The Real Problem With “Toxic Masculinity”

Why our culture needs strong and nuanced gender archetypes.

Posted Feb 16, 2018

What's in a camping trip?

In a recent class discussion on the experience of bliss in nature, my students shared stories of their favorite childhood moments. A young American woman in her early 20s smiled as she evoked memories of father-daughter camping trips. This yearly event, she recounted, had been something of a family ritual. Picking up on an awkward pause in the class conversation, she commented with a hint of irony that in today's age, the sight of a father and daughter sharing a small tent would "seem a little creepy."

The young lady's comments gave me pause to wonder. The ease with which the father and daughter concepts could be associated with "creep" marked the widespread normalization of a rapid cultural shift in common assumptions about gender, sexuality, and social interactions at large. This much the anthropologist in me could recognize. As a man and father of two boys, another part of me — this one closer to the heart — felt a little more troubled. I thought of my young boys and wondered what it might be like to be discovering one’s manhood in a culture that actively preaches against “toxic masculinity”; a culture, to be precise, that overwhelming associates masculinity with risk, violence, and an inner essence tainted with sexual aggression. I also knew (the anthropologist in me again) that these associations were not entirely unfounded. 

Bear with me as I present nuances and a potential solution to this story. This — the solution — is a simple story. We all know this story, but often forget that we know it.

Stereotypes, archetypes, and mind viruses**

In a recent post, I wrote about the high risk of an early death among single fathers, and the broader silence surrounding men’s issues. I provided little context. The article elicited some controversy and strong reactions among my friends.

The human mind is not well equipped to examine counterintuitive facts that violate our expectations. Our expectations are heavily modulated by cultural norms. These are norms we all know and obey, often without knowing that we know them. In a culture where one version of feminism has become an obligatory moral norm, pointing out that men fare much worse than women in many indicators of well-being is likely to be interpreted as "misogynist." Any talk of men’s issues is also likely to be read as a call for victimhood. In this version of the victimhood story, some men get to claim that women are the "real" oppressors. It is both interesting and alarming to note that competition for victim status is found on both sides of the gender equality debate.

Now more than ever in the wake of the #MeToo crisis, it may be wise to remember that complementarities, rather than competition between genders, is the healthy cultural attitude to promote. The point, then, is not to fight for power or victimhood, but to remember how the sexes (biologically) and the genders (culturally) were selected to work together.

Stereotypes about genders and other categories of persons are found in all cultures, and they have been around for as long as we have been a symbolic species. Stereotypes exist for the purpose of informational efficiency. They describe, however crudely, patterns of behaviors and statistical regularities in the world that can be figured out with no explicit instruction. Babies recognize patterns in the world and form mental templates to organize this information into stereotypes. Stereotyped behavior along sexed lines in the animal kingdom looks roughly like stereotyped gendered behavior among humans. This is why, in addition to roughly similar gender archetypes found across cultures, we know that human behavior and the cultural patterning of behavior are rooted in our evolved biology.

Stereotypes can also be plain wrong. Because the human mind is not very good at handling complexity, it tends to simplify the world and infer patterns where there are none: this is why we are prone to gambler’s fallacy, superstition, and conspiracy theories. Cultural groups need to provide efficient stories to promote and enforce social norms that are good for the survival of the group. Lay people call this kind of storytelling "morality." Psychologists call it rule-governed behavior.

All cultures actively promote different stereotypes and ideal types. Some cultural stories are nuanced, and others less so. Some are so simplified as to promote conspiracy theories. Some stereotypes are like mind viruses. Undernourished bodies become weak and vulnerable to infections. Undernourished minds are weak and vulnerable to mind viruses. All archetypes that promote crowd madness, witch-hunts, public hangings, and genocides are toxic.

When a man is unanimously condemned to death”, says the Talmud, “he must be released at once.” Reflect on that.

Gender archetypes across moral cultures

Gender archetypes usually describe worst-case and best-case ideal types of men and women. Archetypes function like memes in which we package, propagate, and promote moral stories about the kinds of men and women we should and shouldn’t be. Across cultures and throughout histories, these archetypes have proven to be highly similar.

The worst-case ideal type for men is usually too aggressive, selfish, and not caring enough. The worst-case ideal type for women is usually coddling and manipulative. Similarly, cultures don’t differ very much in where the best-case ideal type should fit on this spectrum.

