The dose makes the poison.
One of the very useful memes that has come out of the gender discourse in the last few years is a discussion of “toxic masculinity,” or the traditional masculinity that teaches little boys to make themselves disposable for the sake of women (I know what the inventors of the term meant, and even though they didn’t mean that, that’s what they meant . Male disposability is what all the “man up”, “what about the menz?” and all their other sleazy little rhetorical tricks amount to, as well as all their earlier standard demonization of “macho pigs” and masculinity in general. I’m correcting their superficiality of analysis.)
Toxic femininity is not a personal trait of individuals. It is an aspect of a gender role, and since gender roles are a matrix of customs, expectations, and policing, they are social rather than individual. That is what it means to say gender is constructed, if always on a pretty fixed base of biological sex for the huge majority of us, and this is where the construction takes place. (Gender identities are different; they inhere in individuals.)
I have drawn up a preliminary list of types and aspects of toxic femininity. They come from things I have picked up in the femmisphere in posts and comments, from things I have seen in the men’s side of the gendersphere, and some come from personal experience. I wanted to list and name them so that people can use this in their own discussions and would have something to refer back to. The list is preliminary and suggestions on additions are gratefully accepted.
The list falls into two sections: Damseling and Gynonormativity. These roughly correspond to femininity seen as childlike, in a dependent position; and femininity seen as the moral standard, in a dominant position. This sounds like a contradiction, but in fact it is just a description. The switch from dominant Moral Guardian to trembling Damsel can be instantaneous because at bottom there is not much distance between them. The dominant matron battle-ax can very easily stand over a man and lecture him about defending and protecting poor, helpless women.
As we go through the sections below—and this is only a first cut at listing these aspects of toxic femininity, not claiming to be exhaustive—we’ll see exactly how much this stuff is socially constructed, how much it can’t even exist without a lot of cooperation from all parties involved. I’ve watched that happen.
And in each example notice what the healthy, non-toxic, decent version of each of these dysfunctions is. Again, the dose makes the poison.
Damseling is the female end of White Knighting—one cannot exist without the other. It is a celebration of helplessness and dependence on someone else’s protection. This is really nothing other than a feudal relationship. Depending on someone else for protection is a form of vassalage.
Victim Cred: For the most part, we have a moral structure that stigmatizes victimizers and tries to validate victims. It doesn’t always play out that way in practice, but even in practice if a victim brings a complaint against the person who victimized him—oops, there’s counter-example right there—but anyway, for the most part the reaction from the rest of us will not be to stigmatize the crime victim as a loser but rather the perpetrator. This feature of our moral code works against the operation of the law of the jungle, and it makes our type of society possible. So far so good. But of course it has a down side. It grants victims a moral claim, a form of moral superiority over those they identify as having wronged them, and this can incentivize victimology, the weaponization of victimhood.
Strategic Resource: Victim cred is a strategic resource and has to be shepherded. This includes not only maintaining what victim cred you already have, but increasing it. This involves making the validity of your victim cred unassailable, controlling access to victim cred by restricting the number of people who can claim victim status, adding to your victim cred by casting as much as possible of what happens to you as some kind of victimization and appropriating.
The “It’s Worse When It Happens to Women” meme: This not restricted to rape either. This was a big part of the FGM/MGM discussion until mostly feminists shouted it down—others had been calling BS on privileging FGM all along, but it was feminist voices that settled the matter. It pops up all over though. Boys being raped? It’s worse for girls, and they get silenced and victim-blamed more, and the rapists get off scot-free! You see how the claims don’t have to be any reaction to any facts, they just have to sound horrific enough to get the desired reaction.
An extension on Women and Children First (WCF) (see below) is to make it all about women even when there is no direct connection. This is how Hillary Clinton can say that women are the primary victims of war—war is worse when it happens to women—because they SURVIVE to deal with the grief. This is why every discussion of MGM inevitably ends up centering around the evils of FGM as a caution that of course it is immeasurably worse… This is why when male suicide is discussed, female suicide attempts are considered relevant (It’s very important, just not relevant to the topic of actual suicide. So why is it brought up?)
Appropriation of Others’ Suffering: This is why homophobia has to, has to be a form of femmephobia. This is how legislative attacks on women’s health services get hyperventilated into a “War on Women.” War is war; how many women are coming back from the War on Women with legs blown off? This is how people think it’s appropriate to say that women “fought” for the vote, as opposed the very actual wars men had to fight to get the vote.
