Trying to define toxic masculinity is a bit like trying to describe what wind looks like. We can name its component parts, the feeling of a windy day, or how a breeze can kick up dust, but its essence is much more difficult to grasp. Toxic masculinity is the same way—it is our atmosphere, the air we breathe, our cultural environment—making any definition feel myopic.
If we look at the term’s origins, “toxic masculinity” originated in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement of the 1980s, where men went to workshops and retreats to bond and get in touch with deeper, better masculinity. The term has since evolved and is used by both conservatives—who bemoan the “war” against masculinity and the nuclear family—and radical thinkers who use the term to criticize powerful men. In her piece about gun violence for Salon, Amanda Marcotte offers a succinct definition for the slippery term:
"Toxic masculinity is a specific model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control. It's a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one's self to the world."
Marcotte identifies the possession of power over others, specifically women and queer folks, as essential to toxic masculinity. Also important to note is how toxic masculinity is dependent on (cis) manhood. The term had a second life post-Mythopoetic Movement during the outpouring of disclosures of harm during #MeToo in 2017, when people demanded not only accountability from abusive individuals (often cis men), but also the institutions and societal norms that protect and raise them. It’s clear we are living in a time of deep reckoning, and scrutiny, of masculinity.
But what happens when women, non-binary and trans folks are accused of toxic masculinity? Can non-cis men even have toxic masculinity?
For Sam, a 30-year-old butch lesbian, the answer is messy. “I think the only time I’ve seen butch or masculine women get ‘toxic’ is when they have no other role models for masculinity, other than cis men,” she said. “But once you get into community and find other queer people like you, there are so many ways of being masculine and soft, masculine and strong, masculine and whatever you or your community needs.” Sam defines her masculinity as an eagerness to protect others, to be hands-on, confident, and a little daring.
But she’s wary. Sam’s seen—both in person and online—how others can conflate queer, innate gender expression with inherent toxicity. “I saw a post on social media calling hardware stores terrible, patriarchal institutions,” she said. “I’m working class. My lesbian friends, mentors, and community members work in hardware stores. They work in predominantly male fields, and they’re the best people I know. That kind of attitude— equating hardware stores and working-class places to badness—hurts everyone.”
Sam’s experiences point to the complicated nature of well-deserved critique being applied too unilaterally. Away from curated definitions and sociology textbooks, the relationship between toxic masculinity and its dependence on cis manhood is obfuscated—especially when alternate, queer forms of masculinity are just now gaining wider visibility.
Masculinity is contested territory, constantly negotiated through the lens of culture, era, communities, and location, upon which non-men have always laid their claim. From Albania’s sworn virgins who live as men, to the trans legacy of “female wives” in Great Britain, to Butch and Stud identity, masculinity is not contrary to marginalization. Indeed, even talking about wide-sweeping claims of toxic masculinity obscures how privilege, even to men, isn’t handed out equally. Race, class, ability status, and citizenship mean that cis masculinity also exists on a continuum of oppression, power, and opportunity.
For Rachel, 26, their masculinity is a balance of self-perception and how the world treats them. “How other people perceive my masculinity tells me a lot about the line between toxic masculinity and misogyny,” they said. “Am I toxic because my hair is short and I wear traditionally men’s clothing? Is it my behavior? Or am I just a threat to heteronormativity? In my public life, I know my masculinity makes people uncomfortable. But I also know my masculinity isn’t actually threatening— and that’s what makes me different from a lot of cis men and their masculinity.”
As a child, Rachel didn’t have the language for what they sensed they were, which is trans. But now as an adult, “masculinity makes me feel capable of supporting myself, my loved ones, and my community.”
Rachel’s understanding of masculinity is a far cry from David and Brannon’s infamous 1976 components of masculinity, dependent on “no sissy stuff,” achievement, lack of weakness, and acceptance of violence. For both Sam and Rachel, their masculinity is distinctive. It's about authenticity and showing up for your communities.
Toxic masculinity—as a tool of an oppressive cis-heteropatriarchy—is real. But there is a diversity and beauty to masculinity that exists in contrast to power or the desire for dominance. Many people come to their masculinity from a place of marginalization, creativity, and intrinsic being. To allow for the disruption of toxic masculinity, we must also make way for its creators to become part of the foundation of a newer, better, more just gender system, and not just write them off as toxic from the get-go.