Toxic masculinity: A primer and commentary

The term toxic masculinity has appeared increasingly frequently in media and popular discussions of men and gender. The term typically is used to refer to the narrow, traditional, or stereotypical norms of masculinity which shape boys and men’s lives. These norms include the expectations that boys and men must be active, aggressive, tough, daring, and dominant.

The term toxic masculinity points to two interrelated impacts of the constructions of masculinity:

  • First, toxic masculinity is bad for women. It shapes men’s involvements in sexist and patriarchal behaviours and relations, including men’s abusive or violent treatment of women. That is, toxic masculinity contributes to gender inequalities which disadvantage women and privilege men.
  • Second, toxic masculinity is bad for men themselves. Narrow and stereotypical norms of masculinity constrain men’s physical and emotional health, their relations with women, their parenting of children, and their relations with other men.

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ has been linked to an ever-expanding list of social problems, including men’s own poor health, male violence against other males, men’s violence against women, and so on. The term is applied too to sexist, patriarchal, and/or homophobic cultures and contexts among men.

As Kirby Fenwick wrote recently, “We see this toxic masculinity play out in the disdain for anything that is coded feminine, in the use of “don’t be a girl” as an insult. We see it in the refrain: “boys don’t cry”. We see it in the socialisation of boys that normalises violence and aggressive behaviour, because “boys will be boys”. We see it when men are told to toughen up instead of to open up.”

Fenwick continues, “This adherence to traditional masculine ideals and rigid gender roles is linked to increased incidences of depression and suicide in men and to violence against women, including sexual assault and domestic violence. This is toxic masculinity. It is a type of masculinity that tells men there is only one way to be a man and that man must be dominant, aggressive and devoid of any emotion. It is a type of masculinity that forces men to live within the constraints of rigid and narrow gender roles. It is a type of masculinity that harms women and men.

Similarly, Jaclyn Friedman, commenting on the Steubenville rapes in 2013, wrote, “It’s a masculinity that defines itself not only in opposition to femaleness, but as inherently superior, drawing its strength from dominance over women’s “weakness,” and creating men who are happy to deliberately undermine women’s power; it is only in opposition to female vulnerability that it can be strong.” She continues, “Toxic masculinity is damaging to men, too, positing them as stoic sex-and-violence machines with allergies to tenderness, playfulness, and vulnerability. A reinvented masculinity will surely give men more room to express and explore themselves without shame or fear.”

More bluntly, Amanda Marcotte writes that “toxic masculinity is a specific model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control. It’s a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.” She argues that toxic masculinity is built on fear and insecurity, a “fear of ever seeming soft, tender, weak, or somehow less than manly”.

Breaking down the term

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ highlights a particular specific set of norms, expectations, and practices to do with masculinity which are toxic and unhealthy.

The term ‘masculinity’, defined simply, refers to the meanings given in any particular society to being male and the social organisation of men’s and boys’ lives and relations. ‘Masculinity’ refers in part to the dominant or most influential ideals or norms of how to be a boy and man in any particular context.

The term ‘toxic’ qualifies the term ‘masculinity’. It emphasises that the object of concern is a particular form of masculinity which is toxic – that there are particular norms and practices which are unhealthy, constraining, dangerous, and so on. Norms and ideals of manhood – that is, masculinity – are diverse, and there are contexts and cultures where those norms and ideals in fact are healthy.

The term thus does not mean that there is something fundamentally wrong about being male. But there is something fundamentally wrong with some particular versions of how to be a man.

A valuable term

The term toxic masculinity is valuable in several ways:

  • It emphasises that the problem is a social one, of how boys and men are socialised and how their lives are socially organised. It steers us away from biologically essentialist or determinist understandings (“Boys will be boys” etc.).
  • It highlights that it is one specific form of masculinity which is unhealthy or dangerous.
  • It implies that there are other forms of masculinity which are neutral or desirable. It invites attention to healthy or life-giving forms of masculinity.
  • It may help to popularise feminist critiques of gender and gender inequalities, beyond more inaccessible terms (such as hegemonic masculinity) and more overtly political ones (such as patriarchal or sexist masculinity). The term’s attention to sexist and patriarchal norms and behaviours is more indirect than terms such as sexist or patriarchal masculinity, and thus it may prompt less initial defensiveness among men.
  • Because it is relatively accessible and readily understandable, the term ‘toxic masculinity’ may be used in educational work among boys and men about masculinities and gender, in similar ways for example to the “Act Like a Man” Box and other teaching tools. On the other hand, because it contains such a negative descriptor, ‘toxic’, it may be easier for men to fail to see themselves in its analysis.

