Does wearing a mask emasculate?

Harmful masculinity norms in times of the coronavirus

Beyond the direct, visible practices that by now we all should understand—stay home, wash your hands, step back six feet—gender and its interactions with, for example, class, race and age impact several dimensions of the current crisis.

A shadow pandemic, the current gender analysis & the media industry 
Most recent reporting and analysis about gender and Covid-19 has focused primarily on women as caregivers, women being the front-line health workers and the increased levels of domestic violence during lockdowns. That is not surprising as domestic violence has reached proportions so high that the UN is describing it as a “shadow pandemic”.

When it comes to the media industry, even though 75 per cent of the global health workforce is composed of women, for every three men quoted in media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic, only one woman is quoted. In a blog in Times Higher Education from 15 May 2020, 35 female scientists reported that the scientific response to Covid-19 has been characterised by an extraordinary level of sexism and racism and that media outlets are biased toward quoting male scientists, rather than women and, in particular, women of colour. Further, women are more likely to be doing operational work and supporting decision-makers, rather than writing scientific papers or grants.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), reports that Covid-19 has increased gender inequalities in the media with more than half of the respondents in a survey acknowledging an increase in gender inequalities. Respondents cited devastating consequences on their conciliation of work and private life (62 per cent), work responsibilities (46 per cent) and salaries (27 per cent).

Problematic masculinity in Covid-19 responses
These are all important points. However, without acknowledging problematic issues around harmful masculinity norms in relation to Covid-19, we cannot move forward on the issue of gender equality. A few months back, IMS published an article which included the aspects above to remind media to remember gender in the coverage of Covid-19. Whilst the article was widely circulated and well-received, one colleague approached me and asked – what about men and harmful masculinities in this equation? 

Men have in many ways been left out of the conversation on gender equality, which is more than just women’s rights, but a fight for all genders and sexual orientations to be free and equal. The global health community and media have an important role to positively engage men in addressing the challenges women face by addressing gender as a key determinant and to challenge harmful masculine stereotypes. 

A cursory Google search on gender and Covid-19 reveals several articles detailing how the mortality rates from Covid-19 may be higher for men. Articles refer to smoking, underlying conditions, biological differences such as women’s stronger immune system or lower rates of handwashing. Yet we do not know the relative roles of biology, behaviour or other factors driving men’s vulnerability to Covid-19. What we do know is that strong beliefs, norms, attitudes and stereotypes of masculinities underpin the reality of poor health outcomes of men [1]. According to The Lancet, “These beliefs create social barriers that prevent men from seeking medical services and that expose them to greater risks” and that those harmful masculinity norms are negatively influencing gender equality gains and government policy. Media has an important role to challenge these masculinity stereotypes.

Masculinity is a concept met with controversy within academia, but could according to some be described (in binary terms) as not entailing a fixed entity embedded in bodies or behavioural traits; instead, it is conceptualised as a set of practices deployed in different societies to distinguish men from other men and from women [2]. Masculinity differs across economic, cultural, and temporal settings and is tied to prevailing gender relations in the society [3]. As spotted by Jayson Harsin [4], the problematic masculinity showcased in some popular Covid-19 responses is often described as “toxic” or “fragile,” meaning threatened by anything associated with perceived femininity; it is further associated with physical strength, sexual conquest, a lack of any emotions signifying vulnerability (except for aggressive ones), domination, control, and violence [5].

Gender norms in many settings expect men to be powerful and in control. So, while many men may relish the opportunity to be more involved at home during lockdown, some have used it to assert more dominance and control over their partners and children – contributing to increased levels of domestic violence. The expectation that men should be the primary breadwinner fall unevenly across race and class and can be especially stressful for those living under economic insecurity. The stress of fulfilling gender norms may also lead to increased drinking and smoking as a coping mechanism. Excessive pressure to conform to traditional modes of masculinity increases the risk of men’s suicidal behaviour [6], which has been repeatedly confirmed to spike up during and after crisis [7]. As mentioned, more than often masculinity norms require men to be invulnerable, strong and self-sufficient. Media mirror and often amplify these masculinity norms – but also has the power to change them.

Wearing a mask emasculates
Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, have declared “war” on the coronavirus which is paradoxical since what is needed is care, social solidarity and community support. Encouraging militaristic approaches altogether form patriarchal discourses which can have serious (negative) implications for government policy. Gender and political leadership are generating media debate, displaying equitable, women-led countries (such as Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Taiwan and New Zealand) as managing the pandemic better. Resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid and humility are mentioned in the article as common features of the success of these women leaders.

Another clear example of toxic masculinity is demonstrated in the United States President Trump’s and Vice President Pence’s refusal to wear masks during the spring as appearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity; show no weakness. As Glick puts it: “In short, wearing a mask emasculates” and “They think it makes them look weak, and avoiding that is evidently more important to them than demonstrating responsible behaviour”. It was not until mid-July Trump wore a mask for the first time. Brazil’s Bolsonaro claimed that his athletic past would protect him from the coronavirus. Whilst in Belarus, President Lukashenko has prescribed vodka, hockey and folk medicine to ward off the virus.       

The role of the global health community & media 
The above are just snapshots of the complex, interconnected and overlapping ways, in which the crisis is having different consequences for different groups. Gender-sensitive and inclusive news coverage should never become a side issue – but during a crisis, it is paramount to make it a priority. Otherwise, media risk contributing to a deepening of the crisis and of reversing equality gains for everyone all over the world.

Covid-19 presents an opportunity to apply proven strategies to challenge harmful gender norms, which would not only improve men’s health outcomes, but also potentially affect government policy responses and overall gender equality gains. Harmful masculinities, as has been clear in the HIV/AIDS field, drive various risk behaviours such as poor health-seeking, alcohol abuse and coercive sex; and reaching men through traditional health services is inadequate. This moment is also an opportunity to engage men and boys by integrating activities such as critical reflection through on-line discussion forums and violence prevention media that can play an important role in promoting healthy, non-violent behaviours among men and boys, which benefit everyone.

Media and the global health community can work with existing allies among men to catalyse these changes. Best practices – such as recognising men’s diversity and distinct needs and ensuring that we do not engage men at the expense of women – can all be applied in the response to Covid-19. When reporting on the pandemic, media should be mindful not to replicate or amplify the harmful masculine stereotypes outlined above. 

[1] The Lancet. (2019, November 16). Raising the profile of men’s health. Elsevier Ltd.

[2] Cornwall A, Lindisfarne N. Dislocating masculinity (1994): Gender, power and anthropology. In: Cornwall A, Lindisfarne N, editors. Dislocating masculinity: Comparative ethnographies. London: Routledge pp. 11–47.

[3] Connell RW & Messerschmidt JW (2005). Hegemonic masculinities: Rethinking the concept. Gender and Society 19(6):829–859.

[4] Harsin, (J). 2020. Toxic White masculinity, post-truth politics and the COVID-19 Infodemic. European Journal of Cultural Studies.

[5] Kimmel M and Wade L (2018) Ask a feminist: Michael Kimmel and Lisa Wade discuss toxic masculinity. Signs 44(1): 233–254.

[6] Struszczyk S, Galdas PM, Tiffin PA (2017). Men and suicide prevention: A scoping review. Journal of Mental Health 28(1):80–88.

[7] Khan, A.R., Ratele, K. & Arendse, N. Men, Suicide, and Covid-19: Critical Masculinity Analyses and Interventions. Postdigit Sci Educ (2020).