Why the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is an obstacle to change

Some years ago, my sister bought me a keyring. It read, ‘Guys just don’t get it’. She meant well. But I slid that keyring into my glovebox and never used it. The easy claim offended me. It lumped all men together, in opposition to women (who, presumably, ‘got it’). I couldn’t relate. Frequently, I felt closer to my father than my mother. I made male friends as readily as female. Yet I struggled to articulate that complexity to my sister.

I have since spent years of my life researching men – writing two theses on mainstream, heterosexual men, while working in the social welfare field. And I find myself, once again, at odds with the terminology being used to discuss masculinity as it is being framed in response to the #MeToo movement. I struggle with terms like ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘the man box’.

It makes sense that with each new rousing of the feminist spirit, debate about men, and their need to change, is reignited. When women are shifting social expectations, flow-on effects for men are inevitable. We have seen this throughout history. In the pre-suffrage era of the 1890s, ‘New Women’ novels fictionalised the challenges of remodeling gender relations. Women wanted to be more than the hearthside goddess ideals promoted during the height of Victoria’s reign. New Women wore split pants and rode bicycles; they expected to be informed about politics, and many middle-class women, in particular, began to demand the right to train as nurses and social workers, becoming advocates for a range of social justice issues. Heterosexual relationships increasingly became more experimental, with ‘free unions’ – which, a generation earlier, had isolated the writer George Eliot – becoming more common, as New Women sought to retain their independence, as well as satisfy their sexuality. One New Woman journalist quipped in 1894 that the ‘New Man’ was nowhere to be seen, and perhaps his arrival would precede only Armageddon. Novels of the time – such as the bestselling Marcella by Mary Ward (1892), which vastly outsold the much darker working-class tale of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles – did attempt to depict a New Man as suitable partner for the New Woman. But although the subsequent political and social gains made by women affected men, the arrival of the New Man never eventuated, and many of the debates were muted by the combined impacts of women obtaining the vote and subsequently two World Wars.


I lived through the upsurge of interest in masculinity in the 1990s, a response to third-wave feminism. At this time, again, books about men were written in response to feminist agitation. Robert Bly’s Iron John (1990) articulated the mythopoetic men’s movement, which called for a return to primal wildness, while, in Australia, Steve Biddulph averred in Manhood (1994) that a boy needed to establish a significant relationship with his father in order to become a man.

One day during this heady decade, my then husband came across a magazine, XY: Men, Sex, Politics, on his way home from work in Canberra. Reading it, we learned of an analysis of masculinities indebted to feminism, with an emphasis on gender roles and social rules, and descriptions of changes to the expectations and definitions of men across time and cultures. There were writers at that time, like Jeff Hearn and Michael Kaufman – who contributed to The Politics of Manhood (1995), a response to the mythopoetic men’s movement – who were already dissecting the negative impact of the social expectations around ‘being a man’. They described their own experiences of being bullied and shamed into being ‘real men’: tough, unafraid, unfeeling, unassailable, invulnerable – the very same traits associated with ‘toxic masculinity’ today.

During the 1990s, the acronym SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy) was attached in Australia to the men who aspired to different values and critiqued the autocratic patriarchal script they’d inherited. In everyday usage, it was often a pejorative or a joke. According to Michael Flood, co-founder of xyonline and long-time pro-feminist activist and academic, this reluctance to embrace the critique and create a masculinity of care, connection, vulnerability and equity remained, at the close of the 1990s, an issue for men who were committed pro-feminists. Broadly, what was achieved in that decade was a greater embrace of fathering, and some inroads toward social permission for men to express a wider range of feeling toward their children – particularly while they were young. It is telling that this encouragement of tender fathering was something that could be embraced by both conservatives and progressives. This movement, encapsulated in books like Petrie’s Father Time (1998) was, in the main, unconcerned with issues of structural inequity. A cherry-picked version of a revolution.


In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the problem is described as toxic masculinity, as each generation reinvigorates the phrase ‘patriarchy hurts men too’. Much of the toxic masculinity commentary is British or American, so it is refreshing to see an Australian version of what is specific to our culture in last year’s tour by Tim Winton to promote his novel, The Shepherd’s Hut (2018), as well as Clementine Ford’s book Boys Will Be Boys (2018).

The edges of this conversation around masculinity are sharper than in the past. The definitions of what is collectively despised about patriarchal norms for men are clearer. Many recognise that the extreme authoritarian, dictatorial, combative, aggressive, faultless, bravado-filled man, with his assumption of privilege and status over women and children – as well as less powerful men – is the man of yesterday, at least purportedly. Yet masculine norms continue to structure our most powerful institutions – politics, law, corporations. And they are not the norms of revolution; rather, they can be described as decidedly, persistently masculinist.

The younger men Winton draws our attention to in his novels possess scarce social power, while continuing to aspire to it. They scorn and mock hurt peers. They boast of sexual and alcoholic exploits and continue to compete in acts of aggression and tough-posing – all characters contemporarily present and recognisable. In the relentlessness of sporting cultures, male violence and posturing sexuality remain norms, as Ford argues. So this is our version of ‘toxic’: a set of characteristics that continually sets itself up in opposition to a dwindling list of persistent stereotypes associated with women: nurture, emotion, communication and vulnerability.

