The Harmful Effects of Gender Roles Through the Development of Toxic Masculinity (Machismo)

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By: Angie Marie Luna

One thing I really hated growing up was the idea that my mom and I had to serve my dad and my brother their food at dinner time and clean up their plates from the table when we were done. I would always say, “Why do we have to do it if they can do it themselves,” and was quickly told I was disrespectful. In my Mexican culture, as well as in many other cultures, it is customary that the men are the breadwinners and cover the household expenses while the women raise the children and do all the house cleaning and cooking. The men get to make the important decisions and the women are supposed to be polite and not outspoken. Even kids have different expectations based on gender: I was supposed to help clean, cook, and do laundry and my brother was expected to mow the lawn and help fix things around the house.

The coronavirus pandemic has magnified all existing gender role inequalities, as children aren’t being cared for by nurseries, schools, or by babysitters. Thus, dual-earner couples, who were able to both work because someone else was caring for the children, are seeing one earner taking the hit. Unpaid caring of labor falls more heavily on women, due to the existing structure of the workforce and the gender role expectation that women are to care for the children. Furthermore, women are more likely to be paid less compared to men in their households, meaning their jobs are considered a lower priority when disruptions come along. This inequality is significantly higher for families headed by a single parent, many of which are women. With the pandemic closing childcare services, women are experiencing higher levels of dropping out of school, a rise in domestic and sexual violence, and higher death rates after childbirth, since resources are diverted elsewhere. [1]

These are examples of gender roles that are often engraved in us as children and continue to be reinforced throughout our lives by society. Gender roles are defined as societal expectations about how we are supposed to behave, think, speak, dress and interact within society based on our biological sex. [2] Women and girls are generally expected to dress in a ‘feminine’ way and be polite and nurturing while also doing the household work. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be strong, assertive and lack emotional sensitivity, and instead are taught how to fix and build things. [2, 3] We are socialized into gender roles from a very young age, and culture has a significant impact on our gendered behaviors. [4] Our socializing agents include our parents, teachers, peers, movies, social media, television, music, religion, and more, that teach and reinforce the expected societal definitions of masculinity and femininity. From these sources, the ones who usually tend to exert the greatest influence on how we view the world is our parents, who are most likely passing down gender roles they received as children. [4]

Because of this, I can understand why these gender roles might have been placed on my parents, especially my dad who grew up in rural Mexico. However, I also see how these gender roles are very limiting to how one can express themselves and how they can create a power complex for men and a submissive role for women. Toxic masculinity, or machismo as it is called in Spanish, can arise from this. Toxic masculinity is not a description of masculinity itself, but instead, a description of the gendered behavior that occurs as a result when manhood expectations go wrong. These gender roles expect men to lack emotional sensitivity, meaning they shouldn’t cry or talk about their feelings. Instead, they are encouraged to display anger and violence. This very narrow range of emotions is very limiting and damaging, because when men express feelings outside this range, they are labeled as being too sensitive, too feminine, or accused of being homosexual [5]. How many times have we heard, “be a man,” “don’t be a pussy,” “man up” or how many times have we heard men who like to cook or clean, or simply help around the house be called a “simp” or in Spanish, a mandilón. 

In a film by The Representation Project, titled The Mask You Live In, we see how men are constantly being told these harmful things starting at such a young age, when they are starting to form their identity. We see how empathy and emotions outside of violence and anger are seen as weakness. Respect gets linked to violence and somehow, masculinity has to constantly be proven to show one is a “real man.” Men are not given the space to process their emotions or talk about them with their peers. This is especially true for minority populations with low-income who don’t have access to resources and support. Not only is this damaging to their mental health, but to society as a whole as it can turn into violence against women and to those not conforming to gender roles such as the LGBTQ+ community.

According to the World Health Organization (2017), 38 percent of femicides were by an intimate male partner, and murder is the top cause of death for women globally, according to the United Nations. [6] Here in the states, men represent 90 percent of the perpetrators of criminal violence. Minority populations are at an increased risk due to greater exposure to high-risk environments and less support when violence occurs. [3] The FBI released statistics in 2017 demonstrating hate crimes increased 17 percent. From 7,175 hate crimes reported, 1,130 of them were based on sexual orientation bias and 119 on gender identity bias, demonstrating a 5 percent increase in reporting of hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation bias. [7] The notion of men’s hypersexuality places woman as a sexual object, and the idea that the more women a man ‘has,’ the more his ‘manliness’ is demonstrated, perpetuating even more misogyny. [8] This gets reinforced with commercials that display women in very limited clothing as part of their ads – where the women have no dialogue or agency, just serving as decoration. For example, the ads done by Axe body spray for men are notorious for promoting the idea that their product helps with ‘getting more girls’ – and those depictions are just one of many in our culture.

Furthermore, these ideas are reinforced by school programs presenting abstinence-only sexual education. These programs reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and excludes many youth, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. The language in abstinence-only education reinforces the stereotype of women being passive and submissive while men are aggressive, which feeds rape culture.

Despite powerful biological and cultural forces, we have a choice in how we present ourselves to the world. The more informed we are about the choices we have to express ourselves, the better we are able to be our true selves [4]. We all make choices about our behavior that can either perpetuate toxic masculinity or disrupt it. It can be changed if we stop teaching violence like physical punishment and humiliation techniques, and instead providing safe, nurturing, healthy environments and relationships that teach us to express and regulate our emotions. [9] We should also promote healthy relationship skills that decrease the acceptance of traditional gender role norms and dating violence. [3] One way this can be achieved is to teach and reinforce comprehensive, affirming sexual education and modeling sex-positive and feminist behaviors. We should provide more knowledge, opportunity and choices to form and express our identity and stop perpetuating the limitations and dangers of gender roles.


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