A round table discussion on gender dynamics, Toxic Masculinity, and “boys will be boys”
Ahead, our conversation with law student Johnel Leyble, agricultural entrepreneur Carlos Mendoza and businessman Niko Francisco, who discuss society’s call for men to not only be held accountable for their actions but demand for them to take a hard look in the mirror and reassess the meaning of masculinity.
Wonder: Is everyone here familiar with the term “toxic masculinity”?
Johnel Leyble: No, this is the first time I’m hearing about it. The concept, I think, is something we all know about already; it just hadn’t been given a proper label like this up until now.
Carlos Mendoza: Same here. I know about the concept, but the way it’s presented—the phrasing—is something new to me.
Niko Francisco: I’m also familiar with the definition, but it’s only now that I’ve learned there’s a term for it. This is the first time I’m hearing those two words together and used in this context.
Johnel: I think the closest thing we had before this term was sexism.
Carlos: And maybe more of misogyny. Especially with our own president and the president of the United States displaying their prejudice against women out in the open, people are well aware of misogyny. Again, maybe not the term per se like toxic masculinity, but what it is and how to spot it.
W: When did you guys first encounter the other terms you just mentioned?
Johnel: When I first heard the term misogyny, nasa law school na ako eh [I was already in law school]. It’s a deep, serious-sounding term that you won’t be able to figure out without context clues. When I was in high school and even in college, I didn’t know about it.
It was only in the last year or so that loaded terms like sexism and misogyny were used by the mainstream media and ordinary citizens themselves. It was when the surge of women empowerment happened: the 2017 Women’s March, the #MeToo movement when women decided to stand up against male oppressors.
Niko: I first heard about these terms back in college. I studied in a university where these were big issues—especially sexual harassment.
Carlos: I also feel like this kind of awareness, you know, on a mass level occurred because people in prominent positions were the ones who displayed such bad, inappropriate and unacceptable behavior. I mean, it’s not as if these were not prevalent before; society was patriarchal then and it remains to be today. It’s just more evident because of how blatant the displays of sexism, misogyny and this toxic masculinity have been.
W: Any instances wherein you got to witness toxic masculinity for yourselves on full display?
Johnel: In law school, there’s an unspoken rule that classes have to adjust to their professors. All profs naman kasi iba-iba yung teaching style [all professors have different teaching styles]. We had this one prof who specifically said that students sitting in the front row should all be girls. These girls had to be in skirts, too. That was his protocol. It was like that for the entire semester. As much as we students wanted to do something about it, we couldn’t. Our grades were on the line.
Carlos: As for me, I’ll admit I’ve been privileged to grow up in conditions where sexism wasn’t an issue. Just a quick background: I have three sisters and I’m the only son. My mom is a housewife and she’s very hands-on; growing up, my dad was always working. At a time before, we’d have two house helpers (three at the most), so I grew up with women. I was in a mostly-female household and I was taught to always respect women. As I made friends along the way in grade school and high school, I associated myself with people who treated women in the same way, so I wasn’t fully aware of how sexism was outside my home and circle.
Picking things up from where I came from (I worked in an automotive company for five years), I would say the industry is predominantly male. You don’t hear about girls who are interested in cars a lot and that’s not a generalization… that’s just the case. The company may say it doesn’t discriminate based on gender and bases everything on a person’s ability to fulfill the role of some position, but you see that women don’t get hired for the job; you really see in plain sight that most jobs aren’t offered to women. Most believe that women can’t do it or chalk it up to the company just sticking to tradition or abiding by societal norms.
Niko: While studying at university, I took up sports and so all of my classmates were varsity players. If you looked at our college, you’d see a lot of these stereotypical jocks…the kind of jocks you’d see on TV talaga [laughs]. Hanging out with them, ‘di ko ma-associate yung sarili ko with them kasi hindi ako makapaniwala sa mga sinasabi nila [I couldn’t associate myself with them because I couldn’t believe some of the things they’d say]. They really objectified women. Especially when it came to the bigshot or big guy in school? Grabe. I had this classmate who once pointed at a girl and said: “O, you see that girl? I’m gonna fuck her this weekend.”
This was my experience at my college. At the same time though, the university I studied in was diverse, so on the flip side, I also got to witness those who were very active in terms of their advocacies. I got to see the best of the best and worst of the worst, especially rin since ang daming fraternity sa amin [especially since there are a lot of fraternities at our university, too]. When you see them, the term “don’t underestimate the power of many stupid people when they come together” comes to mind. See, individually they’re alright, but when they’re clumped in a group, this whole “bro culture” takes over and it isn’t a nice sight most of the time.
W: Let’s talk high school and college years. In hindsight, how was toxic masculinity evident early on in your lives?
Niko: In our high school, the gay guys were definitely discriminated against. We were a batch of some 500 students and the gay guys in our batch were a minority; there would only be around 30 of them. They were always the talk of the town and would always ride along with our jokes. We never knew for sure though whether we were crossing a line… if our jokes were funny pa rin ba or offensive na.
At the same time, with my own set of close guy friends, talks about girls were inevitable. They were sometimes talked about like trophy items—trophy girlfriends. And this exchange was always just internal… always within our group. The fact that these conversations were kept from other people because only us guys could appreciate the kind of talk, alam mong may mali [you know there’s something wrong]. And we’ve seen issues related to this come out on social media in the past years: how some Facebook group chats go from boys’ talk to something close to predatory.
