In this Encounter, you will be introduced to the idea of toxic masculinity and how capitalistic systems perpetuate it.
Adults often say that child’s play is child’s work. It is in play that children learn how to be adults. It is in the care of a baby doll that they learn to carefully hold an actual child. Kids play like they are cooking, driving, and even parenting. Because children learn to be adults through play, there has been a lot of talk around the Barbie doll. There has been great concern, and rightly so, that Barbie sets up unrealistic expectations for little girls as to what their adult bodies should look like. However, there is little attention paid to the hypermasculine toys and what this says about boys’ bodies and embodiment.
Ultimately, providing an unobtainable and unrealistic view of what it looks to be a man causes harm to boys. Furthermore, hypermasculinization of toys marketed to boys is a frame work for poor theology that damages both males and females.
In the last four decades the muscle mass depicted on action figure toys marketed to boys has increased. Here is an example of a Superman action figure made in the 1970’s compared with a modern day example of the same Superman character, and how he is now portrayed.
The muscularity of these figures is not a mere bulking up of the depicted character, as if Superman had joined the local Planet Fitness and had spent some time lifting weights. No, rather this change over the decades has been more like Superman has undergone some sort of scientific experiment gone wrong and has developed muscle mass where the human body does not even have a muscle.
In the last thirty years the market place has opened up to the female sex while closing the door to the female gender. In other words, female embodied women are welcome in the job market but femininity is not. Things that are associated with masculinity such as, strength, aggression, and intellect are still cherished traits in the market over those that are associated with femininity such as compassion, harmony, and emotions.
So while the sex of a person in the neo-liberal market place (capitalism) has become less and less of an issue, the gender expression of masculinity has become more important.
It’s ok to look like a woman as long as you think and act like a man.
Hypermasculinity celebrates success by violent means and brute strength with no regard to sex. Our media, art, and yes even the toys our children play with, now reflect this new reality. It is no longer enough to be male embodied in order to succeed in the market place, now one has to be hypermasculine. Hypermasculine Superman action figures are just one of many hypermasculine images that permeate our daily lives. The culmination of these impossible standards leads to self-destructive behavior in individuals who hope to achieve the impossible standard.
These hypermasculine images damage the imago Dei (the image of God) in us all.
While the imagery of hypermasculinity is damaging, the hypermasculine action figures can alone be destructive to the human spirit; these action figures are designed for, and marketed to, young males who are in the earliest stages of developing a sense of self. Combine the impressionable minds of youth along with hero worship can lead to young males idolizing a male physical standard that is impossible to achieve as well as holding in high esteem those things that are not just masculine, but hypermasculine. If being masculine is the desirable standard in a patriarchal neo-liberal capitalistic society then being hypermasculine is even better. If aggression is good, hyper aggression is better. If ambition is good, ambition that never takes the other into account is even better.
There is no doubt that play is holy and healthy.
Play teaches us, both young and old, what it means to be embodied spirits. At its best, it can teach a child what it means to be an adult and how one can embrace both the masculine and the feminine that is within everyone. However, there are dangers when a neo-liberal, androcentric, capitalistic system teaches children worship of the hypermasculine through their play.
Placing massive muscles on action figures where there are no muscles in the actual human body, teaches our youth to honor and strive for something that is not achievable.
More than creating a distorted body image, which in and of itself is damaging enough, hypermasculine toys teach boys that it is not enough to enact the perceived notions of masculinity such as being analytical, unemotional, aggressive, and dominant, but that such traits must be taken to their extremes in order to be fulfilled as a male embodied person. This damages the spirit of a male by giving him standards that are impossible to achieve and destructive to females, whose perceived feminine traits are considered, even more, less than.
 D, Agliata and S. Tantleff-Dunn (2004). The impact of media exposure on males’ body image. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8.