what does it mean, where does it come from – and is the term helpful or harmful?
It’s hard to avoid coming across the term “toxic masculinity” these days.
It has been linked to the war crimes of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, the Morrison government’s low credibility with women ahead of this year’s election – and further afield, the rise of Donald Trump and the Capitol Riots.
It is regularly applied to pop culture characters as diverse as the hypersensitive dinosaur nerd Ross Gellar from Friends, the adulterous alcoholic Don Draper in Mad Men and the violent and repressed Nate in Euphoria, who regularly tells his girlfriend: “If anyone ever tried to hurt you, I’d kill them.
The term “toxic masculinity” was obscure in the 1990s and early 2000s. But since around 2015, it has become ubiquitous in discussions of men and gender.
So what does this mean?
“Masculinity” refers to the roles, behaviors and attributes considered appropriate for boys and men in a given society. In short, masculinity refers to society’s expectations of men.
In many societies, boys and men are expected to be strong, active, aggressive, tough, bold, heterosexual, emotionally expressionless, and dominant. This is reinforced by socialization, media, peers, and a host of other influences. And this is reflected in the behavior of many boys and men.
The term “toxic masculinity” refers to a particular version of masculinity that is unhealthy for men and boys who conform to it, and harmful for those around them.
The phrase emphasizes the worst aspects of stereotypical male attributes. Toxic masculinity is represented by qualities such as violence, dominance, emotional illiteracy, sexual entitlement, and hostility to femininity.
This version of masculinity is considered “toxic” for two reasons.
First, it’s bad for women. It shapes sexist and patriarchal behaviors, including the abusive or violent treatment of women. Toxic masculinity thus contributes to gender inequalities that disadvantage women and privilege men.
Second, toxic masculinity is bad for men and boys themselves. Narrow stereotypical norms limit men’s physical and emotional health and their relationships with women, other men and children.
Origins of the term
The term first appeared in the mythopoetic (New Age) male movement of the 1980s.
The movement focused on healing men, using male-only workshops, nature retreats and rites of passage to rescue what it saw as predominantly male qualities and archetypes (the king, the warrior , the wild man, etc.) “masculinity.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the term spread to other self-help circles and academic work (e.g., on men’s mental health). Some American conservatives began applying the term to low-income, underemployed, and marginalized men, prescribing solutions such as restoring male-dominated families and family values.
“Toxic masculinity” was virtually non-existent in academic writing – including feminist work – until around 2015, except in a handful of texts on men’s health and well-being.
But as it spread through popular culture, scholars and feminist commentators have adopted the term, usually as shorthand for misogynistic words and actions. Although the term is now associated with a feminist critique of sexist norms of manhood, that’s not where it started.
It is virtually absent from the research on men and masculinities that developed rapidly from the mid-1970s, although its use in this field has increased over the past decade. However, this scholarship has long argued that there are culturally influential constructions of manhood and that they are tied to male dominance over women.
Benefits and risks
Properly understood, the term “toxic masculinity” has some merit. It recognizes that it is a social problem, focusing on how boys and men are socialized and how their lives are organized. This moves us away from biologically essentialist or determinist perspectives that suggest that male misbehavior is inevitable: “boys will be boys”.
“Toxic masculinity” highlights a specific form of masculinity and a specific set of social expectations that are unhealthy or dangerous. This (correctly) highlights the fact that stereotypical masculine norms shape men’s health, as well as their treatment of others.
The term has helped popularize feminist critiques of rigid gender norms and inequalities. It is more accessible than scholarly terms (like hegemonic masculinity). This has the potential to allow its use in the upbringing of boys and men, similar to the concept of “Man Box” (a term describing a rigid set of mandatory masculine qualities that confine men and boys) and other educational tools on masculinity.
By emphasizing harm to both men and women, the term has the potential to elicit less defensiveness from men than more overtly political terms such as “patriarchal” or “sexist” masculinity.
“Toxic masculinity” also carries potential risks. It is too easily interpreted as a suggestion that “all men are toxic”. It can make men feel blamed and attacked – the last thing we need if we are to invite men and boys to think critically about masculinity and gender. Persuasive public messages aimed at men can be more effective if they completely avoid the language of “masculinity”.
Whether she uses the term “toxic masculinity” or not, any criticism of the ugly things some men do, or the prevailing standards of manhood, will provoke defensive and hostile reactions from some men. Criticisms of sexism and unequal gender relations often provoke backlash, in the form of predictable expressions of anti-feminist sentiment.
The term could also draw attention to male disadvantage and overlook male privilege. Dominant gender norms can be “toxic” for men, but they also provide a range of unearned privileges (expectations of leadership in the workplace, absence of unpaid care work, prioritization of their sexual needs over those of women) and inform the harmful behavior of some men towards women.
“Toxic masculinity” can be used in a generalizing and simplistic way. Decades of research have established that constructions of masculinity are diverse and intersect with other forms of social difference.
The term can cement the assumption that the only way to engage men in progress towards gender equality is to foster “healthy” or “positive” masculinity. Yes, we need to redefine the standards of manhood. But we also need to encourage men to invest less in gender identities and boundaries, to stop controlling manhood, and to adopt less gender-defined ethical identities.
Whatever language we use, we need ways to name the influential social norms associated with manhood, to critique the harmful attitudes and behaviors some men have, and to promote healthier lives for men and boys.
Michael Flood, professor of sociology, Queensland University of Technology
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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