6 Woke Men Get Vulnerable and Confront their Toxic Masculinity

Hirzi Zulkiflie, Norman Hartono, Brendon Fernandez, Adrian Mah, Nigel Wylie, and Carlos Bañón reveal their personal experiences with prescribed gender roles, and how they reached an epiphany about their toxic masculinity.
Text by Angela Low;
May 3, 2019
Become – Trendsetters

If you encountered a man caked in cosmetics sporting a skirt and major bling today, chances are, you’d consider him a drag queen or some androgynous oddball. Rewind a few millennia, and you’ll find it’s a welcome sight in Egypt, more common than comedic. Such external markers played no part in undermining one’s manhood, whereas in the 21st century, the aspiration of being macho, burly and hardened (inside and out) defines how society treats anyone who doesn’t fit this stereotype.

Weakness and femininity have become synonymous, while toxic, conditioned behaviour that reinforces supposed masculine strength has riddled men with emotional constipation. It’s one of the innumerable ingredients that has led to current gender imbalances and inequality, which affect both sexes. Yet, a large portion of mankind still believes the old ways are best, that is, conforming to the traditional ideology of masculinity that at times borders on misogyny.

Unconvinced? Take a gander at the negative responses to the Gillette saga, some of which denounce the ad campaign as feminist propaganda. Of course, the intention of pushing product sales by capitalising on the #MeToo movement (like tokenism) is in itself a severe flaw and a story for another day. In the meantime, testosterone-laden, axe-wielding, beer cans-crushing hombres still don’t feel secure enough to wear a pink shirt, let alone be vulnerable with another human being.

Self-awareness, as always, is the first step to addressing any problem. Without social consciousness, even the most tactful campaign on masculinity will fall on deaf ears. Letting their guards down for an honest interview, these six diverse men reflect on their notions of being a man, their previous perpetuations of gender stereotypes, and their newfound commitments to banish old habits.

High Net Worth: What does masculinity mean to you?

Brendon Fernandez (39, actor): I like the definition on Wikipedia: “A set of attributes, behaviours, and roles associated with boys and men.” The “roles” part is important. 

Adrian Mah (40, vice president of business development and marketing at Hydra X): It's what society says it means to be a man, but everyone needs to figure it out for themselves. For me, it means to provide a home where my family can feel safe and loved.

Hirzi Zulkiflie (30, actor and comedian): We’re still trudging on the idea that masculinity is only used to define males. Maybe the conversation should be asking people where on the spectrum they find themselves sitting. I identify as a cis-male, but often use female pronouns when describing myself. I do it intentionally to empower the female pronouns. I’m also more effeminate and project it through fashion because clothes have no gender.

Nigel Wylie (32, advisor of Liquid Token and Aqueduct): Masculinity is a way of being. For me, it relates to a set of traits that I am allowed to express—being of service, taking action, decisiveness, integrity, commitment, focus, and above all, pride, physical aggressiveness, sexual prowess and monetary success.

Carlos Bañón (40, professor of architecture at SUTD and co-founder of Subarquitectura): Masculinity is one of those polyhedral terms that cannot be viewed from one perspective alone. Traditionally, it has to do with the constructed expectations that society has on how men should look, behave and perform. An archetype for every man to aspire to. However, the perspective of masculinity evolves as society progresses. It’s no longer limited to one archetype.

Norman Hartono (31, creative director of Ebb & Flow): In a nutshell, I'd like to quote John Walter Wayland, “The True Gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from goodwill and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity; who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another; who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements; who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own; and who appears well in any company, a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.”

Toxic-Masculinity-CarlosCarlos Bañón

How was your childhood like, and did your childhood influence the way you perceive masculinity?

Fernandez: Nuclear family, religious Catholic upbringing. Gender roles were quite clearly defined. Now, in my relationship, I sometimes catch myself expecting myself or my partner to play out certain predefined, gendered scripts, which I must’ve learnt as a child. For example, who “should” do what in our home.

