Escaping the Cave of Toxic Masculinity

Plato’s classic tale may reveal why people decide to “stay in the cave.”

Image via SilviaMinguzzi

“Ignorance is bliss.”

For many, this is not only a phrase, but a preferred way of living. Remaining blind to the truth, admittedly, can have its perks. When it is too ugly to bear, sometimes it feels better to just pretend that you hadn't seen it. However, although the tactic may be appealing, it’s simply unjust to ignore the truth. We see this “ignorance is bliss” attitude beginning long, long ago, and a classic representation of it can be found in Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave. For those unfamiliar with the tale, it begins with prisoners who are chained in an underground den, where they live and have lived for many years. They can physically face only one direction, where their sight is limited to shadows that are thrown before them due to a raging fire behind them. When one prisoner manages to escape towards the light and sees the outside world for the first time, he is in shock and can barely believe that a world exists outside of the cave. But when he goes back to tell his fellow prisoners, they disregard what he’s saying, and paint him as delusional and detached from reality. They react in anger, and threaten him by saying that no one should ever follow his lead and try to go towards the light, or else they will be put to death.

I can’t help but connect this whole allegory to the recent controversy that’s been going on surrounding the Gillette ad and short film, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” The film is making a commentary on toxic masculinity as it shows various, familiar scenes: In one, two young boys wrestle on the ground at a BBQ; in another, a man catcalls a woman walking down the street; and in yet another, various news anchors report on sexual assault. In this case, the prisoners in the cave are those who disagree with the ad, and the one who managed to escape resembles those who agree with the ad.

The people stuck in the cave argue that the ad was an attack on “all men” and masculinity in general, but this is far from the truth. Much like the prisoners in Plato’s story that threatened death on whoever else attempted to head into the light, people upset with the Gillette ad have thrown their razors in toilets, posted multiple tweets looking to boycott the brand, and have even suggested that the brand wants all men to “cut off their testicles” (Thanks for that ludicrous statement, Piers Morgan). When looking at The Allegory of the Cave and how it plays out, it’s not too surprising that people reacted this way. Gillette knew the ad would be controversial, but that isn’t the issue here. The question should be, why is the ad controversial in the first place? What it aimed to do, at its basic core was, encourage men to be better as a whole. It’s no secret that men tend to be more aggressive, and that, consequently, they are the gender most often associated with domestic abuse, rape, and sexual harassment. In a recent U.S. News article, the publication reports on the new American Psychological Association guidelines, where it states that:

“men are… ‘far more likely’ than women to be arrested and charged with intimate partner violence in the U.S. and commit about 90 percent of all homicides nationwide.”

These are behaviors that rightfully deserve to be called out in men. In women, there are behaviors that are toxic as well such as putting down other women, placing a huge emphasis on body measurements and looks, and feeding into the stereotypes of the “desirable masculine” man and the “weak feminine” man. Nevertheless, men have a lot more work to do when it comes to setting a good example for the next generation if we want to make any progress. Gillette was simply making a comment on how some of these “traditional masculinity” traits can be harmful, not only to women, but to men as well. A perfect example of this is an older person telling a young boy to “man up” or to “not be a little girl” when he’s crying. It’s actually been proven that constantly invalidating boys’ emotions results in higher rates of depression, aggression, and suicide. It’s no coincidence that “men are 77% of the 45,000 people” that commit suicide in the U.S. every year. In fact, in a survey by Promundo, along with help from Axe, a random sample of 1,500 men aged 18–30 in the U.S., the U.K., and Mexico were questioned. The study, titled “The Man Box,” revealed a lot about what it means to be a man in today’s world, including the pressures and expectations that come with it. It was discovered during the study that nearly 1 in 5 of the men had thought about suicide in the past two weeks. Upon further questioning, it became apparent that those more likely to think about suicide were also those who

“believed in a version of manhood associated with being tough, not talking about their problems, and bottling up their emotions.”

These findings should not provoke alarm, but instead, some much-needed action. Tell boys that it is okay to cry, and provide them with ways to deal with their emotions. Stop catcalling women, taking advantage of women, physically abusing women, and objectifying women. Stop encouraging unnecessary aggression in young boys, and prevent bullying when possible. Don’t be a bystander to other men’s inappropriate actions, but instead, inform them when they’re wrong. Ultimately, this is what Gillette was aiming to express, but to many prisoners in the cave, shutting out the tough truth about their own gender was probably a subconscious reflex, set in motion by “identity threat.” In an article on Vox, the theory is further explained, but to sum it up, “identity threat” occurs when one’s identity feels threatened, prompting the person to react with anger and denial. Of course, this results in lots of razors in the trash. It’s unfortunate that so many will remain “prisoners” of toxic masculinity, only able to see the shadows of what they have always believed to be “the truth.” As we become more progressive as a society, we will be able to break away from our shackles, and escape every sense of a cave, to reach the light. Our eyes may need some time to adjust, but in the end, the light will pour through, and the truth will prevail.

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