Currently, in a bus shelter advertisement near me (in metro Vancouver, BC), the Children of the Street Society presents a picture of a teenage boy crossing his arms to form the toxic symbol of crossbones that we might see on dangerous chemical products. Below him are the words, “Know the signs of toxic masculinity.”
The term “toxic masculinity” has made me feel queasy before, but this scarlet lettering of boys brought the bile to my forefront.
The problem, to my critical stomach, isn’t that “toxic masculinity” is a definitionally-flawed concept. No doubt masculinity is a human condition, which I acknowledge may in certain cases render itself in a toxic way. Those who enjoy burning our ears off with their frequent announcements of motorcycle power, for instance, strike me as individuals who are emitting toxic noise, and, as far as I can speculate, the behaviour seems linked to a performative version of masculinity.
So, were we living in a purely theoretical world, where ideas had no political implications, I could accept the notion of “toxic masculinity” as a legitimate field of inquiry, and along the way, I would assume it would be equally acceptable to look into whether there exists a parallel “toxic femininity” worthy of critique.
“I would like to see a shift in our [culture]—and, in particular, the culture within academia, our attitudes towards… issues of social justice, where we say things like, ‘Yeah, I believe there are issues regarding sex, race, sexuality, gender, etcetera, and I think that they’re important, but I want to see them studied rigorously. I don’t want ‘gender theory’ informing me of this… I want to see real work being done. And I want to see sociological rigor behind things before we use it to make policy decisions or institutionalize anything.’” (Intro and 1:44:02-1:44:34 of this video.)
For good or bad, we do not currently reside in such a theoretical utopia. Instead, mainstream thought has decided that, in general, we should avoid generalizing claims about race, sex, gender, and sexuality. It’s not that mainstream thought doesn’t believe there are some genuine generalities, but given human nature’s predilection for tribalism and bigotry, we are wary of critiques of general groups for fear that such criticism will lead to racial and/or sexual discrimination.
Today, the one exception to this caution is when we are talking about a group that is presumed to be privileged, and so deemed incapable of being hindered by generalizations gone wild.
Thus, we hear phrases such as:
“X group of people cannot be the victims of bigotry, because they are in power.”
Such exclusion from compassion is a familiar pattern: a society that rightly calls for the equal treatment of us all will sometimes realize that—for practical purposes—they want to omit certain people from that equality, and so the society will dehumanize the inconvenient group so that they can hold onto their call for egalitarianism—for those who are worthy—and ignore it, too.
(George Orwell captured this contradiction in his Animal Farm wherein the righteously revolutionary animal leaders began with “All animals are equal,” but eventually came to prefer, “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”)
The notion of “toxic masculinity” is an exquisite example of such bigotry dressed as virtue. In this case, the false moral wisdom passes for the real thing because our society is so used to sexism against men that egregious examples of misandry don’t stand out. If that sounds like a far-fetched, man-spiracy theory, imagine for a moment any public campaign (in Western society) which not only centered girls’ femininity as problematic, but also pathologized it.
In theory, there may be some general aspects of femininity worthy of critique, but how many mainstream public commentators would sit on their microphones upon witnessing an image of teenage girls being asked to confess their feminine sins by pantomiming crossbones on their chests?
In contrast, the organizers of this toxic masculinity campaign list among their top donors a high-profile convoy of businesses, charities, municipal governments, and even a school district. (I recognize that supporters can’t always vet what’s happening with their money, but I submit that if such a campaign were about girls’ alleged toxicity, there would be a wee bit of media pressure on the public supporters to both cancel, and apologize for, their funding.)
The unchecked toxic masculinity campaign, itself, reads like a grade 8 essay written the night it was due, as it fills the screen with wild, nuance-free, and often self-contradictory assertions, but surrounds them with popular platitudes to smooth out the incoherence.
For instance, we learn that one of the “signs” of toxic masculinity is:
“The reinforcement of gender stereotypes which highlight that men are aggressive by nature while women are submissive.”
I don’t mean to be pedantic here, but isn’t that kind of what the term “toxic masculinity,” itself, is doing?—Accusing the male people of having a problem with over-aggression that the female people apparently do not?
