Some Thoughts on ‘Toxic Masculinity’

A guest post from four friends of the blog on the topic of (toxic) masculinity. Maria Tanyag is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. Twitter: @maria_tanyag. Ibrahim Bahati is Mastercard Foundation Graduate scholar at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. Twitter: @Bahabris. David Duriesmith is Development Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies, The University of Queensland. Twitter: @DavidDuriesmith. Marysia Zalewski is Professor of International Relations in the School of Law & Politics at Cardiff University, UK. Twitter: @ProfMarysiaZed. Each shared their thoughts and reflections on two questions – (i) How do you understand the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’? and (ii) What can ‘we’ do about [toxic] masculinity?


How do you understand the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’?

Maria

I have many reservations about the increasing use of ‘toxic masculinity’ (noted in 2018 as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries). As a ‘buzzword’ it simply depoliticises wider inequalities and individualises and de-contextualises what specifically constitutes the ‘toxic’ in/with/through masculinit(ies). And for me, it is no coincidence that toxic has attracted wider applications to some of its original uses in relation to health and the environment at precisely a time when we are observing the rise of extremist ideologies, reversals in women’s and human rights, and environmental degradation. If we work with the feminist idea of a ‘continuum of violence’ we might be able to articulate how toxicity occurs on multiple levels or scales, as well as how it has come to represent a multi-dimensional phenomenon. The term toxic might reveal how it is not just individuals that incite a range of bodily harms, but also to gradual depletions in health and the environment. All of these are linked to power structures and embodied in gendered ways.

In my research on women’s bodily autonomy in the Philippines, I find that in social media, concepts such as toxic relationships, toxic politics, toxic workplaces, and even toxic ‘national’ culture (as in ‘toxic Filipino culture’) are increasingly used. I find this notion that there are toxic aspects of culture that can go hand in hand with nationalist sentiments and representations of ‘Pinoy Pride’.[1] I myself have started using ‘toxic’ in making sense of polarised politics in the Philippines under Duterte. Toxic is a very appropriate word to describe how my body reacts to hearing him speak and upon seeing images of him particularly as he interacts with women. Consequently, part of self-care for me has been to ‘detoxify’ or unplug from watching local news from time to time, though I know friends who do the opposite. They ‘rant’ or vent through social media to ‘purge’ the toxins out of their system.

Therefore I think this concept of toxic masculinity has the potential to rally us together, drawing the connections and revealing broader patterns behind toxicity. In particular, why and how specific forms of masculinity and violence resulting from this are interlinked with our environmental crisis. To what extent have forms of masculinity – predominantly expressed through domination and extraction – fuelled a range of crises embodying the toxicity of current global political and economic structures?

Ibrahim

‘Toxic masculinity’ seems to be everywhere now and might be understood as masculinity ‘excessively gone bad’. It refers to a narrow range of ideas which attaches masculinity to exaggerated traits, such as being violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth. The idea is that to be ‘real’ men, men must behave, act, think, live and die being stoic, fearless and emotionless. Behavioural examples that Ugandan men give include: being excused from unpaid care work such as cooking, raising children, disciplining one’s wife, not showing emotion or weakness, the traits assigned to femininity and women, the so-called ‘weaker sex’. This problematic narrative in Ugandan society can be traced back as far as the evolution of modern religion itself in various African regions. The creation stories where Eve was borne out of Adam’s rib, was interpreted by men at the pulpits to assign women as weaker sex, tempters of men, causer of Adam’s disobedience and assigned more to nature and lesser to God. Some critics have claimed that religion is the birthplace of patriarchy in our modern society, often arguing religious texts presents a ‘man’s book’ that regularly positions women as impure, prostitutes, weaker and with less intellect making them closer to the seduction of Satan than men. Toxic masculinity that flourished under religion consequently reinforces societal economic logics where men were destined to be bread winners and women to be child bearers. As such my argument is that separate entities of individualized toxic masculinity are engineered collectively in the name of religion, the economy and the state to assert that male dominance is virtuous and for the good of humanity.