Zulkiflie: I was mostly raised by women. It’s not that there wasn’t a male presence in my life, but I was more attached to my female cousins and aunts. I remember pretending to be Storm from X-Men, The Asian Girl from Captain Planet, and Yellow Ranger from Power Rangers. My primary school friends would judge me for it, but I literally believed they were the strongest or coolest. I don’t know if that impacted me, but I’ve always admired women’s strength more than male strength.

Wylie: I grew up with a very aggressive and judgemental mother who found it hard to trust my father. She made it known that her qualities were ideal masculine qualities—autonomy, aggressiveness and judgement—and she had no choice but to take them on herself. Even though my father contributed much to the household, he wasn’t recognised by her for his qualities.

Hartono: I was raised in a traditional Chinese household with “old school” thoughts on gender roles such as men always being the breadwinner of the family, being resistant to physical pain, and maintaining an unfazeable facade.

Mah: I grew up in an interesting time that straddled a more traditional view and the start of a broader way to think of masculinity. Traditional phrases like “real men don't cry” were joined by “sensitive new age guy”. I learnt tap and modern dance when I was young. As I got older, there was a definite attraction to more sporty activities. Dance didn't really cut it.

Bañón: I was born in Spain, a very conservative country that’s currently moving towards the progressive side. I’m lucky that I grew up right in the middle of that transformation. My parents provided us with an unbiased environment at home. They both worked as a team, and were equal caregivers and breadwinners. I don’t remember a single pejorative word at home or in school about men or women's roles in society.

Toxic-Masculinity-Nigel-1Nigel Wylie

When did you first notice prescribed masculinity?

Hartono: Puberty.

Wylie: When I first used physical force against a bully in school. My classmates gave me a fearful respect, as if I’d gone through a rite-of-passage as a man.

Zulkiflie: As early as four. I would sashay or flick my wrists “like a girl”, and my family would correct me immediately. Even in school, the teachers and students would pick on it, and I was a very shy, quiet kid in lower primary school.

Bañón: I don't really know what “prescribed masculinity” is. 

Fernandez: I remember being told some stuff about “being a young man” in primary and secondary school, but I think it must have started much earlier than that.

Mah: When I was young, kids would judge other boys based on their masculinity. If a kid was more effeminate, he could either embrace it and pay the price, or learn to hide it. It’s strange that a lot of these things are arbitrary societal constructs, like how blue is for boys and pink is for girls. I read somewhere that in the 1800s the reverse was true. All that says to me is that while there may be biological anchors for certain parts of masculinity, it’s also very fluid.

Have you ever subconsciously displayed toxic masculinity in the past?

Wylie: I have a lot of issues with the label, “toxic masculinity”, which increases the divide between what’s present in society and where we want to be as a society. Some things I’m not proud of: I’ve used physical violence to hurt other men, and told myself it was for self-preservation. I’ve been inconsiderate to women on dates, and told myself they were inviting my rudeness.

Fernandez: I went to an all-boys Christian Brother school. Not a lot of open discussion on gender or sexuality. Lots of homophobic jokes, discussion of women as objects. The real pity is that boys only default to those behaviours when they’re denied more positive role modelling. All that early programming followed me into my early adult relationships. I remember victim-blaming a girlfriend who told me she’d been inappropriately touched. I wish I’d been able to support her more.

Hartono: I used to egg on other men when I felt a need to keep up prescribed masculinity, specifically when a threshold needed to be crossed in sports or drinking. Words like “quit being a little bitch” used to come out of my mouth quite frequently. I no longer do this and regret doing so in the past as it just reinforces a prescribed identity.

Mah: I don't think I can claim to not have displayed toxic masculinity. There have definitely been times when I've caught myself laughing along at a joke at someone's expense or reinforcing typical male stereotypes.

Bañón: No, not even subconsciously. You can ask my wife and friends.

Zulkiflie: I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this. I’m from the millennial generation that grew up in the 90s, so it must’ve been in my subconscious at least. There were things like a woman’s menstrual cycle that would cause a reaction in me. As an adult now, I’m all fair game. I treat everyone with equality.

