All About Toxic Masculinity

A woman looks up at a man pointing at her laptop


Kayla Heisler
Kayla Heisler1.16k
If you’ve found yourself wondering why men feel completely comfortable screaming until they’re literally red in the face in public with zero fear of consequences, you aren’t alone. In the confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, Kavanaugh and several male senators felt all too content shouting at, talking over, and openly disrespecting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, prosecuting attorney Rachel Mitchell, and female members of the judiciary committee including Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Understanding toxic masculinity matters because it’s the first step to combating the normalization of this damaging, sexist behavior that impacts women personally and in the workplace.

What is Toxic Masculinity?

According to The Good Men Project, toxic masculinity is the concept of masculinity that’s handed down from archaic patriarchal times that anesthetizes feelings and leaves men numb and psychologically and emotionally stunted, often relieving them from feeling accountable or responsible for actions that harm others and themselves. This narrow, repressive idea of manhood encourages men to embody masculinity by enacting violence, proving their sexual prowess, and demonstrating aggressive behavior.

Sociologist and University of Sydney professor Emerita, Raewyn Connell, describes a prominent feature of toxic masculinity as being the practice of enacting physical violence to reinforce male dominance over women. The practice further restricts men and boys by encouraging them to limit their emotional expressions to anger and hide emotions like sadness or fear in order to convey authority and conceal vulnerability.

This concept is initially learned from gender policing, which often begins when young boys receive messages, such as that they should ‘man up’ and be tough and unemotional. With male gender performativity, crying or demonstrating vulnerability is among the most shameful offenses they can commit. When children hear adults use this language, they repeat it to other children, thus setting off off a cycle where children receive messages about what damaging masculinity is, perpetuate these ideas to other children, then grow up to convey the same harmful messages to their children.

What is the Crisis of Masculinity?

Michael Kimmel, a SUNY Stony Brook professor and Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities founder, defines the crisis of masculinity as being the outcome of heterosexual males feeling like their power is being taken from them. This crisis occurs because boys are polluted into believing that they have to engage in toxic behavior to be viewed as a ‘real man.’ This poisonous way of thinking leads men to become more inclined to engage in or support the act of sexual assault.

When men are being challenged for what they believe is their rightful place as a dominant figure, this can trigger a masculinity crisis. Women rise in the ranks and gain power, men can feel like something is being taken from them. This can lead to the intentional devaluing or intimidating of women, as well as under compensation at work.

For example, if a man grew up in a household where his mother never questioned his father, and constantly watched television programs that featured subservient women, when he enters the workforce to find his boss is a woman, he may feel taking orders from a woman threatens his masculinity, which may cause him to exhibit toxic behavior like making lewd comments about her behind her back in an attempt to confirm his masculinity to himself and to those around him.

What Does Hypermasculinity Mean?

Hypermasculinity is the psychological term used to describe the exaggeration of harmful stereotypical male behavior, such as an inflation of physical strength, aggressiveness, and sexual dominance.

One of the first studies concerning hypermasculinity was conducted in 1984 by Dr. Donald L. Mosher and Dr. Mark Sirkin who operationally defined hypermasculinity as having three variables:

  1. Callous attitudes with regard to women, especially sexually

  2. Belief that engaging or reveling in acts of violence is manly

  3. Belief that danger is exciting

The perpetuation of these harmful ideas has a strong negative impact on women. Because disrespecting and harming women becomes an indication of the celebrated hypermasculinity, women are put in danger. Media further perpetuates these stereotypes while additionally encouraging women to fulfill the role subservient to accommodate hypermasculinity.

Hypermasculinity is used to sell products: hypermasculine men buy this kind of car, use this kind of body spray, drink this kind of beer, and watch this kind of entertainment. Objectifying women is also typically a facet of hypermasculinity, which manipulates girls and women to believe that they should be treated as objects because the behavior is consistently normalized.

What is Patriarchal Masculinity?

Patriarchy is the system of society or government wherein men hold power and women are largely excluded from holding power. This system conditions men to expect to hold authority over women, which is dangerous because men see women as having inherently less right to hold positions of power or to challenge men in any way.

Patriarchal masculinity is the system that operates under the belief that men, by virtue of being men, carry the inherent right to dominate women. This conditions men to expect women to bend to their will, whether that be in settings regarding work, family, or intimate relationships. This system implies that men rule and should count on female subordination.

Toxic Masculinity in the Workplace

Because much of toxic masculinity is related to men holding power over women, this can cause a lot of strife in the workplace. When women are placed in charge of men, men can resent that a woman has authority over them and ignore their instructions or lash out, perhaps by trying to physically intimidate them or by raising their voice. If men and women are coworkers in the same position, men may attempt to assert dominance over female employees because they instinctively believe that they have the right to do so. When men hold positions of power over women, they may promote men over women and relegate women to less serious tasks.

While watching the confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, you may have noticed Senator Chuck Grassley speaking over his co-worker Senator Dianne Feinstein the first time she spoke, interrupting her to state that he intended to deliver an introduction for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, though he had neglected to earlier.

Examples of Toxic Masculinity at Work

Toxic masculinity in the workplace may look like the following:

  • Your boss constantly asks you to take minutes during meetings, but he never asks your male coworkers.

  • A coworker touches you inappropriately in the office to get a laugh from other coworkers.

  • An employee refuses to respect his boss who is a woman by talking over her and disregarding her orders.

  • A coworker refuses to pull his weight in a team project after you reject his invitation to have drinks after work.

  • Your boss often makes comments regarding the appearance of other women.

  • Two male coworkers hide a folder from a female coworker to upset her because they find her frustration humorous.

What You Can Do

You don’t have to put up with toxic masculinity. Influence what you can, starting with your family. If you have children or are a caregiver for any youths, tell them not to be afraid of their emotions, reinforce the idea that violence is not okay, and that women deserve respect. Normalize expressing feelings in a healthy manner.

If you witness a man being toxic, let them know what they’re doing isn’t cool, but make sure you’re in a safe environment. If you’re at work and experience a coworker or boss exhibiting toxic masculine behavior, report the behavior to human resources. Always try to document instances of inappropriate behavior. This could be through an email to human resources, your boss, or another supervisor. Many companies will want some sort of proof or pattern of misconduct before issuing a reprimand or otherwise addressing the behavior, so make sure you keep a record to help prove your case.

Lastly, as a society, we need to support men showing interests that are typically considered to be feminine including career paths such as nursing or education. Overall, when we work to redefine ‘women’s roles’ and portrayal of women in media, we need to also challenge the roles that are assigned to men and how they are portrayed as well. Just as we need more women in leadership positions and in roles that show them as being strong and capable, we depictions of males showing kindness, expressing vulnerability, and treating women with respect.