What We Mean When We Say, “Toxic Masculinity”

As a consumer of news and a classroom teacher, how can I help my students make sense of the current news cycle? The term “toxic masculinity” can be useful vocabulary for these conversations.
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“Toxic masculinity” is tricky. It’s a phrase that—misunderstood—can seem wildly insulting, even bigoted. Recently, after tweeting about toxic masculinity and its relationship to violence, I ended up the topic of discussion on a major nightly news show and the recipient of the online harassment that regularly follows such discussions these days. Because the term requires careful contextualization and provokes such strong reactions, our impulse may be to avoid discussing it with our classes. As educators, however, it is our responsibility not to hide from difficult topics or concepts, but to clarify them. 

This article is the first in a three-part series on toxic masculinity. Find parts two and three here:

Before we can engage students in conversations about “masculinity” or “femininity,” toxic or otherwise, we should begin with a few key ideas about gender. Researchers have shown that there is very little difference between the brains of men and women. While gender identity is a deeply held feeling of being male, female or another gender, people of different genders often act differently, not because of biological characteristics but because of rigid societal norms created around femininity and masculinity. Laying this groundwork requires effort, but in an age when breaking news alerts make us want to look away from our phones, the term “toxic masculinity” provides a useful tool for engaging with students, families and anyone else trying to make sense of the onslaught of news. 

The phrase is derived from studies that focus on violent behavior perpetrated by men, and—this is key—is designed to describe not masculinity itself, but a form of gendered behavior that results when expectations of “what it means to be a man” go wrong. The Good Men Project defines it this way:

Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.

Discussing toxic masculinity is not saying men are bad or evil, and the term is NOT an assertion that men are naturally violent. In fact, this conversation was started by men. (Jackson Katz’s TED Talk on the subject is a useful starting point.) It was also inspired by a feminist movement that had done much to unpack what might be called “toxic femininity” (think eating disorders that seek to control one’s eating and environment). After the good work feminism did to try to find better ways to teach girls about their options, men began to take notice and apply those same gender-construct theories to their own experience. 

I find myself talking more about this dangerous brand of masculinity now because I see all the hand-wringing done in the media and in classrooms after each mass shooting or killing. I saw it happening during the month of October 2017, which was bookended by the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the terror attack in New York. And on November 5, a shooter walked into a church in Texas and massacred people worshipping there. We talked and talked. 

I hear participants on one side of the debate talk about mental illness while the other side talks about gun control. In addition to conversations about mental illness and gun control, though, we need to consider a third angle regarding the mass killings of the past month: Is there a gendered component that we should be talking about? Why it is most often men perpetrating these acts of violence? 

After decades of study, I deeply believe that men are not naturally violent. But in a culture that equates masculinity with physical power, some men and boys will invariably feel like they are failing at “being a man.” For these particular men and boys, toxic masculinity has created a vacuum in their lives that can be filled through violence: through the abuse of women and of children in their care, through affiliation with the so-called “alt-right” or ISIS, through gun violence or any other promise of restored agency that those parties wrongly equate with manhood. 

The stakes of this conversation couldn’t be higher. When we talk about toxic masculinity, we do so not to insult or to injure. If we can talk with students as they are forming their ideas about gender, we can perhaps spare them from thinking that there is only one way to be a man—or any other gendered identity, for that matter—and give them the space to express their gender in ways that feel authentic and safe for themselves. When we talk about toxic masculinity, we are doing so out of love for the boys and men in all of our lives. 

Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.