Toxic Masculinity

UPDATE: Prompted by this article, Dan Griffin, the host of the Man Rules podcast invited me to speak on his program. Listen to our conversation and learn more about what toxic masculinity is and what it isn’t.

Recently, the term “toxic masculinity” as a description of unhealthy, injurious forms of masculinity has garnered much attention. Even though gender thought leaders—particularly in the field of men and masculinities—have been discussing for decades how toxic masculinity is harmful to men’s emotional and relational development, most of that dialogue was far removed from general conversation. Several years ago, when I co-authored a book about diagnosing toxic masculinity and mitigating its effects (Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing the Malaise of American Manhood, IPTM, 2014), it was still considered taboo to question how we raise boys.

In early 2019, the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men stated that raising boys into “traditional” masculinity is harmful to their health and wellness. Shortly after, Gillette ran a commercial for its razors, “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” calling out toxic masculinity and drawing commentary from news media and the public. The nearly two-minute spot elevated the male socialization conversation to a new level. Although the terminology was different, the diagnosis was the same: raising males to adhere to a rigidly polarized definition of masculinity—formulated partially on opposing anything resembling femininity—is dangerous to men’s mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health and to the health and wellbeing of others.

Misinterpreting “Toxic Masculinity”

Polarized thinking and tribal divisions make it difficult to have reasonable conversations on how to strike balance, embrace complexity, and forge new pathways for human growth and development.

Much of the initial pushback to the idea of toxic masculinity comes from people who take offense to the phrase. Many interpret the words to mean something they don’t and immediately disengage from any useful dialogue. Here are some examples:

  • I hear you describe masculinity as “bad” and “toxic” and I can only conclude you are anti-male and that you see all men as bad and toxic.
  • I hear you say that men need to be more feminine and I think you’re trying to emasculate men.
  • I hear you say only toxic masculinity is a problem, and I say “what about toxic femininity?”
  • I hear you wanting to eliminate masculinity and I say that will make boys weak, lazy, and fearful.

Those of us comfortable using the term “toxic masculinity”—social scientists, for instance—need to address critics’ misinterpretation and provide a helpful, accurate counter-narrative.

Masculinity isn’t Toxic

When we talk about toxic water, toxic air, and toxic food, we are not saying that all water, air, or food is toxic. We don’t assume that someone who is a zealous advocate of eradicating toxic forms of water, air, and food from society is anti-water or anti-air or against good food. In fact, it’s considered responsible, communal, and socially conscious to question our historical and contemporaneous practices of processing, storing, and delivering water; of monitoring what and how many agents we emit into the air; and of safely processing, delivering, and preparing food.

Although we may have different ideas about the particulars, most of us agree it would be inane and inappropriate to accuse zealous advocates of sinister intentions to eliminate water, air, and food supplies. The same is true about toxic masculinity. It is being conflated by some to mean masculinity is toxic rather than understanding that “toxic” is being used as an adjective to describe noxious or injurious forms or manifestations of masculinity.

Positive Masculinity versus Toxic Masculinity

Masculinity, in and of itself, is natural, good, and necessary for the survival and evolution of our species. Positive masculinity is how masculine energy—when consciously-calibrated, wisely-timed, and smartly-appropriated—is courageously life-giving, boldly empowering, and fiercely impactful to individual men and everyone else in their lives. Conversely, toxic masculinity is extreme, injurious, ill-timed, and poorly-appropriated. For example, the healthy competition inherent in free enterprise or a sporting event is positive masculinity while competing to win at all costs in intimate relationships or recklessly jostling for space and speed on the highway is toxic.

Although it’s easier for some to name and focus on obvious manifestations of toxic masculinity such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, and bullying, it’s more difficult to take it a step further and discuss ill-timed and poorly-appropriated masculine behaviors. Consider this: We want smart, knowledgeable men instructing and leading others, but we don’t want insecure, sexist men mansplaining to knowledgeable women things they already know.

No one is promoting men’s emasculation; rather, it’s about developing men’s full potential as human beings. Just as men might cross-train on different pieces of exercise equipment or different business platforms, they can cross-train on emotional skills. Tennis greats, Roger Federer and Serena Williams are both fierce competitors on-court but nurturing parents off. There is no rule that because he’s a male and she’s a female, they can’t both have masculine and feminine traits. Gender is more about spectrum than categories. Federer and Williams have just been cross-trained to use the best skills when and where needed. If we want men to be successful, happy, and fulfilled, we have to help them recognize all the health and wellness benefits of affirmative, life-enhancing behaviors.

Breaking out of our Gender Boxes

Gender essentialists believe that most gender differences are biologically driven. They resist the challenge to evolve and cross-train saying they can’t or shouldn’t learn and develop their feminine human energy and neither can or should women be developing their masculine human energy.

But nature is less rigid and more nuanced. As women learn to assert, compete, excel, and confront, they are structurally challenging gender essentialism. And they are validating the gender constructionist argument that—despite inherent biological differences in the sexes—when it comes to gender performance, cultural and societal expectations play a major role in our strengths and weaknesses. This shift will also contribute to the dismantling of patriarchy and challenge the ideas of what it takes to thrive in today’s world. In the same way, the women’s movement helped women break free from the limitations of their socialization, men need support and guidance to break out of their gender box.

