“Toxic masculinity” refers to harmful forms of masculine expression, such as violence, aggression, aloofness, and the policing of other men’s masculinity.
Here, “toxic” is a restrictive adjective, which is to say that “toxic masculinity” refers to the subset of masculinity that is toxic; it does not mean that all masculinity is toxic. Nonetheless, this is a common point of confusion, perhaps because there’s little visible discussion of what might constitute non-toxic masculinity.
So I’d like to explain my ideas about what non-toxic masculinity should look like, on an abstract level. An outline:
- Toxic masculinity should be contrasted with “harmless masculinity”, not “virtuous masculinity”.
- Harmless masculinity is mostly a matter of aesthetics.
- Masculine aesthetics can also be toxic, but I argue that they are not necessarily so.
If we’re searching for masculinity that isn’t toxic, the first thing we might look for, is masculinity that is the opposite of toxic. That is to say, we want a virtuous masculinity. I will explain how we can locate a virtuous masculinity, and then I’ll explain why we don’t want one.
One idea in virtue ethics, dating back to Aristotle, is that each virtue is a golden mean between two extremes. For example, there is a spectrum from “passive” to “assertive” to “aggressive”. Aggressiveness is one extreme, and a form of toxic masculinity. But individual men get taught varying degrees of aggressiveness, and some men might be taught assertiveness, rather than aggressiveness.
I bring up this example, because I was explicitly taught to be assertive. When I was in elementary school, I was very shy, and periodically visited the school counselor, and she made a huge point about assertive, as opposed to passive or aggressive. Looking back, perhaps part of the reason I was visiting the counselor in the first place was because I wasn’t conforming to masculinity (I cried too much). And perhaps the particular degree of assertiveness taught to me was informed by my gender. Still, I think assertiveness is a virtue and it’s hard to complain about having been taught it.
Other masculine virtues can be constructed by a similar procedure. We start with an element of toxic masculinity like “violence”, then we construct a spectrum from “pacifism” to “violence”, and note that the golden mean is somewhere between those two extremes. We might disagree on where exactly the golden mean is (it wasn’t so long ago everyone was arguing over whether it was correct to punch Nazis), but you probably believe at least some men who were taught to follow whatever you think is the golden mean. And so you would say that those men were taught a form of virtuous masculinity.
Repeat for the other elements of toxic masculinity, and it doesn’t always work, but you can come up with at least a few other masculine virtues.
So I think “virtuous masculinity” definitely exists. But it should not exist.
I think assertiveness is a virtue, and I’m glad I was taught it. But girls should be taught assertiveness too, to the same degree. It shouldn’t be a gender thing. We don’t need girls to be slightly to one side of the golden mean while boys are slightly to the other side. We might all have different ideas of where exactly the golden mean is, but can we at least agree that the location of the golden mean doesn’t depend on gender?
In the context of finding positive male role models, yes we want the role models to be virtuous. But that’s just because role models should be virtuous in general. Female and feminine role models should virtuous in the same ways. Virtue shouldn’t be gendered. Masculine people who are virtuous: good. Virtuous masculinity: bad.
So we went looking for a masculinity that is the opposite of toxic masculinity, but what we discovered–virtuous masculinity–was just bad in a different way. I propose that should instead be looking for a harmless masculinity. This harmless masculinity would have neither a positive nor negative moral value. Instead, it is merely a matter of personal preference, and an avenue for expression. Harmless masculinity is, essentially, aesthetics.
There are plenty of low-hanging examples that I could describe. Clothing. Voice. Hair styles. Facial hair styles. Cosmetics and jewelry (or lack thereof). Accessories. Body language.
More controversially, I might add genre preferences in fiction. Genre is morally neutral after all, so it would at first appear that genre preference is an option for harmless gender expression. Let me return to this point.
In an article about toxic masculinity that I wrote several years ago, I said that there are two ways that toxic masculinity can cause harm:
First, men are pressured to conform to male gender roles.
Second, some of those male gender roles are in themselves bad.
When we talk about masculine aesthetics, we’re talking about gender roles that are, in themselves, neither good nor bad. However, it is still possible for masculine aesthetics to be toxic, if men are pressured to conform to these aesthetics. In order to construct a truly harmless masculinity, we must be mindful of how men might be pressured to conform to masculine gender roles–or how women might be pushed away.
So when I suggested that genre preferences might be harmlessly gendered, there’s an objection you could raise. Plenty of people have genre preferences that aren’t determined by their gender! And we could just say that in an ideal world, men would be permitted to like feminine things, and women would be permitted to like masculine things, but that’s not sufficient. Maybe some people like sci-fi, and they don’t want it to be an expression of masculinity, they just really like spaceships, you know? So even though it might initially seem harmless to gender genre, perhaps it’s not so harmless after all.
Can harmless masculinity even exist?
Following my argument that it’s harmful to gender genre, it seems we have a new problem. Couldn’t we apply the same argument to pretty much anything? How could I say that it’s harmful to gender genre, while maintaining that it’s harmless to gender clothing or hair styles?
Consider “body language”. I cross my legs in a position that is commonly considered feminine. Now, I’m gay and have long stopped worrying about whether my mannerisms are too feminine. But to be honest, I don’t really consider it to be particularly feminine? It’s just a comfortable position, maybe because my legs are really long or because I have low blood pressure. When I was younger, some kids would make fun of it. Perhaps the gendering of body language isn’t so harmless.
And what if a guy wants to put on nail polish without it being a feminine thing? Or wear a dress? Or use a purse? Or… or… We could keep going, eliminating every single item from our list of “harmless masculinity”, arguing ourselves into what is basically gender abolitionism. Maybe there is no harmless masculinity, nor harmless femininity. And why did we want such a thing in the first place?
As a counterpoint, I observe that the same problem theoretically exists for any aesthetic, and yet we seem to find it acceptable. For instance, “gothic” is an aesthetic. What if someone wants to adopt certain elements of gothic fashion, but doesn’t want to be associated with gothic fashion? This is not a problem we worry about, perhaps because it’s not a common preference, perhaps because it’s just kind of a non-issue. So at least theoretically, it could be a non-issue for gendered aesthetics.
Regardless of what is theoretically possible, at present there is a strong pressure for men to conform to masculine gender expression, and thus there is no harmless masculinity right now. And it’s up to us to navigate this in a way that reduces harm.