17 Boys Will Be Boys: A reflection on Toxic Masculinity in our Current Society

Austin Labelle and Jackson Cleave

Did you know there is an issue in sport today with elite hockey players taking painkillers to continue playing? This happens in other professional sports, including football (New York Times, 2019). Both sports have similar qualities of aggressiveness and physicality. People define these sports as tough and masculine. We are challenging the assumption that toughness in sport is related to “manliness”. This issue was brought to our attention in a recent documentary called “The Problem of Pain” (watch 2.08- 3.55 minutes). The documentary shows players who used drugs during their careers to maintain their reputations as “tough” and “manly”. In the documentary, praise from teammates, management, fans, and the media encouraged players to play through their injuries in any capacity possible, including by using drugs.

Drug  use within elite sport got us thinking about the bigger picture. Why is playing through injury acceptable and sometimes praised when it can have detrimental effects on a player’s physical and mental wellbeing? We believe it is a result of toxic masculinity and gender norms created by society. Toxic masculinity is the unhealthy image or stereotype of what it means to be a man as defined by societal gender norms. Such norms include being strong, tough, emotionless, or asserting male dominance.

We  want to know how these qualities within the sport of hockey and other contact sports translate into being a man in society. The historical context of sport can aid us in understanding where the roots of toxic masculinity we see today come from. We have both experienced the toxic culture of elite physical sports, so this is a topic that strongly resonates with us.


History of Sport and Society

In professional contact sports, such as hockey and football, young males focus on the masculinity of the sport: toughness, size, and strength (Connell, 2008). When sport forms first emerged, our society started constructing a masculine model for some sports that emulated what it meant to be a warrior. Sport metaphors have propagated the concept of being a soldier in war, reinforcing hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 2008), The Roman Empire initially portrayed masculinity as being equal to aggressiveness and the talent to kill in gladiator rings (Totally awesome history, 2008). In the early 20th century sport was used to prevent the population from rebelling against the oppressive political conditions of Mussolini’s, Stalin’s and Hitler’s regimes in the 1930s and during the World War II (Tunis, 1936). The younger population, occupied with training and recreational activities, could not stand against these dictators or exercise critical pedagogy to question the practices of their governments (Tunis, 1936). This regimentation of sport was one way society was kept from realizing the brutal political values of these dictators, who used sport for propaganda. Dictators promoted a hypermasculine model for what boys should become, displaying a vision of sport that would build a strong man worthy of defending his Fatherland (Tunis, 1936). These deep roots of toxic masculinity still exist in our society, even with increased gender diversity in the workforce and in sports.


Society Today

As it did during earlier periods of sport, toxic masculinity still exists. We believe this is a result of the stigmatization towards males to conform to the social norms that have been instilled for generations. Stigmatization is a process which stems from society, where a group of people consider themselves normal and oppress those who are different: “We are the audience whose reactions force the abnormal and the deviant to act in unusual manner. It is we ‘normals’ who discriminate, segregate and construct an ideology about the handicapped” (Slattery, 2003, p. 185-186). Thus, stigmatization is a result not of a weakness of those who are oppressed, but a reaction by those who are considered “normal” within society. Although this paper is not focused on people with disabilities, it is the same kind of ideology where men are looked down upon because they do not display traits they are “supposed to have ” as a man. This tends to pressure boys and men to conform to normative traits including power, suppression of emotions and misogynous behavior. Especially when people like the President of the United States display these traits.



Over this past four years, America has been a prime example of a modern society with an authoritarian regime led by Donald Trump. As we alluded to before, authoritarianism is a derivative of toxic masculinity. Trump’s dominion was one that easily fits the dominant stereotype of a real, strong ‘man,’ signified by the success of his business, the lack of support he has shown for minorities, and his overall misogynous attitude (Messerschmidt & Bridges, 2017). With Trump in a position of power, he regularly defined himself as a superior success to minority groups. This explains how he attracts the supporters that are behind him, most of them being white and in support of his oppressive legislations that sustain toxic masculine traditions (Messerschmidt & Bridges, 2017). Additionally, Trump neglected to show serious concerns for the pandemic by pushing to reopen different aspects of the economy. This revealed his greed for money to resume capital power, another characteristic of hegemonic masculinity (Messerschmidt & Bridges, 2017).