Toxic-Masculinity-Norman-3Norman Hartono

Is this a topic that you actively try to discuss with other men?

Hartono: Not really.

Bañón: No. 

Mah: To be honest, not really. Without something happening that triggers a conversation, either in the national conversation or right in front of us, it's not a topic that readily comes up. 

Zulkiflie: All the time! I’m an ENTP, which makes me a debater. I love making cis-straight males re-evaluate their toxic masculinity, but my conversations are also about meeting in the middle. There are things raised by extreme feminist groups that I question too.

Wylie: Yes. I’ve given multiple talks on post #MeToo movement and how to support men. I’ve been running private men’s circles with some of the most influential men in Silicon Valley for the past two years.

Fernandez: I feel very comfortable discussing gender roles and #MeToo with other men in my industry, but being in theatre is no guarantee of being “woke”. I once called a friend out privately on something he’d shared on social media. I explained why I found the content offensive, and that I expected better of him. That didn’t go down well. I learnt that some men have cast themselves as victims in a post #MeToo world. Think the incel crowd, “men’s rights” activists, Jordan Peterson fanboys. I lost that friendship, which is disappointing, but I would do it again.

Have you experienced moments when you had to suppress your emotions because of the social stigma that discourages men to express themselves?

Zulkiflie: My younger self would. Now, I just exercise my gender expression freely.

Wylie: I’ve held myself back from expressing what I need many times. This is especially apparent in my intimate relationships because I believe that I, as a man, don’t need anything or that I’ll be a burden if I do.

Fernandez: Yes, with my family sometimes. I’m the eldest child. I realise that I don’t display much emotion or smile much at family gatherings. It’s not because I don’t love them or don’t enjoy their company. I think I’m playing the role of the “older male”. I’ve subconsciously formed an association between appearing stoic and being responsible. I’m working on dismantling this. Also, I sometimes experience anger as a default response to emotional stress. Maybe because being angry is more “acceptable” than being hurt?

Hartono: Yes. Whenever I watch an emotional movie, I'd start bawling and pretend I have an itchy eye to try to wipe away my tears.

Mah: I’m quite open with my emotions in private, crying during movies and whatnot. But crying during movies, and an open display of tears in public are a little different. Given a choice, I'd rather not cry in public no matter how emotional I feel. Any emotional display that can be considered a weakness must be kept hidden in the defensive interests of self-preservation.

Bañón: How much I share with someone is dependent on the degree of closeness to the person and the context. I typically share personal experiences and feelings openly when asked, especially in a social context. Even at work, I do the same, except in a more professional manner. 

Toxic-Masculinity-Brendon-1Brendon Fernandez 

How did you reach an epiphany about your masculinity? What was the catalyst?

Zulkiflie: My escapism with Syasya Woke (my minah character). She was initially a play on a stereotype of a Malay girl, but she’s shown me the strengths and range of a woman’s power, and allowed me to debunk so many problematic social stigmas of people from opposing ends of the social spectrum. She is the superhero I get to transform into.

Wylie: My catalyst was a male rite-of-passage weekend in Australia called NWTA by ManKind Project. I learnt what healthy masculinity looked like, gained tools to express my emotions, and got connected to my purpose in life. After that weekend, I dropped everything for two months and donated my time to disaster relief for Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Through that experience, I re-wrote part of my script of being a man.

Fernandez: The first realisation that the playing field wasn’t level for everyone came via my introduction to the LGBTQ+ community. I learnt that people suffer marginalisation based on their gender or sexuality, and the source of this was often some form of toxic masculinity. I thought that it wasn’t fair to discriminate against someone based on something they cannot control, that everyone deserves love and respect, and that as a cisgender, heterosexual male in a position of privilege, it was my responsibility to do what I could to level the field.

