Male obsolescence is growing; signs of failure and alienation among young men and the popularity of misogynistic and violent male ‘prophets’ have led many to conclude that ‘toxic masculinity’ is on the rise. Michael Kimmel questions the efficacy of this concept for truly understanding and remedying the issues men face today.
I’m not much of a fan of “toxic masculinity.” I don’t mean the cluster of behaviors, attitudes and traits that are thrown together and broadly defined as “toxic.” I mean the phrase itself. Perhaps even the idea of the phrase itself.
The term “toxic masculinity” is often used to describe everything that’s wrong with men. It’s a cluster of ideas and values that are dangerous and destructive, values that promote antisocial behavior, violence, and the denigration of women, LGBT people and other minorities. It’s used to describe everything from misogynist Men’s Rights Activists, gun owners, Trump supporters all the way to hunters, soldiers, and Republicans more generally. It’s become a catchphrase, flung around haphazardly like “privilege.”
This is invariably contrasted with “healthy” masculinity or the “good kind” of masculinity – the sort of masculinity that nurtures and cares for others, that supports women and LGBT people, is environmentally friendly, a loving dad and a Democrat.
When something bad happens – a school shooting, a terrorist attack, a racist Trump tweet – we often attribute it to toxic masculinity. And it seems that we believe that toxic masculinity is something you “have,” not something that you do; indeed, the Urban Dictionary differentiates between being masculine and toxic masculinity precisely in this way: “one can be masculine without having toxic masculinity.”
So what’s wrong with this framing? It sees “toxic masculinity” characterized like the flu: a disease that otherwise “healthy” males can catch, in military bases, locker rooms, frat houses, various hinterlands of cyberspace, and the Oval Office. Subsequently, the goal is to either develop prevention protocols to inoculate young men from the dangers of toxicity, or therapies to cure them once they “catch” the toxic germs. This medical metaphor obscures how masculinities are enacted, rather than simply something you “have.”
Second, who gets to decide what is toxic and what is healthy? Is there a rule book somewhere? One man’s toxic might be another man’s healthy. In a social world in which some masculinities are credited over others – think white, heterosexual, middle and upper class, able-bodied for starters – I wouldn’t encourage trusting those in power to decide what’s toxic and what’s not. And the marginalized, while far more aware of the effects of toxic masculinity than the powerful, might also not agree among themselves.
What sorts of pressures, demands, seductions and rewards do they experience that leads them down this prickly path of toxicity? That is, the dynamics of how men come to behave are completely invisible
In addition, we think that those enacting toxic masculinity are deviants – that the norm is healthy masculinity and toxicity is simply a temporary or chronic deviation from the healthy. But that suggests a tidy linear continuum between toxicity at one end and healthy at the other end. Healthy is at one end, and the political goal is to move people from the deviant to the conforming pole.
This entirely misses how the enactments of masculinity we call “toxic” are not “deviant” at all. Rather, they are better understood as over-conforming. There are norms of masculinity about strength, power, domination, winning, etc. These are not deviant ideals; they are the ideals that men learn as little boys and contend with all our lives. What’s toxic is not lack of conformity to those norms, it’s over-conforming.
Which means that toxic masculinity is not, after all, qualitatively different from healthy masculinity, but simply quantitatively different. It’s as if it’s too much of what might otherwise be a good thing. It might be that too much healthy masculinity leads to toxic masculinity.
Both positions imagine masculinity a single dimension after all, and men’s navigation of their gendered experience to be akin to Goldilocks: not too hot (toxic Masculinity) and not too cold (effeminacy) but “just right” (healthy masculinity).
In my experience working with men over the past four decades, I’ve found very few men who respond positively to the toxic-healthy binary model. Most hear themselves being criticized, judged, shamed. Who wants to be lectured, hectored, cajoled and criticized into changing, especially when you don’t know what you’re changing into? And so they become more resistant than resilient, more entrenched than engaged. They find their way to false prophets of masculinity, influencers who tell them that it’s not them, but everyone else, that’s the problem.
Most importantly, these abstract conceptions of “toxic” and “healthy” tell us nothing about the social relationships that produce these behaviors in the first place. Where do these ideas come from? Why do men “choose” to enact toxic masculinity? What sorts of pressures, demands, seductions and rewards, do they experience that leads them down this prickly path of toxicity? That is, the dynamics of how men come to behave are completely invisible.
