Wearing (or not wearing) masks highlights toxic masculinity

Lauren Schatzman| Daily Trojan

“Fellas, is it gay to wear a mask?” 

I chuckled as my thumb came to an abrupt stop. The tweet quoted a BBC study positing that men are more likely to die from the coronavirus yet more likely to not wear a mask, as men cite it as “shameful, not cool and a sign of weakness.” One scientist from the study postulated that men actually believe they will be “relatively unaffected” by the disease, at least compared to women. 

A possible underlying culprit is the presence of toxic, or performative, masculinity. While we typically associate toxic masculinity with wanton violence, such as punching holes in walls, this strain of masculinity has far-reaching implications, including homophobia and sexism. Regarding the coronavirus, this psychological framework has given men a false sense of invincibility with malignant ramifications, both physically and psychologically. 

As referenced by The Good Men Project, toxic masculinity designates manhood as “defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural idea of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness.” It is a social construct rooted in sexism, perpetuating the idea that men are emotionally hardened while women are fragile, emotional and incapable of protecting themselves. Consequently, young boys often grow up in an environment that equates manhood to aggression and lack of emotion. 

These hypermasculine tendencies also have foundations in homophobia, with masculinity being linked to heterosexuality and femininity being stereotypically linked to homosexuality. With masks being seen as a “sign of weakness” and invalidators of masculinity for men, toxic masculinity in the context of the coronavirus may also perpetuate homophobic ideals, as men do not want to be perceived as gay for simply wearing a mask. 

This gender divide highlights toxic masculinity as not only an issue of heterosexism, but also as a public health issue. Because men collectively believe that their masculinity is determined by how they fare against a microscopic pathogen, they refuse to don a mask to present themselves as invincible. By doing this, they put not only themselves at risk but also their communities and loved ones.

For example, we can consider the outbreaks that occurred on The Row a few weeks ago. While this outbreak does not directly correlate mask-wearing to performative masculinity, we can take a wild guess that those who were fraternizing on the Row were not donning masks. We can also probably take another wild guess that men who join fraternities are highly preoccupied with performative masculinity and proving oneself as a “brother.” 

Thus, the senseless partying reflects a recklessness based on a sense of invincibility among fraternity members. As a result, fraternity houses epitomize hotspots for viral transmission and structures of toxic masculine standards. 

Upon closer examination, this is far from surprising. Interfraternity Council is rooted in homophobia, sexism, racism, heteronormativity and elitism. It makes sense that toxic masculinity would be a systemic issue, especially examining histories of LGBTQ+ discrimination and high sexual assault rates within fraternities. 

According to several studies, men in fraternities are three times more likely to commit rape. Sexual violence is a byproduct of toxic masculinity, which follows logically considering that society fosters men to believe that their sexuality defines their masculinity and precedes having respect for women. Although sexual violence does not pertain to masks, these statistics substantiate the toxic masculinity within an institution, as well as its repercussions. 

Nonetheless, the shame in wearing a mask, combined with the belief that young men are invincible to the coronavirus, will continue to wreak dire consequences if we do not confront these underlying, virulent misconceptions. In order to unlearn toxic masculinity, we must treat it as a concept we constructed ourselves, complete with its sexist, homophobic and violent undertones. 

Men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women, most likely because of the shame in appearing “weak” if they survive. For that reason, men are more likely to attempt lethal suicide behaviors and less likely to seek treatment for mental health issues. Ultimately, toxic masculinity stigmatizes mental health and can lead to higher suicide rates among men, making toxic masculinity lethal. 

In the context of the coronavirus, we must view toxic masculinity as a silent killer that both contributes to the transmission of the virus and perpetuates harmful principles around gender performance and sexuality. Wearing a mask may be a personal choice, but looking at the ways performative masculinity manifests within the gender divide, fraternities and the mental health field, it delineates countless hazards beyond the spread of the coronavirus. 

While we instinctively ridicule people who refuse to wear masks, we must take a moment to find the reasoning behind their logic — beyond lunacy, supporting Trump or conspiracy theories. An embedded, psychological insecurity is partly responsible for this public health crisis, and it’s our responsibility to respond to it seriously.