It is important to realise that the practice of toxic masculinity is also intersectional. That is, overlapping issues such as race, class, age, ethnicity, social group and social beliefs have exposed how ideally traditional masculinities operate in different time and space and how, are at the same time are collectivized when topics like gender based violence come up. There are different understandings of how to act like a real traditional man in different sites: the school, market/workplace and the state. This is because there are also different power dynamics involved. Overall, the idea of toxic masculinity thrives not on turning men into hard masculine beings but also on garnering societal guilt that if manhood is changing or failing, it is because it is constantly under attack.

David

I have tried to get a clear sense of where the term came from, and how it gained its currency (although not in academic scholarship). It tends to be used in quite a slippery way, referring to notions of manhood which harm men, versions of masculinity which  promote violence, or broadly speaking, the behaviour of men who ‘go too far’.

Terms like toxic masculinity (and correlates like hypermasculinity) are deployed in interesting ways to identify behaviours of norms which should be highlighted, intervened against and replaced.  Like Maria, this kind of use frustrates me, because they decontextualize ‘toxic masculinity’ from the social order which produces articulations of gender, they unwrite the structural circumstances which give rise to them and decouple them from the histories that give them meaning. This concerns me as it can give a kind of common-sense understanding of who the bad guys are, which tends to smuggle in the classist, ageist, and racist narratives which exist in patriarchal societies to venerate some men and demonise others. This is certainly not the case for all uses of the term, but in many cases it seems like toxic masculinity becomes a short-hand for the way in which poor, young, or racialized men perform masculinity.

This creates a related challenge for me – that the term toxic masculinity also tends to come along with a similar common-sense notion about what it should be replaced with. In the past two years I have been focusing heavily on masculinity transformation programs, and one thing that has become abundantly clear is that articulating forms of ‘good’ masculinity is very difficult. Performances of gender are so deeply embedded in the social-political historical context, that when an attribute is espoused as a desirable component of masculinity, it is difficult disentangle that from histories that tend to valorise the performance of some men’s masculinity and pathologises others. All of this is to say, that I appreciate the easy way in which the term toxic masculinity can be used to explain that something is problematic with the way men conceive of being a man. I worry that its use in a given context becomes a woke short-hand for classism, ageism and racism without interrogating the wider range of problematic masculinities which may not be read as visibly ‘toxic.’

Marysia

The more I think about masculinity in all its variations, the more questions occur. What is masculinity, where is it? How do we know when we’ve ‘found it (seen it)? Why do we think we can ‘do something’ about it? It’s certainly the case that a huge amount has been written about masculinity/ies, but for a concept which is complex and certainly contested – not least whether it actually ‘exists’ at all – its popularity and ‘easy use’ in popular discourse worries me a lot. And the ‘new’ idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ has clearly taken hold of (some) public and social media imaginations. Toxic is a pretty serious word – resonating with a sense of being poisoned or being poisonous. Something to be got rid of certainly. It’s also a word which, perhaps unsurprisingly, causes some offence and a range of invariably irritated responses, from which I think we can learn a lot.

As a popularised thing, (toxic) masculinity recently reared its hegemonic head in the mediatised consumerist storm around the Gillette’s #MeToo-inspired advert. Twitter, Facebook, and numerous blog sites and other media outlets predictably began agitating away with righteous/bullish/fearful/arrogant/considered indignation/commentary (choose as appropriate). I read much of this it with great interest, as well also often with my own irritation, annoyance and exasperation. The latest piece I read which immensely annoyed me was Frank Furedi’s – ‘The crusade against masculinity’.[2] Furedi has something of a reputation of a public intellectual of some calibre in the UK at least, or he certainly presents in this way. Though as far as I am aware, his scholarly expertise does not include feminist or gender or masculinity studies. This is strange I think. Experts abound about a myriad of topics and issues. These specialists and experts are regularly called upon to give their views on subject X given their extensive work on subject X. But anything to do with gender – EVERYONE is an expert! Except they are not.[3] This, unsurprisingly, raises all kinds of serious worries about what information or assumed ‘expert knowledge’ is being propagated, what kind of damage this – actually ‘opinion’ – does, and what this tells us about the fortunes of feminist and other critical epistemologies not least in this current era of increasing assaults on gender with attempts at its outlawing as ‘ideology’ and ‘unscientific’.

