When I first looked into this term a few years ago, I traced it back to feminist usage which indicated intent to use hasty generalizations as a method for smearing masculinity and by extension, men.
At the time, I just read recent feminist writing on it, and surmised its purpose from that. Later, commenters in reddit’s /r/mensrights offered the claim that the term originated with the men’s rights movement and had beneficial potential until feminists co-opted it.
In attempting to nail down the term’s origin, I found that its usage by men’s issues activists is 1) not connected to the men’s rights movement, and 2) not disconnected from feminism.
The term “Toxic Masculinity” emerged from writings on masculinity by Australian sociologist and arguably, the founding mother of Australia’s gender studies curriculum, Raewyn Connell. Prior to its first use, the components of its definition were established in Connell’s 1985 paper, Theorizing Gender, which cites existing feminist theory including Role theory. In this paper, Connell lays the groundwork for attributing dysfunctional behavior in men to socially imposed gender roles and stereotypes.
Connell later began using the term “Hegemonic Masculinity” to denote a given culture’s standard expectations of characteristics to be displayed by men and boys. The usage is based on the Marxist term “Cultural Hegemony,” which refers to a ruling class’s use of imposition of its worldview as a social norm to dominate an otherwise culturally diverse society. “Hegemonic Masculinity,” derived from this theory, was used to establish social expectations of masculine characteristics as both a vehicle for and evidence of male domination of women. “Toxic Masculinity,” derived from Hegemonic Masculinity, is a term used to frame dysfunctional characteristics or behavior as gender-specific.
Some redditors have claimed that the term originated with the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, which they see as a separate thing from feminism, and are using that stipulation to try to redeem the term & discussion based on it. However, early online usage of the term spans both movements. It’s contained in a 1996 report, “Fathers, sons, and Vietnam: Masculinity and betrayal in the life narratives of Vietnam veterans with post traumatic stress disorder,” written by Tracy Karner, which cites feminist literature. Its usage in that paper is clearly derived from Connell’s writings on masculinity.
I found two mentions of “Toxic Masculinity,” associated with the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement. In “Redeeming Men, religion and masculinities,” published in 1996, the authors do describe use of the term to an article by Shepherd Bliss, “The Mythopoetic Approach to Men,” Axis, winter 1989-90. However, before that, on page 3 in part one of the book, the term is attributed to feminist philosopher Steve Smith and directly associated with feminist theory on masculine behavior.
The second mention associating the term with the MMM is from Menweb.org, which has a reprint of a 1995 article, “Beyond the Warrior,” also by Shepherd Bliss, which uses the term once, referring to the masculinity of the warrior as toxic.
Both movements use the term in the same manner. Prior to the first chapter of “Redeeming Men,” is a section titled “The New Men’s Studies,” in which the writers describe feminism in legitimizing terms, and label the men’s rights movement partially misogynistic. While the movement itself doesn’t seem to identify as feminist, it’s apparent that it’s not accurate to say it independently coined the term only to see it co-opted by feminists.
Given its traceable history, it’s my conclusion that the term “Toxic Masculinity” did originate as part of feminist theory, and despite its use by the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, it shouldn’t be considered independent from feminist influence. Its purpose wasn’t to free men from oppressive social norms, but to create an excuse for imposing new ones based on an ideological perspective which views men as inherently dysfunctional. Both feminists and the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement used the term in conjunction with attempts to define healthy masculinity in terms of men’s usefulness rather than in terms of men’s welfare. That use of it makes the term one of hostility and condemnation. If freeing men from pressure to conform to harmful stereotypes is a goal, it would be more productive for men’s rights activists to coin a new term than to try to redeem one which doesn’t serve that purpose.