Why the term “Toxic masculinity” is less an indictment against you as an individual, and is more a wakeup call to society as a whole. 

I responded to a question the other day on Twitter. I am trying to focus my engagement there to not be a knee-jerk response to everything that I disagree with because that tends to lead to me being quite negative in the rest of my life. So, I thought that since studying and discussing masculinities is my thing, that I would respond to this.

The interlocutor was asking questions about “toxic masculinity,” as follows: “Ok, so the text-book definition of “toxic masculinity” is actually just bad behavior whether you are a man or a woman. Correct?” The question came with a Poll that one could fill in as a way of answering the question.

“Yes, it is. Period.
No, you toxic … man!!!
Intern camp is awaiting
What is it? Food?”

The problem was, I didn’t see an answer that seemed to fit with how I understand the term. In fact, I am not sure I understood what some of them were referring to. Don’t worry, I find that I have a hard time understanding lots of polls and questionnaires. I also have to admit, reading the question and seeing the poll, I wondered if the questioner was trying to get rid of the idea of toxic masculinity by saying something along the lines of, “Oh. You know women are also toxic so why not just call people toxic. Why single out men?”

Rather than selecting of the questions in the poll, I replied, “Isn’t ‘toxic masculinity’ a type of masculinity that’s toxic? It’s just one of the variety of masculinities that exist in the world.” It was more of a feeler to see if we could get onto the same page.

The response was, “Correct, but the question was whether how we define toxic masculinity is just simply a bad behaving human regardless of gender? Therefore no need to have that term at all, right? Or are we going to have toxic femineity (sic) to go with it with the exact same definition otherwise?”

It seems that my first impressions were correct and that this was an attempt to paint all people with the same brush. It also indicated a concept of masculinity that is based on individual actions rather than societal norms.

Certainly, all people can be toxic and so on one level one could merely use that term to describe people’s actions. However, once we start talking gender, we move into a different realm because while individuals may believe and act in certain ways based on their own individual ideas, in reality gender is something that is societally defined. As I have said elsewhere, masculinity is “possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men” (OED) or “the approved way of being an adult male in any given society” (Gilmore, 1990). It is a norm that is accepted at face value. Of course we know that there is more than one acceptable way of expressing gender but each of these ways is also determined by a society and not by individuals. The use of “masculinity” implies a societal norm that is modified by the word “toxic.” Thus, it’s the masculinity that’s toxic and not men per se. What it means when we tie it all together is that “toxic masculinity” is a way men can express their masculinity in toxic ways that are acceptable to society.

Toxic masculinity is therefore not merely men being toxic. Rather it’s men and women reflecting a way of being a man that is toxic. But it’s more than that — it’s expressing a harmful way of being a man that has become a norm in society. It includes such things as violence against women, boys will be boys, and patriarchy. So, on that level it’s not appropriate to simply remove the “masculinity” from the term and include both men and women, unless of course women also express their femininity in toxic ways. Which is itself and interesting question that I honestly don’t have an answer to. What would be an example of toxic femininity I wonder?

The term “toxic masculinity” is really a wakeup call for society to reconsider what we feel is normal. Toxic masculinity cannot be eliminated by merely removing the word from the phrase. The only way to eliminate it is to change what we as a society think is acceptable.

So, are you upset with the term “toxic masculinity” because it doesn’t reflect who you are as an individual? Great! It should make us upset. Want to make things better? Call out things like the normalisation of violence against women, boys will be boys, and patriarchy so that the toxicity can be made safe.

As always, I would like to hear your voice on this important topic. Does what I am saying make sense or have I missed the mark in some way. Please let me know in the comments below.

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Image by danilo.alvesd on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “Why the term “Toxic masculinity” is less an indictment against you as an individual, and is more a wakeup call to society as a whole. 

  1. Hi Michael,
    This is a provocative post. My thoughts:
    1 I think masculinity and femininity are at either ends of the same continuum. “Masculinity is defined by its relationship with femininity.” Council of Europe, Gender Matters
    2 females are very capable of toxic (malicious, harmful) behaviour. A group of young teenagers attacked and may have killed a man in manitoba a few days ago, as one example.
    3 what kinds of masculinity are there besides toxic?
    4 it is helpful to define terms. “Isn’t ‘toxic masculinity’ a type of masculinity that’s toxic?” Is a circular argument so not helpful.
    5. Is patriarchy always toxic? I guess that some cultures and social networks find it helpful. Even in the West.
    6. I would rather call out bad behaviour where and when it occurs. Regardless of the gender of the perpetrator. I don’t think society for the most part condones harmful, malicious behaviour.


    • I really always appreciate your replies, Helen. These are a series of great questions that I am not sure I can answer in a reply. I am planning a series on Masculinity and these questions would be a great addition to that series. Is it ok if I add these to my list and address them one by one in the future?


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