By: Anthony Hall
I get it. I honestly get it. The person standing in front of you is saying something foolish. What they are saying is so idiotic that you don’t want to waste your valuable time or energy explaining to them that the earth isn’t flat but round and that water doesn’t slide off the planet because of gravity. So, instead of raising your blood pressure to correct them, you reach into your bag of labels and find the one that fits them. “Racist?” no. “Homophobic?” no. “Misogynist?” no. “Misguided?” no, not strong enough. “Ignorant?” getting closer, but no. “Stupid?” yes, that’s it. You call the person stupid, dismiss them, and walk away feeling good about yourself because you did not engage; you let the other person know that they are beneath you and not worth your time. While this type of dismissive behavior is rewarding in the short term, it is unrectifiable. In this paper, we will discuss one of those labels taking hold of our culture now: Toxic Masculinity.
Before we begin, let’s make one thing clear: this is not a paper dismissing women’s feelings or telling men they are fine the way they are; to the contrary. Neither men nor women have a monopoly on morality. However, that’s not what this paper is about; instead, this paper will talk about the laziness of a culture that would prefer to label something instead of having hard conversations, all while stating that “we need to have the hard conversations.”
History of The Label Toxic Masculinity
If we are going to walk around repeating a phrase, at the very least, we should do our homework and find out where the word came from; no worries, I researched and did the work for you.
Despite the term’s recent popularity among feminists, toxic masculinity did not originate with the women’s movement. It comes from the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980s and ’90s, motivated partly by a reaction to second-wave feminism. Through male-only workshops, wilderness retreats, and drumming circles, this movement promoted a masculine spirituality to rescue young men from what some call the “deep masculine”— a protective, “warrior” masculinity—from toxic masculinity. Men’s aggression and frustration were, according to the movement, the result of a society that feminized boys by denying them the necessary rites and rituals to realize their authentic selves as men (Slater, 2019).
This claim of singular, absolute masculinity has been roundly rejected since the late 1980s by the new sociology of masculinity. Led by the sociologist Raewyn Connell, this school of thought presents gender as the product of relations and behaviors rather than as a fixed set of identities and attributes. Connell’s work describes multiple masculinities shaped by class, race, culture, sexuality, and other factors, often competing with one another as to which can claim to be more authentic. In this view, the general social-scientific understanding of masculinity, the standards by which society defines a “real man,” can vary dramatically across time and place (Slater, 2019).
Connell and others theorized that common masculine ideals such as social respect, physical strength, and sexual potency become problematic when they set unattainable standards. Falling short can make boys and men insecure and anxious, prompting them to use force to feel and be seen as dominant and in control. Male violence in this scenario doesn’t emanate from something harmful or toxic that has crept into the nature of masculinity itself. Instead, it comes from these men’s social and political settings, the particularities of which set them up for inner conflicts over social expectations and male entitlement (Slater, 2019).
As a new generation began to popularize toxic masculinity, it increasingly mischaracterized the term. By the mid-2000s, despite Connell’s objections, Terry Kupers portrayed her complex theories in ways that echoed mythopoetic archetypes of healthy and destructive masculinity. Connell explains that by evaluating the principal criticisms, she is defending the underlying concept of masculinity, which is neither reified nor essentialist in most research. However, the criticism of trait models of gender and rigid typologies is sound (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005).
Simply put, masculinity is a complex thing. It is not something that one can fold up, put in a box, put a bow on it, and label toxic masculinity. It is fluid and requires an understanding of its different layers.
In a 2005 study of men in prison, the psychiatrist Terry Kupers defined toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.” Kupers would later admit that he could have explained this position in greater detail (Slater, 2019). Because of Kuper’s indolent definition, which, as mentioned before, Connell disagrees with, millions of people are walking around using the term toxic masculinity as an all-encompassing word.
Connell does note that “when the term toxic masculinity refers to the assertion of masculine privilege or men’s power, it is making a worthwhile point. There are well-known gender patterns in violent and abusive behavior.”
The question is: Where do these sexist attitudes come from, and are men and boys just the victims of cultural brainwashing into misogyny and aggression? Or are these problems more deep-seated and created by the myriad insecurities and contradictions of men’s lives under gender inequality? The problem with a crusade against toxic masculinity is that it risks overlooking the real-life conditions and forces that sustain a culture by targeting culture as the enemy.
There’s genuine danger in this misperception. People who oppose toxic masculinity can inadvertently collude with institutions that perpetuate it by focusing on culture. For example, the alcohol industry has funded research to deny the relationship between alcohol and violence; instead, they blame “masculinity” and “cultures of drinking.” The sector is repeating liberal feminist arguments about toxic masculinity in this regard. However, there is strong evidence that the density of liquor shops in a given geographic area increases the local rate of domestic violence. Any profound framework for preventing violence against women will address alcohol availability, masculine norms, and sexism.
When we restrict ourselves to the uncomplicated argument that “he did it because of toxic masculinity,” we are taking the coward’s way out; we are not diving deep into the different components that make up a man’s masculinity. We are taking the unchallenging route and placing a label on him; this is the problem with labeling people instead of engaging with them.
“Recognizing differences in the lives of men and boys is crucial to the effectiveness of efforts to resolve gender violence and inequality” (Slater, 2019).
One Last Thought
Throughout our lives, people attach labels to us, reflecting and affecting how others think about our identities and how we feel about ourselves (Facinghistory.org, N.D.). Labels we use to describe each other result from unfounded assumptions and stereotypes. We regularly apply labels to people we barely know or have never met. Thus, for good or bad, labels represent an influence on our identity that is often beyond our control (Facinghistory.org, N.D.).
The next time you are out and want to label someone something, whether it’s toxic masculinity or another label, keep in mind that the situation is more complicated than you may know. Suppose you jump to conclusions and begin labeling people without understanding the different aspects of them or their situations. In that case, you are no different than the person who thinks the earth is flat.
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