“Toxic Masculinity” Doesn’t Mean “Masculinity Is Toxic”

I realize that, as a feminist, I’m supposed to hate men. That’s what the Independent Women’s Forum wants people to believe, anyway. Just take this recent post from their blog.

“There’s a concerted effort on the left to uplift women at the expense of men,” author Patrice Lee Onwuka writes.

Now I’m not going to deny that some feminists see power as a zero-sum game, where women can’t be lifted up unless men are brought low. But this is the kind of lazy generalizing that makes outside critiques of movements like feminism so boring. It’s a classic straw-man, where the most fringe elements are presented as representing the mainstream.

“Anything remotely manly has been label[sic] ‘toxic’ and correlated with violence and misogyny, from No-Shave November to muscled action heroes,” Onwuka continues. Notice the passive voice here: “Has been labelled.” Authors generally resort to the passive voice when they don’t know who’s doing the verb. I think that’s pretty telling. Who, exactly, is labeling No Shave November “toxic masculinity?” Is this a common belief within feminism? We don’t know from the article. But from my years in feminism, I’m going to venture to guess it’s not.

Even if we could find instances of feminists or leftists for whoever equating No Shave November with toxic masculinity, we’d have to ask ourselves whether this is satire (as “Ban men” usually is) or whether right-wing trolls actually created fake accounts to make claims that make feminists look bad (As they did with #EndFather’sDay).

“Most people are moving away from judging others based on sexist and racist stereotypes,” Onwuka writes. “Meanwhile, the left is embracing a negative stereotype of men that is based on the bad behavior of a few people.”

Let’s ignore for a second the fact that “the left” is neither a monolith nor a useful descriptor if we’re talking about specific behavior. Onwuka seems to believe the term “toxic masculinity” is nothing more than a negative stereotype based on the bad behavior of a few men.

But that’s not what that phrase means. This is another straw-man. Again, I’m sure you could find people using that term in that way. But they are not representative of the majority of people who use that terminology.

“Toxic masculinity” refers to the ways in which societal expectations of men harm both men and women. The examples are abundant.

Just a few:

  • The expectation that men are always horny leads men to feel pressure to pursue and initiate sex when they otherwise would prefer not to, and for women to feel especially rejected when a man doesn’t want to have sex with her.
  • The expectation that men don’t cry or show emotions leaves men emotionally constipated, unable to distinguish their own emotions, and lonely for emotional connection.
  • The expectation that men be breadwinners in an economy where men’s average wages are stagnant and women’s are increasing leads men to feel lonely and ashamed.

I could go on.

Psychiatrist and Professor Emeritus Terry A. Kupers defines “toxic masculinity” thusly: “The constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence.”

Toxic masculinity does not mean masculinity is toxic. It means there are aspects of what people think of as masculinity that are not helpful, on net, in the modern context.

While feminists are most closely associated with the term, Madeleine Holden writes for Mel Magazine that:

The term actually arose out of the drumming, chanting, hugging and weeping new age men’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which posited that manhood is many-sided — it can be “mature,” “soft,” “cooperative” and/or “toxic” depending on various Warrior, King and Lover archetypes — but its nature is fixed across time and space (“men are a certain way and no other”).

I think it’s important to note here that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being horny, stoic, or high-earning. (I’m one for three.)

Nor is any other aspect of masculinity necessarily toxic. Being strong, powerful, aggressive, self-sacrificing, rational, competitive, and blunt are all great things to be, at specific times and places.

Even a characteristic like “violent” is neither good nor bad. It depends on the context. In the context of defense of life, liberty, or property, violence is often good. In the context of beating your wife because she insulted you, violence is bad.

And femininity is great too. Being understanding, cooperative, considerate, kind, empathetic, caring, sensitive, patient, and sweet are also great things to be, when those things are called for.

What’s toxic is the expectation that your gender should determine your character. Why can’t I, as a woman, be strong, powerful, and aggressive when I need to be? Why can’t I grab a sword and slay some bad guys when the bad guys need slaying?

Why can’t you, as a man, be sensitive, patient, and sweet when you need to be?

Why don’t we all just demonstrate the characteristics that best suit the common good when they’re called for and call it a day?

Masculinity is awesome! Femininity is awesome! What’s tragic (and toxic) is when we expect men to be constantly and unfailingly horny, stoic, or high-earning and punish them when they’re sensitive and emotional, even when that’s what’s called for by the situation. What’s tragic (and toxic) is when we expect women to be unfailingly demure and punish us for being strong and assertive when that’s what’s needed from us at the time.

The conservative straw-manning of the concept of toxic masculinity leaves these simplistic conceptions of gender roles unchallenged. Which is unfortunate because we know these expectations hurt men, who are more and more unable to meet them and are measurably harmed by having to downplay their more “feminine” characteristics.

There’s nothing wrong with Patrice Lee Onwuka making a case for masculinity. But she doesn’t need to misconstrue “toxic masculinity” to do so. In fact, the best thing one could do to support masculinity is to remove the toxic elements from it. In this way, feminism is actually more pro-man than conservatism, which often (and in this case) seems to love their simplistic conceptions of masculinity more than they love the men who are harmed by them.

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