What is Toxic Masculinity, Anyway?

What is Toxic Masculinity, Anyway?

I saw the Gillette ad that’s got more than 1,000,000 dislikes on YouTube, and only half as many likes. It’s called ‘We Believe: The Best a Man Can Be,’ and ohhhhh are people pissed! (If the scores of dislikes hadn’t tipped you off). I admit, I had to Google the angry responses to the ad, because the reaction escaped me upon seeing the ad, which was filled with kindergarten lessons like ‘don’t be a bully’ and ‘treat people with respect.’

If you haven’t seen the video for yourself, eat your heart out:

I’ve also saved you the trouble of figuring out why people are pissed off in the first place. Here is, verbatim, some of what’s being said:

  • @JoeS3678 on Twitter said: “I am taking action. I’m researching every product made by Proctor & Gamble, throwing any I have in the trash, and never buying any of them again until everyone involved in this ad from top to bottom is fired and the company issues a public apology.”
  • A Fox News commentator asked: “Does Gillette want men to start shaving their legs, too?” (Cheeky – I liked that one)
  • @Willpowers5 on Twitter said: “This ad is offensive and insulting, imply that this is what men do, fight, barbecue and harass women.”

I’ll use the last tweet as my jumping off point, because that’s the only one that explained why they were pissed off. Very few of them have managed to do so.

The ad implies that men fight, barbecue and harass women. And to a degree, that’s a fair takeaway, because the ad depicts men doing those things. Void of nuance, you might think that’s all the ad is about. Like if you watched it with the sound off, or dropped out of middle school, for instance.

But the ad brings up a term that’s become vogue in modern feminism: Toxic Masculinity. Message boards and comments sections on websites are blowing up with the phrase ‘toxic masculinity,’ and it’s been that way for a while now.

So, what is toxic masculinity? Terry Kupers who, perhaps ironically, is a man, is a psychology M.D. who says that toxic masculinity serves to outline aspects of hegemonic masculinity that are socially destructive, “such as misogyny, homophobia, greed, and violent domination.” So, toxic masculinity = misogyny, homophobia, greed, and violent domination. Sure.

Increasingly, though, the word ‘masculinity’ has become an unwitting bedfellow to the word ‘toxic.’ Whether that’s because it’s a buzzy phrase of the moment, or because fourth wave feminists lack imagination, the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is ultimately what’s at stake in an ad like the one Gillette created.

But the broader dialogue that’s taking place around masculinity these days isn’t about having an identity or pride that’s wrapped into the human experience of being a man. Instead, it’s about the mandate that comes with the language, that masculinity, the identity of being a man, is now toxic. That there is something inherently incorrect about being a man. And it’s not about misogyny, or homophobia, greed or violence. It’s about some simpler things.

Things like ‘toughness’ and ‘muscularity’ are no longer safe words, for instance. Not for men. Same goes for ‘rugged,’ which always makes me think of guys in flannel, and guys who don’t moisturize.

The truth is, you’d be hard pressed to find a definition of masculinity these days that doesn’t offend someone, and if you do find that definition, then odds are it’s so void of substance that you’d just as well use it to describe ‘a person.’

But things are a tad different just across the gender spectrum. A ‘tough’ woman and even a muscular woman are, in fact, used as evidence of the spoils of modern feminism. Women don’t need to be dainty or petite anymore, and the best way to celebrate that is, in fact, by wrapping modern feminism under the same umbrella it proclaims as ‘toxic’ – the umbrella of masculinity.

Toughness and muscularity, to name two, are celebrated qualities in the modern woman. So is being outspoken, and having a take-charge attitude. By the way, all are great qualities in modern feminism – but they’re also entirely adopted from the traditional definitions of masculinity that are being demonized in order to lift itself up.

George Carlin captured this impressively – and 30 years ago, no less: “What’s the alternative [to modern feminism]? Pointless careerism? Putting on a man-tailored suit with shoulder pads and imitating all the worst behavior of men? This is the noblest thing that women can think of? To take a job in a criminal corporation that’s poisoning the environment and robbing customers out of their money? This is the worthiest thing they can think of? Isn’t there something nobler they can do to be helping this planet heal?”

It begs a great question. If women are increasingly being encouraged to forge new standards for their gender, but they invariably amount to balancing the gender wage gap, taking on high-powered jobs, of rising to the top of corporate ladders, then what has been achieved if modern feminism is just the appropriate-for-the-moment rebrand of masculinity?

And similarly, what has been achieved if masculinity’s only acceptable definition is now merely a synonym to the word ‘humanity’?

Because ultimately, it seems that’s what ‘this’ is about. Humanity. In recent years, there has been a deserved backlash against the perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault. And the language that goes with it, the so-called ‘locker room talk’ which has regrettably carried on long past its sell-by date.

It would be disingenuous to not point out that men are the leading perpetrators of these specific types of crimes, both literal and otherwise. That’s an unavoidable fact.

But it’s similarly disingenuous to perpetuate language that attacks masculinity just to hang a symbolic or literal victory over the perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment, or bullying, or selfishness. Masculinity isn’t the issue, it’s humanity. Humanity says we shouldn’t rape or force our advances on a peer. Humanity says that we shouldn’t chase a classmate through the streets, to demean them or to harm their bodies.

In fact, you could’ve replaced every man in that Gillette ad with a woman, and the message would’ve largely been kept in tact – don’t be a shitty person. (Spoiler alert, if it did offend you, you probably are a shitty person).

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but I’d argue that I’m simply responding to an oversimplification on its face, that there’s something wrong with being masculine. And it goes both ways.

There’s nothing wrong with a modern woman embracing traditional elements of femininity, for example, or of a modern man celebrating his physicality or strength. No progressive woman would discourage another woman from being herself, and no decent man would beg that all his male counterparts bare the burden of the contingent that hurts and harms women.

That’s a human obligation. A real man stands up for good, and so does a real woman. A real man supports his worthy peers on their rise up the corporate ladder, and so does a real woman.

Humanity, then, is what needs to be championed. Not at the expense of a gender’s identity, but for its own virtues. Masculinity shouldn’t come at the expense of women, and feminism shouldn’t masquerade itself as an alternative masculinity.

Humanity demands better of both.

Oh, and if you’re a man who was offended by the Gillette ad, I’m sure there are a lot of better humans who can explain it to you.

2 thoughts on “What is Toxic Masculinity, Anyway?

  1. Excellent article! I’m sharing this, because you just expressed so well what I think. It’s just about being good human beings.

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