In the wake of the Gillette ad, the term “toxic masculinity” has been thrown around, but I’m not entirely sure we know what we’re talking about. 



In the wake of the controversial (but, I think, excellent) Gillette ad, it has become clear that many people have no idea what toxic masculinity means. Too many of us, including some who make a living from using words, seem to think the phrase implies that masculinity, in and of itself, is toxic. However, it only takes a reasonable understanding of the English language to realise that is a silly assumption. As someone cleverer than me on Twitter pointed out yesterday, we all know that there are toxic plants (oleander, deadly nightshade etc) but we don’t assume therefore that all plants are toxic.

Masculinity—which is not the same as being born a male—is not necessarily toxic. It is probably also not completely innate but, at least to some extent, taught. After all, if it wasn’t, why does our society still fiercely police the colours little boys can wear, or the toys it is acceptable for them to play with? It was someone else on Twitter recently who opined that if he caught his son playing with a dolls house he’d smash it to pieces. Why would he need to take such drastic action if masculinity is just something natural in male DNA? His tweet, by the way, is a very neat example of toxic masculinity.

Men who are comfortable in their masculinity—their male identity, if you like—don’t need to go around smashing doll’s houses or proving their virility at every turn. They don’t need to earn more money than their wives to feel manly or get aggressive when a woman dares to voice an alternative opinion. They don’t feel unmanned or emasculated by nurturing their children or doing household chores. They don’t need to harass or intimidate women to prove their male superiority. Their sense of themselves as a man remains secure even when (perhaps especially when) they perform stereotypically female tasks or express what we still see as the softer emotions.

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In fact, toxic masculinity looks to me very much like the shouty mask of fragile masculinity. Just as it has become commonplace to expect that the political and religious figures who pontificate most vociferously about “traditional family values” will be found in flagrante doing precisely what they condemn, so it seems to me that those who fulminate against the demonisation of men whenever they hear even a breath of criticism may not have as firm a grasp on their sense of identity as they would like us to believe.

Oh, and for those who have asked if there is such a thing as toxic femininity, there is. I am not a fan of stereotypical femininity in general—it is not straightforward enough for me, but—like masculinity—it is not toxic in and of itself. I like pretty clothes, make-up and brightly-coloured nail polish as much as the next woman. Toxic femininity, like its masculine counterpart, is when the stereotype of what it is to be an acceptable female is taken to extremes. Women who judge other women more harshly than men for the same behaviour are a common example of toxic femininity. The most damaging example I can think of, however, is the very rare (though much beloved by crime showrunners—see Sharp Objects) Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. This is a mental illness where mothers so enjoy their role as hero-nurturer they actually poison their own children to keep them perpetually and mysteriously sick. Literally toxic, in other words.

Feminists like me are not man-haters. Most of us—if not all of us—love our fathers, sons, brothers, male colleagues, friends and partners. What we hate is the damage we see toxic masculinity (not masculinity per se, just the toxic, rigid, performative kind) do to many men. After all, while it would be beyond awful to have a daughter who falls victim to some man in the grip of toxic masculinity, how horrible would it be to have a son who was so damaged he perpetrated such a crime?


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