I received a question about toxic masculinity from a complete stranger on Facebook Messenger. He seemed to be completely stumped by the concept and, frankly, I don’t blame him. It was a bit of head-scratcher for me at first.
I explained that it spoke to embracing male stereotypes and traits to an extreme, doing masculinity in a way that negatively impacts others and the self. I threw out examples like being overly competitive, aggressive, domineering to women, and refusing to show emotion, to name a few examples. The presentation of the idea was very neutral and unbiased…or so I thought.
This gentleman proceeded to tell me “what was what” and insisted that the whole concept was a “lie.” He suggested I was inferring that he was incapable of showing emotion. For good measure, he threw-in that his cat recently died. Then, he asked me to tell him what was wrong with being competitive or working hard to provide for one’s family. Honestly. It just doesn’t pay to turn on your computer in the morning, sometimes.
Avoiding a snarky reply, I immediately dawned on my “therapist hat.” It keeps me out of trouble. “Just a concept, which folks can agree with or not,” I clarified. “Not all men fit that description.” Of course, I mentioned that I lost a pet, myself, in November and could relate to his upset (at least in that regard).
After an hour, which is usually the amount of time it takes for me to shake off a good tongue-lashing, I got to thinking. Could all this talk about toxic masculinity be harming our “non-toxic” (Please notice the air quotes, readers!) brethren? Are we being toxic by labeling other men as such?”
We just may be.
I know my initial response to this concept was a critical one. I didn’t see anything wrong with striving for the things I wanted or setting hard boundaries to protect myself or others. Sure, things get murky in the extremes of the “masculinity spectrum,” but it is nonsensical to think that masculinity (toxic or otherwise) can be explicitly defined. In truth, men’s environments and relationships are likely to determine how much they have to “butch it up,” having little to do with their own self-concepts or senses of manliness. Some of us may find we have to be tougher than others. We may have to take more control (especially when others won’t). Only we know our own stories, while others may only have a superficial glance to operate from.
Some of us may have to bring it down a notch in some areas, while others may need to put some “back” into it in others. When it comes to masculinity, I think the line between “non-toxic” and “toxic” is not only a fine one but fluid and unique to the individual. Sure, I can call my stuff “toxic,” but that is because I know it is. I wouldn’t slap that label on anyone else. If someone did that to me I would tell them “what’s what,” too.
I believe “toxic masculinity” exists just like “toxic femininity” does (not sure why we don’t hear much about that). However, I don’t think one can accurately determine who is toxic without first knowing their story. Even then, the whole labeling “thing” is a pretty messy business. Plus, I question the correctness of using a term that causes such collateral damage. Ultimately, I have to wonder if this conversation comes with its own emotional shrapnel? It is something to think about.
Toxic masculinity seems like a binary concept. It can suggest (to some) that only good men and bad men exist. In truth, no one should have to feel that way. We are just men, doing the best we can with what we got. Maybe, we should focus less on defining “toxic” and more on identifying what our own “fine lines” look like. That way each of us can create our own barometer by which to measure where we are at in said “spectrum.” We can check ourselves when things start feeling sticky.
Actually, I am glad this fellow messaged me today. It reminded me that sometimes solutions to problems, such as having the conversation about male toxicity, can have unanticipated consequences. Does this mean we should stop talking about it? No. We definitely shouldn’t. It is a conversation worth having, but there’s a reason why some people take cream with their coffee.
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