Liam Cruivie | 21 January 2019
Masculinity can manifest in undesirable ways, but those who cry “toxic masculinity” are split between the soft-headed and the malevolent.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
So what actually is toxic masculinity? Should I go on to devote more than a couple of sentences to the matter, then I will have already given this ill-defined concept more thought than do the great majority who wield it as a rhetorical cudgel. Even more so than patriarchy (which pathologises the society of men as a tyranny), invoking toxic masculinity is a potent argumentative trick, allowing one to pathologise the individual man as a medical pathology in himself. More so, also, than patriarchy, is it badly defined and therefore bears well the framework of connotations which one can simply imply. Yet a more essential difference might be that, being a concept barely one degree of separation from traditional Marxist power dialectics (and just as old), patriarchy has had a great deal more “respectable” scholarship devoted to proving its existence. Toxic masculinity, on the other hand, is a concept self-evidently the product of complacent late-stage progressivism. What is toxic masculinity? I’m afraid very few can really tell you anything amounting to much more than “behaviour at once socially destructive, and stereotypically male”.
The term purports to be scientific, but it isn’t. The American Psychological Association – in a disgraceful renunciation of good practice – has recently linked “traits of so-called traditional masculinity” with “less willingness for boys and men to seek help” and “more aggression and risk taking”, but this represents the closest “toxic masculinity” has ever got to anything like acknowledgement by a respected authority in psychology. It is surely obvious that the APA is succumbing to toxic masculinity’s vogue, but thanks to their use of terms of potentially infinite vagueness – “traits of so-called traditional masculinity” – any scientifically minded person will immediately intuit how poorly this ill-defined term fits with hard science. I invite readers to browse the psychology journals for “toxic masculinity” – they will appreciate its scarcity.
And no wonder – for the idea all but baffles when actually broken down. Put briefly, toxic masculinity takes potentially destructive behavioural traits which we associate – quite correctly - with men, fields them as unambiguously destructive, argues for their abolition and promptly proffers an unrecognisable masculine ideal as a replacement. Nietzsche and Freud (friends of the theoretical left in better times) recognised over a century ago the desirable process of “sublimating” the negative excesses of one’s psychological constitution into positive action – thus, crudely speaking, aggression might become the striving for competence, lust the creation of beauty in art. But this discovery, and the rivers of helpful psychological research which flow from it, figures hardly at all in the conception of toxic masculinity as it is actually used. Sublimation allows for a positive masculinity that is, simply, masculinity. However vague the concept of toxic masculinity may be, it is very clearly opposed to that idea.
Toxic masculinity rejects masculinity, but it paradoxically relies on a traditional idea of masculine resolve and prestige; should you conform to the ideal “masculinity”, you become the ideal man who, in traditional fashion, can dominate the others with the alpha-prestige. Complain about the nonsense – as I suppose I’m doing now – and your wounded male ego is pinned to the mast, you become the feminist equivalent of a total pussy and great efforts are made to stress your undesirability as a sexual partner. Feminists have cleverly co-opted the old tradition of bullying the less manly – they simply redefine what constitutes manly. So while it is continually reaffirmed that men must express their feelings, if your feelings tend towards any instinctive rejection of this ideal man that feminists have provided for you (as is only likely), then you are to keep that to yourself. And from this bizarre combination of a traditionally masculine prestige awarded to those who shirk traditional masculinity arise a troupe of absurd figures familiar to all dispensations and ideologies who’ve had their hegemony for a little too long.
Consider the ridiculous figure of the effeminate or otherwise non-traditionally masculine (hereafter, by the way, let us just say masculine) man who is said to be so because he is “secure in his masculinity”. Is it really to be believed that he is so secure and happy in his masculinity that he chooses to perpetually shirk it? Why would someone do that?
Not that there’s anything wrong with effeminate men, it should be axiomatic that there has always been the rich gamut of masculine and feminine – both across society and within the individual – and we’re the better for it. But masculinity survives – and should be given its proper name – because it is the dominant influence in most men and a considerable influence in all men. We do not do anyone any favours by dressing up femininity as a masculine ideal. Toxic masculinity therefore almost never refers to the “the toxic element in masculinity” but instead to the totality of masculine traits which do not check out with the new ideal – an ideal which has been blithely and crudely made up.
We owe the phrase “getting in touch with one’s feminine side” to Jung, a thinker keenly attuned to what the masculine, at its deepest level, really was and who stressed the role of the feminine in creating the self. The feminine in man is therefore vital – it is the pathologising of the immutable masculine elements that is so foul. And it is foul because it amounts to the pathologising of men. The increasingly dissenting marxist Slavoj Zizek, says it well –
Indeed, if, in the old days of heterosexual normativity, homosexuality was treated as illness, it is now masculinity itself which is medicalized and turned into a sickness to be fought. Thus, all the references to power, patriarchy and oppression of women cannot obfuscate the ideological brutality of the operation.
Yet it is very likely worse even than that. Consider for a moment the endlessly preferable feminists of the second wave, many of whom now excommunicated by their increasingly doctrinaire ideology. These women saw, in more classically Marxist fashion, men as an enemy class. Thus we were treated to such – of course nonsensical – notions like the equation of all PiV sex to rape and the man conceived as a deformed result of an incomplete chromosome set; we had pseudo-archaeology unearthing ancient matriarchies and lesbians bellowing that theirs was the only real sexuality. When a Catharine MacKinnon writes that post-modernism relativises the essential barbarity of manhood or an Andrea Dworkin claims that a seducer is just a rapist who buys a bottle of wine – or even when a Valerie Solanis “ironically” advocates the mutilation of men – the male sex know very clearly where they stand. There is no crude intrusion into the field of ontology, no attempted destruction of the man himself. These feminists saw the masculine as pathological, but they still saw the masculine. The barmier of their ideas failed because they were simply alien to the ordinary experience of men and women, but in light of today’s disease, that is perhaps a shame. Above all, the second wave feminists were simply more formidable thinkers, orators and polemicists. To read Greer is thrilling; give me that over the limp figures with “toxic masculinity” on their lips, scratching around our university campuses today like so much intellectual miasma.