Hartono: It first happened when I read Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Growing up, girls around me would turn to books to pass time, while boys would be play fighting. Unlike girls, we never learnt to mentally and emotionally develop ourselves from a young age. Every role model we’ve had was some strapping muscle man fighting off the “bad guys”. We’re never properly taught how to be men. Fight Club showed me the futility of masculinity and meaningless violence that’s celebrated as manly, and that by empowering an individual, you can break past prescribed gender roles and the institutions that reinforce them. 

Mah: When it comes to emotions, I tend to be relatively open in private. I realised early on that being open and honest about my feelings tended to have better eventual outcomes than keeping things hidden. If you cannot be truly expressive with those close to you, what’s the point?

Bañón: I don't think much about the question of masculinity. I’ve been a nerd all my life, so maybe the closest I’ve come to think about masculinity was when I was still skinny at 21 and decided I had to grow some muscles.

Traditional notions of masculinity included certain male expectations such as being the breadwinner of the household. What do you think of these expectations, and how are they changing today?

Zulkiflie: I’m game for not having to work another day of my life, girl! But on a serious note, I say go for it. Why is anyone’s income and family structure our business?

Wylie: These expectations are the norm until an individual believes there’s a different way, and can make a conscious choice. I believe most of these norms give many men a sense of stability. The meaning of these norms is dissipating. Some of these power cues, when followed unintentionally, lead to a lot of resentment from men in relationships. 

Fernandez: I still find myself falling into some of them. Settling the bill or being stoic for my family, for example. I think these expectations are changing. I know for a fact that my siblings don’t expect me to be stoic. My partner and I try to take turns settling the bill, though I still have to talk myself down from my inner feelings of embarrassment.

Hartono: I believe that these expectations still hold true, but they’re slowly changing since there are a growing number of ambitious women out there who are heading up their household, and men who won't mind taking a step back.

Mah: I think expectations are closer for men and women than ever before. In business and politics, men used to have a stranglehold on positions of power, but this is changing as more women come to the fore. With that, it’s easy to see how stereotypical male roles are something for women to also partake of. While there’ll always be physiological differences between the sexes, that doesn’t mean there should be differences in ability or ambition. I welcome this swing towards equality and think it’s the natural evolution of things. All I know is, my wife has a 'black belt' in being first to pay the bill and I don't stand a chance.

Bañón: Those traditional notions still exist for the majority of society. I happily practice some of them (settling the bill and opening the door for friends of either gender) because they’re related to respect and gratitude, not because it’s a kind of superiority or masculinity.

The topic of self-care, especially with emotional needs, has been incredibly geared towards women, while men tend to avoid it. What do you personally do to practice self-care?

Wylie: I practice self-care often by checking in to my body. Usually movement (cycling), visceral expression (yelling to loud music in the car), or a sensual experience (an evening with my love) is more than enough to keep me flowing. 

Fernandez: I’m afraid I am quite gendered in my approach to self-care. I play video games, drink beer, and ride my motorcycle! Does that count?

Hartono: I meditate and talk about my problems with my partner. But to be honest, I'm still struggling with this part.

Mah: When it comes to my emotions, I’ve found it important to share my feelings with my wife. I do that a lot, to the point where my introverted wife would rather I keep quiet.

Bañón: Self-care is a priority for me. I play the piano to relax and disconnect from everything else. I love sensorial and physical experiences, and recently became an accredited Les Mills immersive fitness instructor. On the social side, I avoid being close to those who undermine or disempower me. 

Zulkiflie: Mental health affects people regardless of gender. The more we recognise mental health as a medical issue, the faster society will tackle it better.

Toxic-Masculinity-Hirzi-1Hirzi Zulkiflie

What are your thoughts on the #MeToo movement? And how do you view women now?

Zulkiflie: Powerful. It’s great that women are now coming together and standing up for their fight, but I’m also concerned about the abuse of this.

Wylie: I’ve witnessed an amazing groundswell of brave women voicing their stories. This is empowering for me as a human! But what’s next? Do we further the perpetrator-victim model, a lose-lose ending where someone gets shamed and people get scared? Do we look at the root causes behind the sexual assault, which are systemic and complex? We should be worried about men who see this #MeToo movement as an invitation to suppress more of themselves, the parts deemed as bad. I hope we can create safe spaces of reconciliation, so people can get their power back through the choices they make moving forward.

