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.
So, remember: The concept of toxic masculinity has its merits as a descriptive analysis and diagnosis for particular patterns in society.
When we see men who desperately try to dissociate themselves from male homosexuality, to the point that they are homophobic, we can attribute that behavior to toxic masculinity. Identifying toxic masculinity as the source of particular harmful behaviors and damaging effects on people’s mental health allows us to recognize the problem we have to fix - at the root.
That is very useful as long as we understand it as a complex systemic phenomenon that everyone is involved in in multi-faceted ways, that everyone contributes to and that everyone suffers from, instead of an oversimplified narrative where tribalistic und unreflected people get carried away by misandry and blame men for toxic masculinity, in a twisted logic along the lines of “men sometimes do bad things because they are affected by toxic masculinity, hence men who buy into toxic masculinity are bad, hence men should be told off for being affected by toxic masculinity in first place and made responsible for the existence of toxic masculinity”.
Yes, men should certainly be held accountable for harmful things they do, such as lashing out and being homophobic, and toxic masculinity is no excuse that justifies this behavior. And yes, it is probably beneficial for an individual man’s mental health and self-esteem to refuse to internalize the norms of toxic masculinity, to refuse to hold himself to these standards and to define his own identity and his own value by different standards.
But it’s not like shaking off deeply engrained gender norms that you’ve absorbed in thousands of subtle implicit messages every day since you were born is a walk in the park. Being insecure about that is not inherently blameworthy. As long as men own their insecurity and don’t dump it on others, blaming them for just being affected by toxic masculinity is victim-blaming.
For instance, toxic masculinity should not be brought up as an excuse to brush aside and shut up concerns about how men suffer from toxic masculinity. If someone talks about how difficult it is for men to open up and show their emotions, don’t dismiss it with “this is only toxic masculinity, hence it is more or less your own fault, you don’t have to buy in this crap after all”.
Another issue is that feminists sometimes tend to talk about toxic masculinity in a way that is not necessarily wrong, but one-sided. In particular, they focus on the ways that toxic masculinity affects women. That means they focus less on my bullet points #1, #2 and #3 from above, and a lot on bullet point #4. And it is true that toxic masculinity affects women a lot. A common traditional narrative of masculinity is that men dominate women, so if a man tries to act hypermasculine to preclude any possibilities of being considered insufficiently masculine, this might result in a controlling and domineering behavior toward women in particular. This narrow focus often suggests a one-sided image of toxic masculinity where men are evil oppressors and women innocent victims, and it’s just not the whole story.
Some (but not all) feminists consider feminism a movement that is focussed on women. That doesn’t necessarily mean these feminists are dismissive of the struggles men have, they just think there is nothing wrong with having a special focus. Often they are supportive of groups that raise awareness of the struggles men face, so they are not hypocritical - they think each binary gender deserves its own group that is focussed on the struggles for this gender in particular. For such a feminist, the decision to talk more about how toxic masculinity affects women, and less about how it affects men, might be totally justified, because they think pointing out how men suffer from toxic masculinity should be a MRA’s job.
Is the concept and the term of toxic masculinity problematic? Depends on how you use it.