Conceptual hindrances to understanding “Toxic Masculinity”


As someone who is thoroughly opposed to the components of Toxic Masculinity, I wanted to take a moment to address conversations around it that I think might be less productive than they could be.

At root, I’m seeing a number of memes come up that are making analogies to Toxic Masculinity–say like the “Cheese Burger” meme I just saw on FB–that attempt to make the point that saying “Toxic Masculinity” does not mean that all masculinity is toxic–but rather that toxic masculinity is A KIND of masculinity that isn’t healthy.

The point that I would make here is not that I disagree with the conclusion–I totally believe that there are versions of masculinity that are super unhealthy–not only for everyone else–but also for the men who embrace them–but rather that the analogies being used here might be pretty easily discarded by some folks because the concept of masculinity is not necessarily the same KIND of concept as a hamburger–and thus the analogy is likely to be easily discarded by those who aren’t already convinced.

Just as health insurance and broccoli–while both nouns–are qualitatively different–masculinity as a concept is not the same as many other normal “things”–in that it isn’t just an object that can be further described by various adjectives in a straight-forward fashion–but rather it is–according to Wikipedia– ” a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with boys and men.” 

Being a set of things–but also a set of things that is grammatically structured as a singular noun–there are important differences here that may hinder easy adoption of the idea of Toxic Masculinity.  In particular–the notion of “masculinities” i.e. that there are many different kinds of masculinity didn’t really appear in public discourse until about 1990 . Additionally–its usage is still dwarfed by the singular “masculinity” by a factor of around 12-15x.

Thus–we have a situation where a pretty important concept is likely to be conceived of as singular–due to usage being primarily singular in nature as well as not having a plural until 30 years ago–but which is being employed to convey a really important point that requires a plural understanding of the word.

That is a hindrance.

It’s not a hindrance that cannot be overcome.

Fuck that.  It’s just a word.

But it seems likely to me to be a kind of conceptual stumbling block–especially for older or less academically inclined folk–that could easily be bolstering resistance to understanding–and that’s something we should at least consider and think about.

To use one concrete example–when you see someone start talking about “toxic homosexuality“–and then read what they say–it comes across pretty quickly that they seem to hate all gays–even when they make disclaimers.

Part of this–esp. in this example–is probably because they’re just assholes–but I do think the fact that homosexuality “is ‘an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions’ to people of the same sex. It ‘also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.’ “ which makes it–as a concept–structurally more similar to a “set of attributes, behaviors, roles…” than it does to a hamburger.

In the end–I want people to understand the problem with toxic masculinity.  It’s  A TRULY FUCKING SHITTY set of behaviors that has been damaging people for thousands and thousands of years.  We need to end this set of behaviors and replace it with better masculinities–say, for example, like those in the recent Gillette ad— but we should be aware of conceptual diversity in the minds of our audiences and be ready to ferret out where roadblocks are occurring so we can accomplish our bigger goals more effectively and efficiently. 

About Prof. Woland

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2 Responses to Conceptual hindrances to understanding “Toxic Masculinity”

  1. Bill Norman says:

    I will respectfully submit that the phrase “toxic masculinity” has outlived it’s usefulness. Note, I say the phrase – not the concept. But that pairing words has been used by far too many people as a bludgeon to stop conversation. I can’t count how many times I’ve witnessed men engage women/allies online in good faith (and truly be behaving in alignment with reasonably accepted principles of conduct) and been shouted down with accusations of “toxic masculinity.”

    I can also tell you that of the times that accusation has been leveraged against me, more often than not the claim was baseless (and I feel comfortable making that assessment, because I fully admit some of my behaviors have been, and on occasion continue to be good examples of toxic masculinity.)

    We need to keep having conversations about how patriarchy damages men and women, but this particular phrase needs to die in a fire – all it does is cause men to dig their heals in anymore.

    • Prof. Woland says:

      I can see all of those things.
      My first response would be–if the concept is valid–but the label doesn’t work–what would you replace it with?
      If you don’t have a replacement–but you avoid the label–then the concept doesn’t get employed and remains in existence in strength longer.
      So how do you replace it?
      I have similar thoughts with the word “privilege”–I don’t think it’s the optimal term–but until I can find a better one–I’ll deal with it and use it.

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