Suppose you were to see a boy or young man wearing a shirt which boldly proclaimed, “51% Gentleman, 49% Bastard.” What would be your reaction? Would you laugh and shake your head, or would the words “toxic masculinity” spring to your mind?
The Swerving Car
Becky, a friend of mine from high school who is a mother and a small business owner, has called a “hypocrisy check” on some of the memes and quotes in social media that supposedly celebrate strong women. “… [C]hange the pronouns [from ‘she’ and ‘her’] to ‘he’ and ‘his’. Yep, what we celebrate in women would quite often be demonized in a man.”
When I asked Becky for a clarifying example, she replied, “I tried to find the meme that finally inspired [my] quote, but a quick Google search garnered me nothing. It went something like: I don’t want my daughter to be a princess. I’m raising her to be tough, selfish, strong, and a little b****y. She might make your life. She might murder you in your sleep. Stay on your toes” [italics mine]. She then provided six other memes to reinforce her point. Examples include:
I’m not built for no soft a** man. I talk back and do not listen.
Redheads … there’s fire in them. If loved correctly, she will warm your entire home. If abused, she will burn it down!
Some days, you just have to put on the witch hat and remind them who they’re dealing with.
Becky concluded, “Read any of those as a man and it’s ‘toxic masculinity.’” Her daughter Tamara added that a pastor at her non-denominational church had made and worn a T-shirt with the statement, “The future is both male and female,” after encountering a shirt that proclaimed the future to be female exclusively. “We are less doomed to repeat mistakes,” Tamara said, “if we don’t swing the pendulum so wildly [in] the other direction.” My own mental image is that of a car swerving ditch-to-ditch as two type-A personalities fight over the steering wheel, both over-correcting each other’s errors.
The Question … and the Question Behind It
Is there a double standard here? Is the kind of womanhood such memes celebrate really strong, or simply rude and crude? Before we go begging comparisons with “toxic masculinity,” we ought to have a clearer definition of the term. Many arguments begin and end in futility because the two sides use critical terms differently, yet each side assumes their opponent attaches the same meanings they do.
On the one hand, saying Thing X has quality q can admit to a potential universe of Xs that are q-less. Thus, St. Paul could warn the Colossians against seduction by “human tradition” (Colossians 2:8) and yet exhort the Thessalonians to “hold fast to the traditions [they] were taught” (2 Thessalonians 2:15): he didn’t consider all traditions to be of human origin. On the other hand, there may be no such Thing as a q-less X, but we state q explicitly to emphasize that part of X’s nature; for example, radioactive nuclear waste.
Thus, the question: Is masculinity as such poisonous? Or is there non-toxic masculinity?
Well, what is masculinity, anyway?
Mixed Messages About Masculinity
Here we enter a cultural minefield. Many feminists, I’ve noted before, would rather not admit to genetically-rooted differences between men and women in behavior or thinking, even though they often pay such differences implicit homage. There are those, particularly in the LGBTQI camp, who want masculinity and femininity left in the dustbin of history. The American Psychological Association, in a guideline psychologists slammed as “scientifically fraudulent” and “unethical”, defined “traditional masculinity” by atypical and antisocial traits. A few years ago, Huffington Post asked a group of men what masculinity means to them and “discovered … that most of them aren’t quite sure.”
According to Suzanne Venker of the Washington Examiner, that “masculinity is toxic” is one of five narratives feminists use to teach young women to be “dismissive and resentful toward men and marriage.” (Remember the catchphrase “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”?) Writes Venker, “For more than half a century, men have been repeatedly told they’re the bad sex, while women have been raised to think very highly of themselves. That’s still a relatively new, and a very demoralizing, way to view the sexes.”
It also suggests that feminist misandry is not as much of an ironic inside joke as some might think.
