“Toxic masculinity” has gotten a lot of play on social media recently, as well as on college campuses. It has generated a lot of push-back too, with some denying that such a thing even exists. On the other side, some in the “social justice” camp have branded all traditional masculinity as toxic, calling for a redefinition of masculinity in feminist terms.
Is there indeed such a thing as toxic masculinity? I would say, if there is such a thing as masculinity, then there necessarily also is a toxic version of it; for human beings invariably push concepts to extremes, and the extremes are invariably toxic from some perspective. So yes, there is a toxic masculinity; but in what does it consist? To answer this question, we must first consider the nature of masculinity itself.
I will address this question in stark and simple terms that may be offensive to some, but which I think will capture the essence of the matter more cogently than a more nuanced exposition.
Leaving aside questions of philosophy and religion, the purpose of life is to produce more life that will produce yet more life, and that is the only purpose. In mammals, that purpose is realized in the capacity to birth offspring and rear them until such time as they are capable of producing their own reproductively competent offspring, or until such time as they are able to care for themselves until they have this reproductive capability themselves. All other activities and competencies either support this purpose more or less directly, or are accidental and essentially superfluous to the purpose of life. In mammals, more specifically in primates, females alone are capable of giving birth and of nursing their young; thus they are essential to life while they have this capacity. Males are truly needed only to contribute their seed; beyond that they are essentially superfluous. Evolution, whether biological or cultural, may make further use of them in various ways, as in contributing to the nurturing of the young, or for protection of the mothers and young, or providing for them; but these roles are essentially ancillary and not an evolutionary necessity. In short, once a male has made her pregnant, males are of no further essential use (in terms of the purpose of life stated above) to a female, until such time as she is ready to become pregnant again.
In consequence, the relation of females to males of our own kind beyond the needs of mating must be one of either ignoring them or of trying to find some use for them, since we tend to ignore useless objects as a waste of energy. Because males do constitute a reservoir of potentially useful resources, females do tend to try to find uses for them; and this, as I see it, is the essence of femininity. Males, on the other hand, are evolutionarily motivated to spread their seed and prevent other males from doing so; thus their relation to females is to sexually acquire and control them. This, in my view, is the essence of masculinity.
Masculinity becomes “toxic”, as I see it, when its acquisitive and controlling qualities begin to outweigh the value of whatever use females feel they are able to make of males. This toxicity is thus measured purely from the perspective of the female. In our present society, as females find themselves able to rely more and more on the societal structures males have erected, they find less and less use for individual males; thus more and more masculine behavior comes to be seen as toxic. But what of femininity?
If, as I have suggested, femininity is in essence a relation of females to males of the former trying to find and effect some use for the latter, feminism can be seen as a manifestation of femininity. Feminists merely seek to reshape the balance between the acquisitive and controlling tendencies of men on the one hand and their utilitarian functions on the other, which is precisely what women have always done. Feminism is simply a current tactic of an age-old strategy.
If, as I have suggested, masculinity becomes toxic when women begin to perceive it as more of a bother than it is worth, when does femininity become toxic (as it must, when it reaches a perceived extreme)? Rather obviously, when men see it beginning to interfere with their evolutionarily adaptive urge to acquire and control women sexually. That perception will occur in a context: much of our current societal structure is the result of efforts to balance this imperative with another, that of living together peacefully and productively to mutual benefit. Masculinity in the raw sense I have used is already greatly constrained by this context. Feminism would constrain it further, with counterbalancing benefits of often dubious value. If men object to feminism because they see the balance tilting too far in the direction of making men irrelevant except as producers of sperm, they would be justified in my view in referring to it as toxic femininity.
This concept of toxic femininity differs somewhat from what one will find in a Google search of the phrase, where it is typically used to refer to specific behaviors and attitudes (see this and this, for examples), without, as far as I can tell, any theoretical underpinning. I offer it not as a “retaliation against the feminist idea of ‘toxic masculinity’”, to quote from one of the sites just referenced, but rather in an effort to situate toxic masculinity within a non-feminist theoretical framework and explore the implications of that framework in respect to femininity.