But to turn now to the very real problems that we face. What of those unambiguously destructive manifestations of masculinity? What of rape? What of the ostracisation of the effeminate man? Of the homosexual man etc?
Well, the first thing to note here is that that “etc.” does not actually stand in for a great deal. A great many things which others may include on this hypothetical list are by no means destructive. Competitiveness and the striving for competence yields precisely competence, the value of emotional continence is so obvious that it should hardly need stating and the same is true of the fortitude necessary to overcome confrontations (physical or otherwise), not to speak of the love implicit in the figure of a father aiming to cultivate this in his son. For sure, to be unbending or excessive in any of these – to be competitive to the point of petulance and to lack magnanimity, to lack any controlled outlet for your emotions whatsoever, to thuggishly presuppose aggression in all others or to be the kind of father who “beats out weakness” – will give rise to a host of horrors, so much is obvious.
Yet it is perhaps true that things such as homophobia or an aversion to effeminate men run a bit deeper - yet it is still wrong to place the blame on masculinity itself (notice, by the way, how in the world of toxic masculinity, characteristics of our physical and psychological constitution almost attain a sort of agency.) These behaviours are simply another mis-expression of masculinity and do not call for its suppression. When we consider the man in terms of three elements, his agency, his impulses and the masculinity which informs these impulses, it becomes obvious how the former can dominate the latter two. In any case, if it is a suppression of one’s own femininity which leads to a revulsion at its expression in others, then we can place the problem quite outwith masculinity itself – the essential masculinity is not toxic, the femininity is wanting. In the case of rape, even if we uncharitably locate the conscious moral decision not to rape in what Freud called the shallow superego, the energy to master our lascivious impulses and see this through can itself be drawn from masculinity – precisely that continence and mastery of impulses that is elsewhere so condemned.
Blaming these socially destructive behaviours on masculinity itself is akin to blaming them on humanity itself, or blaming them on the oxygen that allows the men to breathe, or the man’s mother for not strangling him in the cradle. Masculinity only accounts for the impulses which lead to these behaviours, and it says nothing about the moral restraint which keeps them in check. To circumvent this element and work towards the suppression of the impulses themselves – that very toxic masculinity – is to make of men a pack of animals, to rob them of the agency and thereby the accountability for that which is most urgently demands justice. It’s a self-defeating system which works against the feminist’s own stated aims – but then I do wish to stress the essential silliness of toxic masculinity as a concept, it is a concept for the soft-headed.
"Boys will be boys". Image from the Gillette advert.
The soft-headed and, as it happens, also the racist. One might think toxic masculinity shouldn’t have a racial element, but being an unmistakable spectre of the age of the white-male tyrant, it necessarily does. Our reactions to violent terrorism (an exclusively male enterprise) provide a fine example. In this arena, toxic masculinity is a ready diagnosis for weedy white trigger-happy virgins deficient in traditional masculinity – the school shooters and these so called incels – yet it is never applied to the other virgins who zoom towards an explosive fate salivating at the thought of a chain of flesh 99 women long. The now infamous Gillette advert (which was actually not the impetus for this article) happens to be exemplary as well. In this – no doubt profitable – assault on masculinity, it is worth paying attention to the races of the men involved. Those who are seen to be engaging in “toxic” behaviour (usually at the expense of women) are overwhelmingly of one race, those representing the new masculine ideal – those mending their behaviour – another. Not that anyone will need clarification which race is which, but how it breaks down is remarkable in its extremity:
Men exhibiting “toxic masculinity”: 43 White, 1 Black
Men exhibiting the new masculine ideal: 5 Black, 2 White
Perhaps I should lift a tactic from the playbook of my opponents here and bluntly tell my readers how to feel:
If you’re White: Feel Attacked
If you’re Black: Feel Patronised
If you’re Gillette: Feel your wallets bulge
And for sure, if it weren’t for this racial element, the advert would merit little more than a shrug. This stuff sells; Gillette might represent a particularly egregious example but the wokeness industry has been tending this way for a long time and – despite occasional slip ups – will probably tend this way for some time yet. Gillette joins Nike, Ben ‘n’ Jerry’s, Pepsi and the rest in cashing in on the de facto dominant ideology. Why would a corporation behave any differently?
Toxic masculinity – in the end – is a millennial villain par excellence. It is ascientific (post-scientific?) crap riding the slipstream of our age with an
undeserved currency. I may summarise matters thus (imagine a flow chart):
Second wave feminism would have rejected toxic masculinity because it saw the struggle as a negotiation between the classes of men and women, not the assimilation of men to women.
Third wave feminism loves it because it would rather pretend that men did not really exist as anything but a socially constructed pathology.
Popular wokeness loves toxic masculinity because it does not exhibit off-putting complexity.
And big business loves it because there’s money in wokeness.
Toxic masculinity therefore exists at the heart of an economically driven, ideologically rigid edifice that signals our age as well as Trump, Netflix and the selfie. Only the Germans might call it a Zeitgeist – the rest of us balk at the positive connotations that borrowed word has in our languages. We must imagine something altogether more dismal.
Liam Cruivie is an editor with The Medusa Review. Follow him on Twitter @SwansOfAyr
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