You might need to call a friend to come help you roll your eyes back into their sockets after this one, so get yourself situated. A new, not very surprising study has found that toxic masculinity is wrecking the planet: It turns out, most men feel that certain environmentally friendly acts are “too feminine.” Researchers wanted to know why men were less likely to partake in environmentally friendly acts or buy more sustainable items in stores and learned that men felt emasculated by the green movement. If you think about it, it’s a little sad. (Well, you don’t have to think that hard to see how sad that is.) For the climate and for all of us, of course, but also that men are socialized to believe that just buying a pink gift card or carrying a canvas bag makes them look “like a woman” and that looking like a woman is an insult. Like, really?
The most recent study (because there are actually tons of studies about how perceptions of masculinity affect things like what a man eats and does when no one’s watching) was consisted of seven experiments with over 2,000 American and Chinese participants. In one experiment, both men and women described the act of bringing a reusable canvas bag to the grocery store as more “girly” than using a plastic bag. In another, participants of both sexes recalled a time when they did something good for the environment and bad for the environment. Men felt that they were perceived as more feminine when they trekked a little farther up the beach to toss their recyclables instead of just leaving the trash there. Because littering — or not caring?! — is somehow more masculine.
We know, the logic is a little weird.
According to Scientific American, the link between environmentally friendly attitudes and masculinity might go even deeper. So in one study, men were given a gift card with a floral design and asked to buy three things: a lamp, a backpack, and batteries. When they went out to buy the things, in comparison to the non-threatened men who were given a more gender neutral-looking card, the men with the floral gift card bought the less-sustainable version of each thing. The researchers posit that just by making men feel more feminine, we’re harming the environment.
Those conclusions are frustrating for a few reasons. For starters, readjusting how people think about gender roles and diluting toxic masculinity seems like a pretty big job. Like, just as big as stopping ice caps from melting. Which might mean that well-intentioned organizations that fight for climate change — and market those tote bags and recycling campaigns — will likely take the road of least resistance in trying to get men on board in light of more research like this.
If men won’t buy soap unless it comes in a darker bottle or the ad campaign is all about luring women with their scent, changing the look of a sustainable bag for grocery shopping or awareness campaigns about gas guzzling cars to make them more “manly” could be a good fix. It’s worth a try — right? — if slowing down the damage we’re doing to the environment is a priority. Some people might assume that if that means placating men’s fragile egos, it’s worth it, if what we want them to do is stop using plastic bags and be more sustainable.
This tactic already has it’s own name. Aaron R. Brough and James E.B. Wilkie wrote in Scientific American:
If it weren’t so dangerous, toxic masculinity could be really funny. “Men-vironmentally friendly?” It’s like pretending a fork is a choo-choo train to to get an infant to eat a vegetable.
The bummer about having to pivot marketing strategies around green initiatives to be more palatable to men is that it effectively just reinforces gender roles and perceptions about what’s meant for girls and what’s for men. It’s like having to take a hit to get a more important win, but it’s a hit we should obviously take if that’s what it takes to make men unafraid of embracing sustainability. It’s hard to make an argument that we should forget about convincing almost half the population that no one is going to judge the size of their penis if they buy a hybrid car or an all-natural cleaning product, since climate change is so high stakes.
But does using possibly sexist marketing tactics to get men to be more sustainable sit right with you? Instead of playing along with toxic masculinity, maybe it’s better to ask men to start calling their friends out when they tease someone for recycling or using a certain sustainable product. And let them know that not using sustainable products or adopting environmentally friendly behaviors isn’t “being a man.” It’s being stupid and careless.