Toxic masculinity, as a social phenomenon, makes sense. Let me explain. When ideologies about gender-based rules by which people live by – the practices themselves crystallize into anticipated stereotypes. But, to understand toxic masculinity, we also have to understand the nature and history of patriarchy. Toxic masculinity covers such a broad sweeping category of behaviors/beliefs/practices typically performed by men.
As a social phenomenon, it has become a tool to define historically acceptable behavior by men towards women, themselves and/or other men. However, it is now being challenged, as it should.
WHAT IS TOXIC MASCULINITY?
For many, it’s simply just a catchall explanation for male violence and sexism. The term emerged from the men’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s. But then was adopted into university discourse and classroom studies.
So, what does toxic masculinity look like in practice? Some of the simpler examples would be telling men not to express their emotions or making anger the only acceptable masculine emotion. It tends to align violence with manliness. It tends to rely on the objectification of women. But, and here’s the most important part about all of the above, the ideology that supports all of this must also be defended as normal.
To understand toxic masculinity is to understand also, the nature of patriarchy. In many tribal groups, patriarchy was the normal way of living; the man was the center of the community. The man was the most valued participator and contributor. Anyone outside of that sphere was treated and assumed to be a secondary Citizen. We see this go as far back as prebiblical history – where even in the Adam and Eve narrative, women were created 2nd and blamed for the fall of humanity. In that context where men were charged with dominating nature and women were meant to just support men in all they do is a hangover from patriarchal principles.
Toxic masculinity is not a separate phenomenon from patriarchy. Because patriarchy exists, toxic masculinity exists. Patriarchy defined men as the protector and provider of a family or community. For a woman to take on that role, would make the man look weak. Even in the midst of that, we already hear a form of Toxic masculinity emerging. Society is at a loss when a way of thinking puts women as secondary contributors to human progress. When it adopts masculinity through a strained filter of expected behaviors, and part of that filter justifies the marginalization of women, men,nature– the progress of any society ultimately suffers.
In a psychoanalytic context, Terry Kupers describes toxic masculinity as “the need to aggressively compete and dominate others” and as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence”. According to Kupers, toxic masculinity serves to outline aspects of hegemonic masculinity that are socially destructive, “such as misogyny, homophobia, greed, and violent domination”. He contrasts these traits with more positive aspects of hegemonic masculinity such as “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…”
In Kuper’s exploration of how toxic masculinity materializes, it is not just the man who is the victim, but the woman who stands at the center of a form of reverse-objectification. Where the woman becomes valuable in the male narrative only as a prop to justify male aggression. Toxic masculinity uses women as pedestrian victims with or without their consent. In fact, in toxic masculinity, consent is a form of weakness.
Also, in Kuper’s work, we also see that the hegemony of the masculine narrative can be interpreted positively.
CATEGORIES LIMIT, THEY DO NOT HELP.
In all of this, we are met with the issues of categorizing certain behaviors and marginalizing others. Valuing certain ideas over others. That we somehow have misunderstood the map for the territory. More explicitly, what I mean to say, is that we rely on the term–to the point of extremism–to define for us what the parameters of what it looks like to be a man in today’s society. Even terms like LGBTQ, Trans and all the other important descriptors that have emerged, in the eyes of toxic masculinity, seem to only be used pejoratively through the lens of a paternalistic power dynamic.
For example, if a man likes the color pink, or loves rainbows, or embraces is a unicorn-then somehow either they are less male, assumed to be gay, and or feminized. Here is some other practical and ideological example to flesh this out:
- The pervasive idea of male-female interactions as competition, not cooperation.
- The pervasive idea that men cannot truly understand women, and vice versa–and following, that no true companionship can be had between different sexes.
- The expectation that Real Men are strong, and that showing emotion is incompatible with being strong. Anger is either framed as the exception to the rule or as not an emotion.
- Relatedly, the idea that a Real Man cannot be a victim of abuse, or that talking about it is shameful.
- Men are just like that: the expectation that Real Men are keenly interested in sex, want to have sex and are ready to have sex most if not all times
- The idea that Real Men should be prepared to be violent, even when it is not called for.
The main thing to remember here is that once you create a category–any type of category—there will naturally be a hierarchy and a set of choices that will be normalized and accepted; those that are not, are automatically ostracized as abnormal.
This is very much the case also with toxic masculinity. This then leads us to ask, (which is an important question): What is healthy masculinity? Does such a thing exist? If we have already decried the limitations of labels, do we need a categorical understanding of what it means to be a man in today’s context? This is a great place to start.
Some could easily argue that we do not need a definition of masculinity. That without it, what it means to be a man will be constantly emerging and evolving. Although this is where I personally stand on the issue, from a sociological perspective, to get to the point where identity is fluid – we have to systematically move away from all of the history and ideology that we currently now live under; more investigation, more flexibility, more openness will need to be the intrinsic stance of the society where toxic masculinity has been normalized.
It would be unrealistic to say that all of these kinds of changes could happen overnight. We all must begin changing our mindset into a more fluid understanding of what it means to be a human with gender identity is that we also need to begin challenging all of these notions. That men do not have to be inherently violent. Those men can treat women equally. Those men can express themselves in any form that they would prefer to, as long as that expression does not harm their fellow humans. That to be a man does not always have to inherently rely upon certain qualities.
Gender in and of itself is simply a term we rely on for social categorization. Gender and anatomy are two very different things. One is ideological, and the other is biological. However, anatomy is not destiny. Even now, in the new wave of epigenetics, we are finding that DNA is also not destiny. That to be the “who” we think we are, should be under scrutiny and investigation.
Another way to say all of this, in terms of identity-based potential, is to quote French philosopher, Julia Kristeva who claims that: “…language is what exiles us from the object of our desire.” Languages, ideas, and categories are inherent limiters of potential.
This then means, that our identity should and always be fluid. Or, we will always be tampering with what it means to be human in the ways in which it would suffocate all of the freedom that we all have been taught to desire as normal.
The major way out of awful things like toxic masculinity is to realize the above, and then we can deconstructing in reverse order how we got to where we are. Once we do, the hope is that we can begin building a much better, equal, society where gender and its categories do not have the last word.
It would be too easy to dismiss this as a historical knee-jerk reaction to the very apparent marginalization of women. It would also be extremely convenient to dismiss feminist discourse as a politically correct movement that will or should eventually fade into anonymity. If we are to learn from history, then we have to also learn how the negative power dynamics have developed and become normalized in our society and our daily lives.
Toxic Masculinity exists because it is a composite of ideas that relies on a history of defining what it means to be a man – either in relation to itself or to others. To provide coordinates out of such a deadlock, we also need to seriously deconstruct the justified narratives that got us here and began working toward a better future where equality is not just an academic subject we read about it, but something we all enact together.