But what Furedi says in his piece clearly has some appeal, it can ‘feel’ right. I think it is dangerous stuff. So let’s have a look at what he says – tread through some of his claims (opinions) to see where gender, specifically masculinity in his view, is being placed or imagined. And what kinds of emotional and methodological manoeuvres are made to have his narrative seem appealing.  I’ll start with what’s ‘not wrong’ in what he says – at least not wrong up to a point – which is the political point, offering some thoughts to trouble the ‘truth’ offered by Furedi.

Furedi rightly states that toxic masculinity has taken hold of (some) public imaginations and notably entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018. His claim that the contemporary attribution of toxic masculinity figuring white men as problematic and a ‘key obstacle to a just, ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ society’ is also largely accurate. Though perhaps the traditional vilification and over-incarceration of black men is just something ‘we’ve’ become accustomed to. Figuring white men – especially middle and upper class white men as ‘the/a problem’ is not something that such men are used to.

The use of word ‘crusade’ begins to fit comfortably in the narrative arch of Furedi’s piece – this ‘crusade’ for Furedi is not simply about men but masculinity. To be sure this is also accurate to a point – masculinity seems to be ‘the thing’ which can be changed, altered, removed (?), modified, tailored – something …. Why? For Furedi the hostility to masculine ‘virtues such as courage, risk-taking, self-control and stoicism’ is hugely problematic as these once-celebrated values are now treated as pathologies. The accuracy is getting muddled here – to be sure, some of the ‘values’ associated with particular sorts of masculinities are/have been under close scrutiny and have been bemoaned for a very long time, though courage probably isn’t one of them. Though it all depends what is meant by courage. A key theoretical insight of feminist scholarship has been to demonstrate how anything – a concept, a practice, an identity, a behaviour are all meaningless in and of themselves. Meaning becomes attached and one of the big meaning makers is gender (we know this by now – surely?). Courage in a man might be seen as courage and a good thing. Though in a woman? Not necessarily the same. The other three things mentioned by Furedi – risk-taking, self-control and stoicism – are similarly complexly layered and shot through with centuries of gender, race, sexuality and class. Take risk taking – an abundance of research has illustrated the gendered differential character of ‘risk-taking’. Indeed car insurance in the UK was traditionally cheaper for women given their (culturally learned) gendered propensity to be more ‘risk averse’. Well – until it was decided this acknowledgment of difference made a financial loss. Profit trumps fairness. But for Furedi, the plethora of gendered/raced discursive nuances – and their material consequences – are easily lost in the reverence for white patriarchal entitlement (and fears for its loss).

And yet the idea of masculinity as a kind of pathology is also not ‘wrong’. Gender has so often been theorised – brought to life – as a kind of ‘thing’ (like a ‘cancer’) that can be ‘cut out’. And in much of feminist theorizing, masculinity has certainly been understood as incurring harm(s). But Furedi curiously slips into a narrative about ‘other identities’ – ‘Our era is characterised by the flourishing and celebration of a growing number of identities, but it makes an exception for male identity’. Is masculinity an identity’? And what (who) are these ‘other identities’ that are ‘making out like bandits’? White male entitlement is working hard to get ‘back on top’ here. Masculinity gets lost in Furedi’s discussion, as he returns to men and brings in Erving Goffman’s (a white man) work on ‘spoiled identities’ as support. A ‘spoiled identity’ has no redeeming features. White men as having no redeeming features? One has to say this does seem like a major exaggeration. Though perhaps this has more to do with fearing the loss of traditional hegemonic ownerships of power and privilege.

And why bother with decades (and more) of feminist theorising on masculinities when we can look to a more (traditionally) recognised authority? Furedi offers the gender spotlight to the American Psychological Association’s recent guidelines for dealing with boys and men which explicitly present masculinity as akin to a ‘medical problem’. According to the APA, traditional masculinity is ‘marked by stoicism and competitiveness’ which might harm men. Psychology here offered as providing the intellectual resources that might give this crusade the authority of scientific expertise (though, at the risk of decades long repetition – feminists have been doing this kind of work for a very long time). And perhaps this is a moment to fleetingly reflect on the supposed opposite of masculinity, namely femininity. Have there been lifetimes, centuries of pathologizing femininity? All the attributed weaknesses and failings – is this not gendered toxicity par excellence? But who cares?

