Toxic masculinity isn’t just a societal problem it’s also an ecological one.
We all have a story that goes like this: it’s holiday dinner at your household, the living room has been decorated, the main course – served, and your whole family is deep in conversation (and bowls full of mashed potatoes). While biting into the turkey, your uncle passionately makes some controversial comment (say, on immigrant rights) that inevitably makes your skin crawl.
You look over at your kind, smiley aunt Sophie and wonder “Why can’t he be more like her?!”.
There’s a reason why most of us are apprehensive to discuss new ideas with our male relatives, but quick to open up to female ones. A study conducted on US teenagers found that young people often find the men in their family more authoritarian and resistant to change than the women. When we talk about climate change, this finding becomes particularly relevant. Anecdotally, a lot of us might associate eco-friendly behaviors with females more than with men: think Greta Thunberg, or a charismatic young woman modelling a KeepCup. Research by the platform Scientific American confirms this idea, indicating that women are more likely to use sustainable products and purchase reusable bags.
In the study, male participants had to categorize supermarket items (such as shampoo and dish-washing liquid) as either “sustainable” or “unsustainable”, and as “masculine” or “feminine”. In addition to this, they were asked to indicate how likely they were to buy each product. The findings were conclusive: the items which were seen as more environmentally friendly were also perceived as more feminine, and were less likely to be purchased by the research subjects.
Similarly, researchers from Northwestern University, Illinois found that guys were less willing to purchase food items that they viewed as “feminine”, such as quiche. Since they saw eco-friendly products as less masculine, they were likely to deliberately opt out of buying them.
The fear of appearing effeminate seems to be a major subconscious driving factor for a lot of men. A 2020 study found that most males were likely to avoid affiliation with anything they deemed “unmanly” – so much so that they didn’t want to be seen next to actors wearing gender-bending clothing. Interestingly, these same participants also admitted to considering environmentalism “effeminate”. According to the researchers, this stemmed from the fact that going green means caring for the planet, and – in its most stereotypical form, the very notion of “care” is linked to femininity.
Several of the people interviewed for this blog post (all of whom identify as male) seemed to have experienced these stereotypes first-hand. “I think it comes down to toxic masculinity,” says Victor Lombard, an Environmental Studies major at the Amsterdam University College. “I know some guys who don’t recycle because they think it’s ‘gay’.” For him, this was especially true during high school, which he dubs as a “pressure community”: “As a group dynamic of fifteen to sixteen-year-olds, you quickly felt the pressure to act the same way, so you had to make fun of vegans or whoever tried to be sustainable.”
Walter Bruce, a Digital Journalism MA student at HMKW Berlin, has had a similar experience. “I used to be vegetarian for environmental reasons,”he says. “Back then some people would insinuate or imply that it was feminine or effeminate to not eat meat and masculine to consume it.” Walter also suggests that the reason why some men are averse to environmentalism is fear: “Masculinity is associated with power, and accepting the climate situation is acknowledging that you are powerless unless we change things,” he explains. “This initial position of helplessness is uncomfortable for the hypermasculine.”
The good news is, this avoidant (and sometimes even outwardly negative) attitude towards environmentalism doesn’t have to last forever. “I remember actively throwing pieces of gum on the floor so I could look cool in high school,” says Victor. “Now as an adult, I realize how flawed this idea of not caring about the environment is.” Mario Troyanov, a 23-year-old marketing specialist from Bulgaria, has had a similar journey: “I became more aware of climate change as it featured more heavily in the media,” he says. “This made me start buying local produce and sustainably wrapped products.”
Research suggests that these aren’t just stories of individual experiences, but more so indicators of a generation-wide change. A 2020 study by the Pew Research Center found that almost 50% of Millennial and Gen Z men in the U.S. – even those from a Republican background, were concerned about climate change (as opposed to just 25% of their fathers). Still, there are a lot of uncomfortable questions that need to be asked in order for this progress to continue: Why do we still think it’s un-manly to care? And what’s the reason why young men avoid being associated with (what they perceive to be) feminine behaviors?
Some environmental experts suggest that eco-friendly products with more “masculine” labeling (or what they call “men-vironmental” packaging) can be a way of enticing male consumers to make greener choices. But isn’t that further leaning into the idea that “feminine = bad”?
Ultimately, there are no simple answers to any of these questions. But perhaps this is how we initiate change: by being brave enough to open a discussion, and to question our own gender biases. Because it’s the future of not only our society, but the planet at large that’s at stake.
Ralitza Petrova// 19 April 2022 // #GoingGreen
Ralitza Petrova is a lifestyle and entertainment journalist currently based in Germany. Originally from Sofia, Bulgaria she graduated with a BA in Media from the Amsterdam University College and is now completing a master's in Journalism at HMKW Berlin. Besides studying, she has her own entertainment column for the website VBox7.com, writes poetry and occasionally vlogs. Her main areas of interest include environmentalism, pop culture, health, and wellness.