At this point, I’m sure that just about everyone has heard the term ‘Toxic Masculinity.’ For those that haven’t, Toxic Masculinity is defined as a cultural concept of manliness that glorifies traditionally masculine qualities to the point of being socially maladaptive. For example, the fact that many men feel uncomfortable being physically close or emotionally vulnerable with their male friends because they do not want to be seen as “unmasculine” or “gay” is a symptom of Toxic Masculinity.
There have been many criticisms of the concept as a whole from people who want to deny its existence, and of the terminology from those who have been concerned that it may be misinterpreted and have a damaging effect on men.
Masculinity vs. Toxic Masculinity
So, to clarify, Masculinity is a neutral concept.
Masculinity is exhibiting qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men. What exactly qualifies as “manly” can vary from culture to culture and even person to person. In North America, manliness is typically defined as muscular, stoic, dominant, confident, and hypersexual. There is some variation there, and I definitely did not mention everything. You get the idea.
Some of the traits above can be good things. Being confident and driven are pretty desirable qualities, after all. The rest may come naturally and have varying effects on ourselves and others. None of these traits are inherently awful things that cause active harm, but the relentless pursuit of them can put many people in a bad situation.
For example, if a guy is not naturally athletic and muscular and feels like he can’t be for whatever reason, he might try and overcompensate in another area in order to prove that he is a “real man.” In doing so, he may hurt the people around him with his distance and stoicism or any other number of hurtful behaviours that would leave him isolated. And he would likely not understand that the source of the problem was his behaviour, not because he wasn’t “man enough.” At least, that seems to be the general consensus.
The steady deconstruction of gender roles has been slowly changing our understanding of what it means to be a man. These days, many people understand that there are a lot of different types of masculinity, and that masculinity is something that you can exhibit regardless of your sex. It is an understanding that will likely continue to circulate and change how we view sex, gender and how the two relate to one another.
But if masculinity can go from a neutral concept to a toxic force, does that mean that femininity can also be toxic?
To my knowledge, toxic femininity has not been widely discussed or defined. In my opinion, toxic femininity is the use of femininity to excuse or disregard abusive behaviour and/or the weaponization of feminine gender performance.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Yes, occasionally female abusers will use their femininity as proof they can’t hurt anyone. The idea that women are too weak or too sweet to hurt anyone is a result of patriarchal views about the sexes, but it can still be turned into an advantage for abusers looking to invalidate their victims’ claims. However, it is not the most common scenario. Toxic femininity often shows itself through more subtle ways.
For a long time, men worked while women (white women, specifically) stayed at home and acted as homemakers. Without a career to demonstrate competence and skill, the way to be seen as a successful woman was by being a good wife and a good mother. Despite women entering the workforce, the responsibility of motherhood has become tied to women’s identities and worth in western society. Depending on the person, motherhood can be a joy or a burden, but it is essentially always an expectation. The role of “caregiver” is placed very specifically on women, and sometimes this role can be a source of power.
Let’s look at the example of Mother Gothel in Tangled. She repeatedly uses her role as Rapunzel’s caregiver to guilt trip and gaslights her daughter. She framed her abuse as a mother’s concern and kept Rapunzel obedient and dependent on her, and when Rapunzel left the tower for the first time, she experienced immense guilt for disobeying her mother’s wishes.
In the real world, sometimes the desire to be seen as a good mother–something still considered to be part of being seen as a successful woman–can motivate women to be overly controlling and abusive towards their children. In cases like these, a feminine role can be a motivator for the abuse and an excuse for it. Just as violent behaviour or sexual harassment from men is (often) motivated by the performance of masculinity, and then explained away by the fact that they are men with lots of aggression and sexuality that is just so hard to control: emotional abuse from mothers is motivated by the performance of motherhood and then excused by it.
Mothers are culturally seen as caring and self-sacrificing because they (supposedly) prioritize their children. Therefore, all their actions towards their children, damaging and abusive or otherwise, are viewed as having their child’s safety and success in mind. Emotional abuse from mothers is often framed as the mother trying to do what is best for her child, and therefore excusable because it “came from a good place.” Fathers, on the other hand, are traditionally considered to be distant from their children, and it makes accusations of abuse more believable for people than a mother being cruel to the precious baby who she must love to have gone through the trials of pregnancy.
Sometimes people might be more similar to Mother Gothel and are motivated by a desire for control rather than societal pressure, and use the preconceived notions of a mother’s pure intentions to excuse their behaviour. This is an example of weaponizing femininity.
Another example of weaponizing femininity can be found in our experiences of public school, or just watching Mean Girls. Girls that fit the expectations of womanhood, who are pretty and feminine, have a lot of social power over less conventional girls. Think of every glow-up scene in a romantic comedy, the nerdy girl (who was already hot) becomes more noticeable and powerful after she starts to conform more to societal standards of femininity. She has her long hair down, some makeup on and clothes that reveal her curves but in a classy way.
Girls who seem to embody the typical image of femininity are automatically associated with other facets of femininity such as the idea that women are too weak or sweet to actually hurt anyone. Therefore their bullying is not taken seriously because it is framed as girls just being catty. Meanwhile, girls who do not fit the typical image of femininity are not taken seriously because they are not trying hard enough to perform their role of womanhood.
The character Janis in Mean Girls is a pretty good example of this idea. She very clearly does not engage with femininity in the traditional way. There is nothing about Janis that caters to the male gaze, and she is very assertive and independent. Her appearance is often the subject of ridicule from the other students in the school, yet she refuses to have a romcom glow-up of her own. While the point of the film is that putting down others won’t make people any better, it is somewhat telling that Janis was ultimately considered the main antagonist of the film even though Regina was objectively the worst person in the movie.
Patriarchy and Gender Conformity
To be clear, I am not saying that femininity is bad. Just like masculinity, femininity is a neutral concept. The point of this article is not to imply that feminine attributes or women are inherently bad or that they have equal power to men in our society. My goal is to point out the ways different roles created in a patriarchal society create opportunities for abuse and excuses for said abuse.
Patriarchy rewards gender conformity. The best way that I can explain this, is to use the example of the trans community. Being a pinnacle of masculinity or femininity is considered to be essential for trans people’s gender identities to be considered legitimate. Any gender non-conforming people are considered abnormal or even fake for not performing their gender according to patriarchal standards. Gender conformity gives social power to cis people, and to trans people looking to be accepted.
Gender conformity can be weaponized. If someone is seen to be attempting to fulfill their social role, their actions are seen in a much more forgiving light. This puts those who are not conforming to their assigned role in danger because they are targets for ridicule and puts those who are conforming into a place of power that they can use to their advantage.
There is no identity or label that someone can have that will automatically preclude them from being a bad person. It can be tempting to assume that women are a safe space, especially when there are a lot of very obvious examples of violence from men. However, it is important not to make any generalizations about what a person is like based on their sex or gender. Just as there are plenty of men who perform their masculinity in healthy ways, there are women who perform their femininity in toxic ways. If we hope to make the world a truly equal place, it is important to hold ourselves and others accountable for bad behaviour rather than writing it off because of their sex and/or gender.