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The concept of toxic masculinity itself is valid and describes a real phenomenon, but the term is prone to be misunderstood, misapplied and used in contexts where its usage is more harmful than helpful.

Let’s go into what toxic masculinity is and get some misconceptions out of the way.

1) “Toxic masculinity” does not imply that men are inherently and innately toxic.

It describes a set of narrow cultural narratives and expectations about what it means to be a man, imposed by society on men. It is named “toxic” because it has a toxic effect on men (and indirectly affects others, too), and it is named “masculinity” because it is a narrative about men. A set of ideas culturally associated to men. Thus, “toxic masculinity”. Not “toxic men”.

2) People who enforce it on others can have any gender.

It’s not like men are the only ones to be blamed for its existence. (Collective blame is generally not something to be endorsed, individual responsibility is.) A woman who mocks vulnerability or weakness in men is as much responsible for imposing oppressive norms of toxic masculinity onto men as a man who does the same things is.

Toxic masculinity is imposed by society and society means people of all genders. It means parents who won’t allow their son to wear pink and teach him at a young age that he’d better not associate with anything deemed “girly” and instill a deep-rooted fear of being tainted by too many allegedly girly things in him.

3) Men are primarily victims of toxic masculinity.

They face a lot of pressure to live up to its norms, and failure comes with very harsh consequences. Men and masculinity are more respected than women and femininity; men are held in higher regard than women, and men who are perceived to embody the norms of masculinity are at the top of the hierarchy - but the flip side of that is that men have overall more to lose and can sink lower than women ever could.

Women are socially punished for non-conformity to the norms of femininity (because well, that happens if people violate social norms, otherwise they wouldn’t be social norms), but they are also punished for norm conformity because femininity is generally considered inferior to masculinity. Therefore women will face social stigma for whatever they do, can’t ever get it right and often feel like they face the choice between the devil and the blue sea, but they can also get some credit for whatever choice. As a woman, whether you endorse masculine-coded or feminine-coded things, there will be some environments where your choices are valued. You have two competing models of femininity where two forces counteract and balance each other, resulting in a shaming cycle where women face stigma for their choices, get defensive and stigmatize the “opposing” model of femininity respectively, which makes women who embody the “opposing” model defensive and makes less self-aware and less reflected women retaliate by shaming the first model right back.

For men, these two factors (higher value of masculinity and general norm-conformity) reinforce each other, which means masculinity is way more straightforward and less ambivalent than femininity. Men are socially rewarded when they engage in masculine-coded things … and they are punished more than women would be punished for either choice when they engage in feminine-coded things. Violating the norms of masculinity is such a taboo and the consequences are so severe, it shouldn’t surprise us men get very defensive about this and are desparate to maintain a facade of untainted masculinity. People most affected by the toxicity are men themselves.

4) Toxic masculinity can affect others beyond an individual man who tries to live up to these norms.

Though, in instances where these defensive men dump their baggage with these norms on other people and lash out because they need to prove their masculinity. Often this results in aggressiveness, objectification of women and viewing them as trophies to be conquered because masculinity means having sex with a lot of women, homophobia and transphobia, in the worst cases resulting in murder. As a side-effect, toxic masculinity is harmful for everyone.

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