This is the first installment in Social Justice 101, a series breaking down common terminology, theories, and ideas used in social justice and gender studies.
When discussing issues of feminism and sexism, toxic masculinity is a term that always seems to cause division. A lot of men dismiss the term as an insult. Admittedly, feminists in the past have occasionally ignorantly used it as a catch-all for “a man being bad”, which has sullied the phrase’s reputation. For a term that is so crucial to the understanding of patriarchy and feminism as a concept, it’s definition is pretty cloudy. In an attempt to clear up that confusion, here’s your beginners guide to “toxic masculinity”.
Definition & Origin
toxic masculinity[ tok-sik mas-kyuh–lin-i-tee ]
a cultural concept of manliness that glorifies stoicism, strength, virility, and dominance, and that is socially maladaptive or harmful to mental health.
Toxic masculinity first entered the conversation in the late 1980s, as part of the mythopoetic men’s movement, a self-help movement centered on substituting toxic masculinity (aggressive, possessive, angry), with “deep masculinity” (protective, provider, “warrior” mentality). In the late 90s, feminist sociologist Raewyn Connell led the charge in redefining the term. Multiple academic sects, such as sociology, psychology, and gender studies, have since picked up the term and incorporated it into their work.
What Is It?
Toxic masculinity refers to any harmful set of characteristics associated with manhood. These characteristics can vary based on culture, but we do see a lot of commonalities when it comes to traits such as aggression, physical strength, emotional avoidance, and dominance. These traits are usually pushed onto men from birth, though they may present differently through stages of life, like parenthood or college.
- Toxic masculinity does not mean “all men are bad”, and it also doesn’t mean “all masculinity is bad”.
- Toxic masculinity is not a strict, black and white term. It is flexible and up to interpretation.
- Toxic masculinity doesn’t always manifest in the form of small, insignificant comments. The traits that contribute to toxic masculinity are major factors in sexual assault, homophobia, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and male mental illness and suicide.
- Toxic masculinity doesn’t only hurt women. It is also harmful to the men who participate in it.
- Toxic masculinity isn’t something men can “grow out of”. Just like racism or homophobia, unraveling toxic masculinity is a personal process that may last an entire lifetime.
- Toxic masculinity isn’t only present in men. Trans individuals also deal with toxic masculinity, which presents very different obstacles for them than cis people.
A grandpa refuses to wear a pink shirt his grandchild bought him, claiming it’s a “girl” color. He says he doesn’t want people to think he’s gay.
Toxic Traits: Obsession with “masculine” appearance, homophobia, avoidance of femininity
A husband won’t allow his wife to work a job that pays more than his. He insists he should be the one providing for her.
Toxic Traits: Dominance, “provider/protector” mindset
A man catcalls a woman, then threatens her when she yells back. He tells her she’s “asking for it”.
Toxic Traits: Aggression, sexual entitlement
Why Does It Matter?
Toxic masculinity hurts everyone, regardless of gender. However, because it’s so ingrained into our society, it’s very quickly defended or dismissed. Many men’s rights activists cite issues such as higher suicide rates, family court discrimination, or male sexual assault as signs of a female-dominated society. In actuality, these issues are the result of toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity forces men to stay silent and strong, discouraging men from reaching out about their mental health or experiences with sexual assault. It reinforces the myth of women being the fittest for motherhood and housework, which leads to discrimination against men in the family court system. Toxic masculinity demands men to be aggressive and highly sexual. This means some men who take their kids out to parks or drop them off at daycare without a woman present are harassed and treated as criminals, suspected of pedophilia or kidnapping. The “gay panic” defense, which allows murder due to “unwanted approaches” from someone the attacker perceived as gay, derives from homophobia.
Not to mention, many of the issues women face are the result of men acting on these toxic traits. Domestic abuse can be the result of a man asserting his dominance through aggression. Sexual assault and rape are attempts to reinforce a man’s sexual power and virility, or a reminder of a man’s “entitlement” to sex and women’s bodies. Workplace discrimination can be attributed to the need for men to feel smarter or more successful than women, and an attempt to maintain their status as “breadwinner“. CEOs may even be more likely to promote a man, because a man’s job is seen as the family’s source of food and shelter, while a woman’s job may be treated as disposable and “just a hobby”. Even transmisogyny has been attributed to disgust at the idea of abandoning masculinity for lesser, feminine traits.
Obviously, toxic masculinity is deeply pervasive and ingrained into our society. Now that we know that, what can we do about it?
The best way to address toxic masculinity is to have conversations. A lot of men have a knee-jerk reaction to the term. Honestly, it’s not hard to see why. When you say “toxic masculinity”, it’s not a far leap to assume you’re calling the idea of masculinity (and men) toxic. It’s important to understand that reaction, but also to explain why that’s not true. It’s useful to start out by looking at the issues men face at a higher rate than women. Many anti-feminist men are familiar with these, and starting the conversation there can help them feel heard. Then, start talking about the source of those issues, and how they might relate to toxic masculinity.
It’s also important to recognize toxic masculinity when you see it. This can be a bit difficult, since sometimes these situations are a bit subjective. A good way to tell is to identify the traits that could be toxic. Next time you see a tweet you suspect might be fueled by toxic masculinity, take a second to ask yourself what characteristics might be setting off that suspicion. Is there intense aggression? Possessiveness over women? Entitlement to sex? Emotional avoidance, or rejection of “weakness”? If you can identify these traits, it’s probably toxic masculinity.
Finally, it’s crucial that you help men who are working to combat their toxic masculinity. If a man expresses emotional vulnerability, encourage him to talk it out with you, someone else, or a professional. Remember, it’s not your job to be his therapist, and you owe no one your emotional energy, but we all need support sometimes. If you don’t feel like you can talk about it, recommend a therapist or a helpline. Most importantly, try to avoid words like “weak”, “whiny”, or “crybaby”. Telling a man to “suck it up” just reinforces those toxic behaviors.
Remember toxic masculinity isn’t only pushed onto men by other men. Don’t ignore the women in your life who reinforce these ideas. If a mother demeans her son for crying or makes fun of a man for being a “sissy”, take a second to correct those beliefs. We all have work to do when it comes to dismantling these systems.
Want to Learn More?
- Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women (book)
- Justin Baldoni: Why I’m Done Trying to be “Man Enough” (video)