The tension in today’s political and social climate has only been exacerbated by a culture of rapid-fire terminology, in which phrases like “mansplaining,” “#MeToo movement,” and especially, “toxic masculinity” are fired between opposing sides like artillery. A committed effort to defining these loaded terms may prove an essential first step in working toward the resolution of the problems they describe.
Despite the common usage in feminist contexts, “toxic masculinity” actually originated in a counter-movement to feminism in the ’90s, known as the New Masculine Movement, or the mythopoetic men’s movement. Though perhaps initially appealing, the ideas laid out in the two source texts for the movement (Iron John and King, Warrior, Magician, Lover) are merely a repackaging of traditional gender roles. Male-only meetings, retreats, and other traditionally masculine activities were intended to save true “warrior” masculinity from the softening that had resulted from contact with a supposedly feminized society.
Today, the assumption that grounded the mythopoetic men’s movement, that there is one true form of masculinity, has been rejected by most scholars. Sociologist Dr. Raewyn Connell, famous for her studies on masculinity, became known for her assertion of a more fluid understanding of masculinity that changed with its context.
She redefines the term as more of a point of reference than an unchanging state: “To speak of masculinities is to speak about gender relations. Masculinities are not equivalent to men; they concern the position of men in a gender order…There is abundant evidence that masculinities are multiple, with internal complexities and even contradictions; also that masculinities change in history, and that women have a considerable role in making them”.
This understanding of masculinity, in general, should lead to a deeper exploration of the origins of toxic masculinity. The term is often used as a blanket for any problematic male behavior, failing to acknowledge the social circumstances that have rendered a particular expression of masculinity “toxic.” Some men respond to any uttering of “toxic masculinity” with a kneejerk, “not all men” defense. Though the “not all men” argument is valid, a proper understanding of the offending phrase would prove it unnecessary, as there are many men who embody healthy, non-toxic expressions of masculinity.
This is not to say that all users of the term do so with the right intention. The complexities of gender issues are blunted by swift attacks employing the loaded term. Still, an ad hominem argument against men as a gender does nothing except add tension to an already divided situation. A thoughtful examination of the problems in our society that lead to toxic masculinity, rather than an overarching condemnation of masculinity itself, may prove a crucial first step toward eradicating those elements of social toxicity. After all, when has name-calling ever been an effective form of conflict resolution?
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