The Truth About ‘Toxic Masculinity’ –And Why It Is The Responsibility of Men To Fix It

Masculinity does not automatically equal toxicity. There are ways to “be a man” that are kinder and non-stereotypical –and male allies of feminism can help in getting the word out.

Masculinity does not automatically equal toxicity. There are ways to “be a man” that are kinder and non-stereotypical –and male allies of feminism can help in getting the word out.

Toxic masculinity is an academic term that has found its way into popular vocabulary. As it always happens in such cases, the meaning is somewhat diluted and unclear to laypersons.

Especially given how much the term came up in discussions about Kabir Singh, I realized that, it has been taken by many people to mean that “men are toxic” or that “masculinity itself is toxic.” No wonder that there is such a backlash, especially by men, who obviously perceive it as a “feminazi agenda to emasculate them.”

If you’re a man reading this, I can tell you now that toxic masculinity does not mean that “all men are toxic.” It means that some aspects of “traditional masculinity” are problematic. Stick around and read on, because ultimately, it is you who can make a real difference in fixing these problematic bits.

If you’re a woman, read on as well. At the very least, it will give you an idea about how to recognize the “toxic” traits in men around you.

Academic origins of Toxic Masculinity

The term “Hegemonic masculinity” was first coined in 1982 by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell and co-authors Dean Ashenden, Sandra Kessler, and Gary Dowsett, to describe “a dominant masculinity in any given situation that supersedes all other masculinities around it.” In 2005, they reevaluated the theory in light of the criticism around it, but the basic concept still stuck.

The first mainstream appearance of the term “toxic masculinity,” a 1990 was in a New Republic article by Daniel Gross, “The Gender Rap: ‘Toxic Masculinity’and Other Male Troubles,” in which he used the term to describe “behavior that diminishes women, children, other men.”

However, it is a study conducted in 2005, by Dr. Terry A. Kupers with imprisoned men that we mostly associate with the term “toxic masculinity” as we now understand it. He found that Connell’s hegemonic masculinity in a prison setting became toxic masculinity in its “pure form.” Pointing to black men who are disproportionately targeted by the American justice system. He argues that because of institutionalized racism for these men positive ways of expressing masculinity are cut off, leading them to express it in negative ways, and that prison further blocks their ability to find positive expressions.

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This piece by Soraya Roberts, is a fascinating exploration of all these approaches to toxic masculinity.

Last year, the American Psychological Association released a list of guidelines for mental health practitioners working with boys and men who are socialized to conform to “traditional masculinity ideology,” which they say can be harmful to them. For example, leaving them at disproportionate risk for school discipline (being punished or expelled more often), academic challenges and health disparities, including a higher risk for cardiovascular problems and substance abuse (alcoholism, drug addiction etc).

Okay, but what does it mean in real-world scenarios?

Toxic masculinity is what we get when certain traits culturally associated with masculinity are taken to an extreme. These include:

  • Suppression or masking of emotions, especially “feminine” emotions. For example ideas like “boys don’t cry,” but encouraging men when they express “masculine” emotions like anger.
  • Encouraging extreme stoicism, “toughness” or “hardness” in men. Example, the ideas of “mard ko dard nahi hota” (real men don’t feel pain) or the “sakht launda
  • Encouraging use of violence as an indicator of power. Example, the idea that a “real man” will settle conflicts via violence and fighting.
  • Narrow gender roles of men as “protectors” and “providers”. Example, shaming men who choose to do “womanly” things like cook and clean; or shaming men whose wives go to work for not being able to earn enough to keep her comfortable
  • A narrow expectation of what a “man” should look like. Example, the idea that real men look “macho”; that real men are “virile”; that men should not use certain hygiene products or makeup/jewellery.

When men are forced to fit into these narrow stereotypes and expectations, toxic masculinity is the result. The idea is created that there is only “one way” to “be a man,” and anyone who does not fit these parameters (including but not limited to gay men and trans men) is shamed and rejected.

This is the reason why men often do not report being sexually assaulted or having to face domestic abuse. They feel that doing so would make them “lesser” men.

Some examples

A popular example given to compare and contrast are those of current US President Donald Trump as an example of toxic masculinity and former President Barack Obama as an example of what positive masculinity can look like.

In India, many celebrities, including Salman Khan, have been held up as examples of toxic masculinity. Pop-cultural examples of toxic masculinity include Kabir Singh, or the characters played by Rahul Bose and Anil Kapoor in Dil Dhadakne Do, as opposed to the characters played by Ranveer Singh and Farhan Akhtar, who are representative of a different, unstereotypical masculinity.

The film A Death In The Gunj, is a superbly portrays how “toxic masculinity” can overshadow other kinds of masculinity.

But some women are “toxic” too. So why is “toxic femininity” not a thing?

As the term toxic masculinity has gained popularity, the term “toxic femininity” has been used to counter it. People who use the term use it to refer to women who are abusive, violent, nasty etc. For example, the “queen bee” boss at work who is too dominating, passive-aggressive girlfriends and women who falsely accuse men of rape, domestic abuse etc.

Well, these women are definitely toxic, but their bad behavious is not a result of so called “feminine traits” being taken to an extreme, the way toxic masculinity is a result of  so called “masculine traits” being taken to an extreme. In fact, the traits associated with femininity –submissiveness, nurturing, emotionality etc, when taken to an extreme are more harmful to the women themselves than to anyone else around them. In any case, they do not result in the sorts of behaviours described above.

As this piece by Tracy Moore points out women are toxic only when they imitate men.

But Feminism is toxic…

Well, yes. Feminism is toxic to patriarchy and misogyny. That’s kind of the point.

And that is a good thing for everyone, because feminism rejects traditional gender roles and narrow definitions of what it means to “be a woman” or “be a man.” So it is against toxic masculinity, and not men.

Okay fine. So how do we fix it?

We can begin of course, by rejecting narrow definitions of “manhood” and being more inclusive. Let us not bring up our children, especially our boys, by feeding them ideas like “boys must be tough” or that “boys don’t cry.”

However, as this insightful piece points out, focusing on cultural factors is not enough. It says, “by focusing on culture, people who oppose toxic masculinity can inadvertently collude with institutions that perpetuate it.

For example, the alcohol industry has funded research to deny the relationship between alcohol and violence, instead blaming “masculinity” and “cultures of drinking.” In this regard, the industry is repeating liberal feminist arguments about toxic masculinity. However, there is strong evidence that the density of liquor shops in a given geographic area increases the local rate of domestic violence. Any serious framework for preventing violence against women will address alcohol availability as well as masculine norms and sexism.”

Ultimately, only men can fix the toxic masculinity problem

When women talk about the negative aspects of masculinity, mean often get defensive. #NotAllMen is their instinctive response. This is why, it is important for men to speak where our voices don’t reach.

Men can be role models for young boys, and teach them to express their masculinity positively. Mothers must do their best to “raise the boys right,” but their efforts are more likely to create change if the boys have examples of positive masculinity that they can look up to.

As Wade Davis, an ex NFL player, who advocates for reconsidering our definitions of masculinity, says in this New York Times piece, “I don’t think it’s the work of women. I think it’s the work of men like myself who need to be talking to our brothers, fathers, our friends. It’s individual men, who are going to have to, at some point, decide how to define manhood and masculinity for himself.”

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