Want Sympathetic Sons? Stop Using the Term “Toxic Masculinity”
The term “toxic masculinity” is as eye-catching and fashionable as it is unhelpful and often destructive.
Many men find it’s hard to escape from the label and all the while it worsens a problem in those who seek change. It pathologises and does not successfully address the root causes of a problem. Externally imposed fashionable conventions are difficult to shift, while blame only strengthens entrenched beliefs and attitudes on both sides of the debate.
The term “toxic masculinity” is persistent and unforgiving. When taken too far, this is what is said about men: here are his “toxic” parts and here are his “good” parts. If his “toxic” parts are perceived to outweigh his “good” parts, he is labelled “toxic”. Some people are less relativist and more absolutist: even if you are slightly emotionally aloof, you’re toxic.
Twitter, Reddit and popular news make the debate heated and populist; some have attributed terrorism, gang violence, trolling, the climate crisis, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump on toxic masculinity.
There is allure in the term because it attributes traits such as aggression, entitlement, eschewal of appearing weak, and risk-taking to men. It wraps up these characteristics in one convenient stereotyping bundle, and, if you’re male, you’re likely to have them. Therefore you are likely to be a toxic person.
As expected, disagreement follows the term. Some men (and women) claim accusations of “toxic masculinity” are an assault on men when men already face unprecedented challenges such as higher rates of substance misuse, imprisonment and suicide. But, others say the detoxification of manhood is an indispensable component of the roadmap to gender equity, and, invaluable to male mental health.
The term is popular among some forms of feminism, but feminism cannot lay claim to describing the problem of “toxic masculinity”. In reality, the term was borne as a backlash: from a male segment of western society in response to rising feminism in the 1990s. Men felt boys were feminized (by implication, “weakened”) by curtailing their internal drives which would achieve a form of acceptable masculinity. So, men tried to ‘re-group’, decided to become more masculine and outspoken, and unwittingly, yet unsurprisingly, drew negative attention.
Of course, masculinity is impossible to conceive and describe fully, and today the opposite is taking place: a radical deconstruction of the term. Sociologist Raewyn Connell suggested gender is a result of social relationships and actions, not a predetermined set of biological characteristics. Simply put, nurture, not nature.
Connell’s explanation can be seen as a positive one since it allows us to contemplate change: it moves away from scientific specificity and predeterminism and allows a welcome degree of complexity and therefore, human agency. If we accept Cornell’s definition, men can make changes, own their actions, and, finally be accountable.
Connell also said there are multiple types of masculinities formed by the often competing and conflicting variables of class, race and culture. Therefore, models of masculinity can vary across time and space, from country to continent and from one decade to another. Today, young men are at the vanguard of rapid and necessary change in what constitutes masculinity. In most western cultures, the mood is changing in favour of a renewed definition.
Entrenched traditional models of masculinity present enormous challenges for some, especially in the face of the need for change. Some men are worried and overwhelmed, feel isolated and vulnerable. The emergence of yet another backlash is unsurprising: a misplaced reactive show of strength by some men in an attempt to hold onto traditional models and feel in control. Some men, it seems, want to carry on being traditional hunter-gatherer-types.
Other pro-change men feel a hostility that arises not from sudden and unexpected danger, rather as a response to a feeling of inadequacy also borne of the impossible standard men are expected to uphold. Being an all-action hunter-gathered-type alpha male is hard going by all accounts; some men want drastically smoother edges to say the least. Such an internal conflict driven by prevailing social norms is a significant weight to bear — profound change is never easy.
We can though amend our perception of what it means to be masculine.
It is not unrealistic, as some would have us believe, that we can balance our wish for our sons, for example, to be able to feel “masculine” while embracing traits conventionally attributed as “feminine”. Progress can happen when we recognise and admit our limitations as well as when we carefully manage our strengths.
What is true, though is boys and men are still influenced by traditional masculinity, and the remedy can only be re-invention; we need to consider and change our values, beliefs and attitudes. If there is indeed a “self-defeating model for being a man” boys and men have nothing to lose if we try to understand our feelings and aim to cultivate a kinder, liberal and tender form of masculinity.
But we cannot fix a problem with the same tools which led to creating the problem itself: I can hardly ask my father or grandfather for advice on this matter. We do have to ask where do men’s sexist beliefs derive from. Do we need a good stern talking to and then put instructional systems in place which will re-align our attitudes with modern expectations? Can it be boys and men are, to a certain extent, long time sufferers of social indoctrination? Do we suffer from a deeply-rooted unconscious bias caused by hand-me-down self-doubts and internal disputes?
The term “toxic masculinity” is a little more complicated than its proponents initially thought. If masculinity is indeed pluralistic in meaning what and who exactly are we targetting? By indiscriminately targetting men, we are not exactly offering a remedy for the problem, which causes us to behave abhorrently. Do we focus on half of society, a quarter or an eighth? Who do we focus on? Men in grey suits in positions of power who collapse economies or gang members?
We ignore this complexity and plurality of meaning at our peril. If we hold the entire culture of masculinity in the cross-hairs, those who reject the term “toxic masculinity” can unwittingly or otherwise conspire to preserve it.
There is a danger of uniformity and sameness in attributing the term “toxic masculinity” to all or most men. It perpetuates a premise of the origins of male violence and sexism as being the same wherever you go. The result of such an assumption is that we must deploy uniform solutions. What of the good men, progressive men, men who believe in equality and act accordingly?
What measures do we deploy across cultural borders?
Violence and sexism can exist based on cultural affiliation: in the old Greek patriarchal system, this was more the case than not, though the same could not be said of other parts of Europe, at least not to the same extent. Some parts of Greece were worse than others. Specific local and historical contexts affect the prevalence of violence and sexism exhibited by men. Additionally, Athens today is very different from rural parts of Greece a century ago.
In wealthy predominantly male heterosexual communities, sexism is commonplace, but violence isn’t. Measures such as unconscious bias training, inclusivity and diversity policies designed to counter gender inequality in the workplace have had a positive impact on white middle-class male identities, cognitively at least.
But, is it the same across workplaces? Can we have a gold standard for combating sexism in a workplace which includes multiple ethnicities and cultures, for example? Probably not. What we can have is a tailored approach specific to a workplace or culture which responds well, based on its particular needs.
In the end, the term of “toxic masculinity” is unhelpful to men who do not seek help when they desperately need; for some men seeking help goes counter to their cultural, psychological, religious or familial models of masculinity.
No man should condone or tolerate sexist behaviour. It is every day that women and men strive to eradicate emotional abuse and physical violence. Masculinity need not be, by definition, toxic. Driving back practices and behaviours that are toxic is more critical than broad and hurtful labels.
Most men want to discover and pay attention to their feelings rather than defend themselves from fixed surface definitions of who they are. Naive terms such as “deadly toxic” oppose this process.
Many modern men do not feel or behave in a way the “toxic masculinity” stereotype might have them believe.
It’s rigid stereotypes about masculinity that are toxic. They hurt both men and women, since the term “toxic masculinity” is, inescapably, careless, insulting, biased, intolerant and bigoted.
The term “toxic masculinity” probably meant well, but it’s counter-productive. It brought attention to a problem, and that’s good. Now let’s leave it at that and start talking about (and practising) respect for one another, equality and how we are going to redesign societal systems to achieve this.