The best-case archetype for a man is usually strong, protecting, and generous. The ideal woman is usually beautiful, caring, and generous. There is a broader cultural difference in the next ideal sub-type, but the general picture looks something like this: traditionally, men’s role in caregiving is to protect the family. In child-rearing, men usually toughen up children and socialize them to face the challenges of the outside world. Women typically attend to minute needs that men aren’t very good at noticing. Both boys and girls need masculine types to toughen them, and feminine types to make them more delicate and attentive. Cross-cultural research has shown that fathers usually favor rough-and-tumble play over fine-motor subtle play. Universally, male caregivers also favor some version of the child-father camping or hunting trip ritual.

All cultures recognize the complementarities of men and women, from the anatomical complementarity that makes coitus and reproduction possible, to the complementary ways in which men and women use their strengths to help keep the species alive. The spectrum of masculine and feminine ideal types is also universally recognized as porous. Men can — indeed should — embody some feminine traits, and women can and should be more masculine in some domains. All cultures have an archetype for very effeminate men and masculine women. Some cultures, like the Amerindian Berdache type or the Filipino Bakla type, have fully accepted social roles that "opposite" types can integrate. Many cultures identify very masculine women and very effeminate men as unbalanced, or negative types.

Note that sexual preference does not always correlate with the sex-and-gender spectrum. Warrior cultures that promoted aggressive men types, like Ancient Greece or Japan, also permitted and encouraged homoeroticism and man-on-man love. Many cultures have permitted homoeroticism and love-making among men without any implication of homosexuality. In most of Melanesia and Polynesia, boy-on-boy love was tolerated as a normal part of transgressive child-play. In this cultural package, boy-on-boy love was discouraged once one became a "serious" married person. In some parts of Brazil, the act of "actively" penetrating men can be seen as a sign of hyper-masculinity — the "homosexual" role in such instances is reserved for the "passive" man who becomes feminized through penetration. This kind of macho homoeroticism is also found, albeit in a more covert way, in many athletic, gang, and prison cultures that promote aggressive, “hyper-masculine” male archetypes. 

Negative gender archetypes across cultures

The risk of over-aggression in males and over-nurturing in women is recognized in all societies. The same is true of social cluelessness in males and social manipulation in women. Robust cross-cultural psychological findings support the view that male and female traits are normally distributed along biological lines. Male are more aggressive and impulsive on average, and not as good as females at paying attention to other people’s needs. As in all normal distribution curves, there is a considerable amount of overlap and individual differences.  

Cultural differences in masculine and feminine types often mirror the idealized archetypes elevated as moral models in different societies. Philosopher Ian Hacking calls this phenomenon “looping effects”: human biology, experience, and personality traits can be malleable, and tend to fit the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. But there are strong limits to this malleability. It is an "add-on," rather than the founding core of symbolically enriched human biology. This last point bears retelling and helps clear the muddied conceptual waters surrounding the contemporary archetype of “toxic masculinity.”

Is his introduction to Jordan Peterson’s controversial book, 12 Rules for Life, the Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge raised concerns about a deep, invisible contradiction that underpins the current culture of social justice on university campuses.

On the one hand, Doidge pointed out, most young people schooled after the 1990s have been taught that all morality is relative, and that everything from sex to power to success is “socially constructed.” This leaves little room for identifying evolutionarily stable patterns of behavior and places the locus of — or the "blame for" — all problems on nebulous “social forces.”

The next contradiction is harder to discern. In spite of its relativist claims, the culture of social justice actively promotes one kind of highly rigid morality about power, sex, and human relations. This moral story is then grounded in highly stereotyped models and ideal types of “identity.” All those who are not identified in the “cis-heteronormative white supremacist patriarchy,” then, get to leverage their “disempowered” identity status as a marker of virtue. This is an example of an overly simplistic, logically flawed, “superstitious” moral story.

“Toxic masculinity” (TM for shorts) is a highly salient, but awkwardly fitting feature in the conceptual architecture of this invisible contradiction. In the grander scheme of human structures of myth, TM is simply a worst-case ideal type: a fairy tale with some basis in biology and broad cross-cultural relevance. The TM myth serves the useful purpose of promoting socially desirable behavior among males — men shouldn’t be bullies, men shouldn’t rape. What healthy mind would disagree with that?  