There is a tendency to blame the culture for valorising particular traits for men, but reactions to commentaries on toxic masculinities from conservatives are telling. Consider the ways they shift from concerns about practices and relationships of power to debates about testosterone and ‘soy boys’. The possibility for these arguments, and the setting up of solutions that involve reinscribing many traditional associations of masculinities – such as domination and violence – points to concepts of biological essence that keep the term ‘toxic’ tethered in this battle over natural masculinities. The alternative of new practices – a gesture the term ‘New Man’ effectively made – occur in contextual, social situations which ground individual men in complex understandings of responsibility, peer pressures, and choice – all in defiance of the phrase ‘boys will be boys’. The reflexivity this requires of men is subversive, as it undermines the concept of inherent masculinity. Where masculinity is conceptualised as biological it does not bear critique, as the mythopoetic men’s movement argued. On this mythical rock, patriarchy is asserted as being both natural and inevitable. The difference between masculine practices being socioculturally determined as unacceptable, and the term ‘toxic masculinity’, is in the easy fall into simplistic, biological notions – a fall that has readily been exploited by the Men’s Rights Movement. After all, the only way for ‘Guys Just Don’t Get It’ to be true, is if this broad brushstroke over almost fifty percent of the population is an inborn issue.

This has far-reaching ramifications. By linking problematic practices with terminology that remains inherently connected to biological essence, critiques of power, regardless of analyses of specific and varied social contexts, tend to avoid generalising to structural and institutional practices that enable their perpetuation. The debate becomes one between natural and unnatural expressions of masculinities – toxic, but now unacceptable … or emasculated.

Extensive social change takes time, and language matters. But since social researchers have been aware for a long time of the role of stereotypes in maintaining the current gender order (see Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, for example), it is imperative that our language supports careful critiques, reflecting such research evidence.

Which brings me back to the ‘toxic’ label. It’s an easy label, even lazy. It homogenises men on a global scale – especially older men, or powerless men, the poor or the uneducated, as Winton’s work suggests. It enables privileged men and women to disdain these groups, treating them as if they were fundamentally different from ourselves – arguably, reinvoking eugenics, those less evolved, Clinton’s ‘deplorables’, as also enunciated by the dual marginalization of people of colour in ‘toxic’ discourse – or in Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s critique, those on the other side of the ‘line’ we have ourselves created. By homogenising, the term blinds us to the complexity of contexts, of choices, and of broader institutional critiques.

More nuanced accounts, such as those provided by intersectionality – which takes into consideration the multiple possibilities of oppression for people, as individuals and groups, in social and cultural moments of choice – are lost. Structural and political institutions remain under-examined.

Many men I speak with have an awareness of suffering; they care deeply for the ways the women in their lives are treated, and they have felt the sting of shaming practices around ‘being a man’. But the simplified critique that the label ‘toxic’ provides does not support examination of participation in the subtleties of practices of privilege, or in an analysis of the masculinist nature of institutions. In the simplified, global division of men, like textas, into toxic and non-toxic, I suggest we are likely to see a repetition of the neat trick we lived through in the 1990s: a feigned examination of what is harmful to men about patriarchy – an excuse for some to reinvent themselves as victims, in step with the ideology of the Men’s Rights Movement, with its salve to the affront of challenged entitlement – and a pick-and-choose about change, reconfigured to ensure the ongoing nature of the benefits, to men (and some women), of what sociologist Raewyn Connell has called ‘the patriarchal dividend’.

The term toxic masculinity is reductive and deterministic, and struggles to emerge from its historic essentialist roots. It simplifies the complex contextualisation of decisions around the practices of men. It exempts the men who participate in the labeling from self-examination. And it has become an easy target for conservatives calling for ‘real men’ to ‘fight back’.

What the #MeToo movement has set in motion is the redefinition of what is acceptable – as the women’s movement has in each epoch of its manifestation – for society as a whole. These shifts inevitably contest laws and social norms built within historic systems of inequitable, masculinist power relations. By definition, they will therefore be challenging. It is a much greater struggle than men personally regretting the boyhood loss of their emotional lives, and the sorrow of finding they want something better for their grandsons. This version of ‘patriarchy harms men’ is all too easy – it’s self-help devoid of politics.

The #MeToo movement has seen women fighting for men to listen to and acknowledge the wide spectrum of abusive and assaultive behaviours they have experienced because of their gender. In the corresponding revival of critiques of masculinities, we must strive to encourage language that promotes a rigorous examination of the dynamics of this spectrum, operating in the specifics of social bonding practices and entitlement among men, and the ways these are structurally supported by legal and political systems. It is all too easy to point the finger to a cartoonish misogynist. The flip side of a spectrum of harassment for women is the reproduction and acceptance, by men, of social norms of sexism and power enacted in everyday practices. Every man has an opportunity to change his own behaviour, and to speak with other men about theirs; to critique structural oppressions so that we move beyond a revolution of personal convenience. This challenge is, arguably, one of the greatest men are facing, if they take seriously the aim for an equitable world. So, rather than limiting men’s emotional vocabulary to toxic and non-toxic, we need to support language that will generate much richer self-awareness and social analysis, to ensure that all men are enabled to examine their own dividend in the continuing masculinist structures and priorities of Australian society.

Josephine Browne

Josephine Browne is a writer and researcher in masculinities, environmental humanities and Narrative Therapy. She is currently writing in animal studies and domestic violence.

More by Josephine Browne ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *