What Have We Done To Number One? This Is Us, episode 8
Wow. What an episode. Last week I wondered if Kevin would get worse before he got better, and boy did we get the answer to that! You could feel the weight of his pain from the opening scenes and it was not surprising when all that weight caused him to break down on Charlotte’s lawn. As I watched this episode, I thought again about Kevin’s untreated depression and his desperate attempt to numb his pain with alcohol and opioids. But something else emerged in this episode – how Kevin got to this point. We see that from birth Kevin was molded and shaped by a type of masculinity that ended up becoming an emotional trap. Everyone around him aided in the development of this masculinity throughout his childhood and adolescence – from Jack and Rebecca to his coaches, girlfriends and peers. Social scientists now realize that teaching this type of masculinity is deeply damaging. And it’s been named toxic masculinity.
There are lots of books and research articles on toxic masculinity. It refers to how we push our boys to adhere to or develop certain attributes that are somehow “for males only” – including self-reliance, competition, misogyny, dominance over others and always the suppression of one’s emotions. Toxic masculinity can reach dangerous levels and is listed as a contributor to the rampant sexual assault of women and the many instances of gun violence. One of the main problems with this idea of masculinity is that it is something to be achieved and worked for. A male must become masculine, whereas young girls are already feminine. We tell boys that to be masculine is how they become a “man.” We forget that a boy will grow into an adult man no matter what they do, they don’t have to “become” one! We make this masculinity such a quintessential achievement that it is sought after at all costs and becomes impossible to sustain. In short, attempting to conform to the main aspects of toxic masculinity creates a fragile male ego and wreaks havoc on the male functioning – it’s related to poorer mental health, low attempts at seeking help, a shorter life span and illnesses like cirrhosis and cancer.
Toxic Masculinity Starts in Childhood
One of the first teachers of toxic masculinity is the father. We should not be surprised that Jack encouraged this from infancy as he himself was socialized with these same principles, although he may have softened them slightly compared to his own father who could have been the poster child for toxic masculinity. Jack struggled with expressing his emotions, with alcohol abuse and displayed violence at times. When Kevin has the chicken pox, Jack teaches Kevin how to “stop whining” and to choke down his discomfort. It is an early lesson in being “strong” and suppressing one’s pain and vulnerable emotions. We see the emphasis on achievement and dominance at an early age when Jack is triumphant at Kevin’s first steps and asks, “Is there nothing Number One can’t do!?” Parents in general interact with their baby boys as if they are already strong and provide less nurturing and less comforting when they are young. Even though baby girls and baby boys have the same needs for nurture and comfort, our beliefs and perceptions cause us to pay more attention to our baby girls. Throughout both seasons of the show we see how young Kevin’s emotional needs are often overlooked and unmet by Rebecca and Jack in order to tend to the other two siblings, and that any protests Kevin makes to this truth go ignored or punished. Kevin learns over and over that his emotional needs are his alone to manage. But he was never given the tools to manage them.
We see Kevin’s football coach is also a teacher of this toxic masculinity. He coached Kevin over 3.5 years in an aggressive and violent sport, which requires at its core a denial and control of one’s emotions and rewards displays of brute strength. At the award night, the coach states that Kevin “fought” through adversity and heartache and is the “living example of inner and outer strength.” The coach certainly knew of Kevin’s career ending injury and Jack’s traumatic death and how deeply painful both were. But rather than be sympathetic to the overwhelming grief Kevin must have experienced, he instead focuses on the only option Kevin was given to handle both scenarios – emotional suppression. He then adds the seal of approval on Kevin’s toxic masculinity by saying “This kid is tough as hell.”
Toxic Masculinity Fails In Adulthood
Kevin has locked away his emotional experience so deeply he has been cut off from his most vulnerable self. In this episode, he finally sees his inability to take care of himself. He recaps his life on the football field alone using the narrative everyone gave him of a strong, dominant and self-reliant male, but adds in that he “tried so hard to be strong” and that he is in fact so weak he can’t go “four hours without a Vicodin.” We as a society have such difficulty seeing a male in pain we ignore it when it’s right in front of us. When Kevin accepts his award looking haggard and tired, he says he’s “not strong at all.” The audience does not listen; they are blinded by his celebrity, both past and present. Kevin grasps at all straws to cope, even falling back on another common tenet of toxic masculinity: misogyny. He decides to escape his pain by sleeping with a former classmate who had a crush on him, and ends up not only hurting her, but trying to use her prescription pad to get more powerful opioids. He has reached a point where he sees this toxic masculinity is not working for him anymore, but he has no idea what to put in its place. So, we see him break down and finally say aloud “I’m in pain out here… I need somebody to help me… I need help.” And as he’s experienced his whole life, no one is there to help him.
Kevin has been tormenting himself with suppressing the grief from his father’s death. Maybe others will finally see this and give him the support he needs. Maybe he will begin to pull from other examples his father set for him – like when Jack sought help for his alcoholism and let his family see his shortcomings rather than being strong all the time. We must realize that teaching toxic masculinity to our boys is not only problematic for society; it is devastatingly toxic to their own well-being.
Will Randall see his brother’s suffering and come to his rescue?
Did Jack’s younger brother give him the necklace in Vietnam before he died?