What Do We Mean When We Talk About Toxic Masculinity?

December 2, 2019 Updated: December 2, 2019


Recently, social media celebrated #InternationalMensDay2019.

It was a fascinating hashtag filled with anecdotes about men that ranged from everything from gratitude for men to statistics providing awareness about mental health for men, and even criticism that men don’t need recognition because society is already patriarchal enough.

A New York Times piece said the concept of “toxic masculinity” had been around a long time but now suddenly this year, the term was “everywhere.”

Indeed, the range of responses to this hashtag, along with the array of think pieces that tend to criticize men for their “toxic masculinity,” or encourage men to talk more about their mental health as a bridge to helping them avoid becoming “toxic,” demonstrate the importance of explaining what the phrase actually means, if anything.

It’s become such a blanket term used to discuss, as a male friend told me, “anything a guy did that someone didn’t like” that it bears little concrete meaning, and thus no real way to identify what, if anything, needs to change.

A piece in The Independent this year defined toxic masculinity as “harmful behaviour and attitudes commonly associated with some men, such as the need to repress emotions during stressful situations, and to act in an aggressively dominant way.”

Even this definition, if we accept it, seems partially flawed: I would agree that “toxic masculinity” can mean “harmful behavior,” but repressing emotions in stressful situations, or even asserting aggressive dominance, isn’t exactly toxic.

Men are hardwired to embody both of those traits, and if society is honest, they’re appropriate responses in many situations, such as in the middle of a war, when engaging in any kind of law enforcement, or when brokering a deal. Sometimes it’s necessary, often helpful, to repress one’s emotions or to assert dominance, particularly in a professional setting, to garner a desired result.

For example, a short video by Prager U about the heroic actions in the midst of the awful 2018 shooting that took place at the Borderline Bar and Grill in California aptly demonstrates this nuance.

While a deranged man began to shoot at Borderline’s patrons, another young man immediately physically sheltered a number of people, mostly women, from gunfire. He then broke a window and ushered dozens of people safely out of the bar.

I don’t know him personally, but it seems that to behave so heroically in the line of gunfire, one would need to both repress any emotions that would interfere with that act of bravery and even assert a special, protective—even aggressive—kind of dominance. The men and women who survived are no doubt grateful for his act of courage under fire.

See how the descriptor “toxic masculinity,” at least the previous definition of it, seems so poor? So if that’s not exactly what “toxic masculinity” means, what does it mean?

Well, the shooter in that awful scenario would provide one counterexample: The shooter was a man who, instead of making choices that are brave, kind, and embody strength, chose to hurt people. Perhaps this was because he repressed his emotions; perhaps this was because he wanted to assert some form of dominance—either way, the end result was carnage and pain.

This, indeed, is toxic, but it’s not relegated to men alone: Women can be toxic, too, just in different ways, although it’s true, men commit more violent crime than women.

It’s important when we talk about toxicity in men that the terms associated with it are precise. Murder and assault against innocent people; physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of power; using physical prowess to dominate women and children: These are a few concrete terms.

Despite these obvious examples of toxicity—and things that would be toxic if anyone, not just men, did them—many progressives continue to claim that men simply need to talk more, and to express their emotions more to keep them from giving in to their “toxic” side. While this certainly might help, this advice ignores the very thing that separates men and women, traits that are often good, helpful, and make society a better place.

An article in Stanford Medicine describes how men and women’s brains are hardwired differently when it comes to communication styles:

“The two hemispheres of a woman’s brain talk to each other more than a man’s do. In a 2014 study, University of Pennsylvania researchers imaged the brains of 428 male and 521 female youths — an uncharacteristically huge sample — and found that the females’ brains consistently showed more strongly coordinated activity between hemispheres, while the males’ brain activity was more tightly coordinated within local brain regions. This finding, a confirmation of results in smaller studies published earlier, tracks closely with others’ observations that the corpus callosum — the white-matter cable that crosses and connects the hemispheres — is bigger in women than in men and that women’s brains tend to be more bilaterally symmetrical than men’s.”

Women are more verbal, so it makes sense that they often think the cure to a man’s ills is for him to talk about his feelings more. Yet men are often mocked for doing this, and data seems to show men may not be as hardwired to resolve problems this way as people would like to believe.

I’m not saying therapy wouldn’t help, but it’s likely a one-note solution to a multi-faceted problem that can include anything from childhood trauma and lack of emotional maturity to difficulty regulating emotions. Not to mention, if expressing one’s feelings more is the proposed solution, and women already do this, why are women twice as likely to experience depression and PTSD as men?

It’s true that men can hurt people, just as women can hurt people, but the phrase “toxic masculinity” shouldn’t be thrown around to just identify things men do that are annoying, or behaviors that women would never embody, or even dominance.

Many of these traits are hardwired in men and contribute to valuable aspects of a man’s professional and personal life. Instead of just calling men “toxic” because they’re men, women—and society as a whole—needs to be specific about actual, harmful behaviors and continue to present solutions that help men, not just seek to change how they’re hardwired so they behave more like women.

A world full of women and men who try to act like women to appease progressives’ concerns about toxicity would be a pathetic, unsafe, uninteresting place indeed.

Nicole Russell is a freelance writer and mother of four. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Politico, The Daily Beast, and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter @russell_nm.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.