The label “Toxic Masculinity” has become a descriptor of men displaying masculinity which is perceived by some to be somehow harmful to women or fitting negative masculine stereotypes. Of course there is some truth to the fact that toxic masculinity does exist. In “incel” forums, for example, rather than working through the pain of being sexually rejected, men lash out at the women they feel they deserve — occasionally resulting in horrific violence. In a recent interview, the actor and activist Sean Penn is quoted, ” I don’t think that being a brute or having insensitivity or disrespect for women is anything to do with masculinity, or ever did. But I don’t think that [in order] to be fair to women, we should become them, he also said.” Unfortunately, Penn was not asked how he defines masculinity other than not being feminine. Not real helpful in understanding when it is appropriate to classify an incident as toxic masculinity.
The problem of course is the attributions we place on labels. Often this leads to over simplification which inhibits thoughtful discussion. Even though our brains are hard wired to put our experiences into categories or boxes which helps us make sense of the chaos of our lives, the downside is that we over label and do not do enough to refine our boxes.
As an example, a review of the movie “Power of the Dog” labeled non physical bullying behavior by a group of men as toxic masculinity. Does this mean that verbal or social media bullying by women is toxic femininity? Never heard of toxic being applied to a women’s behavior even though it is the same action exhibited by both genders. Bullying is obnoxious and harmful but it has little to do with toxic masculinity.
Bad behavior – gratuitous violence, lack of empathy, insensitivity – is bad behavior. Statistically, probably more men than women behave this way, but is not an attribute of masculinity. Rather it is a minority of men who have distorted the archetypes of masculinity and have consequently earned the label Toxic Masculinity.