How Toxic Masculinity & The Refusal To Wear Face Masks Has Put Us All At Risk

Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images
You’ll have heard the phrase "traditional masculinity is a prison". You’ll have seen it memed and thrown around on Twitter. It’s shorthand for saying that cis men are expected to be strong, to show no weakness, no emotion, to be hard. By extension it casts femininity as weak, lacking in strength and logic, soft. 
As the coronavirus crisis seeps into yet another month it’s clear that the cartoonish masculinity of certain populist male world leaders is a prison in which we are all trapped. For their actions as they tried to look 'tough' in the face of COVID-19 have had serious implications for the health of us all.
From the get-go Boris Johnson appeared not to take the virus seriously. He proudly continued shaking hands with people until the very last moment, even after medical experts warned against it. He defiantly insisted that hand-washing alone would be enough to prevent the creeping spread, even as the number of cases rose. He repeatedly dismissed questions about whether people should be wearing masks in public and enclosed spaces. We all know how this ended for him: in intensive care, gravely ill with COVID-19. 
Donald Trump similarly feared what appearing to take the virus seriously might do for his street cred. He reportedly told his closest allies that wearing a mask would "send the wrong message" and make him look "ridiculous". Until this week, Trump had never been pictured wearing a mask even though America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends them. 

Brazil has the second highest number of coronavirus cases and COVID-19 fatalities in the entire world after America. Britain, meanwhile, has the worst death toll in Europe and has faced continuous criticism for its 'complacent' response. 

More recently, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro gave a press conference to tell the world that he had tested positive for COVID-19 while not wearing a face mask and dismissing the deadly illness as "a little cold". At the time masks were compulsory in public places in Brazil and had been since late April. Shortly afterwards, he was told off like a child and ordered by a judge to start wearing a mask
What all of these white male politicians have in common (beyond their gender, being sceptical of climate change and holding archaic views on abortion) is that they have been recently elected, riding a wave of alt-right, anti-establishment conservatism in their respective countries which is rooted in anti-feminism, xenophobia and protectionism. They, like the votes in their favour, are reactionary – despite being in power they exist in opposition, stand for traditional values and, each in their own way, represent a return to the past. They are figureheads of a backlash against more liberal, open thinking which is at once incredibly local and increasingly global
This backlash, as Susan Faludi wrote in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, has been a long time coming. You only have to watch Mrs America, currently on BBC i-Player, to see that the arguments against women’s rights and civil rights that were being had in the '70s are still being trotted out now. Old and tired as they may be, they quite literally pose a threat to us all.  
Both Trump and Bolsonaro are in charge of countries which have been ravaged during this pandemic. Brazil has the second highest number of coronavirus cases and COVID-19 fatalities in the entire world after America. Johnson, meanwhile, is the poster boy for a country which has the worst death toll in Europe and has faced continuous criticism for its "complacent" coronavirus response. 
The fear of appearing feminine by taking precautions may yet turn out to be the most deadly of all for men, though. The irony here is that men are more likely to experience worse symptoms and die from coronavirus than women. 
Finally, after months of daily press briefings in which ministers and scientists alike said the evidence was not there to support making face coverings compulsory, wearing a face mask will become mandatory in shops and supermarkets in England from 24th July. This comes almost two weeks later than Nicola Sturgeon mandated that people wear them in Scotland as social distancing was relaxed, over a month after the World Health Organization changed its mind and officially advocated wearing masks and no less than four months after the British government acknowledged the sheer scale of the threat posed by COVID-19 by putting us into lockdown
Yet poll after poll confirms that it is still men who are more reluctant to wear a mask. They have been called "the condoms of the face" and some even decry them as a threat to our civil liberties
This gendered rhetoric is not just destructive but lethal, but there will be few women to whom it comes as a surprise. Condoms can actually teach us rather a lot here, for wearing them is about protecting others: like face masks, condoms protect other people. They guard women against unwanted or untimely pregnancies and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Not using a condom is an entirely selfish act rooted in toxic masculinity. 
One study which was conducted in America in the early 2000s found that among men who were having sex with women, a harmful "masculine ideology" was heavily associated with not wanting to use condoms. This ideology was defined as having three key features: status, toughness and anti-femininity.  

Harmful (or toxic, as it's known colloquially) masculinity is officially defined in psychology. It is associated with toughness, stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity.

Today, more research has been conducted and harmful (or toxic, as it's known colloquially) masculinity is officially defined in psychology. It is associated with "toughness, stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity" and demands that men subscribe to "adventure, risk and violence" in order to be manly. Like choosing not to – or refusing to – wear a condom, being reluctant to wear a face mask ticks all of these boxes. 
In light of this, it should come as no surprise that the male leaders who are reluctant to wear face masks in public are also anti-abortion and uncaring when it comes to environmental issues. To be in favour of abortion, to see the repercussions of climate change, they must think beyond themselves, beyond their own ratings and their own insecurities and think only of others and what’s best for them. 
We have elected these men; those of us who voted for them have put their faith in them. But as Faludi wrote in the '90s, when we find ourselves in turbulent times we tend to turn to traditional values. Johnson came to power as a Brexiteer, peddling a parochial and pastoral vision of a Britain which was no longer part of the EU because it had "taken back control" of its destiny. This was tied up in anti-immigration and globalisation sentiments that had been reaching boiling point for years. 
When we look to harmful masculinity for solutions, we risk getting hurt. "When we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only increase itself against a mythical female weakness," Faludi concluded, "we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction." 
The fear of femininity might be curable but as things stand, COVID-19 is not. The police have admitted this week that it will be "near impossible" to enforce the wearing of masks. Almost exactly at the same time, scientists have warned that a winter second wave of coronavirus could be far worse than the first, with deaths peaking in January and February next year. 
Gender stereotypes are deadly. So what’s more ridiculous? Refusing to take steps that could prevent you both from catching a deadly disease and giving it to others, or wearing a mask? What’s more emotional? Being so worried about how people perceive you that you don’t follow medical advice or doing what experts advise you to do?  

More from Politics

R29 Original Series