With the recent school shootings, the rise of Donald Trump, and the recent exposure of sexual assault in Hollywood and the wider media, articles about something called ‘toxic masculinity’ are doing the rounds once again. ‘Toxic masculinity,’ we are told, takes many forms in contemporary life and discourse. For example, in an (unfortunately serious) article for NBC, Marcie Bianco describes Elon Musk’s groundbreaking rocket launch as evidence of men’s patriarchal entitlement to conquer. (At the Clayman Institute for Gender Reseach, Bianco manages “the only university fellowship in the nation that aims to train students how to become feminist journalists.”)
More subtle but equally specious rhetoric, generally derived from the French postmodern tradition, analyzes the socialization of boys through an analytical prism of dominance or systems of power and knowledge. A recent article in the Washington Examiner reported that a kindergarten teacher named Karen Keller was preventing boys in her class from playing with Lego in an attempt to compensate for the invidious socialization that she believes determines gender roles. Her ‘Girls Only’ Lego classes were intended to combat the boys’ inclination to build, and the girls’ inclination to play with with dolls and crayons. “I always tell the boys, ‘You’re going to have a turn’ — and I’m like, ‘Yeah, when hell freezes over’ in my head,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You’ll have a turn’ because I don’t want them to feel bad”—
Keller had originally tried to entice the girls by providing pink and purple Legos, “But it wasn’t enough.” So she requested a grant from her school to purchase Lego Education Community Starter Kits for three classrooms at the Captain Johnston Blakely Elementary school, where she has taught for seven years. She requested the grant without telling the school she would be denying boys access to the toys.
“I had to do the ‘girls only Lego club’ to boost it more,” Keller said. “Boys get ongoing practice and girls are shut out of those activities, which just kills me. Until girls get it into their system that building is cool, building is ‘what I want to do’ — I want to protect that.”
Keller’s experiment is based on quite a radical social constructivist view of human behavior, which holds that we are are born as indistinguishable ‘blank slates.’ That is to say, girls and boys, and women and men, are socialized into typical but arbitrary gendered preferences. These preferences are not natural, biological, or innate but socially constructed to benefit men and subordinate women. Obviously, if one believes that the tastes, aptitudes, preferences, and behaviors of boys and girls are purely socialized, or even that socialization can be completely uncoupled from biological sex, then it follows that any problems with male behaviour are going to be seen as a consequence of how men are socialized as children. By extension, according to the postmodern analysis favored by contemporary gender studies programs, differential outcomes between men and women in free societies are purely the result of dominance constructs and the unequal distribution of power. These enable one sex to oppress, dominate, and subjugate the other, and reduce women to submissive and passive pawns stripped of choice and agency.
In fact, as a construct in Western societies, ‘masculinity’ is simply a way to understand and talk about specific traits that are typically ‘hegemonic’ (i.e. dominant) in males but not in females. Classically, these traits include toughness, violence, aggression, endurance, bravery, and the suppression of emotions like fear and grief. As a natural extension of biological sex, this kind of hegemonic masculinity is mostly clearly observable in the different ways male and female children play and interact. Clearly, traits normally hegemonic in boys can be found in both sexes; not all girls play with dolls, and not all boys play with guns. But the distribution of these traits on average would lead us to expect that a lot more boys than girls will be interested in guns than dolls.
An archaic and inflexibly bio-determinist understanding of what it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is both unscientific and damaging to those individuals who do not fit the standard model of their defined biological sex. It also makes little sense from a mental health perspective to insist upon a rigid and narrowly defined understanding of either gender. For example, we know that men actively negotiate their masculinity in more complex ways than the behavioural traits outlined above suggest. Men have been found to promote masculine traits like athleticism at the expense of other masculine social behaviours like alcohol consumption. Research also suggests1 that ‘metrosexual’ men can be understood as those engaging in a sophisticated dynamic of traditionally masculine characteristics, such as earning power, paired with traditionally more feminine concerns over appearance.
During my PhD, I studied soldiers specifically trained to kill people. However, I found that the masculinity displayed by these professional warriors to be more complex than expected. On the one hand, these men seem to possess the attributes of a hyper-masculine male: toughness, aggression, dominance, and suppression of fear. On the other, they accept the realities of being a soldier, which require the individual to be subservient, obedient, and almost totally dependent, which are traditionally not masculine traits. This is to say nothing of the well documented and complex displays of platonic love among soldiers in war, who one minute may be charging a gun nest to protect one another, and the next may be sharing intimate and detailed stories of loss, regret, and fear.
Masculinity is complex, and understanding it requires sophisticated discussions that shed light on those components of masculinity that are harmful and those that are benign or beneficial. Theories of ‘toxic masculinity’ operate on the assumption that, as the dominant sex, men have been socialized to take what is theirs by force. Social cues and cultural norms supposedly give men permission to commit violence and sexual assault, and ‘toxic masculinity’ is used to explain a variety of phenomena, from domestic abuse to aggressive imperialism and the pillaging of weak nations. Increasingly, the term is also used to describe a more symbolic kind of violence and aggression used to suppress or silence anyone who is not the ‘dominant voice’ in society.
The philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and host to the popular Youtube channel The Factual Feminist, argues that an important distinction between toxic masculinity and masculinity is not being made, and that this negatively impacts the way we educate boys. Sommers contends that when we pathologize masculinity as a malevolent force to be extirpated, it is like saddling young boys with original sin. The result? Universities are setting up re-education programs for male students that hope to recondition them to ‘unlearn’ the toxicity that teaches them to rape and be violent.
An additional cost to pathologizing masculinity itself – instead of attempting to mitigate the damage wrought by its ‘hyper-masculine’ excesses – is that we stigmatize anything understood to be remotely masculine. Competition, rough and tumble play, and traits such as stoicism all become objects of suspicion. Of course, some boys are hyper-masculine, or pathologically masculine. These individuals will bully, establish dominance by hurting the vulnerable, and display other antisocial behaviors that do not benefit modern societies committed to the rule of law. But when dealing with these behaviors, Sommers suggests, we have to remember that most boys display healthy masculinity. Enjoyment of physical sports and competition does not indicate that all other related behaviors are built for destruction and domination. On the contrary, these traits also can serve to build, protect, and defend. The soldiers I studied, for instance, displayed a desire to protect, to be part of a group that allowed to them to ‘test themselves,’ to uphold values, but also to fall in line, to do as they were told, and to follow the rules. The typical British Special Forces soldier, for example, is well disciplined, has a strict codes of ethics and conduct to which they strive to adhere. These men are not, for the most part, feral savages who do as they please.
There are obviously societal standards about what it means to be an authentic ‘man’ or ‘woman’ that are harmful to the psychological wellbeing of the individual. In a paper I recently co-authored (now in submission), we explored ways in which the ‘muscularization’ of magazine models and Hollywood actors might influence men’s self-perceptions and self-esteem. Likewise, numerous studies exist exploring the unrealistic standards set for women by magazines and the media in general. In these ways, society clearly plays some role in how we perceive masculinity and femininity. But understanding these influences requires nuance, care, and moderation. At its most extreme, the idea that all men are socialized by a vaguely conceived ‘patriarchy’ into regressive attitudes about rape or killing, is at best misguided, and at worst damaging to how we educate boys to become men. If you think you can or should train masculinity out of little boys using gender-neutral Lego classes, then I have a bridge to sell you.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.