Empirical data suggest more men are dying from COVID-19 than women . A conclusive explanation is still lacking. It may be down to biological reasons, but differences in lifestyle and behavior resulting from traditional gender norms are also likely to play a role. Men, for example, are less likely to take hygiene and protective measures seriously . That behavior is displayed in the fact that men, out of fear of looking weak, are more reluctant towards wearing face masks than women . These findings indicate that gender norms and especially traditional ideals of masculinity play a crucial role in shaping health behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But why are some men so afraid of «looking weak» that they would rather risk dying from the virus than wearing a mask? In search of an answer to this question one soon comes across the term «toxic masculinity».
The meaning of toxic masculinity
The term has become popular through the #MeToo-movement and is often used to explain or blame aggressive, dominant behavior of heterosexual men. While some value its explanatory power and acknowledge toxic masculinity as a real but solvable problem, others dismiss the concept, misinterpreting it as a criticism of being male . A closer look, however, quickly reveals the true meaning of the concept. Toxic masculinity does not assume masculinity or being male to be toxic. Rather, «toxic» qualifies the term «masculinity». That is, it emphasizes that certain traits of masculinity can be harmful – for men themselves and for others.
Generally speaking, toxic masculinity refers to a type of masculinity «that is threatened by anything associated with femininity (whether that is pink yogurt or emotions)» . Toxic masculinity results from the fear of not being «masculine enough» and includes behaviors and beliefs such as suppressing emotions or masking distress .
The opposition to anything feminine can be the result of being socialized to conform to traditional ideals of masculinity . It is the consequence of telling boys things like «don’t be a girl» or «man up», and accepting violence and aggressive behavior because «boys will be boys». This social expectation to be strong and dominant in order to be «a real man» leaves (some) men with a very fragile ego, preventing them from showing weakness or vulnerability . When social, political, or economic changes (or, as we shall see, pandemics) challenge traditional ideals of masculinity or somehow prevent a man from living up to societal expectations, some men react with aggression to their insecurities to maintain an appearance of toughness and use violence as an indicator of power  .
COVID-19 and toxic masculinity
According to public health experts, wearing a mask is one of the most effective measures people can take to slow the spread of COVID-19 , thereby protecting themselves and others. Yet, not everyone is willing to wear a mask: men seem to be more reluctant to mask-wearing than women . Based on an original survey, Dan Cassino and Yasemin Besen-Cassino found that among men, «those who say that their gender identity is ‘very important’ are less likely to support mask requirements than those who say that their gender identity is ‘not important’» . Other research reveals that an expressed desire to appear «tough» helps predict who will refuse masks .
These findings support the view that the failure to wear a mask has nothing to do with being male but with men’s relation to their masculinity. If for some reason men feel pressured to appear «masculine», they are less willing to wear a mask.
Peter Glick, a professor of social sciences at Lawrence University, whose research focuses on understanding and overcoming biases and stereotyping, explains the aversion towards masks with a core principle of masculinity: «show no weakness» . Thus, by sending the underlying message «I’m afraid of catching COVID-19» which is equal to appearing weak, masks seemingly emasculate.
In this sense, it can be argued that the pandemic threatens traditional ideals of masculinity and therefore provokes a toxic form of masculinity. Hence, the pandemic is shining a spotlight on toxic masculinity and, tragically, its negative consequences for men themselves and others.
Two prime examples of toxic masculinity
The dangerous effects of toxic masculinity are evident not only in individual men refusing to put on a mask but also in the responses to the pandemic by political leaders like Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro or former U.S. President Donald Trump. Both, Trump and Bolsonaro, are clear examples of men who cling to toxic forms of masculinity. They rely on sexism, misogyny, and violence to fight anything that seemingly threatens their dominance and their egos .
As if this wielding of toxic masculinity as a form of political showmanship was not bad enough in itself, under the current pandemic it has become a deadly threat to the two countries they preside(d) over: Brazil and the United States record among the highest numbers of infections and death tallies worldwide .
At the beginning of the pandemic, Trump and Bolsonaro both downplayed the danger of COVID-19 and refused to wear a mask or obey social distancing rules because it would «look weak». Bolsonaro, for example, described the pandemic as a flu and said that Brazil had to «stop being a country of sissies» . Once it was no longer tenable to ignore the severity of the pandemic, both leaders have pivoted, presenting themselves as hyper-masculine war heroes concerned with protecting their countries from an «invisible enemy» . By positioning the virus as an enemy, they shifted attention away from their poor handling of the pandemic and instead fostered the narrative of them protecting the nation.
It is tempting to laugh at the sheer absurdity of Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s statements. But the reality is that their fear of showing vulnerability highlights how toxic masculinity has impeded the efforts of public health officials to contain the spread of COVID-19 and has led to an ever-rising body count. Thus, the question, if female leaders are better equipped to handle the pandemic, seems justified.
Female leaders as the solution?
Many media outlets, for example the Guardian, have reported that countries with a female leader are managing the pandemic better than those led by males . The conclusion that female leaders are better leaders in times of a global health crisis thus seems straight forward. However, it is misguided.
To see why, we have to recapitulate the definition of toxic masculinity. It does not state that being male is toxic, rather it means that certain traits of traditional ideals of masculinity can become toxic when men feel that their masculinity is somehow questioned. So, the problem of the poor handling of the pandemic by leaders such as Trump or Bolsonaro is not down to them being male but is rooted in the fact that behind the surface they have fragile egos and are afraid to show vulnerability.
A study by Andrea Aldrich and Nicholas Lotito supports this view. They explored the relationship between the sex of political leaders and the timing of imposing protective measures and found no statistical evidence that supported the claims made in the media .
So, we do not necessarily need female leaders, but leaders who have a relaxed attitude towards their gender identity. We do not need political leaders who, in an effort to appear «strong», reject any «feminine» behaviors, but leaders who allow public health experts to lead policy and themselves to display empathy and solidarity.
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