Why the Term “Toxic Masculinity” is a Double-Edged Sword

“Toxic masculinity” is an extremely useful term. It describes a recurring problem with men and boys, which is that the societal pressure to appear and act “manly” can often harm not just others, but the guys themselves. Even the most naturally hyper-masculine individuals can benefit from awareness of this concept because they can at least know that crying, or not being confrontational all the time isn’t a sign that they’re not men. It’s also good for pointing out when media, be it films, video games, anime, etc., reinforce harmful notions of what being a “man” is. Unfortunately, the men who suffer most greatly from toxic masculinity, are likely least receptive to it. I believe the reason for this is that, ironically, the term “toxic masculinity” doesn’t sound masculine enough.

Many phrases that have come out of feminism, or have been embraced by feminists, take on a certain tinge that brings feminists to mind. This isn’t inherently a problem, but whether it’s due to association of just the word choice, it can come across as something concocted in a feminist lab (whatever that might be); perhaps it’s a little too clinical and, well, “feminine.” Part of coming  across as a “man’s  man” is one’s vocabulary, and I believe that the perceived feminist quality in “toxic masculinity” as a phrase prevents more men from using it.

On some level, I want to say, “Get over it and just embrace what the term is trying to say,” but I also understand that it’s not always so easy. Masculinity, toxic or otherwise, is tied to one’s identity. That being said, I think there already exists a phrase that embodies much of what “toxic masculinity” implies that is, for better or worse, more palatable to men concerned about maintaining their image of manliness: “When keeping it real goes wrong.”

Coming from an old Chappelle‘s Show skit, “When keeping it real goes wrong” is used to describe people who refuse to back down in even the most trivial or disadvantageous scenarios, which then leads to dire (and hilarious) consequences. Essentially, it communicates the idea that trying to be “real” 24/7 is a recipe for disaster because the need to have the world see oneself as a proper man who won’t take guff is going to, at some point, end in tragedy.

Do I think “When keeping it real goes wrong” should supplant “toxic masculinity” as the dominant phrase to describe the harmful aspects of male performance? Not really, as it’s kind of unwieldy and doesn’t match 1:1, but I think it has its place. The irony would be that using it could help more men understand the notion of toxic masculinity while also subtly reinforcing it.

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6 thoughts on “Why the Term “Toxic Masculinity” is a Double-Edged Sword

  1. One thing we need in society is less binary responses. Black & white concepts about “how the world should be” are getting stale, and sometimes these are really shoved down in our throats by social media and trends. We don’t need that. In fact, this shows that contemporary society is, at least in the west, less about self-affirmative identities (I am what I want to be) than societal-conformity (accepting an opinion by peer pressure or social standing, be in media or in the streets). I don’t like how we are making this less than a civil debate in our societies, and more about “sides” in an argument, making fine analysis and discussion a sterile effort. Not a good prospect, I’d say.

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  2. as with “trigger” being real psychological/psychiatric terminology, it loses its utility when taken out of its appropriate context. unfortunately, the ones who taking those words and propagating them outside of their appropriate context are not the same people defining those terms in the first place.

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  3. How about toxic feminists? It seems like you don’t have to earn the name toxic. According to feminists , if you are white and male you are automatically toxic. They came up with this stupid term of toxic masculinity to shame men for being men. Feminists are toxic because they do not fight for equality . They fight for power.

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    • It seems like you’re conflating the term “toxic masculinity” to refer to anything men do that might be deemed “masculine,” but that’s not really the case.

      There are plenty of qualities traditionally associated with men that anyone, feminist or not, would find positive. Things like courage, or ambition, or the desire to protect one’s loved ones. But like many human traits, there are downsides. A never-give-up attitude becomes harmful when it becomes thick-headed stubbornness, for example.

      Another case: It’s not terrible for a man to want to keep his emotions under control, but when it leads to him refusing to acknowledge how he feels, or is afraid of acknowledging his own worries for fear of not being “enough of a man,” that’s toxic masculinity. If it drives men to self destruct, that’s toxic masculinity.

      Whiteness is not an inherent human flaw, and no real feminist would argue such a point. People are born the way they’re born, and that can’t be controlled any more than someone can choose their biological parents. But that doesn’t mean we all start on a level playing field. Being white in much of the world means you are given the benefit of the doubt in a lot of subtle ways that permeate society. In a different world with a different history, it might not have existed, but it does here.

      To give a race and gender-neutral analogy, imagine two worlds each consisting of very short people and very tall people. One is a world where everything is placed high up, so that tall people can reach it easily but short people have to make an extra effort to obtain what they want. In this world, tall people have an inherent advantage, and even though tall children born into this world aren’t responsible for this setup, they still benefit from it.

      Conversely, in the second world, all ceilings are extremely low, such that tall people are forced to kneel and crawl while short people can go about their normal business. Here, being short confers upon you an inherent advantage from birth.

      Ideally, both worlds would be able to accommodate for tall AND short people, but the problem is that the way their worlds are built is so entrenched that most don’t even think about it. “Things have always been high up; that’s just the way it is.” “Why do tall people complain so much about the ceilings? I worked hard to have a home at all, and they’re yapping about having to duck a bit?” In our world, it’s a simple yet profound ideal to give everyone a chance, and while there are no simple solutions, acknowledging that the deck is sometimes stacked against certain types of people, whether it’s because they’re not white, or were forced to go to bad schools and get a bad education (if any), or were born blind, is important.

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  4. In many ways the tall people have made room for the short people to live in equality but the short people are never happy. They need for the tall people to cut their legs and give it to the short people and they love saying that the tall people are privileged when in fact it has become the other way around. They love pushing their agendas by using the victim card and instead of working hard they blame everything else on other people’s supposedly privilege. Which by the way. Women have so many more privileges over men in the western society.

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