in the first place. After all, a symptom of addiction is denial of the problem in the first place, and passionate resistance towards those who might challenge it.
Understanding what toxic masculinity is, and the traits associated with it, not only help us understand why it is anathema to Orthodox Christianity, but also promotes thought about how Orthodoxy can counter it.
The first thing to realize is that many of the destructive practices that make up toxic masculinity are essentially sins. Practices such as greed, lust, and anger are the kind of sins that are referred to as passions, and St. Paul reminds us that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24)” Orthodox ascetic practices, such as prayer, fasting and study of the Gospels and Church Fathers, help us overcome the passions and reap the fruit of virtues such as humility, charity and chastity. This change of heart from a passion to a virtue- metanoia- is at the core of Orthodox morality; by extension, it is also a core part of Orthodox masculinity (Note: while this is not exclusive, and is also a part of Orthodox femininity, we have elected to focus on masculinity for this article).
Through these concepts of passions and ascetic labors, we can see how toxic masculinity is the antithesis of Orthodoxy. It encourages men to celebrate in fulfilling their base passions, such as lust and anger, which are clearly illustrated by the Gillette commercial. While these desires are natural, St. Anthony reminds us that “things that are done according to nature aren’t sins, but those done by choice” such as eating without gratitude, and living beyond the needs to live. Toxic masculinity encourages this excess; in contrast, Orthodoxy teaches that one must fast and pray continuously to overcome the passions, because while these urges will always be there, we must not give into them.
Also, while hegemonic masculinity focuses on domination, Orthodoxy teaches men to empty themselves and to remember what St. Paul said: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20).” In Ephesians 5, St. Paul exhorts men to equally submit to their spouses, and to love their wives as Christ so loved the Church. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that love for God is love for one another (1 John 4:16), meaning that toxic masculinity is devoid of love for anything other than self. Through prayer, examining the Scriptures, and engaging in the ascetic practices of the church, we can learn to overcome our passions and embrace a true and healthy masculinity built on love and humility.
So while many men including in our own Orthodox world, are upset by the claim of toxic masculinity being prevalent in our societies, it may perhaps hurt because it is a reality that has been allowed to fester to the point of being difficult to heal. That is where we must individually ask ourselves- just like the men in the Gilette ad- where does this toxic, un-Orthodox masculinity exist in our individual churches? Does it exist in parish life, in our conversations with other Orthodox (be it in-person or virtual), and is it obvious (or under the radar)?
As we think about specific examples in our worlds, we must also ask this question: what role can men play in fostering a more detoxified and Christlike way of being male? This role will be different for everyone, but the goal must be the same: to be the best we can be, even if it hurts to admit that we have been gravely wrong in our behaviors, thoughts and word.