Toxic Masculinity (Part I)

There is a lot of talk about toxic masculinity at the moment. The Gillette advertisement last year, condemning toxic masculinity, has raised the issue to a higher level of public debate. Toxic masculinity is the new colloquial term for hegemonic masculinity; the endemic legitimisation of oppressive, domineering behaviour among males. Hegemonic masculinity is a sociological term originally arising from “gender order theory” proposed by sociologist R.W. Connell in the 1980s[1]. Soon after Connell’s treatise, the concept was swiftly incorporated into feminist theories of patriarchal repression[2], becoming a centre-piece of feminist philosophy. In 2013, the concept was thrust into the public limelight by the publication of an article on a feminist website, “Geek Feminism Wiki”, which gave it the more colloquial name, toxic masculinity.[3]

Hegemonic or toxic masculinity (I will simply refer to it as toxic masculinity from this point on) refers to inappropriate male attitudes and behaviour resulting in sexist treatment of women, sexual harassment of women and homosexuals, violent aggressive behaviour, male domination of the workplace, emotional sterility (inability to express feelings), shallow bravado and bullying.

As with most complex sociological problems, once an issue becomes fodder for public consumption, the debate tends to quickly degenerate into absurdly simplistic generalisations and irrational ideological connections. I have several concerns regarding the current discussions about toxic masculinity.

Firstly, and at a very simple level, the current denunciation of toxic masculinity has done what most debates do when they emerge from academia into the public arena; degenerated into sweeping generalisations. The various public campaigns against toxic masculinity have over-reached, by giving the impression that the abusive behaviour being justifiably condemned is endemic within the majority of the male population. An exaggerated caricature of maleness has been created that is neither universal nor even typical. I know hundreds of men and I do not know anyone who is even remotely close to the caricature that is depicted by toxic masculinity campaigns. I am sure they exist, and perhaps I travel in somewhat refined Christian circles, but I do not regularly come into contact with them. I am convinced that such men are in the minority, and increasingly so, as our society continues to promote inclusive, egalitarian values and swiftly denounce those who contradict those values.

Secondly, the current debate generally fails to delineate between abusive, immoral behaviour and morally neutral gender-specific male traits. The Wikipedia page on hegemonic / toxic masculinity, for example, begins by defining it as:

“domination of women, a hierarchy of intermale dominance, …  a high degree of ruthless competition, an inability to express emotions other than anger, an unwillingness to admit weakness or dependency, devaluation of women and all feminine attributes in men, homophobia.”[4]

A couple of paragraphs further down, however, the Wikipedia entry adds what it refers to as “masculine scripts of behaviour” to the long list of characteristics of toxic masculinity:

“violence and aggression, courage, toughness, physical strength, athleticism, risk-taking, adventure and thrill-seeking, competitiveness, achievement and success.”[5]

Can you see what the article is doing? It is mixing morally neutral gender traits with abusive, immoral behaviour, so that the gender traits now become guilty by association. We are right to condemn immoral behaviour such as bullying and sexual harassment. These behaviours have no place in a modern society, whether they be perpetrated by men or women. But can you see how the article has included morally neutral male gender traits in their definition of toxic masculinity? Qualities such as courage, physical strength, risk-taking, thrill-seeking, and competitiveness are morally neutral. Like most things, when pushed to an extreme they can become dangerous and foolish, but in their normal, more balanced expression, these qualities are morally neutral and even desirable in many circumstances.

Other gender-specific traits, such as the difficulty some men have in expressing their emotions, can certainly be conceded as a generalised (but not universal) weakness within men, but these are absolutely not immoral or toxic. Both genders have weaknesses as well as strengths.  But to single out issues where (some) men may not be as competent as women, and label those as “toxic”, is going a step too far.

This irrational ideological connection between immoral behaviour and morally neutral gender traits is confusing the issues and poisoning the current debate. Men who object to the term “toxic masculinity” are criticised by the feminist movement as defending immoral behaviour, whereas many of the male objectors are simply pointing out that the inclusion of morally neutral male gender traits in the list of “sins” is utterly illogical.

To be continued next week …

Kevin Simington


[1] Connell, R. W. (1987). Gender and power: society, the person and sexual politics. Sydney Boston: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 9780041500868.