Furedi writes about boys as indisputably masculinely formed beings who are being denied their ‘realness’. How wrong can a respected scholar get gender? Though why does a ‘non-expert’ (however problematic the ‘expert’ label is) feel they can write so putatively authoritatively on this topic?

What can *we* do about masculinity?

Maria

This part is where I am still struggling and often I feel very powerless. When I think about what are the lasting impacts of Duterte’s hypermasculine leadership for gender equality in the Philippines, I sometimes find myself fearful of the future. But surely something as bad or toxic as the political, social, cultural and natural environments we are currently in, will be able to generate something equally good and transformative. The global aspects of toxicity in relationships, workplaces and climate may perhaps inspire new and radical forms of politics. So for me the question of what can we do is to facilitate fertile grounds for multi-scalar and integrated agendas that actively link structural and environmental dimensions behind how masculinities and femininities are produced and reproduced across various contexts. We are urgently in need of visions and actions that foster solidarities across a wide range of interconnected issues. When I hear toxic, I think of its opposite which is ‘nourishing’ or ‘life-generating’ and here feminists have made significant contributions in theorising peace and how gender equality serves to improve the overall well-being of communities and societies. As feminist scholars, we can actively articulate the importance of our theoretical and methodological tools in not just combatting the toxic, but especially in putting in place the conditions for flourishing.

Ibrahim

There is an intriguing backlash to toxic masculinity contemporarily. Think of how popular media blames toxic masculinity for: ‘rape, murder, mass shootings, gang violence, online trolling, climate change, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump,’ to name a few. Does this mask the real causes? It has been claimed that men’s fear, aggression and frustration can be linked to second wave feminism which resulted in ‘a society that feminized boys by denying them the necessary rites and ritual to realize their true selves as men.” This is the same era that the concept of hegemonic masculinities created by authors such as Connell produced new knowledges about how the dominance of certain men subjugates other men, women and society writ large. Today, we can say there is greater hope as we are seeing more men joining the campaign to explore the many faces of masculinity that exist. Certainly, there are leading men now re-owning the word. Real men to make others ‘understand that things like the concept of being a “real man” are just way for the patriarchy to maintain itself, and are fundamentally harmful to men.’ The Ugandan Policemen wearing heels, walking the city streets with babies on their back while carrying firewood and water calling out domestic violence by Ugandan men to Ugandan women is one example aiming to deconstruct the narrative. Other motivational campaigns that encourage men to presume their positions in fatherhood are also increasingly becoming common alongside others that checklist ‘bad men’ such as the #Metoo Movement. The MeToo Movement has exposed male misogyny and raised a banner for avoiding sexism.

I suggest that discussion about toxic masculinity should be taken ‘not to insult or to injure…. When we talk about toxic masculinity, we are doing so out of love for the boys and men in all of our lives.’ There needs to be unwavering support for bending gender rules encouraging boys to embrace diverse ways of becoming men and women and the global society alike, needs to promote an safe space for breaking masculine stereotypes that exist outside the societal Man Box where ‘trust, sadness, tenderness, patience, fear, insecurity, confusion, feeling overwhelmed and joy” are normalized and embraced. As men, we need not be lied to that we are invincible beings and there is ultimate relief in unlearning how not to act like one!

David

To my mind, the question of transforming aspects of masculinity which are harmful operates on a few different levels. On a (inter)personal level there is a great body of literature on transforming masculinity which emphasises transforming attitudes through shared reflection (consciousness raising) and personal change (praxis). This work came out of a political moment of pro-feminist men which learnt from earlier radical feminists and gay liberationists. However, I am more sceptical about this kind of work as a tool of broad social transformation. Programs with this intention have grown rapidly as policy tools to intervene against at-risk communities (read poor, brown, young men). Though there is some evidence of success in changing the individual attitudes of men, their broader effect on society and ability to scale up is far less clear.

