“Secure in my/his/their masculinity” is a common expression, but what does it mean? Some readers may find this obvious, but permit me a bit of exploration, to see what we can learn.
In a basic search, I found several low quality listicles, which I take to represent what the common person thinks (as opposed to more scholarly interpretations). The listicles say that you can tell when a man is insecure in his masculinity if he tries to one-up everyone, is homophobic, or avoids anything girly, and so on. In short, masculine insecurity is evidenced by toxic masculinity.
The underlying theory seems to be that insecurity about masculinity causes toxic masculinity. And, by the way, this theory seems to be correct. Another article I found in a basic search describes psychological studies, where men were given tests of “masculinity” and physical strength. They received randomized scores, and the men who were told they scored poorly reported higher aggression, would exaggerate their height, and be more likely to avoid products perceived as feminine.
Without questioning the research on this subject, I will point out a slight inconsistency between the studies and the pop listicles. The studies demonstrate that calling men’s masculinity into question can lead them to compensate, possibly in toxic ways. But the studies as described don’t really demonstrate that this is the only cause of toxic masculinity, merely that it is one cause. In fact, it is very easy to think of alternate causes, for example poor role models–although I don’t know if research would back that up. Thus, toxic masculinity does not necessarily imply insecurity about masculinity. In any particular case, the toxicity could come from another source.
This has me thinking, why does the listicle frame itself as a list of signs that a man is insecure about his masculinity, instead of the more direct framing, as a list of signs of toxic masculinity? Even if we presume that toxic masculinity is caused by masculine insecurity in 100% of cases, what is the purpose of bringing up that particular connection, I wonder?
My hypothesis is that people find “insecurity about masculinity” rhetorically useful, because adds an extra bit of insult and mockery. Toxic masculinity, by itself, is already clearly pejorative, but a man who wishes to defend his behavior could simply say that it’s not toxic at all. “Insecurity about masculinity”, as an insult, puts a man in more of a double bind. “Insecurity” suggests that someone wants to be or appear masculine, but is keenly aware that they are failing to do so. If a man insists that he is not failing at masculinity, it looks like a “protest too much” situation, yet more evidence of insecurity!
But while bringing up insecurity about masculinity can win arguments, it’s worth asking whether “winning” actually aligns with our goals. Certainly it depends on what our goals are, and the context. If you’re on the national stage, maybe try winning, that’s probably valuable. But in a one-on-one argument, you can “win” an argument by causing your opponent to leave in huff, mind completely unchanged. In fact, by beating a man in an argument, we may very well be promoting further insecurity about masculinity, leading to more toxic masculinity.
If insecurity about masculinity is the problem, what is the solution? The intuitive solution, for many people, is to stop failing at masculinity, and start succeeding. And in attempting to execute this solution, they instead act out toxic masculinity, or so goes the theory. So talking about the problem is not enough; we also need to offer alternative solutions that don’t just perpetuate the problem.
And one alternative solution that comes to mind is promoting acceptance of failure. It’s okay to fail at masculinity, because masculinity is often an impossible goal, and not a worthwhile one, as much as we may have been taught that it is so. It’s okay to be anxious or even insecure about failure as long as we understand that our anxieties may lie to us about what is important. It’s okay to be vulnerable, though others may treat it with derision–
And here’s my issue with rhetoric about masculine insecurity. When insecurity is used as an insult, it doesn’t promote vulnerability, it just promotes more insecurity. Pointing out the problem does not necessarily solve the problem.