Is masculinity really toxic? And if there’s toxic masculinity, shouldn’t there be toxic femininity too?
For whatever reason, these topics have come up a lot in my feed over the past few days. Including this rather odd old article from Quillette where the author (who seems like an intelligent, reasonable sort even if I don’t agree with her much) unintentionally reveals that a lot of people who object to the idea of “toxic masculinity” don’t really know what it is or what is being talked about.
Heying (the author), spend most of the opening of her article talking about how masculinity is not inherently toxic. I realize that there are theorists who believe that masculinity is inherently toxic, and others who believe that the entire system of gender is inherently oppressive. Since Heying’s arguments don’t touch on the second claim, we’ll leave that aside because it’s a can of worms.
The claim that masculinity (and only masculinity) is inherently toxic is, however, held by only a small minority of radical feminists. It’s not what most people are talking about when they reference toxic masculinity. The idea that all males are toxic because masculinity is toxic is held by almost nobody.
But it does seem to be the impression that a lot of more conservative commentators have when they hear the term. So I want to clarify before we move on to talking about whether toxic femininity is also a thing.
Toxic masculinity is a subset of masculinity that is toxic. It’s like “diesel engines” refers to a subset of engines that run on diesel. Nobody hears the term “diesel engine” and jumps up to hastily inform you that actually not all engines are diesel powered, and that, in fact, many run on gasoline. The fact that there is a modifying adjective (toxic) on the noun (masculinity) should tell us that the speaker probably understands that toxicity is not an inherent property of masculinity. If it were, the phrase would be redundant, like “wet water.”
When somebody uses this phrase, they are not generally condemning all forms of masculinity. They are definitely not condemning all males. They are also not saying that women are better, or generally less toxic, than men.
What they are talking about is a certain set of masculine gender stereotypes, practices and values associated with maleness, that are opposed to the flourishing of both men and women.
These stereotypes tend to do one of two things: either they seek to establish the superiority of men over women, or they normalize bad behaviour on the part of men as if it were natural and unavoidable.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Men Are Rational, Women Are Emotional
I’ve quipped elsewhere that this is obviously true…provided you assume that anger and lust are not emotions. But actually, it’s a very ancient canard that has been used for millennia to denigrate and dismiss women’s feelings and opinions. The implication is that men are able to think more clearly and objectively whereas women let sentiment and attachment over-rule their reason.
An example of this appeared in one of my old philosophy text-books: a study was apparently performed in 18th Century Prussia to show that males were naturally more rational even in adolescence. A mixed group was given a series of moral scenarios like “A man breaks into a shop and robs it” and they were asked to render judgement. The boys tended to respond directly to the information given (it is wrong to steal), whereas the girls wanted to know more: why did the man break into the shop? Were there extenuating circumstances? The authors concluded that the boys were more rational: evaluating acts in an objective fashion, whereas the girls allowed a sentimental concern for personal details to cloud their thinking.
Of course, one could just as easily argue that the boys were responding emotionally: they were relying solely on their immediate, visceral reaction to the act being described. Whereas the girls were looking at it more objectively, trying to gather a wider range of facts in order to make a more complete and informed decision taking into account all aspects of the moral question.
Of course, both of these approaches are silly. Neither women nor men are more “rational” by nature, and most likely the differences in their responses reflected differences in their education and experience. The boys had spent more time rote-learning Prussian ideals of rational morality in the classroom, whereas the girls had spent more time watching their younger siblings and trying to work out hairy moral problems like “which of the children started the fight?”
In any case, the characterization of male as rational, female as emotional serves to make it look as if typically male forms of thinking are inherently superior to typically female forms of thinking: as if males think with the frontal cortex whereas women think with their hypothalamus. Which of course is just straight up nonsense.
But it’s nonsense that enables men to dismiss women’s contributions or judge them according to criteria of “objectivity” which have been developed by assuming that typically male ways of perceiving and processing the world are more correct and valuable than typically female perspectives. It’s also nonsense that helpfully allows guys to dismiss women’s complaints and criticisms by saying “She’s hysterical” or “She’s probably just on the rag.”
And finally, it’s nonsense that prevents men from becoming aware of the effects of their own emotions on their beliefs, opinions and behaviours. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve had a guy tell me that he’s just being “rational” when he’s obviously really emotionally invested in his ideas and his arguments. He’s been taught that certain emotions that are socially connected with masculinity (pride, anger, obstinacy, battle-lust…) aren’t really “emotional.” So when he feels these things, he isn’t even aware of their capacity to influence and shape his reasoning.
