‘Toxic masculinity’ is a term that is commonly used to refer to the negative aspects of masculinity. The use of the term has risen in popularity, with some people finding it illuminating and legitimate, while others believe it has become a way to demonise men.
In some sense, ‘masculinity’ has become a dirty word. It is commonly referred to as toxic but not so often discussed in a positive light. The result is that a lot of men feel uncertain about their ‘masculine’ identity, about what it means to be a man in contemporary society. We could say that trying to fit some mould of a ‘true man’ is unproductive since self-esteem shouldn’t depend on cultural expectations about manhood or based on what most men are like. However, it is hard to shake the feeling that our identity is wrapped up, in some way, with our gender, with our sense of being a man. We want to feel confident that we are being a decent male role model – a good husband, father, brother, and son.
What Does Toxic Masculinity Mean?
We might argue that a poor male role model is the one who exemplifies certain ‘toxic’ characteristics. The psychiatrist Terry Kupers argues that toxic masculinity can be defined as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence.” It is the socially destructive side of masculinity. But masculinity as a whole isn’t toxic, according to Kupers. The positive aspects of masculinity include “pride in [one’s] ability to win at sports, to maintain solidarity with a friend, to succeed at work, or to provide for [one’s] family”.
The evolutionary scientist Gad Saad, on the other hand, believes that the term toxic masculinity is being used to pathologise and stigmatise masculinity as a whole, including its positive characteristics, such as bravery and risk-taking. He calls it an “ideological attack on masculinity”.
Others find the term toxic masculinity useful, however, and note that there is no reason it has to have a quality of shaming about it. We can say that toxic masculinity relates to some traits that are obviously toxic, and other traits that only become harmful based on how strongly men identify with them. Particular masculine traits (such as risk-taking) may be rooted in an evolutionary past, yet they can lead to mental health and societal issues if they are used to narrowly define manhood. For instance, sensitivity, care, and gentleness never used to be excluded from ideas of masculinity – these traits existed alongside toughness and heroism.
Examining Toxic Masculinity in Light of Masculine Norms
The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CNMI) is a widely used measure of masculine norms, roles, and behaviour. And it helps to shed light on the way in which masculinity harms boys and men, women, and society at large. It consists of 11 masculine norms:
- Emotional Control
- Primacy of Work
- Power Over Women
- Disdain for Homosexuals
- Pursuit of Status
Some of these traits are clearly toxic (e.g. violence and disdain for homosexuals), whereas others may or may not be, depending on the context. As a case in point, we may think of self-reliance as a virtue. Someone who is self-reliant is independent – they can use their own resources to meet their needs and flourish as a person. However, we also know that men who strongly identify with self-reliance are at a higher risk of suicide than those who don’t. The masculine trait of self-reliance means that asking for help and support is often viewed as unmanly. Which has serious consequences for men’s mental health.
In a similar fashion, controlling your emotions (another masculine trait) may be useful or virtuous in some circumstances. But when this becomes the default, with emotional expression excluded from notions of masculinity, then men feel encouraged to hide their pain. This bottling up of emotions (except anger) often leads to poor mental health and can put a serious strain on a man’s most crucial relationships. Other research shows that men who place a high value on being a playboy or having power over women have worse mental health outcomes than male counterparts who care less about these masculine norms.
When men don’t conform to certain masculine stereotypes, they can experience an uncertainty about their identity, low self-esteem, and a huge drop in self-confidence. Toxic masculinity, which leads to dominant and violent behaviour, also restricts the emotions that boys and men feel comfortable expressing. The expectation to be macho means that men have to constantly deny and hide their true selves. Masculinity has, therefore, come into conflict with many men’s authenticity.
Questioning the Meaning of Masculinity (and Gender in General)
We don’t have to completely discard masculinity because it has a toxic element. Some men may reject the term toxic masculinity, believing it unfairly characterises men as being a destructive force in the world. But the truth is, there are negative aspects to both genders. We should talk about toxic masculinity as much as we should discuss ‘toxic femininity’ – those feminine norms which can harm the mental health of women and restrict their authenticity, as well as negatively impact relationships with both men and other women.
On the other hand, I find when discussing the idea of ‘virtuous masculinity’, it is also worth asking if this term is worth using. For if I think of any of the traits commonly associated with virtuous masculinity – such as strength, risk-taking, heroism, courage, and being a provider and protector – all of these virtues seem gender-neutral to me. We might imagine that a man putting his safety in danger to protect the innocent or loved ones is the manliest thing he can do, but if women do this, are we then to regard them as masculine, or not feminine?
Even if we admit that there are biological and evolutionary factors that contribute to gender norms and roles, with both biology and culture priming men to see certain behaviour as virtuous in a masculine sense, culture can still override these tendencies. And are the male outliers therefore not to be regarded as masculine? It might be more useful to shift the conversation away from toxic masculinity/femininity and virtuous masculinity/femininity towards the prioritisation of virtue. Innate differences and self-directed expressions, in either sex, can be seen as styles, all potentially valuable and compatible with other people’s way of being (but not everyone’s).
Why should gender identity – whether tied to biology or choice, or both – be considered more important than virtue? In terms of gauging the respectability of someone, are ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ terms worth referring to? Perhaps not if this becomes a myopic and simplistic value-laden way of dividing the sexes. It is understandable that gender non-conforming men and women might feel a sense of shame and lowered self-esteem – a feeling of emasculation and defeminisation, respectively – for being outside the norm; however, if cultural expectations serve this purpose, then such a purpose appears to be a net harm. More conducive to general well-being would be universal toleration of authenticity and natural expressions of personality. Questioning the meaning of masculinity leads to the further question of what value – if any – we should attach to gender identity. Does the human need for meaning, identity, purpose, and self-esteem require the construction of a clear gender identity? Can society function without gender? These are still open questions to me.
To the political philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, the solution to these questions is clear; and it does not involve creating a gender spectrum or even more gender identity categories. As she argues in a brilliant essay for Aeon:
We do not need gender. We would be better off without it. Gender as a hierarchy with two positions operates to naturalise and perpetuate the subordination of female people to male people, and constrains the development of individuals of both sexes. Reconceiving of gender as an identity spectrum represents no improvement…The solution to an oppressive system that puts people into pink and blue boxes is not to create more and more boxes that are any colour but blue or pink. The solution is to tear down the boxes altogether.
With respect to the term toxic masculinity, many men and women may criticise its use, associating it with misandry and men who feel ashamed to be men. And it’s fine if you don’t want to use the term, based on its connotations or if it makes you cringe a bit. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognise that there are aspects of socially constructed masculinity that are harmful. When you look at gender in an honest and self-reflective way, you can strive to be a virtuous man while prioritising your well-being and respecting the interests of others.