I’ve used the term ‘toxic masculinity’ now and again when discussing feminism, and I’m always slightly surprised by the reaction that I get.
It doesn’t seem to matter the context in which I use the term. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I explain what the term means. Every single time I bring it up, there is always at least one person who hears what I’m saying and they think that I mean that men are toxic. They assume that I am saying that men are all evil, and they are to blame for all the negative things that exist in this world.
Which isn’t what I mean. At all. Honestly, some of my best friends are men.
No? Not buying that blatant excuse? Okay, I guess I’ll have to explain a little further then.
So, in order to understand what I mean when I say ‘toxic masculinity’, you’re going to need to understand the feminist theory that gender is performative. First put forth by feminist scholar Judith Butler, this theory essentially states that gender is not what’s between your legs or what comes naturally to you as a human being – gender is a performance, and we are all given the script from infancy. And by the time that we’re adults, we are so accustomed to performing our parts that we don’t even realize we’re performing them anymore.
So a lot of the ways that we perform our gender – the way we dress, the things we say, the thoughts that cross our minds – they are all learned behaviour. Women aren’t more emotional by nature; women are perceived as more emotional because women are encouraged to discuss their feelings whereas men are discouraged from doing the same.
You may agree with this. You may not. But this is the theory that toxic masculinity rests on.
Because what the theory of toxic masculinity argues is that some of the behaviours that men are taught to engage in to prove their masculinity are, in fact, toxic.
And I don’t only mean toxic to other people – although it is certainly that. From a very young age, men are told that violence and domination are two surefire ways to prove that they are men. In our media, you are much more likely to see men solve their problems by punching them than by discussing them, and you are much more likely to see men respond to rejection with harassment than with genuine understanding. And this has contributed to a society where 99 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence are men. Men are also responsible for 98 percent of mass shootings and 90 percent of murders.
And women are not the only ones who are victimized by male violence (although that fact shouldn’t make you care any more or less about the fact that this is happening). Although one in four women will face domestic violence at some point in her life, 68 percent of homicide victims are men.
So, yeah, violence and domination is a real-life problem that affects all of us for the worst. And yet, that doesn’t seem to stop our media and our society from telling boys that violence and domination is one way to prove that you are a man.
But this is just one form of toxic behaviour that men might engage in to prove their masculinity. There are so many more.
For example, men are told from a young age that “real men don’t cry”. They’re told that nobody cares about their emotions, so “toughen up” and “be a man”. So, of course, to prove their masculinity, men will suppress their emotions and avoid talking about them. And perhaps because of this, depression in men goes woefully under diagnosed, despite the fact that men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women.
Men are also told from a young age that “real men” are “players” and “lady-killers”. They get all the women, all the time, and women love them. This contributes to this idea of women as conquests and trophies, yes, but it also contributes to this idea that a “real man” is heterosexual, and intensely interested in sex.
Men are told that “real men” have big penises, despite the fact that trans-men are not born with penises.
Men are told that “real men” are muscular, which contributes to poor body image for men who do not feel that they fit that image.
Men are told that “real men” are white – in fact, Asian-American men are frequently emasculated in our media.
This is what I am referring to when I say ‘toxic masculinity’. I am not saying that men are evil. I am not saying that men are toxic. I am saying that society has put in place certain methods by which men are expected to prove their masculinity, and many of these methods are toxic – to the men who do not live up to these expectations, to the men who do, and to everyone else around them.
And this is part of why I believe that it is important for us to talk about toxic masculinity, even despite the negative connotation that many have ascribed to the discussion. Because in recent news, we have had multiple movements that discuss some of the unfortunate side-effects of toxic masculinity, such as the #metoo movement and Bell Let’s Talk Day, but we haven’t been discussing the matter directly.
And if we are going to make some actual, lasting changes, we need to talk about it. We need to stop telling boys to bottle up their emotions, or to fix problems through violence. We as a society – men and women alike – need to change the definition of what a “real man” is, and we start by changing the way that we talk to men and boys about their masculinity.
Because there are so many ways to be a “real man”. Real men identify as men – that’s literally the end of it. And that means that real men do whatever the hell they want, so long as what they do doesn’t hurt others or themselves.