These definitions – nor the constellation of values and attitudes and behaviors that constitute and express them - do not exist in some abstract form. They are produced in social interaction. As Marx wrote so famously in 1843 about human nature – that “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations” – is equally true of definitions of masculinity. It is no abstraction that each individual man enacts. Masculinity is that which is produced through interaction and validated by others. And, importantly, validated by other men.
These are the dynamics that we need to understand – and explore – with other men if we are to address those parts of masculinity that we call “toxic.” This means focusing on the social dynamics that produce and reproduce those behaviors. The formation of identity is both an internal effort to reconcile disparate and often contradictory notions of manhood, and an interaction of those values with the outside world.
As a result, “toxic” and “healthy” masculinity is not a binary opposition that we approach individually, but a set of social circumstances by which some aspects of masculinity are valorized and others denigrated. It’s an internal conversation, self-reflective behavior that is in dialogue with the external world. It’s about knowing what is good, and feeling unable to enact it.
What does it mean to be a good man? I have asked this question of several thousand young men and boys around the world, over the past 25 years – in Australian single-sex schools, college classrooms in the U.S., in a police academy in Sweden, and to former soccer stars at FIFA, and cadets at West Point.
Masculinity is homosocial – that is, it is other men who judge the effectiveness of our performance of it
Their answers rarely vary. Here are the characteristics that men believe make a good man:
Being a good provider, protector
Doing the right thing
Putting others first, sacrifice
Standing up for the little guy
(Of course, you’ll notice that this is actually what it means to be a good person, but you might also be surprised at how gendered many men feel it to be.)
Where, I then ask, did you learn this? They look a bit confused. Eventually, someone will say, “well, it’s everywhere.” It’s Shakespearean, Homeric. It’s the Judeo-Christian heritage. Pretty much everyone agrees that this is what it means to be a good man and that we learn it through osmosis in our respective cultures.
Conversely, when asked about what ideas or words or phrases are associated with being told to “man up” or “be a real man”, the list was different:
Don’t show your feelings
Play through pain
Suck it up
Win at all costs
“Hmm,” I’ll say, “pretty different. And just where did you learn this?” Here is what they say, in order:
(3) My guy friends
(4) My older brother
What we can see in their response is that being a “real man” isn’t something internal, but something performed for other men. Other men judge us, police us, and decide if we are doing it right. Masculinity is homosocial – that is, it is other men who judge the effectiveness of our performance of it.
And here is the lesson I hope that workshop participants will draw from the exercise: there are times in every man’s life when he will be asked by other guys to betray his own values, his own ethics, his own idea of what it means to be a good man in the name of proving that he is a real man. That is, proving that we are “real men” to other men will ask – no, insist – that we sometimes do the wrong thing, fail to stand up for the little guy, behave dishonorably.
Pretty much every man reading these words knows exactly what I am talking about, because we have all had some experience in which he was asked to betray his own values to prove his masculinity to other guys; this is the story we must tell our sons. That we have been there, that we know the pressures they face. Frankly, I would far prefer to tell my son how awesome I am. But the truth is that I, like everyone else, have betrayed that idea of being a good man.
For me, it was in 8th grade, when some bigger, more athletic, and more popular guys were bullying the guy whose locker was next to mine. I knew what to do, what you are supposed to do, when someone is being bullied. You’re supposed to stand up for him, to intervene. There’s good research that shows that if one person stands up against the bullies, they often back down.
Oddly, though, at that moment, for some reason, my shoes became so utterly fascinating that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I looked down at my shoes for what felt like an hour. I moved my feet different ways, never taking my eyes from the ground.
In short, I did the wrong thing. I turned away, betrayed him – and betrayed myself. I was afraid that the other guys would come after me if I stood up for him. Even though I knew I was doing the wrong thing. I was too frightened to do anything else.
Our jobs, it seems to me, are more about how we can support young men to listen to their inner voices, to strengthen those voices – in short, to support young men in becoming not different, but more authentically themselves
Today, thinking back on that day, I think I may have been right in my calculations of the likelihood that the bullies would have come after me. Yet that night – and every night since - I was ashamed of myself. For days afterwards, I avoided that guy who had been bullied. I avoided making eye contact with anyone who was there.
As men, we carry both notions in our heads at the same time: “good man” and “real man”. We are strategic about when we express one or the other, and often feel ashamed of ourselves when we betray our own values about what it means to be a good man.
Thus the task of the father, the uncle or grandparent, the teacher or counselor is not to help the young man choose one over the other, not to help him become something other than his “toxic self.” Our jobs, it seems to me, are more about how we can support young men to listen to their inner voices, to strengthen those voices – in short, to support young men in becoming not different, but more authentically themselves.