It seems a standard rule that out of any crisis, something positive must emerge.
And so, from out of the rubbish of all the sexual harassment and abuse allegations, we find a gem: our country is finally talking candidly about masculinity and the forces that shape it. We’re also talking about toxic masculinity and the common behaviors associated with it. This topic has always been difficult to discuss—it still is—but we are finally questioning things that previously couldn’t be questioned.
I’ve been discussing and writing about toxic masculinity and the pyramid-shaped patriarchy that fuels it, for several years. I’ve seen and felt this imbalance in the microcosms of my own life, as well as the macrocosm of the bigger world. I’ve wanted to engage in dialogue about this issue without men taking it personally, and without men (or women) getting defensive. I’m a huge believer in the idea that we can’t fight a shadow we won’t acknowledge. But until now, the world wasn’t ready, wasn’t listening, and wasn’t responding.
So you might understand why, after I wrote my first piece here at The Good Men Project, and after I received a comment that asked “What about toxic femininity?”, I rolled my eyes. “As if women are a bigger danger to society than men,” I thought. After all:
• A July 2017 report by the Atlantic claims that over half of murdered women are killed by romantic partners.
• Nearly one in five women is raped; compared to one in 71 men. These are just reported rapes, and doesn’t include other forms of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse.
• Men committed 88 mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and October 2017. Women committed two.
So the notion that discussion of toxic femininity was an overlooked but critically important piece seemed part-and-parcel of our “whataboutism” politics, rather than a legitimate question.
But then, I remembered that so much of our polarization in this country is due to our knee-jerk reactions, our unwillingness to talk to one another about difficult things, and yes, our eye-rolling, sarcasm, and condescension.
So, let’s put the question back into play. What about toxic femininity?
For the record, let’s note what are not expressions of toxic femininity.
It is not a woman who:
• Expresses her anger or outrage at legitimate offenses.
• Attends rallies, protests, or marches to fight for equality.
• Wears clothing not traditionally associated with femininity.
• Expresses a contrary or dissenting opinion.
• Refuses a man’s advances.
• Rejects prescribed gender roles.
• Expresses feminist views.
• Isn’t sexually attracted to, or only to, men.
In the cases above, it would be more appropriate to just call her a woman.
Having said that, toxic femininity is a real thing, and it is big deal. In a different way and for different reasons than toxic masculinity, but we should discuss it because feminine and masculine energies are, like yin and yang, like a coin, two halves of the same whole.
Before I go further, let me say that I use the terms “masculinity” and “femininity” archetypally. They are not labels, but rather descriptors of energy. They are not assigned based on our sex. Archetypally speaking, these terms actually have nothing to do with our genitalia, sexual orientation, or gender identity, but have everything to do with our innate and unique energy. Both males and females embody masculine and feminine energy, in varying degrees. No one is entirely masculine or entirely feminine, and they do not remain static, but move and shift, always seeking health, balance, and harmony.
Masculine energy is described as hot, quick, light, and bright. It is ambitious, aggressive and driven. It is associated with daytime, the sun, and the element of fire. It’s hot, burning, transformative energy. It is a lightning bolt of force to be reckoned with. Whether it offers life-giving heat or destroys with an unappeasable appetite, depends on how we tend to it.
Feminine energy is soft, slow, reflective, and receptive. Its nature is gentleness and simplicity. It nurtures, allows, holds, and receives. It’s permeable, tranquil, compassionate energy. It is associated with the elements of earth and water. Yin rules over nighttime and the moon.
If the masculine is out of balance, so goes the feminine, and vice versa. When one changes, the other reacts. When one is warped, so too is the other.
But, because of their different core qualities, it follows that when the masculine and feminine go out of balance (when they become toxic) they do so in different ways:
Unbalanced masculine energy (toxic masculinity) because of its natural outward trajectory, moves in an outward fashion. Violence, rage, hated, name-calling, sarcasm, bullying, and all kinds of abuse—these are symptoms of the toxic masculine.
If toxic masculinity remains unchecked, it takes out this imbalance on the world and other people. At some point, like a boomerang, it moves back inward to hurt himself, too. This is a well-discussed topic on this website.
Unbalanced feminine energy (toxic femininity) because of its inward focus, moves in an inward fashion. Guilt, depression, anxiety, lack of self-worth, bitterness, spite, jealousy, passive-aggressiveness, or clingy behavior—these are the symptoms of the toxic feminine. (From an archetypal perspective, note that toxic femininity can exist in a woman or a man.)
Toxic femininity is a self-destructive, inwardly-directed energy that sometimes, but not always, projects this inner pain upon others. Toxic femininity is a cry for help from someone who struggles with core survival issues such as self-worth, self-acceptance, and self-love.
If toxic femininity remains unchecked, it might take on symptoms of depression or anxiety. It might result in eating disorders or self-harming acts such as cutting or hair pulling.
It might stay on this inner negative spiral, or it might move outward, taking out this imbalance on other women. For instance, women who use derogatory terms upon each other, heap judgment on each other, or in any other way invalidate another woman’s path, are projecting their inner unworthiness.
She might also express her imbalance toward a partner through petty criticism, jealousy, and (unwarranted) suspicion. This is also a projection of her own lack of self-worth.
Yes, a man can be withdrawn and spiteful. And yes, a woman can be violent and wrathful. But in these cases, the man is presenting toxic femininity, and the woman is expressing toxic masculinity—archetypally speaking. Both people are imbalanced, and both need healing.
The bottom line is this: While toxic masculinity can lead to physical violence, rape, and abuse, toxic femininity often translates into mental health disorders, which is also a truly relevant issue of our time.
From the World Health Organization:
Gender differences occur particularly in the rates of common mental disorders – depression, anxiety and somatic complaints. These disorders, in which women predominate, affect approximately 1 in 3 people in the community and constitute a serious public health problem.
• Depressive disorders account for close to 41.9% of the disability from neuropsychiatric disorders among women compared to 29.3% among men.
• Leading mental health problems of the older adults are depression, organic brain syndromes, and dementias. A majority are women.
• An estimated 80% of 50 million people affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disasters, and displacement are women and children.
So yes—what about toxic femininity?
My commentator was exactly right, we really should be talking more about it.
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