Mental health

Trump is one of many people who contribute to the normalization of toxic masculine traits in society. Suppressed emotion is one of these traits, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Khan and colleagues (2020) have demonstrated a positive correlation of increasing male suicide rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. They believe men who follow traditional masculine norms are more likely to be involved in health impeding behaviors (Khan et al., 2020). Similarly, Smalley et al. (2015) found a correlation between men’s mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic as men feel they are being controlled by governmental regulations, such as social distancing and isolation protocols. Men being unable to hold any sort of power or provide for their families is contradictory to traditional gender norms and can lead to feelings of depression. Mahalik et al. (2007), have demonstrated that men are more likely to commit suicide compared to women despite the current pandemic. This is because they tend to hide vulnerability, ignore self-care, and reluctantly seek medical or professional help. Toxic masculinity traits restrict men’s ability to seek support and express feelings, leading to increased suicide rates (Smalley et al., 2005). Mental health deterrents are not just experienced by males displaying toxic masculine traits but also by women that are exploited in the same misogynous environment.



Until recently, America has never had a female Vice President. When women are in places of occupational power they defy the tradition of male dominance in the workplace. This leads to the inequality seen in our society, where men often display misogynous behaviors such as sexist comments, unequal pay and harassment as a result of traditional norms (The Atlantic, 2016). With America recently leaning towards women in power, it made us think of ways we can teach young men and boys to build respect for women at a young age. Madsen & Farrell (2018) have shown the implications of having a female coach in a toxic masculine sport environment. They suggest that such action could help neutralize male toxicity and they see the benefit in lessons from a women’s perspective for younger boys (Madsen & Farrell, 2018). Since a female coach in sport is effective to neutralize toxicity in sporting environments, it makes us question whether the same can be done in society more broadly by making sure women are in more positions of power. We can’t wait to see what Kamala Harris accomplishes! In the next paragraph, we reflect on some current improvements for stigmatization of toxic masculinity.


Future directions


This video demonstrates some of the advocacy to remove toxic masculinity from society and normalize a new set of traits for men.

Thus far, we hope you are beginning to create your own ideas on how we can shift the paradigm to stop normalizing traits of toxic masculinity. As mentioned above, there are current issues associated with toxic masculinity in society including power, mental health and misogynous behaviors. However, there are people who are trying to make a difference. First, Gillette (2018) released a commercial in efforts to normalize traits contradictory to traditional masculine norms. It highlights ways in which we as individuals can begin to normalize emotional and compassionate men, and work towards destigmatizing this type of man as “gay” or “feminine”. We believe a shift in the expectations for men’s behaviors is beginning to change as we see noticeable differences in our generation.

For example,  Justin Trudeau was the first Prime Minister of Canada to march in the Pride Parade in Toronto in 2016, showing his support for the LGBTQ+ community (Thompson, 2016). Male leaders in previous contexts or more traditional men such as Trump are more reluctant to display their support for the LGBTQ+ community (Fitzsimons, 2019). We think that to help toxic masculine traits to be mitigated from society, male athletes and celebrities need to demonstrate ideal social traits including less aggressiveness, more willingness to share emotions, and more respectful behaviour towards everyone. Athletes speaking out on behalf of destigmatizing male traits is becoming common. One example is Las Vegas Golden Nights goalie Robin Lehner, talks openly about his mental health struggles and the need for men to seek help (Lehner, 2018). We believe athletes are a good entry point for societal change as they are role models for children. Recently, a peewee boys hockey team in Ontario made their own campaign to destigmatize mental health problems for boys and men (Rolph, 2019). Toxic masculinity is one ideology that has needed to change for a long time; the power of sport as a platform brings the potential for large scale activism that could start the shift of social norms.



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The Ball is in Y(Our) Court: Social Change Through and Beyond Sport Copyright © by The students of KNPE 473 at Queen's University, Fall 2020, edited by Mary Louise Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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