What is toxic masculinity?
Question: "What is toxic masculinity?"
Answer: Toxic masculinity is an expression common in popular culture, frequently applied with a bias contrary to its original intent. When misused, these two ideas, “toxic” and “masculine,” are assumed to be one and the same. Rather than implying an inappropriate concept of maleness, toxic masculinity typically implies that all things masculine are inherently toxic.
It’s important to distinguish among what the term toxic masculinity originally meant, how it is used today, and what the Bible says about maleness and manhood. Initial use of the phrase toxic masculinity was a well-meaning effort to confront unhealthy attitudes that put undue pressure on men. Over time, attempts to confront negative behavior degenerated into an attack on almost anything associated with maleness. The Bible gives clear warnings about conduct men should avoid, but it doesn’t condemn all expressions of masculinity. On the contrary, healthy examples of manhood are vital for the health of a culture.
Used Against Men Behaving Badly
Initially, toxic masculinity referred to a warped caricature of manhood—a distortion of what it meant to be a “real man.” This unhealthy perspective was associated with “hypermasculinity”: the cartoonish, stereotypical he-man or macho man, perpetually scowling, tough, and immune to pain or emotions. That kind of unfair, unreasonable stereotype of a “real man” was often blamed when men felt pressured to suppress emotion, close themselves off to others, overwork, or refuse to admit failure. Originally, the term toxic masculinity was aimed at the misguided perception that “real men” didn’t express feelings, exhibit gentleness, practice submission, or demonstrate nurture.
As part of that same effort, toxic masculinity was also applied to other behaviors, toward which stereotypical attitudes often pressure someone to “be a real man.” For example, the “playboy” mindset that lauds promiscuity and objectifies women was rightly considered toxic. Such early discussions of toxic masculinity also condemned misogyny, aggression, posturing, and bullying, among other character flaws.
Used Against Men Behaving
Over time, attacks on hypermasculinity seeped into criticism of any behavior stereotypically associated with men. Toxic masculinity has been unfairly applied to men who want to be protectors and providers for their spouse. Or to men who behave in ways that were once considered chivalrous. Or to those who value manual labor or athletics. Or even to men who prefer not to be excessively emotional or vulnerable. Traits such as competitiveness, bravery, or even merely being loud have been labelled as expressions of toxic masculinity by some modern critics.
Related to the idea of toxic masculinity is the modern term mansplaining. This word was coined to denote a man’s speech when talking down to a woman, assuming she doesn’t understand a subject—when, in fact, she understands better than he. Some people now use that expression nearly any time a male expresses a strong opinion or attempts to rationalize a viewpoint. Rather than dealing with the substance of the conversation, they dismiss it as “mansplaining” and reject the speaker for simply being a self-assured male.
Used Against Men
Misuse of the phrase toxic masculinity came about when the focus was placed on maleness rather than on truly inappropriate behaviors. The practical effect of this has been a general form of misandry: a prejudiced, unfair attitude or open hatred of men or all things masculine. Rather than criticizing excessive behaviors or encouraging positive ones, some people leap to the assumption that anything “boyish” or “manly” is, by definition, to be mocked or avoided.
Boys, especially, have suffered from this cultural trend. Competitiveness, risk-taking, daring, noisiness, and so forth are not always bad and were once accepted as “boys being boys.” Today, however, those traits are often labelled as inappropriate or even “toxic.” Group settings frequently exacerbate this problem. Schools, care centers, recreation programs, and even churches now tend to promote equality of results, communal work, sentimentality, and other more typically feminine expressions. Classically feminine behavior is stressed as “good,” while roughhousing, boisterousness, adventurousness, and so forth are punished as misbehavior.
The result is an environment where girls expressing more typically “girlish” behavior feel empowered and connected, and boys expressing more typically “boyish” behavior feel ashamed or rejected.
Consequences of Misandry
Culturally, the problem with deriding all expressions of manhood as toxic masculinity is that it makes legitimately wrong behaviors harder to confront. Use of anti-male terms like toxic masculinity, mansplaining, and manspreading causes even benign expressions of maleness to be labelled as inappropriate. This only serves to blur the distinction between being “male” and being “toxic,” since it’s all condemned, anyway.
Truly toxic behaviors such as promiscuity, bullying, and emotional isolation aren’t made better when behaviors like chivalry, competitiveness, or boldness are scorned. On the contrary, misandry results in fewer positive examples of male expression. It doesn’t incentivize boys to act like girls; it only encourages shame and hiding. Leave a “boyish” boy with no safe, measured way to express himself, and he’s likely to become hardened to criticism and correction, developing a truly toxic character as a result.
Expressions of Goodness
The Bible says that everything God created is good when used for a good purpose (1 Timothy 4:4), and that includes God’s created pattern of male and female (Genesis 1:27). There is absolutely nothing wrong with masculinity, but there is much wrong with behaviors that are toxic. What separates the two is a matter of application. Robbing a bank requires a measure of bravery, daring, and risk-taking, but so does being a firefighter. Like tools, such general ideas can be used with positive or negative intentions.
The goal ought not to be condemning that which is masculine but encouraging it. That is, those attitudes and behaviors that are naturally male—and that are applied in a godly way—should be celebrated. This accomplishes two things. First, it provides positive examples for boys and other men: “this is good; please do this.” Second, it empowers legitimately masculine men to confront and challenge those who exhibit toxic behavior.
Promoting a biblical model of masculinity also leads to a greater respect and appreciation for women. Attempting to make men and boys just like women and girls doesn’t help anyone. It’s been said that God did not create women to do everything men can do, but to do everything men cannot do (see Genesis 2:18–24). Celebrating the unique and precious gift of femininity isn’t possible unless there’s a complementary approach.
Masculinity and the Bible
Scripture debunks all notions of toxic masculinity; it condemns inappropriate behaviors and applauds positive ones. There is no better example of real manhood than Jesus Christ. His example, as given in the Bible, not only confronts hypermasculine attitudes, but it also shows how it’s possible to express supposedly “male” traits in a positive way.
Jesus was unafraid to show His emotions (John 11:35), and yet He was also willing to chase crooks out of a temple with a whip (John 2:13–16). Christ cared for the needs of others (John 6:5–13) and demonstrated compassion (Mark 1:40–41), sensitivity (Luke 10:38–42), forgiveness (Luke 7:44–50), and humility (John 13:1–16). At the same time, He exhibited bravery (Mark 11:15–18; Luke 22:39–46), righteous confrontation (Matthew 23:13–36), proper judgment (John 4:15–18), boisterousness (John 7:37), self-control (Matthew 4:1–11), and even playfulness (John 1:47–48).
More generally, God’s Word speaks against those attitudes that are truly toxic. Scripture denounces domineering (1 Peter 5:3), greed (Hebrews 13:5), refusal to rest (Genesis 2:3; Mark 6:31), promiscuity (Romans 13:13), selfishness (Philippians 2:3), arrogance (Romans 12:3), vengeance (Romans 12:19), and so forth. It extolls the value of love (John 13:34–35), openness (Galatians 6:2), gentleness (Galatians 5:22–23), and peace (Romans 12:18), while promoting strength (Ephesians 6:10), bravery (1 Corinthians 16:13), respectability (Titus 2:7; 1 Timothy 3:7), and boldness (Ephesians 3:12; Titus 2:15). A truly biblical approach to manhood, then, is not toxic, nor should it be labelled as such.
Recommended Resource: God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey by Andreas & Margaret Kostenberger
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