Will Smith’s poor role modeling affirms use of violence

It’s not often you’ll get to see the Oscar Winner for Best Actor hit another man without a director yelling ‘cut’ afterwards.

What we witnessed was outdated male masculinity.

Those attitudes that Will Smith let rise to the surface in an unscripted moment, are why we need a reset, not with Hollywood elite, but with men. Too often we are taught as boys that we should ‘harden up’, that we need to be ‘tough’, that ‘boys don’t cry’ and too often we think the way to deal with issues is through anger and violence.

Those messages over time, and reinforced through media, help to put men in what we sometimes refer to as the ‘man box’. That’s the expectations that men must always appear dominant, tough and in charge. It’s a limitation that’s prescriptive and restrictive, where different behaviours are dismissed as being ‘not manly’. Worryingly, last year’s Gender Equality survey, run here in Aotearoa New Zealand with 1,250 participants, shows that 18% of participants (and 23% of men) agreed that showing physical or emotional weakness makes a man less of man, and 17% (21% of men) agreed that hitting out is an understandable response for a man when his wife or girlfriend tries to end a relationship. You can watch a video discussing those attitudes here.

Often a boy and a man will believe he needs to appear tough and in-control in front of other men. This is from a fear, real or not, that they’ll reject him, possibly violently, if he doesn’t fit in. Being told to ‘Man Up’ is to be reminded to get back into The Man Box.

We know that suppressing individual identities and diverse emotional responses is stressful. It’s also unhealthy as men who limit themselves by having to appear as tough and uncompromising often avoid asking for help when they most need it.

Believing in the rigid rules of masculinity are 20x more likely to predict committing violence, than any other demographic factors such as ethnicity, age or income.

Conversely, men who break out of The Man Box and choose their own masculine identity report that they’re less stressed, more satisfied with life and have happier relationships.

Will Smith’s actions provide us with an opportunity for a re-think about healthy masculinity. Where we reject the unhelpful stereotypes and unspoken rules about what it is to be a boy or man and replace them with being kind, empathetic and finding peaceful resolutions to problems.

Healthy masculinity is also about boys and men being confident in who they are without feeling pressure to be a certain type of boy/man. Boys and men can still be brave, and have muscles, be assertive, tough, love rugby, enjoy time with other men and boys, enjoy a ‘pint’ with the lads etc. But boys and men should also be free to express sad emotions, enjoy cooking, dancing, gardening and anything else that does not fit into gender stereotypes.

Healthy masculinity is treating everyone with respect and rejecting the need to use violence. In New Zealand one in three women are assaulted by their partner or ex-partner in their lifetime, so there’s a real need to take action now.

To change attitudes and behaviour is always possible. In Aotearoa we achieved that with seatbelts (if you’re old enough to remember). But even with something as straight forward as that, it took a decade for people to stop thinking the government were interfering with their ‘rights’ and accept that seatbelts would save lives. Imagine how men feel when words like ‘toxic masculinity’ are thrown around. But the sad reality is, the outdated attitudes that help drive violence, whether it is men’s violence towards other men or men’s violence towards women, are ideas that need to be consigned to our past.

We need to create a ‘call-in-culture’ that speaks to the need for change and provides concrete steps for how we can create that change. The alternative is that once in a decade we will talk about this issue when the Hollywood elite behave badly or worse, when the next fatality occurs that is driven by outdated masculinity.

Rob McCann
White Ribbon Manager


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