“Toxic Femininity” and Other Fairy Tales of the #MeToo Backlash

Months ago, I wrote an article about my dismay at finding so many articles on the men’s perspective of #MeToo that use very specific misogynistic language. These tearful and frustrated essays varied by topic, often about whether they think #MeToo is fair, how it’s affected their lives and dating habits, if they’re scared “it’s all gone too far”, if they’re scared, period, all employing the nomenclature of hate to remind readers that women are mysterious, terrifying creatures who need to be controlled, as we will never be understood.

These articles seem to have finally started to disappear only to be replaced with a fresh delusion — a plethora of articles on “toxic femininity.” I haven’t been able to go online to my usual haunts these days without being force-fed a multitude of these articles, and I’m most afraid women readers are going to start internalizing them.

Let’s get something out of the way. First of all, there’s no such thing as toxic femininity. Toxic femininity is Santa Claus, it’s the Easter Bunny, it’s “proof” that one person’s god is right and others are wrong. It does not exist. Period. The intriguing questions do not revolve around toxic femininity’s validity, but rather why the concept was invented in the first place, and why it’s being constantly perpetuated by women right now.

This should not be taken to mean there are no toxic women — there most certainly are, in fact, there are so many nearly all of us know at least one. There are women who behave badly. There are women who are terrible partners, friends, and parents. There are women who are racists, women who victimize others, women who take sick pleasure in hurting people. There are men who have been unfairly victimized by women. This has happened, and there is no arguing it, but that is completely unrelated to the societal problem of toxic masculinity and patriarchy. Those who equate the negation of toxic femininity with saying women never do anything wrong, or shouldn’t be responsible for their actions are either unable or unwilling to understand the difference between a personal character flaw and a form of societal organization.

Sebastian Stam

I understand that feminism is not calculus, and some aspects are matters of opinion, but many are not. A couple of basic academic definitions could help light our way in this discussion. So, what is the patriarchy and what is toxic masculinity?

What the Patriarchy Is and What Toxic Masculinity Is

A patriarchy is a specific way to organize society. It is defined as a family, community, or society based on government by men, and the cultural ideas relating to this specific social organization. Western culture has been run exclusively by white men for hundreds of years, supporting each other whatever their deeds in order to maintain the societal organization at all costs.

Toxic masculinity refers to stereotypically masculine personality traits and actions, run amok. Toxic masculinity seeks to control the range of emotions, personalities, and actions, that are allowable for a subject, based on the subject’s birth gender. The idea that men are tough and strong, women are weak and sweet, and that only men should hold difficult, important, or complex jobs (or any at all) is toxic masculinity. As is the concept that boys shouldn’t cry. There are far too many individual concepts that are part of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy to possibly name them all, but valuing power, wealth, genetics, and ferocity, while devaluing compassion, kindness, compromising, and even intelligence and common sense, are hallmarks of patriarchies. Winning is the goal — at all costs. Toxic masculinity is the guy across the street right this very moment screaming at a woman and slamming his car doors because he knows everyone is afraid of him and he can get away with it.

Toxic masculinity is a pinch on a waitress’s butt, it’s a $1 an hour difference in a paycheck, it’s all the housework left to the woman in a two-income household. Toxic masculinity is pretending to listen to testimony of a woman attacked, and naming her perpetrator to the Supreme Court anyway.

What the Patriarchy is Not and Toxic Masculinity is Not

Holding individual men responsible for everything that has ever happened. We know there are nearly as many male victims of toxic masculinity as there are female victims. When the smartest guy in the room gets passed over for a promotion in favor of the wealthy, good-looking, tall, ex-football player because he comes from a powerful family, that is toxic masculinity at work. Any geek who’s ever gotten a swirly because he made the tough guy look bad by having the right answer in class knows as much about toxic masculinity as any Rhodes scholar.

A balance is necessary in both society and in the individual. Action and decisiveness are positive stereotypically “male” attributes, though they appear in both genders, just as negative “male” attributes appear in both genders. The same with stereotypically female attributes.

But toxic masculinity is not an individual attribute, it’s what happens when male attributes are allowed to run amok in society, to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. It is the natural result of imbalance. I would never say toxic femininity COULD never exist, it could, but it could not in society as it has currently evolved. Trying to achieve balance or “right the ship” so to speak can feel like discrimination to those who have come to count on toxic masculinity for everything from their livelihood to their sense of self. When one has had a centuries-long unfair advantage, equality feels like discrimination, and we’re dealing with that as a society right now.

Any society uniformly obsessed with stereotypical male attributes is bound to eventually disintegrate under its own weight, just as any society uniformly obsessed with stereotypical female attributes (if such a thing were ever to exist, then we would indeed have toxic femininity), would as well.

