Is Toxic Masculinity a Misnomer?

We’re hearing a lot of talk about toxic masculinity in recent years. Not surprisingly, it’s triggering a push-back reflex and causing some polarization on an issue where we need consensus. Second Gentleman Emhoff’s recent interview on MSNBC raised an interesting angle that isn’t being talked about … but should be if we want to heal the division and move toward a better future. 

When the Second Gentleman was asked about masculinity, he responded by referencing ‘masculine toxicity’. It struck me that he didn’t say ‘toxic masculinity’ but rather ‘masculine toxicity’. It was an interesting language choice that got me thinking. Many would think it’s a distinction without a difference. I’m not even sure if Emhoff used the term intentionally. But for me, it was an important distinction.

When we speak of toxic masculinity, we’re using toxic as an adjective describing masculinity. It frames masculinity itself as the problem. By contrast, referring to the issue as masculine toxicity, clearly identifies toxicity as the problem. It’s not masculinity that is toxic. The toxicity is the problem. This is just one manifestation of toxicity … masculine is merely the adjective in this framing. There could equally be feminine toxicity, or geriatric toxicity, or corporate toxicity … you get the idea.

This is a subtle but profound shift. One that avoids finger-pointing and blaming. One that leaves space for less defensive reactions to the discussion. One that allows for thoughtful consideration of the impact of unconscious gender bias on men. 

We’re in a period of transition with respect to perceived gender roles. Confusion is to be expected. A certain amount of pushback is to be expected.

Unconscious gender bias is a deeply conditioned undercurrent that impacts all our relationships. We often forget that it works both ways. Engrained biases exist not only against women, but also vis-a-vis men. Expectations around gender roles and perceived gender traits can pigeon-hole and victimize men as well as women.

Studies show that when young boys are shown a box labelled the ‘man box’ and asked what traits or qualities belong inside the man box versus outside, old stereotypes still show up. The boys consistently volunteer that ‘strong’, ‘brave’ and ‘don’t cry’ belong in the man box, whereas ‘gentle’ and ‘caring’ belong outside the box.

When you layer on generational conditioning and expectations that a man is to be the provider and protector, to be tough, to not show emotions or vulnerability, to portray anti-femininity, to seek & hold power, it’s not surprising that toxicity creeps in.

Further exacerbating the problem, based on this conditioning, myths evolve that set broader-based societal norms. It’s no surprise that we’ve come to define success based on a competitive, winner-take-all, domination model where toughness carries the day. Or that we’ve come to confuse assertive with aggressive. Or that we seek to exert power over others versus power with others.

The problem is still further exacerbated as women assume ‘power roles’, causing men operating under these biases to feel diminished and/or weak. Speaking from personal experience, when we moved up north unexpectedly, I needed to travel back and forth to the city to maintain my law firm. My husband stayed home with the kids during the transition. He was enjoying it until his friends started calling him ‘Mr. Mom’ and worse monikers that I can’t repeat here. It profoundly affected his sense of self.

We need to break through these gender expectations and biases. They don’t serve anyone. They’re unhealthy from both a mental health and societal perspective.

It was in part a recognition of the ongoing detrimental impact of these unconscious gender biases that served as the impetus for my Art of Feminine Negotiation book. I hope to help create a new paradigm, where we approach life from a place of collaboration over competition. Where we let go of ego and instead get curious, seeking to truly understand and meet the needs of others, even (and especially) when we disagree. 

I sought to flip the script, to invite both men and women (and all the spaces in between) to recognize that we all have both masculine and feminine energies and to reframe their feminine as signs of strength rather than a liability. When we define success based on an almost exclusively masculine, competitive model, it’s not surprising that both men and women stifle their feminine, believing that’s the only path to succeed.

Ironically, when we invoke so-called feminine traits in negotiating our paths to success, we secure better outcomes, better relationships, better buy-in, longer-lasting agreements, and more creative solutions. I sought to invite everyone to lean in to their feminine to bring our masculine and feminine energy back into balance … and in so doing, to bring the world back into balance.

Perhaps in so doing, we can open the space for more meaningful and productive dialogue. In focusing on the toxicity (rather than masculinity) we can avoid the blaming and shaming, and with it the pushback. If we neutralize the trigger, we can avoid an ‘us and them’ approach, bringing instead the openness and vulnerability to elevate the discussion and take an important step toward banishing gender bias in all its forms.

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competitive model, Feminine Energy, Masculine toxicity, misnomer, Reframe, toxic masculinity, toxicity is the problem


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