What the F is: Toxic Masculinity
Updated: Jan 19
We more often hear what toxic masculinity is not, but not what it actually is.
A quick definition
Researchers have widely agreed that toxic masculinity can be fairly well summed up in three points:
Suppressing emotions, particularly hiding feelings of distress
Maintaining the appearance of being ‘tough’ and unaffected
Using violence to indicate or ‘prove’ power
Masculinity is not toxic
The phrase is very often confused with the inference that masculinity is toxic, whereas its real meaning is that there is such a thing as ‘toxic masculinity’ which does not wholly encompass masculinity. It also doesn’t infer that men are toxic. To unpack this further we need to take a few steps back and question why we solely associate masculinity with men.
Fairly recently, men have started embracing some traits we typically define as ‘feminine’. Some men have feminine features, for example. Even though categorising traits and features as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is a bit whack, we’re going to go with it for the purpose this article, as it does reflect the world we currently live in.
Anyone can have masculine traits and anyone can have feminine traits. For example, I, the author, a woman, have broad shoulders. That’s categorised as a masculine trait. My boyfriend has extremely long eyelashes. That’s a feminine trait. It’s also rude and a waste of good eyelashes because he doesn’t even utilise them for fluttering. It's also a bit weird because males are actually biologically disposed to have longer eyelashes because testosterone = hair growth. But we say long eyelashes are feminine? It just doesn't make sense, which is really the point I'm making.
Some women also embrace what we categorise as masculine traits, particularly in the workplace. I would argue that many women who have ‘made it’ to the top of big companies and positions of power have done so by embracing traits like assertiveness and even aggression when it comes to making sales and closing deals. Once again, it's a bit silly that these traits are even attached to gender, but once again, it's the world we live in. Second-wave feminists were known to embrace masculine traits like the above in an attempt to get ahead at work.
In summary, the term toxic masculinity isn’t inferring that masculinity is toxic, nor does it imply that all men are toxic for being masculine, and masculinity or masculine traits are not solely seen in men.
We spoke more about second wave feminists in episode 3 of our podcast.
The toxicity comes from a certain set of traits that we as a society have labelled ‘masculine’. The traits in question can be well summed up with the three dot points as the start of this article, but here are a few more specific examples:
Picking physical fights to ‘resolve’ issues
Getting angry to mask feelings of upset
Becoming violent when angry
Not showing the physical affection to your son that you show to your daughter (hi Trump)
Claiming that some actions/drinks/activities are ‘girly’ and should be avoided by men
Ridiculing men who reject the above points
These traits are labelled as toxic because they cause harm, not just to the people who have to be around them, but to the people who exude them as well. These traits can cause physical, mental and psychological harm to people who experience them, for example:
Repressing negative feelings, causing internalised hatred or even mental illness
Causing physical harm to others or oneself during violent episodes
Causing emotional damage to men or boys who are ridiculed for not exhibiting traits of toxic masculinity
What does it look like?
To make it even clearer, here are some more very specific examples of toxic masculinity that you have probably seen.
Ridiculing a man who orders a cocktail at a bar, saying it’s a ‘girly’ drink (or something more mean spirited but the same idea)
Telling a young boy he can’t wear a pink T-shirt because ‘pink is for girls’
Laughing at or insulting a man who cries due to emotional or physical pain
Using the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ to excuse dangerous or unacceptable behaviour from men or boys
Inferring men or boys ‘can’t control themselves’ when it comes to sexual urges, removing their agency (which suggests that it is inherently 'masculine' to want to bang everything in sight).
Suggesting fathers can’t love a child who is not their biological relative, rather is adopted, a step-child, or similar
Who’s to blame?
Society! Woohoo, that old chestnut. Toxic masculinity has been around since the beginning of time, so it’s a pretty hard one to get rid of. But with awareness, we can start to remove it from our everyday, and eventually, hopefully, there will be a generation who are brought up without it. Anyone can be guilty of perpetuating toxic masculinity, including women. I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears women using the term ‘boys will be boys’ or banning their sons from wearing what are categorised as ‘girls’ clothes. The issue of toxic masculinity goes beyond people who exude the traits, everything from their parenting, the environment they went to school, their job, to their spouses or partners will greatly impact it. Toxic masculinity does not begin and end with the men who exemplifies the traits and behaviours listed above. It’s certainly not as simple as blaming the men who perpetuate toxic masculinity, although I do not want to discount the real harm that can be caused by the men who do.
How can we avoid it?
Like many societal issues, it will take years of people speaking up. It’s particularly helpful if people with influence speak up, but you can make an impact by just talking about it in your circles and pointing it out when you see it happening. If you're a parent, or spend time around kids, things you say and do can make a huge impact on the next generation. Encouraging kids around you to express emotion, wear what they are drawn to, and do the activities they enjoy are three very straightforward ways to help those kids grow up without believing toxic masculinity traits are the norm. It’s a bit harder to handle adults who have these views, as they will be more stubborn in their beliefs. But I find the best way to question is to simply ask why, or request they explain their reasoning. Why can’t a man wear pink? Why is pink a girly colour? Why would it matter if a man is wearing a girly colour? Why can’t men cry or be upset?
If you take anything away from this article, it should be the following three things:
Masculinity isn’t toxic
Toxic masculinity harms everyone, including men and boys
Men aren’t the only people who perpetuate toxic masculinity