Johnel: In my first year of college, I wound up in a class where—let’s just say the cream of the crop of—the sobrang gago guys were. We had one classmate who was quite effeminate and was always being teased by these guys. At one point, they outed him in the class without confirming whether or not this guy was even gay. I guess the point where “boys will be boys” gets toxic is when no holds barred yung asaran and boys get a free pass for their behavior. This classmate who was bullied transferred schools come his second year because he couldn’t take being ridiculed anymore.
Carlos: Just thinking right now about everyone’s high school years, where a person’s character formation in still ongoing, I can say that there are truly a lot of stupid things kids end up doing. In my head though, mas maraming ginagawang kagaguhan ang adolescent na lalaki kaysa babae [adolescent boys do way more foolish things than adolescent girls do]. For girls na nagdadalaga, it’s a process of growing up to be a refined, polite woman. For guys, adolescence is a time where they get the courage to do a lot of things: You learn a lot about self-confidence, embracing your manhood and again, going after what you want. In the process, what happens is the commodification of women. Boys end up looking at women and kind of stripping them of their feelings. They become objects of men’s amusement, fantasies and other things like that.
There are guys who grow up to be the same, shitty-ass people, but there are some who outgrow the hormone-driven, bro culture-dependent stage. We charge it up to maturity, basically. I think at one point in a boy’s adolescence—the three of us here are also guilty of this—they don’t know how to handle certain social situations, so they mix humor with a snide, bastos comment. They do not have to be as extreme or as out there as the instances making headlines today, but they’re still bastos nonetheless.
W: The discussion now has become about trying to find the root cause of toxic masculinity and this is where “hypermasculinity” comes in. It focuses on traits limited to a macho man persona: physical strength, aggression, and sexuality. What were your experiences growing up with this ideal in mind?
Johnel: What I realized about masculinity is that it has a lot more to do with ego than it does anything else. Boys are raised to be strong in every sense of the word. We’re told never to let anyone step all over us, to “man up” and toughen up, to never let anyone just swoop in and take what’s ours, never take no for an answer and other things like that. And so, the activities boys end up taking up involve building them up physically, getting them to be stronger physically, motivating them to go get what they want.
Carlos: I’d like to think my family is a relatively traditional one, but that being said, there was never a reason for us to favor one gender over another or treat women unfairly. There were just these norms we adhered to, yes, and they were either dictated by society or our family mismo. Our parents raised us (girls this way, boys that way) the best way they could and they did that likely with how their parents raised them in mind. And if you think about how our grandparents were, of course you’ll see that, by today’s standards, they really are traditional and conservative. Let’s put it this way, if we’re square, sobrang mas quadrado pa sila mag-isip [they were even more square-minded]. I wouldn’t say they brought me up to want to be macho, but there was always like an appeal to be the big guy, the bigshot, the guy great at all these masculine activities. There was always a push from my all-boys’ school environment saying: “dapat macho tayo para sikat,” “dapat marami tayong chicks para sikat.” But this is why self-check—so to speak—is also important. And boys aren’t taught that.
Niko: My parents naman were very non-traditional [laughs], so I would say I grew up with a crazy family. The stuff I did when I was a kid, I decided on by myself. I remember growing up with my older sister and playing with all her toys; I remember everything: the Barbie’s, the Polly Pockets. Ninanakaw ko pa yun minsan [I’d steal them sometimes] to play with them, but I’d always play with them side-by-side with my action figures.
Meanwhile, my mom is the breadwinner of the family. From that alone, I realized as a kid that you don’t have to literally be the man to be the man of the house. I was only made aware of the ideal masculine when I went into an all-boys’ school and rode the bus to school every day. When you ride the school bus, you end up hanging out with older guys eh. You know, I’d be this grade three kid hanging around high school kids and high school kids were always talking about how this is a rite of passage, how that is how boys behave, this is what guys should listen to and other things like that.
I think though that a big factor that came into play here is that my parents also studied at the University of the Philippines, so they’re extremely open-minded, forward-thinking and raised me to think for myself.
W: Were you ever at the receiving end of a toxic comment pressuring you to conform with a hypermasculine ideal?
Carlos: I’ve been with groups that enjoy drinking together and something as simple as not finishing your drink or deciding it’s your last beer would merit a comment like: “Gago, bading mo naman.” Things like that are petty, so as it happens, you let it slide. But seeing as a man is considered weak for not wanting to drink anymore coupled with the fact that weak is associated with being gay in this context, we do obviously have a problem here. The same goes with overused comments like, “you punch like a girl” or when a guy cries, “ba’t ka umiiyak? Babae ka ba?”
You know the saying that goes something like: “If you say something over and over again, it loses its meaning”? Maybe that’s how some people rationalize the use of this kind of language. The more they use terms with misogynistic undertones, the less loaded the terms become. We all know that’s not true.
Niko: Luckily, I’ve never had any experience with this stuff, because I’ve never been pressured to conform.
Johnel: I have, during my varsity basketball days. I remember how our coach reacted to teammates when they didn’t play defense well. He’d say things like, “Ba’t ang lambot mo?” So here you see that toxic masculinity is everywhere—validated by people you look up to, people who raise you, people who train you and mentor you—and sometimes you do not realize you are being conditioned into thinking a certain way because they happen in such small doses. This is how toxic masculinity came to be.
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Art Alexandra Lara