Today’s tools for success are different than in the past. The healthiest and strongest humans aren’t those who suppress their humanity to fit into one side of a gender binary. Instead, they are the individuals who burst out of idealized gender boxes and work to cross-train to achieve their full humanity. In doing this, they deconstruct the old gender binary and patriarchal belief that feminine energy is weak (therefore women are inferior to men), and men exhibiting feminine energy—sensitivity, gentleness, and empathy—are weak as well. They embrace flexibility and fluidity, appropriately adapting to context in an interdependent world. To succeed and thrive, they strive to fully develop their physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual fitness.

Flexibility and Fluidity

It’s not a new concept. Witness how often we embrace flexibility and fluidity in a contextual world while delivering twenty-first-century products and services. Modern hybrid vehicles are engineered to respond to their environment and individual driver preferences. And, our phones come equipped with various functions, apps, and settings that allow us to “smartly” customize and navigate our electronic worlds. It’s fair to state that, as connection and service economies overtake and infiltrate older manufacturing economies, the human skills of emotional and social intelligences will become as integral to selling products and services as smart and efficient assembly processes are in a manufacturing economy.

The Future is Female

The phrase “the future is female” is not anti-male. It means the twenty-first century requires—no, demands—that humans embrace the feminine to thrive. It’s not a zero-sum game or a battle of the sexes where women will rule and men will become subordinate; where masculine energy won’t be adaptive or needed. It’s a future where the emotional intelligence found in the practice of mindfulness and compassion—along with the social intelligences of collaborative communication and empathic community-building—will be essential in order to remain relevant and fit for work, family, and community life. Those men who are open to change and to expanding their humanity will thrive while those who stubbornly cling to their twentieth-century ideas about what it means to be a man will be left behind.

The Next Frontier for Men

If men want to evolve, rather than remain stuck in anachronistic practices of conventional masculinity, we need to fully develop the nuances and possibilities of being male. The fit individual of the twenty-first century will have a full and varied toolbox of human traits to choose from, including knowing which tools to use and when.

It’s perplexing how guys who love a garage full of specific tools for each unique repair often only have a two-pound hammer of anger in their emotional toolbox. To lead fulfilling lives, men require more tools. For example, men can be courageous when they face their fears and explore their inner lives, not just when they face their fears and rush into a burning building to save a trapped baby. They can show strength by being vulnerable in an intimate relationship, not just when they crawl through a caved-in mineshaft to lead victims to safety. We need not be limited to one use per human trait.

Imagine our civilization if our response to the inevitable pull of evolution was restricted to only the loudest, most oppositional and resistant voices? The seeds of change cultivated by thought leaders, innovators, and other purveyors of shifts in human development would die on the vine of tradition. As men, we don’t need to choose between the familiar traditions of exploring the external world of fields and streams and challenging ourselves to explore our inner world of feelings and dreams. Both worlds are full of discovery.

Fear of Losing Gender Scripts

Our rigid gender scripts were helpful, even compulsory when we had rigid gender roles—men’s work and women’s work. Now, the distinctions have become blurred, with men and women’s roles overlapping at work and in home and family life. And when our gender roles change, our scripts must too.

It’s a fact that most of our innovations and movements are at risk of radicalization and misappropriation—it’s the human condition: The invention of the automobile created urban sprawl; mental health diagnoses gave individuals an excuse for murderous behaviors; sick pay gave lazy people a way to get a paid day off work. So yes, this movement to revision masculinity and reinvent manhood will also suffer from the human condition. And yes, gender fluidity with the lack of role definition for males will unfortunately enable some boys—and some parents/teachers/coaches who raise them—to be weak and soft when the context requires learning mental and emotional toughness; be yielding and deferring, when the context requires learning leadership and decisiveness; be malleable and uncertain when the context begs for firmness and boldness.

Still, we must move forward for the sake of pushing males to greater wellness and opportunity even while we may lament losing our old gender script of the past.

More than a Few Good Men

One thing we know for sure is that it will require more than a few strong, compassionate, and courageous men to change the culture of toxic masculinity, particularly if, when speaking and standing up, they’re judged and misunderstood. Floyd Dell said in 1914, “Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free.” More than 100 years later, a lot of men are still clinging to an outdated masculine ideology that not only hurts others but imprisons them. No matter what words we use—toxic masculinity, hegemonic masculinity, traditional masculinity, Mascupathy—we must move forward. It’s time to detox our masculinity, break free of outdated societal norms, and become fully human.

For more information about toxic masculinity and for help with the struggles of being a man in today’s world, contact the Men’s Resource Center through our website, or by phone at (616) 456-1178. If you won’t ask for help for fear of being weak and unmanly, this is the time to do what this article is encouraging—think of context and redefining courage. Remember that you ask for help all the time: help with your golf swing, help with your taxes, help fixing your car, help in installing a new sink, etc… It isn’t weakness or unmanly, it’s twenty-first century smart.