In fact, the campaign lists among the traits of toxic masculinity:
“Being violent, aggressive or abusive…”
So, confuse me, is it the contention of the stereotype-hunting campaign that only male people are ever violent, aggressive, or abusive? Even the most feminist of advocacy data won’t back up such a fantastical claim, so I think not. Therefore, in those cases where ladies do stray into such anti-social behaviours, are they being toxically feminine? No, that can’t be. That would be a sexist utterance that would get one’s organization fired from mainstream conversation, so when women are abusive, are they also exhibiting toxic masculinity? In theory, that’s not necessarily contradictory, since our campaigners do argue that gender is a social construct. But why then does the campaign seem to only target boys who are suffering from toxic masculinity? (I see no girls wearing their own arms as crossbones.)
If the campaigners genuinely believe that the virus of masculinity is not an innately male problem, I wonder whether they need the male-sounding notion of toxic masculinity at all. Why not just discuss “toxic behaviour” and avoid the gendering of the problem altogether?
I don’t deny that males are more often violent than are females, but there are also forms of toxicity more common to females, including the very “whispered insults” that our campaigners also suggest is a boy problem.
As social psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Haidt, says of boy-girl generalities:
“Boys’ bullying is physical… Boys are physically dominating and the risk is that they’re going to get punched… Girls’ aggression—girls are actually as aggressive as boys. There’s research from the 80s and 90s on this. If you include relational aggression, girls don’t bully each other by threatening to punch each other in the face; girls bully each other by damaging the other girls’ social relationships, spreading rumours, spreading lies, spreading a doctored photograph, saying bad things, excluding them. It’s relational aggression.” (7:10-7:50 of this video.)
To my egalitarian eye, all forms of toxicity are participated in—to varying degrees—by both males and females. I have no doubt that on average men and women would attain slightly different toxicity scores, but I am disturbed by the current mainstream Western conversation which reserves all condemnations for one sex (“man-splaining,” “male dominated,” “male ego,” etc), and all commendations for the other (“Because I’m a girl,” “the future is feminine,” “strong female characters,” etc).
Meanwhile, another supposed indicator of toxic masculinity is, “…the perpetuation of rape culture and locker room talk,” as though there were no air to breath between those two concepts. As a long-time competitive sports participant, I have very occasionally heard locker room discussions that were more bravado-fueled than my delicate and prudish soul enjoyed, and while sometimes those rare discussions yielded talk of violence against men, I have never heard a squeak of approval for any violence against women—let alone sexual violence.
My anecdotal evidence, of course, does not disprove the notion of “locker room talk” being a popular “rape culture” sanctuary, but if the campaigners are going to make such a profound claim about average male banter, maybe they could provide some evidence for it.
Another sigh-worthy example of the campaign’s avoidance of nuance is its claim that a sign of toxic masculinity is:
“The expectation that ‘boys will be boys’ and they do not need to be held accountable for their actions.”
I’m not a connoisseur of the expression “boys will be boys,” but, for what it’s worth, I’ve never thought it meant that boys shouldn’t be considered responsible for their worst behaviours. Instead—as with the term “kids are mean”—I took it as a general comment on boys’ nature that, when they’re overly rumbustious, we shouldn’t be surprised, because boys are like that. Far from celebrating suspect behaviour, I always read the phrase as rolling its eyes at boys, and teasing all of them for the behaviors of some.
But even if the Children of the Street Society’s interpretation is correct and the “boys will be boys” phrase has commonly been used in the hope of excusing excessive behaviour, the notion that it’s been successful, and that males in general are given a pass on accountability is tough to reconcile with the “punishment gap” between boys and girls in school, and the “sentencing gap” between men and women for similar crimes.
Moreover, in North America, while women have the right to financially-divorce themselves from their offspring by giving them up for adoption, men have no such automatic right, and can be forced to pay child support for kids they previously didn’t know existed (and may be labeled a “dead-beat dad” along the way).
The accountability-gap argument is certainly a common trope in our feminist-fed society, but sadly it was discredited (inadvertently) last year by tennis mega star, and sometimes toxic personality, Serena Williams (she’s actually quite delightful when she wins, but less so when the calls aren’t going her way). As I describe in IF YOU CAN’T BULLY ‘EM, ACCUSE ‘EM, after Williams was correctly sanctioned for verbally abusing an official at the US Open (calling him a “a liar,” and “a thief,” and threatening his livelihood), she claimed that the penalization was evidence of sexism, and that a male tennis player would have gotten away with much worse. This bias accusation was an obvious deflection; the umpire was patient with Williams’s insulting tirade beyond anything I’ve witnessed in a men’s match, but far from asking her to take accountability for her lack of accountability, the feminist-fearing tennis media supported Williams’s claim of a double standard.
Since then, commentator and retired footballer, Kaylyn Kyle sinned against feminism when she criticized the American women’s soccer team for unsportsmanlike behaviour (exuberantly celebrating goals in a 13-0 victory against an overmatched opponent at the Women’s World Cup). Such enthusiastic celebrating of oversized victories is a well-documented no-no in competitive sports, but the American women’s coach (and various fear-sighted pundits) pulled out the Serena Defence and argued wildly that a men’s soccer team wouldn’t have received the same criticism for the same obnoxious actions.
Meanwhile, Nike has joined the call for no accountability for unsportsmanlike female athletes, hiring Williams to narrate a commercial celebrating female athletes for standing up to alleged sexism, and for expressing their on-court anger as they see fit.
“If we show emotion,” says Williams’s somber voice, “we’re called dramatic… When we stand for something, we’re unhinged… And, if we get angry, we’re hysterical, irrational, or just being crazy.”
No, Ms. Williams, berating an Umpire for making a decision with which you disagree is not a principled stand: it is abusive behaviour that deserves accountability, regardless of your sex.
Perhaps there is merit to the claim that not-so-long ago in mainstream Western society, certain men’s caustic presentation was more likely to be dismissed as them “blowing off steam,” but in today’s public conversation—where any criticism of a woman’s behaviour or argument can be suffocated with accusations of sexism—the public accountability gap is pointed in the opposite direction.
There are, I’m sure, many flaws past and present that are more common to men than women, but some of these accusations from The Children of the Street Society strike me as wild stereotypes thrown at their toxic canvass without any concern for veracity. It’s an understandable strategy; they live in an ideologically homogeneous “progressive” community that is unlikely to ever check them for errors.
The incoherence is most expertly rendered in the campaign’s concluding advice to boys who would like to resist their toxic programming:
“Be an ally,” it says, “in the fight to end violence against women and girls. You can do so by confronting your own male privilege, social norms that support sexism, and oppressive behaviours.”
The doublethink is strong with this one. In a campaign titled “Toxic Masculinity,” where young men—and young men only—label themselves toxic, they are asked to confront sexism against girls. And then—even though the campaign, itself, argued that one of the signs of toxic masculinity is, “The assumption that real men cannot be victims of abuse”—it only asks our sinners to combat violence against women and girls.
So the campaigners are sexist in their solitary condemnation of male people as the cause of abuse, and then sexist in their sole focus on the female victims of that abuse. And then they tie their incoherent knot together with the common feminist accusation that the very gender—which is both blamed for abuse, and undeserving of protection from abuse—is privileged.
Now, our gentle campaigners would likely defend themselves—if they were ever asked to—by pointing out that they made sure to note that:
“Being a man doesn’t make one toxic.”
And I appreciate the implied acknowledgment (while it lasts) that it would be sexist to define all men as toxic. However, let us not pretend that such a curated caveat would have protected a government-sponsored organization from demolition if it had caricatured femininity in this way. No amount of friendly backtracking would have shielded such an agency from being universally labeled a misogynist cult. Google would have fired them for stereotyping; the University College London would have sacked them for sexism; and Minnie Driver would have told them:
“The time right now is for men just to listen and not have an opinion about it for once.”
But, since this campaign is criticizing boys and claiming to protect girls, the local TV news program, Global News Morning, invited in project leader, Hayden Averill (along with two teenage disciples), to sweetly tell us of the anti-toxic workshops. And, with a soothing voice, Mr. Averill made it clear to the Global host that the gently-spiked Kool-Aid he was providing us would be easy on the tummy.