Boys Will Be Assholes
I live deep in wannabe-redneck country (rural Ontario is weird), so I frequently enter the local shops and find these not-so-cutesy metal signs with things like “Mancave Rules” printed on them. The rules always amount to a celebration of drunkenness, poor eating habits, lack of basic manners, random misogyny, indifference to other people’s feelings and an obsession with being right and in charge.
Alright, so before we even get to how this is damaging to women, let’s talk about how utterly insulting it is to men.
If you walk into any museum, art gallery or library on the planet what do you see? You see the fruits of human industry and intelligence – and since women have historically been excluded from many areas of social and cultural production, most of what you see was produced by men.
The beautiful, emotionally expressive poetry of the great Romantics? The sensuous, often pastel extravagances of the Renaissance masters? The soulful strains of the great jazz musicians? These were produced largely by men, many of them straight men, who displayed and celebrated the full range of human emotion.
Or how about science, technology, architecture, diplomacy, civilization in general? How do we look at that and then come to a vision of masculinity that is reducible to belching, wanking, shooting things and guzzling beer?
Mancave man is no ideal of masculine potential. Mancave man isn’t actually a man at all: he’s a teenager who never grew up. So how have so many men been sold the absurd and deeply denigrating idea that they are, by nature, morally incompetent boobs who would immediately revert to being drooling twelve year olds if ever women weren’t there to whip them into shape?
The appeal of this narrative is simple, and unfortunate: if men are brutes by nature, and only a woman’s hand can raise them to level of a functional, properly socialized adult, then women bear the primary responsibility for men’s faults. A man who behaves badly is just doing what he naturally does. He’s like a dog peeing on the rug because you didn’t let it out in the morning. Of course he was going to do that. It’s in the nature of the beast.
This narrative has more lofty permutations than the Redneck Pride version. In Catholic writings you often hear of the “moral strength” of women – one of the supposed features of the “feminine genius” that contributes to the privilege of being female. In practice, what this means is that we are supposed to be more naturally graceful, civilized, innocent, patient, long-suffering and considerate.
This sounds nice up front. We all like to be flattered. But if these virtues come naturally to women then we get limited credit for them (after all, we’re just behaving as “nature” dictates). Men, on the other hand, can expect to be lauded for the same behaviours that are expected as a bare minimum for women. They can demand leniency for behaviours that would be unacceptable in a woman because, after all, “boys will be boys.” And finally, they can demand that women manage their passions and their appetites for them just as they lift our heavy bags and open jars of jam for us. We’re morally stronger, so of course we should do the moral heavy lifting.
Which means that we become responsible for male sins. We take on accountability for behaviours that we cannot control. And we ourselves are punished, controlled, lectured and policed (often by other women who have bought into this nonsense, like the author of the article above) in the hopes that somehow by leveraging women’s fictitious “moral strength” we will be able to shift the weight of abusive, violent and irresponsible behaviours displayed by morally stunted men.
But being morally stunted is bad for the men as well. For one thing, it has real-life consequences: if you don’t take responsibility for yourself, sooner or later nobody else is going to want to step up to the plate and take responsibility for you. For another, feeling out of control, unable to manage your own emotions, disconnected from friends who you only interact with superficially, incapable of handling the world unless you can control it… that’s not fun. There’s a reason why Mancave Man feels the constant need to retreat and numb himself with television and beer.
And finally, it’s bad for all of the men who aren’t like that at all: responsible, sensitive, compassionate, caring, quietly courageous, reasonably humble guys who work hard, make real sacrifices and treat women like human beings. Those men get bullied for being “pussy-whipped” or “effeminate,” and instead of being lauded and respected for their virtues they get to denigrated for their failure to play along with juvenile behaviours that they have outgrown.
These are just two examples – I could multiply them more or less endlessly. The bottom line is that toxic masculinity seeks to assert a masculine identity over and against femininity. It establishes a relationship of domination or competition between the sexes, rather than encouraging healthy co-operation and co-existence. It defines a man primarily as someone who is not a woman, rather than defining him primarily as someone who is no longer a little boy. In doing so, it creates an artificial opposition between the sexes and demands the division of goods, like virtues, that should be shared.
Finally, it misunderstands the fundamental nature and purpose of gender, perverting it to become a tool of male domination and female denigration. With the obvious consequence that many who have been hurt by toxic gender roles reject gender altogether.
But we’ll get to that later. In the next part, let’s look at toxic femininity: is it a thing, and if so, what does it look like?
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