I was recently directed by a friend to a post in an online poly group where a stranger made transphobic comments. I may write more on that, but the original post warrants exploration first. An admin of the group shared his thoughts on “Toxic Masculinity,” He is a massage therapist who happens to be a bit “woo-woo” for my taste, but has generally been a reserved and polite association in my circles – here is what was said:
“Toxic masculinity” is not a good enough model for me. “Toxic gender roles” allows more possibility. Why does this matter to me- as a poly het white male?
First because I am in ongoing inquiry/conflict with all models of masculinity and maleness. None of them ever seem to be inclusive enough or free of shame. I’ve seen way too many times where gender roles were tools of oppression, more obviously toward women, but also toward men and other genders. This can be fatal.
Second- I’m more of the poly gender camp, than the 2 basics work for all camp. Deconstructing gender seems a logical outgrowth of deconstructing monogamy.
Third- I can’t get behind any terminology that targets any gender. IT’s too easy, too convenient, to use the short cut, and thus skip the critical nuances that make for authentic conversation. I can fall into blaming and shaming, and vigilance around these word choices is worth the effort- even when it feel severely tedious. Actually, especially when it feels tedious, because that is often my own resistance to the discomfort hidden in the wording.
Love, and even more in a polyamorous life, brings challenge. Seeing a person, being present to one’s own heat in the presence of others, is demanding. Casual choices are needed sometimes, just to allow some breathing room.
“Stereotypes exist for a reason”, JB, statistician.
So we all use models and stereotypes. But there is a cost. Poly life tends to increase the cost.
“The unexamined life is not worth living” Plato
The post was weeks old by the time I caught up, and any feedback I had was too little too late, but it has continued to linger in my mind. I was infuriated for days after first reading through it all. The transphobic responses that followed were not addressed by the admin, which added another layer to my frustration. Toxic masculinity went on display and the OP didn’t bother to call it out, which I assumed was his original intention: to help people recognize gender roles and toxic gender stereotypes for the betterment of the poly community and the world at large. There’s a lot there to unpack, and I can’t get to it all in a single post.
The term Toxic Masculinity originates from the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 80-90s, and while it has been incorporated in feminist discourse today, its core meaning remains intact. Anyone using the term to shame or accuse men of toxicity merely for being men are misusing it and oversimplifying the concept. It describes the myths society tells men and boys about the “right way” to be a man, while simultaneously threatening their worth and identity if they do not pass muster. This term does not declare masculinity inherently harmful.
The myth purports that real men must always be in control except when in the throes of hetero lust, of course, and they must reveal no vulnerability – especially if it’s in any way emotional! Since they are all natural leaders they must dominate others, take what they want to provide for their families and do it all with no outside help. This set of myths is fed to everyone in our society, and it is not just men who police masculinity. Those who identify as women can be just as guilty of perpetuating it as the next Axe deodorant ad.
I spent time believing all the myths of maleness – blindly following its tenets in an attempt to achieve “perfect manhood.” My trans identity offered me the opportunity to learn what being masculine-identified in society meant to me personally because I found many different types of advice on how to be a man. I could reject the myths that underserved me, and embrace the traits (regardless of their gender correlation) that I enjoyed. The examined life can indeed be fruitful.
But what about Toxic Femininity? The term isn’t as widely used, according to Google Trends. Feminism encourages women to deconstruct these myths and free society from the shackles of gender prescriptivity. Feminists have been critical of gender roles for decades and teach us that we must individually change our perspective and behavior to in turn affect society at large. While Feminism has tried to incorporate men into the work, there is no similar and singularly identifiable movement by or for men. I only find the term Meninism – sometimes used in seriousness, but often in jest – surfacing in mainstream cultural thought over the last few years.
So, according to the original post, Toxic Masculinity is “not a good enough model.” None of the masculine roles are “inclusive enough or free of shame.” Additionally, the binary gender camp is no good. Poly should aim to deconstruct it, he says (I heartily agree there). Lastly, the OP wants to get rid of terminology that “targets any gender.”
But we cannot effectively tackle the specific ailments our society carries by renaming the entire “model” in all future conversations. Who benefits from de-gendering the term “Toxic Masculinity?” How does that help us get rid of the male myths that do us harm? One might share their illness simply as cancer in general, but when discussing treatment they must be specific: lung cancer vs bone cancer. I think we should do the same in our discourse, particularly online.
Broken down, Toxic Masculinity can be summarized as ego or self-centric myths leading to control and domination. In comparison, Toxic Femininity is summarized as women being validated only in their relation to and desire from others (usually men). In any given conversation, the use of Toxic Gender Roles prohibits transparent communication. If I only see generalities in conversation, it becomes ethereal and irrelevant – I risk implementing the wrong treatment for the type of cancer.
To remove the phrase “Toxic Masculinity” and replace it with “Toxic Gender Roles” eradicates the utility of gender deconstruction movements, and perpetuates repression and shame that all men encounter in today’s society. Anonymizing the term does not generate an all-inclusive space, it does not halt gender targeting, and it certainly does not break down the gender binary.
The Feminist movement has invited men to join them for decades and men have often critiqued gender with a critical lens of their own in various ways. Regardless, we are not discussing the toxicity of the feminine mythos in most of our discourse today. We are discussing the harm in the perpetuation of the masculine mythos. Not just to men. Not just by men. We need those who identify as men to do away with the myths causing them shame, insecurity, emotional repression, and other lasting damage. We need those who do not identify as men to stop enforcing unjust roles on their children and partners.
We need to call it what it is: Toxic Masculinity.