Toxic Masculinity is something that has gained a wider understanding over the last few years and is being talked about much more in mainstream media. Recently there’s been a lot of coverage for rapper Guvna B.’s book called ‘Unspoken’. In this he writes about growing up on a London council estate in East London, and how damaging it was being taught by peers and family members that to be a man meant to be tough, thick skinned, unemotional and to supress any emotions he might feel.

We live in confusing times - on one hand there is a cult of hyper toxic masculinity being played out at national level with leaders such as Trump, Putin, Modi, Erdogan and Bolsonaro. At the same time there seems to be a real desire from people to move away from this and to change the way that we understand ourselves and the world around us.

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ did not originate from feminism but rather it emerged from what is known as the mythopoetic Jung influenced men’s movement of the 1980s and ’90s, which was actually a reaction to second-wave feminism. The men’s movement focussed on men going into wilderness retreats, participating in drumming circles, as an attempt to regain a kind of masculine spirituality that was connected to ‘lost’ roles as the protective, ‘warrior’ man. According to the movement, men’s frustration and aggressions were as a result of living in a society that has feminized boys by denying them the necessary rites and rituals to realize their true selves as men. There was a belief that men needed to return to primal wildness, in order to get in touch with an deeper identity (hence the connection with Jung and archetypes) and also a belief that boys needed to establish a significant relationship with their father (a kind of mythical elder figure) in order to become a man.  

So, it’s good to be a bit cautious when we talk about ‘Toxic Masculinity’ - being aware of how it has been used as a political tool to erase the female or to reinforce a kind of essentialism. Jung’s ideas on the animus (the unconscious masculine side of women) or the anima (the unconscious feminine qualities that men have) are interesting and can help people to embrace different qualities but it can lead to a reductionism - whereby the female anima is all arty spirit and chaos and the masculine animus is all ‘rational’ thinking and courage....which all sounds a bit too much like the patriarchy where men hold the power over silly women and children. And dogs.

Toxic Masculinity is a subject that we include on our Feminism for Change course - for women who quite often say that feminism is ‘not for them’ or doesn’t relate to their lives - it’s intended to introduce the idea that feminism offers a helpful way of understanding how prescribed gender roles can negatively impact both women and for men.

Perhaps another way to think about toxic masculinity is through the writings of the American feminist author bell hooks. The name BTW is always written in lower case as an assumed name by the writer Gloria Watkins, in honour of her grandmother and to focus in the ideas rather than her as the individual ‘author’. Watkins/hooks is a fascinating woman who was very influenced by the radical educator Paulo Friere and writes a lot about the importance of education in understanding power, intersectionality and capitalism.

Describing the patriarchal system we live in bell hooks writes that, “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”

We can think of these acts of what hooks calls ‘psychic mutilation’ as beliefs or commands toward:

  • being competitive
  • being self- reliant
  • having to be the breadwinner and sole decision maker of the family
  • entitlement to sexual and emotional attention from women
  • sexual objectification of women
  • infantilisation of women - so they become powerless and childlike
  • glorifying violence either real or digital
  • misogyny (hatred of women)
  • fixed ideas about what ‘men’ and ‘women’ do in society
  • heteronormativity (believing that heterosexuality is both natural and superior)

Rather than understand these as demands unique to men, it’s perhaps helpful to consider the impacts that these expectations have on men in the first instance and how - since we live in an unequal society - how this then impacts upon women.