Why are we hearing more and more about “toxic masculinity”?

Eve, Le Blog Best Practices, Personal development

The razor brand that once used an advert to claim it was “the best a man can get” is now touting positive masculinity in its “the best men can be” campaign, making a huge impact on the net, creating massive post-#MeToo buzz on social media, and inspiring endless column inches. In 2019, the idea of “toxic masculinity” has become an essential element in conversations about diversity. But what is it all about? Where did it come from? What does the concept say about society? The EVE webmagazine team takes a closer look.

Violence against women leads to violence among men

The concept of “toxic masculinity” appeared in the work of Wright Institute psychiatry researcher Terry Kupers, in the mid-2000s. In his studies on occurences of interpersonal violence in US prisons, the professor found that men who assault other men were usually misogynists with severe homophobia. He points out the existence of “toxic masculinity” in the form of a “constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence”. The mental illness expert believes that this culture dominates in environments where men are in a position of “disempowerment” (vulnerable, socially humiliated, disgraced, frustrated, and so on) and gets in the way of effective treatment for mental illness, sometimes even triggering symptoms.

An international survey by NGO Promundo Global, carried out on a group of young men aged 18 to 30 with no specific social exclusion issues found a link between alexithymia (holding back emotions) — an important part of “forced masculinity” — and the onset of suicidal thoughts, as well as other symptoms of depression that may become serious and cause additional health problems. In short, even healthy men can suffer the effects of “toxic masculinity”, which forces them to comply with standards that don’t match their personalities.

When virility hurts

The idea of harmful virility can also be found in the writings of the Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell, author of Masculinities. This gender expert categorizes masculinity into four main types:

1/ Hegemonic masculinity: the paragon of virility (or the revered “male perfection”), embodied by a young, healthy, athletic, powerful, rich, good-looking man, who finds success wherever he goes, and who sets the tone for social norms… But who in reality only represents a very tiny number of male-gendered individuals.

2/ Complicit masculinity: this is a group of men who do not meet the criteria for hegemonic masculinity but who hold up that ideal as their goal. They are firm believers in the paragon of male virility, they look up to those men as their idols, as though they are the last bastions of social order as the rest of the world is collapsing all around… This form of social order grants them certain indirect advantages: they have the same gender as the image of perfection they so revere, they benefit at least partially from the values attributed to it (natural leadership, acquired authority, spontaneous sense of action and decision, etc.) and the advantages that go with it (trust from the world around them, permission to defend their interests, social tolerance for any misbehaviour).

3/ Subordinate masculinity, in the words of Cornell, is represented by men who are “effeminate”. They display character traits or behaviors that are stereotypically attributed to femininity (showing emotions – fear in particular), a lack of interest in power and its attributes, giving in when others apply pressure, etc.) so they earn contempt from other men with misogynistic feelings: isn’t it better to deal with a woman than a wimp?

4/ Marginalized masculinity is the polar opposite of hegemonic masculinity. These men have nothing, they languish at the bottom of the social ladder, they have less than any of the other men and even the poorest of women: tramps, immigrants who clean floors at night, prisoners with no gang or jabbering mad men to whom nobody pays attention (and if their words or actions are misogynistic or homophobic, as Kupers noted, nobody really feels affected: it’s just the personal desperation of one sad little man, not an uninhibited proclamation by a group of thinking people).

Raewyn Connell’s diagram indicates that there is indeed diversity in masculinity, but that all its forms are dependent on one key issue to which they seek to conform or by which they are distinguished: virility.

Women’s empowerment and men’s unfinished liberation

The philosopher Olivia Gazalé believes that this virility is an ideology, a set of beliefs about men that support a system. And this system forces them to be “real men”. If they refuse, they may be abused by other men, and despised by women. Because this ideology of virility does not only affect men in terms of their relationships with each other; it also imposes gender codes on all relationships.

For Gazalé, women who outwit this idea by asserting their independence aren’t enough to change social order: men who are not free from the ideology of virility experience the empowerment of women as a kind of infringement of their right to be a man, and fight against it. These men who are trapped in the ideology of virility fear the rise of women as though it were a series of threats (a danger to their “roles” in the socio-professional world, in particular), or even as the direct cause of genuine or imaginary fall from grace, as described by the essayist Hanna Rosin in The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. The author believes that there may be a communicating vessel effect: when women take power, they deprive men of power. Unless, of course, we reject a Malthusian, and above all domineering, vision of power: gaining power does not necessarily mean taking power from others or wielding it over others.

Threatened virility = toxic masculinity?

By reading what experts on virility have to say, we can define more precisely what “toxic masculinity” really is: a full set of standards that require men to send out guarantees that they are conforming to male stereotypes, before they can begin to show sensitivity, emotions, or unique personality traits. Toxic masculinity exerts such a huge amount of pressure on men that they feel weakened by it.

So toxic masculinity would appear to be first and foremost an indicator of male anxiety, as Simone de Beauvoir believed when she said that “no one is more arrogant towards women, more aggressive or scornful than the man who is anxious about his virility”.

So, we can hypothesize that a kind of “serene virility” might be possible, one in which a man can enjoy conformity while being able to tolerate difference and allowing himself to feel his emotions, rather than an “anxious virility”, one in which a man has to be conservative and aggressive… and a “decentered and peaceful masculinity”, one in which a man would not need to position himself in relation to any set of standards in order to exist, and therefore distance himself from “toxic masculinity”.

Questioning the concept of “toxic masculinity”

The popularity of the notion of “toxic masculinity”, which became huge with the Gillette commercial, has not gone uncriticized. The very first reactions addressed the terminology in the advert, which some saw as violent and counterproductive, especially on social media. Commenters basically said you can’t motivate a man by attacking him with insults.

Others, such as biologist Heather E. Heying, brought up the idea of nature to counter the notion that aggression has cultural foundations and therefore connections with gender issues: what triggers violent or predatory reactions in animals (and we are animals) are basic survival needs (the need to eat, to reproduce, etc.) and the fear of threats. Gender has nothing to do with it. She suggests that talking about toxic masculinity is fundamentally essentialist, in that it attributes aggression to a sex, when it should actually be considered in terms of situations. This vision that may be appealing on paper fails to acknowledge the vital human need for social existence (we are animals, but perhaps a little different from the others), which by definition complicates the reasons for aggressiveness.

Black feminist blogger Joao Gabriell believes that aggression has a lot to do with social standards and the feeling of being accepted or rejected by society, but the concept of “toxic masculinity” confines the question of male violence against women and among men to a western-centered vision of gender issues. From his intersectional point of view, he suggests reading Leonora Miano’s book, Marianne et le garçon noir (Marianne and the black boy) to discover an approach that takes into account differences in the treatment of women and men of color by the white population, instead of positioning the gender marker in first position when dealing with toxic systems theory.

Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson.