The Disturbing Link Between Toxic Masculinity and Internalized Misogyny
Since the Gillette ad was released, the Internet has been a-buzz with “debate” about whether or not masculinity is under attack. Buoyed by basic misunderstanding of human gender dynamics and the wilfully ignorant belief that feminism is out to remove men from the planet, critics were quick with their outrage. “First #MeToo, now this?” pick-me girls and obtuse men both wailed. Supporters swiftly descended with real-world examples of toxic masculinity, including screencaps of yet another Nice Guy™ calling a woman a whore for rejecting him.
First, let’s make something clear. This notion that “toxic masculinity” includes beer, guns, and rock n’ roll is a reflection of ignorant folks’ assumption that (1) those things define masculinity and (2) that anyone is saying these preferences themselves are toxic. People posting photos of themselves in camouflage saying that they’re proud of their “toxic masculinity” are not only missing the point, they’re boomeranging the point into their own faces. Sociologists and feminists alike have been pretty clear that toxic masculinity refers to behaviors that enforce problematic notions of masculinity, such as a predilection for aggression, and the corollary that men who don’t meet these standards are “lesser.” In fact, of all the things gender scientists and feminists complain about, this is definitely the thing that most revolves around concern for men’s welfare. And yet critics continue to insist that feminism wants all men to suffer and die.
Recently, I got a response on one of my pieces from a guy who wondered why social scientists chose “toxic masculinity” as their term for “harmful behaviors.” (1) They didn’t. (2) “Harmful behaviors” is part of the definition of toxic masculinity, not synonymous with masculinity itself. Given that the function of adjectives in relation to nouns is fairly widely known, I have to assume that some people are desperately avoiding the discussion by hanging their hat on a wilful misunderstanding. Here’s how I explained it: iced coffee (adjective + noun) is a type of coffee. You wouldn’t say that scientists coined the term to describe all delicious beverages. You would understand it as a type of coffee, and you wouldn’t assume that when someone says “iced coffee,” they’re saying that all coffee is iced.
Although I like this explanation, it’s a little too simplistic. Toxic masculinity is not really a type of masculinity or something that any one person epitomizes. It’s a construct: a set of behaviors, ideas, and other constructs that revolve around a hurtful rule: you are not a true man if you do X or if you don’t do Y. And often, these rules harm men—and everyone else.
I’ve known guys who think that men have to be sexually assertive—even sexually aggressive—to be “real men.” That means they’re more likely to make excuses for rapists—or become them themselves. I’ve known men who say that men have uncontrollable sexual urges and women must accommodate these or else they’re a “tease” who leaves them with blue balls. Are these really attitudes to be proud of? What kind of existence is constantly feeling inadequate?
Which brings us to the sensitive topic that anti-feminists love to hang their hats on: male suicide. “But men are more likely to commit suicide!” they tell us feminists as an example of how hard men have it. “Yes, we know,” we reply. Cue mouth dropping open. Male suicide is a problem, and it’s due to toxic masculinity, which includes ideas that men should not express their emotions. I have seen it, from the schoolyard to the college campus to the workplace. “Don’t be such a sissy.” “Man up.” If men weren’t meant to cry, why do they have tear ducts? It’s not a vestigial organ. There’s no shame in using them.
Let’s also talk about the idea that women want “masculine” men (except feminists, who apparently want “soyboys”). If there’s one thing that should be clear to anyone in the dating world, it’s that women are hardly a monolithic group in what they want (and neither are men), and attraction is a strange thing. It basically boils down to smell, not how big a guy’s arms or a girl’s boobs are.
The flip side of toxic masculinity is internalized misogyny. Both rely upon a narrow definition of acceptable gendered behavior and assert that some members of a gender are “real” and others are not. Both assume that women are basically lesser creatures who experience (made-up) conditions such as hysteria and a tendency to manipulate those poor men, while men are stronger, smarter, and better suited to beer, business, and ball. Internalized misogyny includes statements like “I’m not like other girls” and “women are crazy,” but extends to self-censoring and restriction, such as ordering beer rather than wine to show you’re a “cool girl,” or declining to apply for a STEM job because “that’s a man’s job.”
Where internalized misogyny really gets toxic is in its assumption that any one woman’s experience defines all others. That’s an entitled attitude, and one I see a lot among female anti-feminists, who feel so secure in their lives that they figure feminism’s work is done. These are the women who have a job, who vote regularly, and who can’t think of a time a man did them wrong, so they figure no one else can ever have had a problem. These are the women who have never experienced sexual assault or harassment (or if they did, they blamed themselves) and figure they got over it, so everyone else should. These are the women who hear #MeToo stories and immediately begin ranting about how women “lie for attention” rather than facing that time they got groped on the bus. These are the women who, frankly, expect men to be hyper-masculine and a provider, and who mock men who struggle to provide, who are short or effeminate, or who have experienced sexual assault themselves.
I am a feminist and an athlete. I remember hearing that Gwyneth Paltrow suggested to her Goop followers that they use light weights so as not to “bulk up” and thinking there was something screwy with her advice to get fit, but not accept the side effects of larger muscles. I am happily partnered with a man who is bald, bearded, and fit and who works a “man’s job” by hauling trash away. He too is a feminist, and while he reserves most of his disgust for incels, he’s also never gotten over the remarks from women he dated that he was “too short for a man” or from other men that his love of puppetry makes him a “pussy.”
So, while not all masculinity is toxic, internalized misogyny is a symptom of toxic gender ideals. It’s the correlate of toxic masculinity, demanding that everyone be shoved into tiny boxes while justifying the abhorrent behavior of abusers and assailants of all genders. It’s a refusal to consider the experiences of other people with compassion or even the benefit of the doubt, and instead an insistence upon a rigid scheme of interaction between men and women. It’s an attack of freedom in favor of buoying self-esteem bought through bullying others. The Gillette ad was aimed at men but easily has a message for women as well: Don’t hate others for their gender. Be better. Be your best self.
And in case it needs repeating: You can hunt, fish, wear camouflage, drink beer, play sports, and provide for your family and be either a man or a woman. It’s not toxic. But if you have disdain for your gender or the opposite, if you think that all interactions between men and women are a sick game, and if you discount the experiences of victims because “she led him on” or “men will be men,” you’re showing your toxic masculinity or internalized misogyny, and you might wanna work on that.
Rachel Wayne is a writer based in Gainesville, Florida, USA. She earned her Master’s in Visual Anthropology and Film Studies; her thesis was on the relationship between the media and interpersonal violence. She writes about society, culture, film, politics, feminism, and entrepreneurship.