A man in the foreground with a football, video game consul, stack of cash, pulls, and a gun in the background.

Toxic Masculinity

What Does Modern Masculinity Actually Look Like?

We don't want masculinity to be toxic, yet we refuse to let go of the capitalistic and emotional limits that support patriarchal behavior. What then is masculinity's place in society?

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Andrew Cuomo was scrambling. After a 165-page report containing interviews with 179 people revealed he’s a serial sexual harasser, his apology was a confusing back and forth of admissions of guilt and reassurances that he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong.

“I kissed a woman on the cheek at a wedding and I thought I was being nice, but she felt that it was too aggressive,” he said of a kiss a woman said was nonconsensual. “I thought a hug and putting my arm around the staff person while taking a picture was friendly, but she found it to be too forward,” he said of a woman who accused him of groping her buttocks.

Cuomo’s non-apologies to the women he harmed, despite a wealth of evidence against him, are emblematic of progressive men’s reaction to being caught engaging in misogynistic behavior: a mixture of rehearsed, pro-woman talking points, contrived admission of guilt, and the irresistible claim that it’s all a misunderstanding. Cuomo was scrambling because being held accountable for his actions wasn’t what he was taught to expect as a white American man. It did not cross his mind that touching people non-consensually would be his downfall because he thought his cis-hetero masculinity and position of power (and his brother) would protect him. 

Cuomo’s resignation is the latest indication of a generalized public rejection of bad behavior from men, four years after the #MeToo movement exploded on social media. While this public rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that survivors will be getting justice anytime soon, it does mean men, masculinity, and dominant masculine gender roles are currently (rightfully) under scrutiny by the public at large. Terms like “toxic masculinity” and “patriarchy” are common features in feminist online spaces, thus recognizing the social construction of men and masculinity as a problem to be dealt with in society.

Amid claims that #MeToo has gone too far, it’s important to remember that scrutiny of men and masculinity is a relatively recent philosophical and social invention. Gender roles were once understood as generally beneficial to society despite some feminist dissidence. Up until the late ’60s, men and masculinity weren’t seen as a problem. The gay liberation and feminist movements challenged this harmony between genders, as masculinity theorist Tim Edwards writes: “From the 1970s onwards, many men working in political and academic circles alike were exposed to, if not forced to confront, feminism and indeed feminists, whether in their working, academic, political, or personal lives.” As feminist and gay liberation movements foregrounded heterosexual men as the dominant gender, men’s previously invisible default dominance was exposed.

The more men are scrutinized and held accountable for patriarchy, the more we see backlash on all corners of society. The alt-right, the rise in support for extreme right-wing rhetoric, and the Men’s Rights Activism groups are all responses to the scrutiny of white, cis-hetero men whose power is currently being questioned. Responses to feminist scrutiny of men have always been common. Bafflement at being held accountable for their actions, like Cuomo modeled so well through his non-apologies, is also a hallmark of American masculinity in 2021. It seems unthinkable, to some of these men, that their actions toward women and non-men could have any consequences because for a long time, there weren’t any.

Men’s responses to feminist scrutiny and critique have also contributed to how we view masculinity in contemporary American society. The term “toxic masculinity” was originally coined by Shepherd Bliss in response to what he perceived as the emasculation of the modern man and men’s lack of touch with nature and instincts. Bliss saw toxic masculinity in opposition to inoffensive kinds of masculinity, and in line with the mythopoetic men’s movement and its founder Robert Bly, favored a return of men to wilder, more naturalist types of masculinity.

However, the term’s meaning has radically shifted from its roots, to the point where toxic masculinity is generally perceived as a feminist invention. A more scholarly use of the term was used by Terry A. Kupers, a scholar of psychology, in 2005 when writing about mental blocks to seeking help for mental illness in incarcerated men. According to Kupers, toxic masculinity is “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.” Arguing that incarcerated men are disrespected in all areas of their lives—at work, at leisure time, by the police and the prison guards—Kupers explains that toxic masculinity is a way for men to seek respect; “the man who feels he cannot get respect in any other way is the one who feels a strong urge to dominate others.”