In the current scheme of 21st-century feminist mythology, the TM story is also the Master Archetype in an archetype-hungry culture that pretends not to use archetypes.

Invoking “Toxic Femininity” (TF for short, a worst-case female ideal type) in a 21st-century discussion is not likely to be well received. Toxic Femininity archetypes, however, are also universal. When psychoanalysis still dominated the psychological science scene, a slew of children's personality traits from autism to introversion were routinely blamed on a spectrum of feminine bad-mother types, from hysterical, castrating harpies to “refrigerator mothers.”

Many of my female professor friends still report that their male students are culturally ill-prepared to respect female pedagogical authority. Most men and boys still perceive women leaders through a binary archetypical lens; one can either be the “sexy girlfriend” or the “bitchy mother.” In some cases, older, sexy girlfriend types can gravitate to the "nurturing mother" type. Many boys don't know how to interact with and perceive women outside of these templates. These templates exist in boys' minds, but rarely in the women themselves. These are poorly raised boys, or boys raised with bad stories. More to the point, these are boys raised with very confusing, nonsensical stories about sex and gender. These are boys raised with impoverished minds.   

As psychological science and public culture progressed from unduly mother-centric models, and as the first and second waves of feminism took hold, TF archetypes have rightfully been discarded for being stigmatizing. TM archetypes, at the same time, have been propelled to the forefront of public attention. 

The advent of third-wave feminism — which denies masculine and feminine essences outside of “patriarchal” socialization processes — has now taken us too far in the denial of nature on the one hand, and the invisible imbalance of essentializing men only for their worst-case traits.

How then, can we return to strong and balanced gender archetypes?  

Why and how men must be strong

The TM story certainly has a place in these stories. If we recognize the importance of sex-based selected traits, we are compelled to notice that men do require strong cultural nurturing to balance their aggression, temper their domination, and cultivate protecting roles. This is an old evolutionary story. On average, father-child interaction is almost entirely absent among our closest cousins, the great apes. Some chimpanzee males, however, have been known to step up and occasionally rescue, adopt, and raise orphaned baby chimps on their own. 

Successfully securing paternal investment — an essential predictor of quality offspring in humans — has been and remains an important bio-cultural challenge for human females. There is always a strong risk that men, after impregnating women, will take off forever into their cultural equivalent of a long hunting trip and binge-drinking session. This is also why, on average, human females have evolved to be uniquely attractive to males. Contrary to popular belief, women across cultures are much more likely than men to use their attractiveness and genetic status to rise in their societies. For men of low social status, genetic status matters little. In highly stratified societies, low-status males are most often excluded from the reproductive market, and high-status males monopolize the high-quality females. From a Darwinian perspective, women come out on top. Societies that produce packs of horny, mateless, purposeless males run into a lot of trouble. This is when the camping-drinking sessions run out of hand. All cultures have produced stories about the tragicomedy of this challenge. The bachelor party ritual found among Anglo-Saxons is a way to keep bidding farewell to this evolutionary problem. 

A common worst-case female archetype across cultures, thus, warns against the femme fatale who secures social success through her attractiveness and sexual favors, and leads men to social, financial, and emotional ruin. In the traditional men’s huts of the Amazon and Papua New Guinea, ethnographers report that common talk among men centers on the awe-inspiring, terrifying power of the all-swallowing vagina. Gossip from the female hut usually centers on the gullibility of baby-like men who think with their penis. This is the cultural equivalent of the men-in-the-sauna and women-at-the-hair-salon rituals.

Like the Toxic Masculinity story, these Toxic Femininity stories serve an important social purpose. Both stories must be told, and the good versions of both stories must be actively promoted instead.

All cultures have crafted rites of initiation for boys and girls for this reason. It has been recognized in all cultures that girls must be initiated by older women into the arts of womanhood, and boys by older men. Boys must also spend time with women role models and their girl peers to learn to relate to, but also to seduce and be respectful to the other sex. The same is true for girls. Boys and girls, finally, need rites of passage to get to know one another and learn to consume and cultivate their need for seduction. All cultures need their equivalent of Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs, prom nights, marriages, father-son, father-daughter, and mixed-family camping trips with strong aunt and uncle role models. In the language of public health, having access to varied kinds of gender-specific and mixed-gender seduction, interaction, and initiation rituals grounded in a rich cultural folklore is an immense protective factor against poor life outcomes. In strength-based language, these gendered rituals are crucial mediators and indicators of community well-being.