However, at the same time women are bandying about the term toxic masculinity, they’re also wondering, “Where have all the cowboys gone?” Venker begins her opinion by talking about young women’s contempt for “little boys” — young men caught in what researcher Kay S. Hymowitz described as “a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance,” passive, unambitious, content to spend long hours with their buddies at the PlayStation, drinking beer, and downloading porn. Comments Hymowitz:
The culture at large is uncertain about what it wants from its men. We give a lot of mixed messages. We say, on the one hand, that fathers are so important. At the same time, we say that fathers are optional. Many women seem to want men that are confident and have a strong sense of themselves. At the same time, they are put off by too much masculine authoritativeness [bold type mine]. I think a lot of men react to these mixed signals by retreating into themselves, becoming passive and reluctant and often waiting for women to make the first move.
Masculinity and Virtue Ethics
Now I think we’re in a better position to answer the question, “What is masculinity?”
We derive our belief that masculinity is toxic from the perception that masculinity is about power and domination. However, if we turn to the Oxford Dictionary’s thesaurus entry for masculinity, we find words like vigor, strength, muscularity, ruggedness, toughness, and robustness. In human ethology, the alpha is simply the most dominant male in the group; he isn’t necessarily an authoritarian or a thug. The key characteristic of the alpha is self-confidence, the assurance born of knowing one’s ability to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. Combine confidence with strength of character and you have two prime ingredients of a natural leader.
So, if we reorient our understanding of masculinity according to the virtues of strength and self-confidence, we can apply Aristotelian ethics to create a middle path between the two ditches — a golden mean (see illustration). According to this model, a characteristic is a virtue only to the degree it’s appropriate; in excess or in deficiency, it becomes a vice. Consequently, deficiency of strength is the vice of weakness and its excess the vice of intimidation. Similarly, confidence becomes uncertainty by deficiency and arrogance by excess. Intimidation and arrogance, in turn, constitute vices that among others ought to define toxic masculinity.
Strength and confidence are not the only virtues we can use to define manliness, nor are they virtues only men can possess. The point is to avoid the two ditches of the Domineering Jerk and the Passive Man-Child. It should be obvious by now that having no role expectations of men is as much a recipe for social disaster — and a net detriment to women — as is expecting men to be obsessed with power and control. We can have a masculine ideal that poses no threat to women’s equality, an ideal of manliness that doesn’t idolize the bully or the dictator.
Now, let’s go back to where we started: with Becky’s complaint about the girl-power memes. Some feminists promote the Vengeful Witch archetype on the grounds that it is an empowering ideal. But we ought to be uneasy with ideals that make a virtue of power — especially power expressed as a threat of violence (“Treat me right or I’ll jack you up!”). Society is essentially an exercise in cooperation and interdependence. Power, however, emphasizes one’s ability to bend other people to their will. If the Domineering Jerk typifies the Toxic Masculine, surely the Vengeful Witch is his Toxic Feminine equal.
If the controversy over toxic masculinity has done any good, it has illustrated just how desperately we need to recognize a positive, virtuous standard of masculinity rather than simply toss the word around as if we all meant the same thing by it. Examples of virtuous masculinity are all around us — men who are strong, confident, ethical, respectful of women, and good with children; men who have no need to intimidate in order to lead other people or to get things done. We need the mensch, the Good Man, to stand against the Domineering Jerk and encourage the Passive Man-Child.
We need to stand and applaud these men, not pretend they’re irrelevant and nonexistent.
Fortunately, women have models of femininity in people like Becky and Tamara — women who are intelligent, strong, and courageous yet remain compassionate, polite, and empathetic. Women who work, develop careers, and even own businesses, yet embrace motherhood as good and natural. Women who see no need to deny or devalue the things that make them different from men, or to resent and disparage the other half of the species. Women who have no need to be witches in order to consider themselves empowered.
Men need to adhere to a standard of virtuous masculinity, not only to avoid the ditches of the Domineering Jerk and the Passive Man-Child but more importantly to be worthy of women like Becky and Tamara. That’s not just idealism. That’s what such women look for. That’s the way evolution rolls, the way God intended it. The future can only be both male and female.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)