Shaving Away "Toxic Masculinity"

Why assigning toxicity to behaviors, not gender, is important

Posted Jan 20, 2019

I spent much of my Saturday talking to a friend about the recent Gillette commercial that has so many people up in arms. I couldn’t for the life of me understand what was so wrong about it.  To me, the idea of the commercial was to challenge one another to be better human beings. To not be a bystander when there are toxic behaviors happening all around you.  Frankly, I loved the message

Spoiler alert for how the rest of the conversation went: He did NOT share my view.

His take was this: He sees women as a protected class. What would happen, he pondered, if the commercial implied that women were toxic? His suspicion, and I think he might be right here, is that Gillette would be done for. From his perspective, Gillette and the rest of the world is picking on guys like him. Good guys that can’t walk around without feeling like they have done something wrong because they have male genitalia.  He is sick of being portrayed as the bad guy all the time. Even in trying to defend himself as one of the good guys, he felt that he came across as defending “toxic” behaviors. He wasn’t being toxic. He was just being him. A man. And there is nothing inherently toxic

about that.

I get his point.

The trouble, as I see it, is the assignment of the word “toxic” to any particular gender.

Baruska / Pixabay
Women too can be toxic. Particularly where gossip is concerned.
Source: Baruska / Pixabay

Toxicity is toxicity.

Males certainly don’t have a monopoly on bad behaviors. Perhaps we need to rethink the assignment of the term “toxic masculinity,” as the definition is too easily expanded to offend people like my friend who feels as if his whole gender is under attack. Toxicity doesn’t belong to a gender any more than it can be exclusively assigned to a skin color. In fact, females, are often the drivers of exactly the behaviors we label as being “toxic” in males.

Female mate selection is complicated, but the driving characteristics of “good mates” haven’t changed throughout evolutionary history. Females today demonstrate the same preferences for their sexual partners as their ancestors did. In short, we want protectors.  In experimental settings, women are generally more attracted to males with higher testosterone, and more aggressive/dominant tendencies. Hmmm….in reality this means that as females, we may be selecting for some of the behaviors we label as “toxic masculinity.” While not a perfect correlation by any means, high testosterone is linked to extra marital affairs, high sex drive, aggression and fighting. These “toxic behaviors” might be the direct result of our selections.

What message of "toxic femininity" might be sent by various magazines to their largely female audiences?
Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

And what of the toxic femininity? What do we do to one another as females? As I was drinking my coffee this morning, I found myself flipping through one of my “girly” magazines. I began noticing all the ways it made me feel imperfect. All the other smiling females that looked back judgingly at me from the interior pages - all skin glowing, and tight stomachs, and perfectly shiny hair and makeup and I began to realize that this was the equivalent of males flexing at one another. The readership of this magazine is 91% female. These pages were made for me, to demonstrate how a female should look.  This could easily be labeled as toxic femininity. Is there anything wrong with being in shape, and pretty and smiling? Of course not! But could it be toxic in its interpretation by me? Absolutely. The idea that I had to meet some standard of perfection in order to be feminine is certainly a toxic formula – perhaps the same formula we assign to men (must you demonstrate your testosterone laden tendencies in order to be masculine?).

Do females abuse one another with these standards? Do we gossip and put one another down and hurt each other by spreading vicious rumors?


Do we weaponize sex, and use it as a powerful tool to get what we want?

More than most of us will care to admit.

These behaviors aren’t exclusively feminine any more than bullying, catcalling, and abuse of power are exclusively masculine. I’m not justifying behaviors on either side. In fact, I’m condemning them on both sides. There are toxic behaviors in the world. And certainly, some are demonstrated by one gender at disproportionately higher rates than the other, but it is the behavior itself, not the gender that needs the label.

Yes, sexual harassment is toxic.

Yes, bullying is toxic.

Yes, intentionally hurting another human without cause is toxic.

But perhaps we need to put the labels in the right place. On the behaviors. We will need males and females as equal advocates in a fight to make the world a better, less toxic world for everyone.


Alan Booth and James M. Dabbs, Jr. Testosterone and Men's Marriages. Social Forces. Vol. 72, No. 2 (Dec., 1993), pp. 463-477.

D.R. Feinberg, B.C. Jones, M.J. Law Smith, F.R. Moore, L.M. DeBruine, R.E. Cornwell, S.G. Hillier, D.I. Perrett, Menstrual cycle, trait estrogen level, and masculinity preferences in the human voice, Hormones and Behavior, Volume 49, Issue 2, 2006, Pages 215-222.