Defining toxic masculinity: Well it depends on who you talk to
I’ve been hearing this term toxic masculinity for some time now. Its offensive to be perfectly blunt. But nonetheless I decided to find out what it means and who uses it. More importantly, why attach the word toxic to one gender rather than both. But after searching and listening a bit, I came to realize that the concept of toxic masculinity is not definitive but occupies a spectrum.
My response to the various flavors of toxic masculinity ranges from: “emotional bitterness in a bottle (think hot beer)” to the “hmm I appreciate your motive cupcake even if we don’t agree on all points, but still, remove the word toxic from my gender… that’s not negotiable!!”.
The spectrum of toxic masculinity definitions as I see it
Before I start, I’d like to say that sometimes I put the word “patriarchy” in quotations because I’m not convinced that we exist in one. And the reasons for that is the contents of a future post. But anyway, on to our story.
On the one end of the spectrum, we have the man-hating extremists who believe that men are the cause of all the world’s problems and they inflict these horrors on the world, particularly on women through the expression of their masculinity. Being a man makes you potentially dangerous and that makes you toxic.
Dialing down the crazy a little, we have something less extreme. It was the “patriarchy” created and sustained by men that continue to push toxic ideas and everything about the patriarchy is wrong and therefore we must diligently seek out every aspect of the patriarchy and get rid of it. This group seems to believe that if it’s of the “patriarchy”, it warrants correction. Whether that same effort is applied to the matriarchal aspects of society is another story. And yes there are many areas of society where women are institutionally at an advantage. But any “toxic” traits displayed by women is generally downplayed as a response to the “patriarchy” and its oppressive socialization.
Rowing downstream into calmer waters, we have those that denounce only certain aspects of masculinity. In this category, it seems that a lot of the focus on how men treat women. Areas of toxicity targeted are domestic abuse, cat-calling, “mansplaining”, treating women as sex objects, assuming domestic work belongs to women etc. (men are also commonly objectified and abused of course …. but I don’t think this group of toxic masculinity detractors are allowed to go there). Within this group certain aspects of masculinity need to be cured so that it improves the lives of women.
The other group in the spectrum also feel that certain aspects of masculinity is toxic. But the emphasis is on men and how elimination of these toxic traits is beneficial to men. In this group, the aspects of masculinity deemed toxic are those that teach men and boys not to cry, express emotion, and show vulnerabilities. They may even denounce aggressive tendencies of boys (big mistake!!…better to harness the testosterone and direct it positively than stifle it…nature has put it there for a reason…just my two cents). They also promote men taking up domestic duties, because it is a good for the man’s own personal holistic development.
Weaponizing the term “toxic masculinity”, and its effect on men
I believe that certain aspects of masculinity as it has been defined in recent history does promote behaviors that are limiting and degrading to men. I believe that it is self-destructive when men do not feel comfortable to engage in practices that will allow them to reach their full potential and seek help. I think that the pressure that men face to not express vulnerability and the price society attaches to any shortcomings that a man may have is destructive.
I think that the way we tell men to “man up” without giving them the time, care, upbringing and attention they need to fully develop is an unfair thing. After all, the trend is that most developmental programmes and campaigns tend to target development of women and girls. Men and boys are an afterthought, if that. As if the systematic, institutionalized exclusion is not sufficient, we now attach a downright offensive term, “toxic”, to the word masculinity. The message being put out there is hurtful. And this fact needs to be stated, often.
The term toxic masculinity is can be easily interpreted to mean that all aspects of masculinity is toxic. Even for the most male-friendly group in the spectrum, it is naive to believe that the use of the term “toxic masculinity” will always be followed by an explanation of which aspects of social conditioning is considered toxic and why. It is impractical to believe that the use of the term in everyday life will be always be followed an explanation of the “benefits” of changing the so-called “toxic” traits. So even with the best of intentions, such a broad negative message can easily be sent.
Furthermore, it seems that opinion varies as to what traits of masculinity are “toxic” and which are not. Who has the authority to decide which traits are positive and which are negative? Why do they get to decide this? With the absence of real clarity, how is it ok to attach the word toxic to the word masculinity? The only thing that can result from this is a confused sense of identity among men and boys.
It’s like saying, “men just shut up, sit down and understand that something is wrong with you. It’s not necessarily something specific to you as an individual but it’s just your gender. But fear not, we have the formula to make you well again. And please understand, even if women display these same behaviors, we don’t use the term toxic femininity. That’s just misogynist”.
Toxic behavior, not toxic masculinity
It seems common sense though, that the term “toxic behavior” is much more inclusive and less likely to alienate one gender considering that both genders display toxic behaviors in various ways. With the current lopsided approach, it is easy to reinforce a message that men alone have toxic traits.
How about we remove negative traits by promoting positive traits. For example, suppose we wanted men to engage more in childcare at home. Well instead of saying toxic masculinity causes men to shun their roles within the family and burden women etc, how about we let men know that they are important and vital in the family and we, as a society need them. As human beings, we all need to feel needed. That’s not just something you learn in Business Management studies to motivate employees and improve workforce morale. It works in real life.
Personally, I think the toxic masculinity narrative needs to be countered with a positivity and encouragement narrative. As a man, this is my plea. I think that the constant negative messaging that we send men via the mass media is progressively eroding self-esteem with every passing generation and its going on unsaid, unchecked and ignored. But fear not, if it all efforts to curb “toxic masculinity” fails, we can always absolve ourselves from any responsibility and blame the men or the patriarchy…right??
We as men should not accept the negativity being thrown at us. We deserve positivity so by all means speak out!!
Hope you enjoyed the post. Please feel to share your own thoughts in the comment section below.