The rites of boyhood and manhood, such as the ones cultivated in fraternities and athletic cultures, are now unduly associated with the “toxic” archetypes. Those who promote the importance of initiation into manhood, like the poet Robert Bly, psychologist Jordan Peterson, or motivational speaker David Deida, are typically dismissed as quack mystics, misogynists, or “alt-right” conservatives. This is a grave injustice to their message of strength, peace, mutual respect, and mutual veneration.

Consider this essay a rational call for the importance of such rites, and for the return of masculinity as a good ideal type.

Raising good, strong boys 

How, then, should we raise our boys?

There is an old American story that fathers used to tell their boys. The story describes three types of men: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. Wolves are lonely and strong, and they prey on sheep and weak wolves alike. Sheep are naïve and weak, and get eaten by wolves. Sheepdogs are strong and reliable, and they protect the sheep against the wolves.  

As a father, I expect my sons to be sheepdogs. In my household, of which I assume the head-role as a single father, masculinity is at once a source of pride and identity and a goal to aspire to. As a man, I am not always good at routines and schedules, at matching socks or mending clothes when they are old and ripped. The following maxim, however, is non-negotiable. The simple version of what we aspire to goes like this:

Strong mind, strong body, strong heart.

The nuanced story goes like this:

Be strong and caring; protect the weak.

Respect your elders and hierarchies; question them when you are led to be weak or selfish.

Offer your services to women, elders, and the weak (carry heavy things, offer your coat, offer your bed and sleep on the floor, feed others first, hold the door open for everyone).

As a rule, your needs always come last. But if you don’t take care of yourself well, you won’t be able to take care of others.

Never be a victim; when bad things happen to you, the onus is on you to create the right mindset to recover and thrive.

Never blame others for your own feelings.

Do not encourage victimhood in others.

It is good to cry for the joys and pains of others. Never cry out of pity for yourself.

Always be kind and generous. Be firm and know your boundaries. No one respects a man without boundaries.  Women do not like weak men.

Rights and obligations are given; privileges are earned.

Try new things, learn new skills; learn skills that will make you a good protector.

The simplest stories are often the best ones; the simplest solutions are not always best; choose stairs over elevators.

Be open to changing your mind; don't change your mind too much.

Go on a walkabout at least twice in your life.

When about to give up, try just a little longer; try a little longer next time.

Have women friends you won’t seduce; spend time with aunties and grandmothers.

Observe and study the mysteries and beauties of femininity.

The sheepdog story is a good one. It is also found in all cultures. As a father and a man, it is my role to pass it on to the youth. The story is gendered first and foremost because I am a man. I have no daughter of my own, but I teach the same story to my sisters’ and friends’ girls when I take them outside for initiation into the world. Where I tell boys to take care of girls and each other, I tell girls to take care of boys and each other.

I would tell the same story to my children if they were gay. People with a stable preference for same-sex partners are also found everywhere. Remember the point about conspiracy theories. Homophobic archetypes are bad archetypes. Toxic Masculinity archetypes, when presented alone without any comparable context, are also toxic archetypes.

Where the new archetype of “gender fluidity” fits in this picture is a difficult question. This archetype is still under construction in its current form, and it is still counterintuitive to many people. If more individuals find that the archetype is a good fit for them, that will be a good thing. For those who awkwardly try it on like clothes that don’t fit well, that is a hard, but useful learning experience for everyone involved. For parents of children who cannot fit in a clear side of these stories, it is just useful to teach the full story — the story of masculine and feminine types, good and bad.  

Some people, then, may simply be taught that they fit into the full picture and must stick to the good sub-types. In some Amerindian contexts, such people were known as "two-spirited." Legend has it that they were recognized as natural leaders for their ability to embody the full human spectrum. We are often told that everyone can be a leader, and that everyone is gender-fluid at the core. That is simply not true. Like all good leaders, it is likely that full-spectrum people are a good, rare breed.

We need better cultural institutions to help people find where they fit best.

(Thank you to Samuel Stathakos for inspiring me to write this piece.)

(** Thank you to Stef Donayre for her ideas on mind viruses.)