Kupers touches on an important aspect of masculinity that sometimes falls through the cracks in mainstream feminist discourse: not all men reap the benefits of masculinity and manhood. Racialized men, working-class men, and gender-nonconforming men struggle with the many impositions of what is considered the “model” masculinity: white, cisgender, heterosexual, and high-earning. Kupers believes toxic masculinity can manifest when the shortcomings of men become obvious. This is a theory also supported by Patricia Hill Collins, who theorizes that the source of men’s physical dominance in Black communities lies “in ideas about Black masculinity that in turn is situated within a larger context of hegemonic masculinity.” Hill Collins connects misogyny and homophobia to the amount of pressure Black men find themselves in to avoid being classified as “weak.”

Where Hill Collins differs from Kupers, however, is her unwavering attention to how this negatively and specifically affects Black women. Citing the case of Anita Hill and Justice Clarence Thomas, Collins writes that “Black leaders have been unable to help either Black women or Black men deal with the structural violence of the new racism because such leaders typically fail to question prevailing Black gender ideology,” and calls for “a new Black sexual politics dedicated to a more expansive notion of social justice.” In short, we need to invent new modes of gender that aren’t premised on violence, dominance, or power struggle.

The term “toxic masculinity” can be useful in everyday conversations to single out harmful masculine practices, but there are downsides to its use. It can be totalizing and oversimplified, and it creates an implicitly oppositional binary. If there is a toxic kind of masculinity, it stands to reason that there are positive or alternative ways to perform masculinity that are not harmful or that don’t model dominance. This binary simplifies gender oppression into individual choices of “less harmful” masculinity rather than addressing the structures that create the hierarchies that benefit men. The solutions of abolishing patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy aren’t centered when we individualize the harms of toxic masculinity.

The COVID pandemic has exposed many inequalities across society, and it’s no different in matters of gender. As offices and schools moved to remote settings, the division of housework and child-rearing quickly became more unequal than before, with mothers precariously juggling work, house chores, homeschooling, and whatever else needed to be done. The overwork of women was and continues to be unsustainable, but according to sociologist Jessica Calarco, this hasn’t resulted in a positive shift of gender roles in most households.

Calarco’s recent research paper examines how disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic created conflicts for couples with young children, and her results indicate that the pandemic exacerbated already existing conflicts around paid work and parenting, economic security, politics, and health decision-making. Calarco’s research, a mixed-methods study of Southern Indiana mothers, conducted between April and May of 2020, reveals the extreme pressures mothers have been negotiating since the beginning of the pandemic.

“One of the things that we find which is consistent with so much of the other research that’s been conducted during the pandemic is that women in different gender couples are doing a disproportionate share of the added caregiving that has been created by the pandemic,” Calarco explained in an interview with DAME. “So many women are burnt out, exhausted, and also undermining their health and well-being.”

These dynamics are complicated by masculinity and the idea that men asking for flexible working hours, for example, would be judged by their bosses and co-workers. The fact men are often the primary earners in a household exacerbated the pressure for men to be good workers and keep their jobs, while women’s careers were seen as less important to the family. The exacerbation of conflict in the home is perhaps a symptom of what I’ve recently started calling “gender equality theater,” where men are consistently asked to do better but there is little structural incentive for shifts in gender roles to actually happen. While there are improvements men (and women) can work toward in their everyday lives, the pressures of surviving capitalism while maintaining a household during a pandemic won’t allow gender roles to shift until real structural change takes place.

“Mothers and fathers are both able to justify relying on mothers as the primary pandemic parent because of the long-standing cultural and structural inequalities in our society,” Calarco explained. “So in most couples, fathers earn more than mothers. And that reflects the fact that we don’t have things like affordable childcare or paid maternity leave. The consequence of those policies is that it pushes women out of the workforce when they have children, or pushes them into part-time work or into other work opportunities that involve fewer work hours.”

At a time where men and masculinity seem to be increasingly under scrutiny and gender inequality is consistently discussed, this lack of shift in gender roles in the home is notable and depressing. While watching famous, powerful men lose positions of power because of their bad behavior is satisfying and righteous, the question that hasn’t yet been answered is: when will scrutiny of men and masculinities result in policies that will structurally and definitively shift gender roles beyond spectacle?

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