Why Toxic Femininity Does Not Exist

Toxic masculinity is a result of living in a corrupt patriarchy. It is the result of imbalance. Toxic femininity does not exist because we do not live in a corrupt matriarchy and we do not have an imbalance in that direction. You might as well ask why a peach isn’t an orange. Because it’s not. It’s such a foreign concept in fact, I can’t even imagine what attributes might make up “toxic femininity.”

In fact, many of the negative female attributes that are often cited as being parts of “toxic femininity” are actually part of toxic masculinity. Women who use their looks to get ahead? “Sleep their way to the top”? Stab each other in the back for money, jobs, men, etc? All of that is part of the myth that women are not as smart, capable, or tough as men, and cannot compete unless they cheat. That is pure, 100%, toxic masculinity, as is the concept that women are only worth what they look like. The mistake is the definition of “femininity” that we using was defined by the patriarchy.

In truth, there is nothing weak or false about femininity. We are allowing a corrupted, incorrect definition to define who we are. And sadly many women have internalized this, and advance notions of toxic masculinity because they’ve learned to play the game better than other women have. But they are still victims of a corrupted definition of femininity, in which they have to pretend to be weak and stupid, or truly believe their only happiness can be provided by men, to acquire soft power.

Soft Vs. Hard Power

As I discovered researching my thesis on women writers of the French enlightenment, men rarely object to women having “soft power.” However, they certainly do like to “jokingly” complain about it. Rousseau was a great believer in women’s soft power. Soft power is the power acquired by using one’s wiles, batting your eyelashes and talking someone into something. It is false and deceitful by its very nature. It is sweet talking someone into doing what you say.

Some men use this as proof that women are bad people and liars who need to be controlled, when in truth it was the only kind of power women were ever allowed. It was that or nothing.

If one’s only power is to wheedle, mislead, sweet talk, and beg, lo and behold the essentialism of the deceitful, nagging woman becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The same has been experienced within the African American community. Some white people took the fact that slaves lied to or fooled their masters as evidence they were bad people and liars who deserved to be controlled. In fact, it was the only kind of power they were allowed, and just like with women, was often used to save their own lives.

Soft power is the power gained by seduction and trickery. It is an element of the dangerous and long-standing concept of “she had it coming”, which is of course older than any right-wing or incel movement. The concept that there is something essentially defective in women that cries out to be controlled, that cries out to be hurt, is ancient indeed. Again, other minorities have also been victims of this concept. Toxic femininity is akin to “reverse racism”.

Hard power on the other hand is the RIGHT to determine one’s own life, the right to say yes or no. It is guaranteed by law. It is a level playing field, which we are still nowhere near achieving in this country. When an individual has hard power, soft power can be abandoned. But when self-determination is denied to people, they will use whatever power they can come by to help themselves, and save their own lives, as has been the case in the past.

This is why so many white men simultaneously both love and hate affirmative action. While it’s in place, those who are not recipients can tell themselves minorities only get ahead because they have access to it. But worse will be the day when it’s not necessary anymore. To some extent, that day is starting to arrive. There are now more women on college campuses than men. The result has been diatribes (including only yesterday by Tucker Carlson) that successful women are destroying men’s lives. They were angry that women needed taking care of, and could not succeed on their own. Now we have proven we can, and the anger is tenfold.

What it Says About Women

What fascinates me is why so many women are rushing to invent the concept of “toxic femininity”, eager to sign on for it, plead guilty to a fictional crime, and even write about it (there have been at least 5 or 6 articles, one very popular, which have appeared on medium regarding the topic, each as misinformed as the next).

For what purpose? I think part of it is, again, the difference between what men and women are taught. I think some women feel that society right now is putting everything on men’s shoulders. They want to appear to be team players, and take part of the blame.

The invention of toxic femininity is almost like a form reassurance for men. “It’s okay, don’t get upset, we haven’t changed THAT much! We’re still the shrews, failures, and dependents you’ve always counted on us to be!”

I believe it’s women once again having to micromanage men to avoid what we are all scared of — a potentially dangerous blast of male anger that becomes deadly in the form of personal abuse or a public shooting. The invention of toxic femininity is, to my mind, the exercise of soft power, and just one more element of toxic masculinity.

It’s also an easy way to talk about anger at other women for participating in toxic masculinity. I will admit it’s extremely frustrating to watch women participate whole-heartedly in toxic masculinity and patriarchy and truly believe they’re winning at something while impairing themselves, and sometimes the rest of us.

The invention of toxic femininity is to the #MeToo movement what Trump is to Obama — a backlash against obvious progress that made half the population uncomfortable. It’s soft power. That’s why it feels so right to so many women — at least it’s power of some kind. It’s like flirting our way back into their good graces in the aftermath of #MeToo. “It isn’t all your fault honey. Sometimes I deserve it.”

These authors, admittedly mostly female, did not need to apologize to men for engaging in a fictional offense, but they should think about apologizing to their readers for participating in a real one.