Toxic masculinity: Basic considerations

I believe in applying feminist ideas to help men. It’s not that feminist ideas need to help men in order to be good ideas; it’s that feminist ideas are good ideas, therefore they are good ideas for men. Feminism is not obliged to help men, since that’s not really its primary goal; nonetheless, applying feminism to help men is a worthwhile project.

One particularly relevant feminist idea is “toxic masculinity”. According to the Geek Feminism Wiki,

Toxic masculinity is one of the ways in which Patriarchy is harmful to men. It refers to the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.

Toxic masculinity causes harm in two ways:

First, men are pressured to conform to male gender roles. For instance, there is nothing really wrong with being unemotional, and some of us just have more muted emotions than others. However, telling men that they are supposed to be unemotional leads them to be ashamed of the emotions they have.

Second, some of those male gender roles are in themselves bad. For instance, violence is generally maladaptive in modern society. A man who is socialized to be more violent could hurt the people around him, and could hurt himself as well.

There is some tension between the two problems of toxic masculinity. For instance, most people agree that competitiveness is an aspect of toxic masculinity. But is competitiveness bad in itself, or is the problem only that men are pressured to be competitive, regardless of disposition? The answer likely depends on what kind of competitiveness we’re talking about. It’s fine to like competitive board games, but I don’t like when men compete by calling into question each other’s masculinity.

There is an analogous question for women: are female gender roles bad because they’re restrictive, or bad because of the specific content of those gender roles? Among the feminists I listen to, they think women’s gender roles are mostly bad because they’re restrictive (e.g. there is nothing wrong with wearing makeup, but it’s terrible that women are so often judged by their looks). But you might answer the question differently depending on the particular gender expectation under discussion. We must also ask the question anew for men.

The final point I would like to make is that there is more than one toxic masculinity.

Most trivially, male gender roles vary by cultural context. As a queer half-Filipino male in California, I was socialized very differently from my coworker, who is a student immigrant from Hong Kong. Feminist resources tend to discuss toxic masculinity as if it were a single universal phenomenon, but I think it is likely that they’re thinking of the kind of people most strongly represented in US media–white men. Mind you, even non-white men, and men in other countries are influenced by US media. But other cultural backgrounds may also produce their own varieties of toxic masculinity.

Even within US media, there are multiple male archetypes represented. To name a silly example, Snow White featured a single female archetype and seven distinct male archetypes. The original Ghostbusters had one woman (the secretary), and four distinct male characters. For some reason, when people think of masculinity, they often first think of the jock archetype. But the nerdy guy archetype is equally an expression of masculinity, and far more relevant to my life in academia. The nerdy guy archetype can be just as toxic as the jock archetype.

On the one hand, the multiplicity of male archetypes makes them less restrictive (so long as you never step foot into femininity). On the other hand, it also tends to make toxic masculinity harder to recognize, and more deniable. For example, gay men can tell themselves that they’re not partaking in toxic masculinity, because they see masculinity as something they’ve always felt forcibly excluded from.

I do not know what toxic masculinity is. I am trying to figure that out.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    The funny thing is, until I read the penultimate paragraph, I was already mentally composing a response featuring a reference to a gay friend of mine who has told me he’s felt oppressed by toxic masculinity. Of course, he’d never put it in such poncy terms, but that’s what he meant. He felt left out – sounds mild but those were the exact words he used – because he didn’t conform to either the gym-bunny leatherman stereotype or the skinny effeminate stereotype. He was “just” a bloke who fancied blokes instead of women. The fact this let him pass for straight without effort meant some gay men condemned him for not being “gay enough”, a charge he and I both found hilarious, what with him doing the whole “having sex with men” thing that we both assumed was the bar you had to get over. Forcibly excluded from the other masculine stereotypes they may be (and I question even that) but credit them with the simultaneous wit and dumbness to come up with an enforce masculine stereotypes of their own.

  2. says

    Complaints about gender expression among gay men go both ways. There’s a perception of a lot of femme men, but there’s also a lot of backlash to that. “No fats no fems” is a common refrain on m/m dating/hookup services, and many people advertise themselves as “straight-acting”. This is just brushing the surface. A lot of it is basically femmephobia, the belief that the femme gender expression is inherently worse or more annoying than a more “normal” gender expression.

    Femmephobia was one of the things I had in mind in the penultimate paragraph. Lots of gay men don’t see themselves as particularly masculine, but they still police the masculinity of other gay men. (The other thing I had in mind was rape culture.)

  3. Virtue Virtue says

    This is the biggest load of tripe I have ever read.

    Gay men can be very masculine. Look at Rob Halford, as an example.

  4. Jake Harban says

    As far as I can tell, “masculinity” refers to the idea of male gender roles, which are inherently harmful. “Toxic masculinity” refers to a situation where men fear they are failing to comply with male gender roles and double down on the worst aspects of them in order to “prove” to themselves, their peers, and/or society as a whole that they are properly compliant with said gender roles.

    Masculinity is “men should be competitive, emotionless, and violent.”

    Toxic masculinity is a man committing violence to prove he is compliant with the above.

    At least that’s what I can tell. Gender-related words seem to mean something different every time I hear them.

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