Fernandez: It was a shock for me. Before #MeToo, I knew on some level that women had it worse. What I didn’t know was the constant feeling of threat. How even mundane events, like walking to the train, carry an inherent threat of physical and sexual violence. I’ve always thought women were wonderful, and now I’m even more in awe of them. I don’t how women go out into a world that’s in many ways hostile to them, on a daily basis, and participate, let alone thrive. Mad respect!

Hartono: The #MeToo movement is one of the greater things to happen to us in the past few millennia. Although some might call it a “witch hunt”, it's done more for gender equality than anything that's happened before it. By keeping everyone accountable for their actions, we define what negative behaviour is instead of normalising it in some ambiguous way. Because of the movement, I view women now as being collectively stronger than they ever were before, which is necessary if we wish to achieve true equality of the sexes.

Mah: Perhaps women have for too long felt that the social stigma of speaking up has been too great, that nothing constructive would come of it. I'm not saying that the stigma has disappeared but at least now women can feel empowered to open up. This is vital to discourage harassment from happening, and throw the spotlight on individuals with a history of harassment and institutions that have allowed such behaviour to happen. 

Bañón: This has been one of the good things that social media’s brought to our society, and I wish we had that earlier. How I view women has always been the same—as equals. Maybe what’s changed is that I’m now more aware of these issues myself.

When you’re with a group of men, would you call them out if they started talking about women in a derogatory way?

Hartono: Yes I would.

Zulkiflie: Absolutely! If they demean women. But it also depends on what’s derogatory. The PC culture has made everything so unnecessarily tricky. I don’t think it’s entirely derogatory for a man to express his romantic sexual desires for a girl. Same question for women. When women get crass with describing her desire for a guy, should we call it out?

Wylie: Everything we judge about another is what we cannot accept or judge in ourselves. There are different ways of delivering this reflection in different contexts.

Fernandez: I’d like to believe I would. The truth is, I don’t know. I might falter in the moment, not wanting to embarrass a friend or “make a scene”. None of that is a valid justification though.

Mah: The level of response would be relative to how bad things get. I’d probably try and steer the conversation away from that topic and if necessary tell them it wasn't cool.

Bañón: I don't usually find myself in any of those situations. But yes, I would call them out.

Has the way you express yourself or your manhood changed in recent years?

Zulkiflie: I allow my body to freely express myself in mannerisms that traditional society would otherwise find unbecoming of a man. The best way to express my “manhood” is to fully accept and be myself. The weakest fear a man can have is a fear of his authentic self.

Wylie: I’m better at expressing my needs and boundaries in a loving way. I do have needs for connection, touch, being seen and I’m okay with that.

Hartono: I've learnt to dispel the stereotypes I was raised with. As I grow older I have a deeper sense of kinship with my sisters out there, rather than a superficial relationship. As a straight man, I’m now cool with rubbing sun lotion on other men when I wouldn't before. 

Mah: When you reach a certain age, you stop caring about what people think so you don't really have to conform to stereotypes. Not that I had any preconceived ideas about it but with marriage, I've found that I'm more than happy to share the partnership equally with Cherilyn and I don't expect her to behave in some subservient, homebound manner.

Bañón: The way I express myself has always been the same. I can feel that with the move to Singapore, I’m even less constrained by any traditional Spanish culture of what it means to be a man. Maybe because I didn’t grow up here, I have no pre-existing notion of what society requires of me.

Fernandez: I grew up quite homophobic. That changed very quickly when I met LGBTQ+ people in theatre in my 20s. Can I say something else? As a cisgender straight man, I don’t understand why some straight men want to regulate what women can or cannot do. Being a straight man means you’re attracted to women right? Everything about them fills you with wonder—how they think, how they move, what they make. Why on earth would you want to put an upper limit on that potential? It’s counter-intuitive.