It’s a distraction from the deeper issues
The term “toxic masculinity” seems to always cause a bit of a firestorm, particularly in it’s most recent usage as relates to the #MeToo movement and the now-infamous Gillette ad. The term originated in the 1980s as part of the mythopoetic men’s movement but as it gained wider usage, came to refer to potentially destructive norms of traditional masculinity.
According to the sociologist Michael Flood, these include “expectations that boys and men must be active, aggressive, tough, daring, and dominant”.
The problem is, some men believe that it is not unreasonable or wrong for males to embody those traits. Then there is also confusion about whether toxic masculinity implies that maleness is inherently wrong. That isn’t what it means, but the misapprehension has never gone away. The term is intended to describe gender norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society as a whole and to advocate for a wider spectrum of possibilities about what it means to be a man.
The intention is not to shame men or masculinity but to point to ways that enforced conformity and too much emphasis on exerting power can be destructive and toxic. Patriarchy is built around a binary, with very defined roles and expectations for both men and women. The problem is, the world no longer operates that way and most of us are a blend of traits. It is a desirable thing to move towards a system that allows everyone to be whole human beings with a full range of emotions and opportunities. However, saying that we don’t have that due to toxic masculinity is a problem because the term is just too fraught to be useful.
Another related term, hegemonic masculinity, is perhaps a bit better in that it is more related to power structures than traits.
Conceptually, hegemonic masculinity proposes to explain how and why men maintain dominant social roles over women, and other gender identities, which are perceived as “feminine” in a given society.
In other words, it’s starting to get at the dominance components of a social hierarchy, which I believe are the most salient points. But the problem with that word is that a lot of people don’t have the foggiest notion what it means. It may obscure the points that are trying to be made. And beyond that, it’s still linking the term to maleness, which tends to put some people on the defensive, and this impedes actual dialogue.
Our society is a patriarchy. We have elements of primacy and power for men in the historic sense but also still in the present day. Up until 50 years ago, there were many laws which upheld this, and some of them lasted much longer than that. For example, marital rape was not a crime in all 50 states until 1993. Husbands had the legal right to their wives bodies, with or without their consent. Most positions of power in both government and business are held by men. As of 2004, 52% of Americans believed that the father should be “the master of the house,” — a statistic that had risen 10 points since the early 90s. Most women take their husband’s name when they marry. So although it’s still an androcentric world, most men don’t have substantial power in relation to women as a whole and the primacy of men is no longer codified in law and overt practice. Stay with me here. I promise that it all ties together.
More broadly than any gender dynamic, patriarchy is a dominance-based social hierarchy that is based on the stratification of the entire society. Gender is only one aspect of this, with race, class, wealth, and education being just a few of the others. Because the hierarchy is pyramid-shaped, only a relatively few elites can occupy the top spots and everyone else is left to vie for a place on the lower rungs. Women and girls participate in dominance posturing too, but boys are indoctrinated from an early age into a system of learning to accept domination from those with more power while at the same time dishing it out to anyone that they can. Not all males adhere to this, but it is a prevalent societal dynamic that is in evidence everywhere from the playground to the national political stage.
This is where most of the traits that have been identified as toxic come into play: aggression, bullying, violence, anger as the only acceptable difficult emotion, coercion, and extreme self-reliance that fails to value cooperation and inter-dependance, to name just a few. These are traits that anyone might exhibit and they are not native to males. These are traits that patriarchal society has demanded of boys and men as a part of participating in the dominance hierarchy all around them. Men who have embraced these traits as a way to demonstrate masculinity are not themselves toxic; they are simply purveyors of a toxic philosophy. They’ve been doing what they’ve been told they should by a warped and destructive system.
When you extrapolate out a system that is based in the historical domination of men over women, weaker men, and children to the rest of the cultural landscape, you get a society that is obsessed with how it rates in relation to those around them. You also get a society where many members feel completely justified in using bullying and violence in order to keep certain people or demographics in their perceived place. In order to be a part of dismantling patriarchal norms, as well as racism, homophobia and sexual harassment, the first step is to move away from the constant desire to needlessly rank, stratify, and coerce others to stay in their perceived roles and lanes and to instead just let people who aren’t hurting anyone else alone to live.
Racism is the belief that the race you belong to is superior to and higher in the social hierarchy than another race. Sexual harassment stems from the belief that women are getting out of their lane by participating in the working world. Homophobia is the belief that men who are not conforming to traditional masculine roles and traits are inferior. It’s all about comparing yourself to other people and determining if they rank lower or higher than you. The beliefs are generally subconsciously held, but they are also deeply woven into the grain of our society.
What has that got to do with so-called toxic masculinity? All of the traits that fit under that umbrella are dominance posturing traits intended to demand respect, subservience, acquiescence, and recognition of power. They have been gendered as male because in a patriarchy, men are expected to constantly vie for a higher position on the pyramid of power. But these traits are not necessarily masculine traits nor do they need to be a part of expressing maleness.
If you look at Yang traits (what is considered masculine from a Taoist perspective, something that may or may not correspond with actual maleness), you will find traits like valor, assertiveness, decisiveness, rationality, and action. Yin (or feminine) traits include wisdom, intuition, compassion, creativity, and receptivity. When you remove actual sex-based gender from the equation, these simply become two sides of a whole that is best expressed in some measure of balance.
When looked at from this point of view, it is easier to see the distinction between healthy assertiveness and unhealthy aggression, healthy valor and unhealthy subjugation. Masculine traits aren’t the issue. Coercive, domination-oriented behaviors are, and men have no monopoly on those. They are simply more likely to be encouraged and rewarded in males in places where patriarchal structures are still fully functioning.
What we need is a term that reflects all of that and makes it clear that social hierarchy in all of its flavors and the corresponding dominance posturing that it entails is what is undesirable, not masculinity. I’m not entirely sure what that term would be, but I’m open to suggestions.