Stop praising men for the bare minimum

Caitlin Beard

In December 2019, international musician Harry Styles appeared on the cover of Vogue, donning a floor-length, ruffly Gucci dress and making history as the first male Vogue cover model, wearing a traditionally “feminine” frock, no less. Styles’ fashion statement served as a social commentary on restrictive gender norms and toxic masculinity, defined as manliness that; glorifies stoicism, strength and dominance. Initially, I was thrilled at this step towards deconstructing strict binary gender expression and ready to contribute to the gushing admiration taking over my social media. However, after several months of reflection, I began to feel angry about the continued showering of praise and adoration Styles received simply for wearing a dress on a magazine cover. I realized that my bitterness stemmed from the revelation that Styles had become an unattainable, ideal paragon of the perfect man. Many people revered him just because they viewed his fashion statement as a symbol of his commitment to defying toxic masculinity. After my epiphany, I became aware of how often women, in my own life and in the media alike, excessively praise men for the most ridiculously basic behaviors.

“He’s so nice to his mom,” “He’s so good with kids” or “He actually communicates his feelings” are common exclamations from women conditioned to desire only the bare minimum from men. In traditional heteronormative family systems, where men occupy the role of the “provider” and “bread-winner,” and women are expected to do literally everything else, society applauds men as attentive parents and partners for completing the occasional chore or hour of childcare, or really, anytime they exhibit any ounce of gentleness, thoughtfulness or selflessness that is not in the form of financial support or displays of physical strength.

But as women, have we ever taken a step back from our horribly sexist society and asked ourselves: Why do we insist on practically handing men gold medals every time they show even a scrap of human decency? Not only does this mindset sell men short of their potential, but it also normalizes abusive and toxic behaviors, causing women to tolerate unhealthy behaviors from their male partners, bosses, co-workers and family members.

Illustration by Carsen Goltz

Although society misleads us to believe that empathy, kindness and gentleness are characteristics limited to females due to their high levels of oxytocin, otherwise known as a “maternal instinct,” testosterone is not a legitimate excuse for failing to exhibit vulnerability or sensitivity. A 2014 study measured the brain’s emotional arousal in males and females in response to emotionally stimulating videos. Although the results found that males had equally as strong, if not stronger, emotional reactions than females, when asked about how they felt while watching the videos, males denied feeling the emotions the physiological evidence indicated. Toxic masculinity not only discourages men from expressing their feelings openly and healthily, it also limits them from practicing kindness and vulnerability. 

I have been lucky to get to know men who have done a lot of work with unlearning toxic masculinity in favor of discovering themselves as individuals equally capable as women of showing empathy, gentleness and respect. I’m working on not not praising them for the bare minimum and resisting the urge to gush, “He’s such a gem,” or “He’s one of the good ones,” because these seemingly complimentary and harmless statements produce unhealthy power dynamics that many women, myself included, have fallen into. 

These power dynamics appear in my life in my interactions with men, which have always felt quite lopsided. Likely because society simply expects me, as a woman, to be a selfless and thoughtful person by default, I’ve always felt the need to cater to their wants, needs and emotions, even if that’s at my own expense. The compliments and physical affection from the males in my life mean more, but their criticism stings more too. I am often surprised when men show me gentleness or affection. As a result, I raise the sensitive, kind men in my life onto metaphorical pedestals, feeling the uncontrollable urge to remind myself that I’m lucky to have found them. To myself and anyone else who identifies with these feelings: we need to raise the bar.