“Toxic masculinity” is shorthand for “the pressures of social expectations of traditional masculinity resulting in violence”.
As I talk through the matter with intelligent people who disagree, who claim that toxic femininity must also be a thing, it is this fundamental definition that appears to be the sticking point.
One could rightly assert that women are physically and emotionally abusive towards their partners. Women can and do sexually assault others. Women have taken part in or wrought themselves some of the most vicious acts of violence in history. The distinction in this discussion is that those women did not do those things because of how society pressures women to behave, and that is why toxic femininity does not exist.
Some women are toxic – no one can dispute that. Toxicity is not a distinctly or even inherently male characteristic, and we define toxic people in terms of what they do. It might then be said that people are never toxic but that the acts of a person might be, and people who exhibit frequent or regulat toxic behaviour come to be defined by that.
Likewise, society maintains expectations of femininity. The polarity of these expectations (that something is either feminine or masculine) is itself harmful to society because gender does not exist in two neat little boxes, nor does sex or sexual orientation. The belief that these things do exist in a simple duality is one of the fundamental causes of the problems discussed in this piece. “A person is either a man or a woman” gives way to “a man or a woman are/do these specific things”.
The first supposed evidence of toxic femininity might then be that social expectations of femininity are toxic. They are. A hallmark of feminism and gender equality is combating all of these social expectations. The idea that a person is or must do something because of how society views that person is harmful to the individual and therefore harmful to society (separate thesis for which we do not have time here).
This is where toxic masculinity distinguishes itself though. Social expectations of femininity are docile, timid, passive, amenable, yielding, and often superficial. We have standards for female beauty as a society, just as we do with men. For women, those standards involve youth and slimness.
Before readers even start down this path, I understand that you may have different preferences regarding beauty. As a society, it gets reduced to a singularity as evidenced by marketing and other public choices regarding beauty, and those are the elements that broadcast expectations to women. The #NotAllMen argument here only serves to complicate matters in a world where women are always excessive one way or the other: too young or too old, too timid or too brash, too smart or too foolish, too thin or too fat, too promiscuous or too chaste.
For men, the image is one of strength. Tall, solid men with muscles that modern medicine cannot even identify. While women are at the gym toning and slimming, men are at the gym bulking. Get stronger. Physical appearance aside, it sets an expectation about physical strength. It must be remarkable or one is failing to the other men. That expectation invites challenge.
We expect women to be agreeable, but we expect men to stand firm. While a woman facing a challenge should find a peaceful means of diffusing the situation, a man should rise to the challenge. This is how men find themselves in those obnoxious, public pissing contests over trivial matters, and why it seems that situations escalate quickly.
Here again, and I will stress this repeatedly, one will find women who escalate quickly and refuse to back down from the challenge. This is not a uniquely male phenomenon. The difference is that a woman in that situation is behaving contrary to social expectation (and may face criticism in that respect) while the man is behaving as expected.
Women cannot handle criticism. They are too emotional and will break down. People should therefore handle women with juvenile gloves. One hears this argument especially in academic circles. “Women are hurting research because they lack this competitive spirit” sort of nonsense.
Men can handle anything. Chew out a man for poor performance and he’ll take it, unless it becomes disrespectful and then he’ll push back.
In a world where the expectation is that women generally do not handle criticism well, the response is to avoid criticising women. More importantly, in a world where the expectation is that men should be “man enough” to handle anything life throws at them, we subject men to more than they can endure. They must maintain a stoicism in the face of life’s challenges.
Men complete suicide at epidemic levels.
The link here should be unmistakable. Generations of men told they ought to be tough enough to handle life, that they do not need help, that receive criticism for seeking help reach a point where suicide feels like their most viable option to deal with things.
This raises another key point: women can engage in toxic masculinity. Again, it’s not the men nor the masculinity that is toxic. What is toxic is the social expectation, and every “boys will be boys” and “man up” furthers that toxicity.
Let us put aside for a moment the reasons why one might “need their men to be men”. Perhaps one does have a personal case for it, but we cannot divorce it from the idea that we learn gendered expectations from an early age and that is where that preference arises. It still remains a preference either way, and pressuring others to conform to that preference is a toxic, possibly manipulative act.
One might be familiar with the logical fallacy “No true Scotsman”. These cases are every bit as absurd. Being a man has one qualification. One. Being a man. Anything else is a variation on that, not a deviation from it. Man who likes football. Man who hates football. Man who loves boxing. Man who detests violence. Man who smokes. Man who does yoga. Man who recites poetry. All men. Criticising a man because he does not live up to one’s idea of what a man is or does is despicable, regardless of the person doing it.
Which leaves one major question. If men are not toxic, masculinity is not toxic, aspects of femininity are toxic, and women can be toxic, then what is this distinction with toxic masculinity and how can one still conclude that toxic femininity does not exist?
Consider it in terms of religion. We have Jews, Christians, Muslims, and so forth, all of which are peaceful religions practiced by millions of people. Every single one of them also contains a militant, extremist element that furthers its ideology through any means necessary, including large-scale violence. A comedian once joked about dialling up the tenets of Jainism to 11. Extreme Jainism would require some sort of peaceful paralysis.
Women do commit terrible acts and some are toxic people. Some might even do those things because they are fed up with the pressure of gender expectations for women. However, the expectations themselves do not promote violent outcomes.
Social expectations of men deliberately provoke violent outcomes. Be strong, never back down, fight for/take what is yours. The most powerful men in the world exemplify these ideas. Socially, we see the successful outcome and the characteristics together, but tend to overlook the carnage of the lives steamrolled by those characteristics to achieve that outcome. Men who possess those characteristics and continue to struggle lash out even more violently (incels, white supremacists, etc.).
One might look at the #MeToo movement and question the motives. It looks an awful lot like a conspiracy among women and beta males to take down powerful men. The reason so many powerful men have stories associated with #MeToo and other scandals is that they, and society, embrace gender expectations. They did commit those acts and were never held accountable. It was not a simpler time. It was a time in which that is how men behaved and how women behaved. It was not okay then and it is not okay now. The difference is that now more people have a voice to challenge those gender expectations that allowed so many men to manipulate, overpower, assault, and intimidate women for generations.
A final, parting thought. Some might regard this as men versus women, or just another case of liberal sensationalism painting everything with a broad brush. It’s not. This is about everyone taken as individuals, about allowing the individual the freedom to be themselves without fear of social pressure for not conforming to a baseless expectation of their behaviour or appearance.
One does not call out toxic masculinity to vilify men or praise women. One calls out toxic masculinity because it’s end result is violence, wrought against the self or others, physically or emotionally, without remorse. One calls it out to benefit all people, man and woman alike, who become victims of desperate men clamboring after inscrutible expectations of their masculinity.
The effort must be to put an end to gender expectations. Toxic masculinity is the means of calling out those with the most violent outcomes. It’s about connecting the expectations directly to the consequences. “Is it so wrong to push a man to be the toughest he can be?” I don’t know, is it wrong to push a man until he develops a hair trigger for violence? Is it wrong to so stunt a man emotionally that he comes to lash out violently because his favourite group of grown men playing a game lost because his entire sense of self-worth is tied up in winning, toughness, and expressing emotion through those things?
No, “toxic femininity” does not exist, and the ongoing debate about toxic masculinity as a concept (it’s been around for decades, coined by men focused on psychology and self-help) distracts from the need to combat gender expectations.