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ is useful because it is rooted in a social analysis – in an analysis of the social construction and organisation of men’s lives and relations. Feminist scholarship long has recognised that gender is socially constructed. Defined (too) simply, gender refers to the meanings given in any particular society to being female or male and the social organisation of women’s and men’s lives and relations.

Gender is the product of social forces and relations. Perhaps the best known example of this is how children are socialised into gender roles - through parental interaction, observation, toys, literature and other media. However, gender also is produced through everyday interactions, family socialisation, media representations, the workings of institutions, law and policy, and so on.

Blame and shame?

Some people have commented that the term toxic masculinity risks shaming and blaming men. Some do so because they come from the anti-feminist position that men are under attack and now the victims of a man-hating culture. Others do so because they come from the feminist position that men have a positive role to play in helping to build gender equality and they are concerned that the term may prompt too defensive and hostile a reaction from men.

However, in fact, any criticism of the ugly things some men do, and of dominant norms of manhood, will provoke such reactions among some men. Criticisms of sexism and of unequal gender relations always provoke some level of defensive backlash. 

Dangers in the term

While the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is useful, it also carries some potential risks. I identify four.

First, the term may be used to suggest that the problem with masculinity is only to do with the limitations it places on men and boys, and not also to do with the unfair privileges men and boys receive and the harms faced by women and girls. That is, the term may be used in ways which draw attention only to male disadvantage and not also to male privilege. Masculinity may be ‘toxic’ for men, but it is also rewarding, providing a range of unfair and unearned privileges. There has long been in masculinities scholarship and in profeminist men’s activism an attention both to the unfair and sexist advantages attached to masculinity and to the constraints of masculinity for men and boys – in other words, to both the privileges and the disadvantages of masculinity. A single-minded focus on males as victims would be both empirically inaccurate and politically dangerous.

Second, the term may shift attention away from actual men and men’s behaviours, identities, and relations. Some uses of the term ‘masculinity’ are criticised for this in academic scholarship, for speaking of ‘masculinity’ as some kind of free-floating set of ideas or norms, rather than also embedded in practices, social interactions, social institutions, and so on. That is, we should use the term ‘toxic’ not only for constructions of masculinity but for specific identities, practices, ways of relating, and cultures.

Third, the term may be used in generalising, homogenising, and simplistic ways. Decades of masculinities scholarship have established that constructions of masculinity are diverse, and shaped in part by their intersections with race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, and other forms of social difference. Discussions of toxic masculinity ideally will pay attention to the specific and contextual forms it takes.

Fourth, because it embodies the idea that some forms of masculinity are ‘toxic’ while others are not, the term may cement the assumption that the only way to involve men in progress towards gender equality is by fostering a ‘healthy masculinity’ (or equivalent). Yes, certainly, part of our work should be to ‘reconstruct’ masculinity – to redefine what it means to be a man, encouraging visions of a healthy, positive masculinity. At the same time, another part of our work should be to encourage males’ disinvestment in gendered identities and boundaries and to diminish the policing of gender and gender boundaries. There is value in engaging men in disinvesting from masculinity: in getting men to care less about whether they are perceived as masculine or not, to feel less anxiety about ‘proving’ themselves as ‘real men’, and in building ethical, gender-equitable identities among men that are less dependent on or defined by gender per se.

Academic scholarship

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ is not an academic term. It has little currency in academic scholarship on men and masculinities, although this may be changing. Common terms in scholarship for dominant forms of masculinity include ‘hegemonic masculinity’, pioneered by influential theorist Raewyn Connell, and simply ‘masculinity’. There is of course academic debate over how to understand these terms (as these pieces attest).

In any case, the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is likely to be part of popular and media discussions of men and gender for a while to come. Let’s make sure that it is used in ways that advance understanding and contribute to progress towards gender justice.

CITATION: Flood, M. (2018). Toxic masculinity: A primer and commentary. XY, June 7, 2018. URL: https://xyonline.net/content/toxic-masculinity-primer-and-commentary

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Appendix: Examples of the use of the term ‘toxic masculinity’

There are hundreds of examples in media of the use of the term 'toxic masculinity'. But here, I have collected pieces that offer substantive or valuable commentary.