As the term “toxic masculinity” gets more widespread, I see more people complain about it. The interpretation is that the term implies that all men are toxic. In reality, it does exactly the opposite.
To see why, I need to give a brief grammar lesson. First, I’ll talk about restrictive vs non-restrictive clauses. Then I’ll talk about adjectives.
Compare the following:
1. Men who like sports will be interested in the new sports league.
2. Men, who like sports, will be interested in the new sports league.
In the first case, “who like sports” is a restrictive clause. It says that I’m not talking about ALL men, I’m talking specifically about those men who like sports. I am specifically implying that there are men, perhaps many men, who do NOT like sports, and I’m excluding them from the rest of the sentence.
Note the commas: That’s how we mark the difference in written texts. It’s a crucial difference.
3. Masculinity which is toxic needs to be addressed.
4. Masculinity, which is toxic, needs to be addressed.
This is the same pattern: In the first sentence, there’s a clear implication that there is masculinity that is not toxic, and we’re not talking about that. We’re talking specifically about that masculinity which is toxic. The second sentence, meanwhile, implies that all masculinity is toxic. I agree with the first sentence; I do not agree with the second sentence.
Because of the way English works, there are cases where there’s some ambiguity. Most of the time, though, it’s clear enough.
Adjectives can be a little trickier. They can be both restrictive (“I want a silver car.”) and non-restrictive (“I want some delicious pie.”), but they’re usually restrictive, especially when we’re speaking generically. That’s the case with “toxic masculinity”; while there are some who feel strongly that all masculinity is toxic, people who use the term “toxic masculinity” are allowing for the existence of non-toxic masculinity as well.
Not all masculinity is toxic. Not all traditional masculinity is toxic. When I refer to “toxic masculinity,” I’m referring specifically to those elements of masculinity that are destructive and cause harm.
For instance, it is a traditional masculine value that men try to be stoic in the face of crisis. During mourning, patriarchs are often expected to be the rock, allowing other family members to collapse emotionally. This was how my father was: I rarely saw him cry. As long as men process their emotions with appropriate release, even if it’s privately, this attitude isn’t toxic.
What is toxic is forcing men to be stoic, acting as if there’s something wrong with crying. When we create a box for manhood that doesn’t allow for any expressions outside a narrow band, we create emotional pressure cookers that eventually explode.
Believing there’s value in stoicism in times of crisis is not toxic; “boys don’t cry” is, when it’s used to suppress another person’s emotions.
Believing there’s value in overcoming one’s anxieties and doing what needs to be done is not toxic; “man up” is, when it’s used to diminish another person’s struggles.
Not all frogs are poisonous, just the ones we call poisonous.
Not all snakes are venomous, just the ones we call venomous.
And not all masculinity is toxic, just parts of it. That’s what we want to repair.
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