There is more promise in looking at the structural roots of masculinity. Looking at the historical transformation of masculinity, it seems to me that most changes don’t come from efforts to change individual attitudes, but from structural conditions which shift men’s relationship with labour, political power and other institutions. In this regard I am quite optimistic about the possibility of change not by directly targeting men, but through the pursuit of feminist politics in society at large. In my own context (Australia) it seems like some of the most substantial shifts in masculinity have come in relation to homophobia (which remains a huge problem, but has shifted to a significant degree during my life-time). These shifts did not come from re-centring heterosexual men in public discourse. Rather the shifts in LGBTQI+ folk’s role in society produced attendant shifts in the gender order that have begun to weaken the association between masculinity and homophobia.

These shifts have also produced backlashes, such as the rise of the Lads Clubs and other permutations of the alt-right that idealise deeply patriarchal readings of masculinity. However, I don’t think it is correct to read these signs of backlash as a sign of failure, they represented an entirely expected outcome when the foundations of masculinity change (as they always have). Because of these reasons, I remain sceptical about the political potential of highlighting toxic masculinity as pathological and needing change. However, I remain optimistic about the enduring power of feminist agitation to weaken the social structures which provide a foundation for harmful masculinity.

Marysia

I posed some questions earlier about masculinity including ‘what is it?, and ‘where is it’? Many different answers have been provided to the first question (what is it?), though perhaps less to the second (where is it?). There are some answers to the latter of course – biology, genitals, hormones or the brain for example. And I think for practitioners wanting to do something ‘about’ masculinity, to really change it – knowing ‘where it is’ has to be important. For more critically oriented theorists and thinkers, locating masculinity in some kind of biological realm or indeed some ‘higher order’ is usually quite troubling and something to be critiqued, indeed deconstructed. Those encouraging or working for changes in masculinity typically understand masculinity to be socially constructed – this is ‘standard knowledge’ I would suggest. Think of the Gillette advert with its illustrations of ‘bad’ masculinity (exhibited in, for example, bullying or sexist behaviours exhibited by men) counterposed by ‘good masculinity’ (other men exhibiting kinder, nicer behaviours simultaneously showing that the ‘bad masculinity’ behaviour as wrong/unacceptable). This is entirely suggestive of the possibility of fundamental change though example or education or shaming or peer pressure – or – or – or…. And yet …. Did we forget about patriarchy? And power?

‘Patriarchy is not a feeling, but a mode of engrossing power, the power to define, to defeat, to enter into the bodies of women and extract from them the willingness to carry on’.[4]

Joseph Pierce’s commentary on the work of white male privilege discursively and affectively working to materially release sexually violent white men from their crimes, chillingly reminds of the powers of white masculinity and its breeding ground and support network – patriarchy. Whether young white male college student convicted rapists, or potential Supreme Court Judges, Pierce tells us that when it comes to sexual violence, ‘Men Have Futures, Women Have Memories’.

So, what can we do ‘about’ (toxic) masculinity/ies? I really don’t know. Though what I do know is that we should work hard to remember that masculinity isn’t something that belongs to men or male-defined bodies – whether ’naturally’ or ‘culturally inscribed’. It is something much more amorphous and shifting, inveigling its way into a multitude of places, thoughts, institutions, ideas and practices – very much like patriarchy. We might also work hard to remember that a lot of people have worked hard for a long time to research and critically theorise ‘what masculinity is’ (or perhaps more what it does) – notably feminist writers and actors. One might wonder if the under-noticed ‘toxicity’ of femininity, which produces a very different direction of injury than ‘toxic masculinity’ (think about it) plays a large part in this ongoing ‘forgetting’ of feminism and ‘female’ identified labour. Perhaps what we should do is stop talking about masculinity altogether.


[1] ‘Pinoy’ refers to the colloquial gentilic for Filipinos. The phrase ‘Pinoy pride’ has been used in social media as a marker of approval or sarcastically as disapproval about all things relating to national culture and identity.

[2] http://www.frankfuredi.com/article/the_crusade_against_masculinity

[3] Or think of the recent (or any) furore about Donald Trump’s ‘racist tweets’. Who (can), or is ‘allowed’ to decide if they are racist or not….?

[4] https://josephmpierce.com/2018/09/28/men-have-futures-women-have-memories-the-temporal-logics-of-sexual-violence/

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