Women and Minorities: This is an application of Appropriation of Others’ Suffering like the others above, but this one stands out, so it gets its own entry. This one was devised in the 1970s when the initial and limited successes of the civil rights movement made the public relations, and therefore the political advantages, of victim cred apparent. White feminists knew a good thing when they saw it and pitched themselves as the natural allies of Black people and POCs in general. (The rise of Womanism represents some of the reaction to this appropriation.) I really have seen White feminists insist that Black men are privileged by having male privilege—this in a society where they and White men have spent the last 300 years destroying Black men’s manhood.
The Princess and the Pea: Daintiness is generally a good thing, but it can be weaponized. For instance, if it is used to extort special considerations out of someone or society as a whole. We all have food sensitivities and that’s fine, and some things are just disgusting it must be admitted, but rejecting food because it’s “gross” is taking daintiness too far. Nobody much likes getting their hands dirty, but if you think a girl shouldn’t have to do this or that dirty job and besides that’s what boys are for, that’s taking daintiness too far.
“Sugar and spice and everything nice …” How liberating would it be for little girls to hear “Spiders and lice and every vice, that’s what girls are made of” so you don’t have to spend your life trying to be nice-nice, you don’t have to worry if some crudity you let slip out is going to shock people.
Bambi-ing: This is a tendency for society to conflate women and children, to assign women a claim to the same kind of care, protection, and leniency afforded children. Obviously it is misogynist, but its effects are misandrist as well, both since men get the job of babying women and also since getting this kind of care gets typed as non-masculine, so they are cut out of care when they need it. The name is chosen specifically because it both refers to that baby dear character in the Disney film and is also a stereotypical (and obnoxious) nickname of grown women, thus capturing the conflation.
The Women and Children First (WCF) meme: This is not only an expression of male disposability, it is also an infantilization of women. It is a case of expecting men to sacrifice their lives for women’s lives as if those women’s lives were as valuable as children’s and thus more valuable than men’s.
The Female Sentencing Discount: This is an institutional and systemic form of female privilege in which female perpetrators either receive lighter punishments or even are not prosecuted at all for the same or convicted crimes as men. It is quite well documented.
Sex-negativism: This is the source of demonizing male sexuality that is such a strong feature of our laws and social policy. This also the source of “rape privilege”—the idea that rape is somehow the most heinous crime EVAH, that it is worse than murder or having your children taken from you or anything else. It is basically a desire to cling to a pre-adolescent state.
Fat-shaming: A lot of what we call fat is not fat. Yes, we have obesity problems in our societies, but a lot of women get called or think of themselves as fat when in fact they just have the bodies of grown women. And hate it. I bet if you gathered a group of a hundred women and asked them each to draw up lists of the five biggest examples of misogyny they observe, fat-shaming would be high on a lot of those lists. it’s about holding to a pre-adolescent body ideal well into middle age. Arrested development.
Daddy’s Little Girl: This is so well understood that it probably does not need much explanation, either what it is or of how toxic it is. As obnoxious as a Daddy’s Little Girl is, she’s not the source of the problem. Her daddy is. Chances are very good that Mom tried everything under heaven and earth to raise her daughter to be decent, but Daddy undermined her every step of the way for his own selfish reasons.
The Princess Culture: This is not just the Princess-Industrial Complex, as cannibalistic and noxious as that is. It reaches much further into the culture. It includes a lot of romantic tropes—expecting the man to get down on one knee to propose marriage, expecting a ring or some kind of gift for giving birth to one’s own child. Feminists have denounced the engagement ring from the angle of it being a possession-taking ritual—so far so good—but so far they have not exploited the female-entitlement angle of the ritual for criticism. That is probably a job for MRAs anyway.
Of course it’s wonderful to dote on someone you love and wonderful to receive that kind of attention. Where it crosses the line probably comes when one person comes to expect as her due rather than appreciating it as a gift. But the Princess Culture is all about fostering an attitude of dependence. “Someday my prince will come …” really is a clear example of misogyny in a velvet glove.
Gynonormativity is not in of itself a bad thing. There are situations where what is generally considered a female way of doing something is the appropriate way, regardless of who is doing it. Teaching young children—primary grades surely, but even the older elementary grades sometimes—is one obvious example. Some kinds of anthropological fieldwork obviously call for gynonormative approaches. In other areas, it’s neutral. In some, it’s not suitable.
These are examples of bad gynonormativity:
The Golden Uterus: GU is a distortion of the motherhood role into a tool for subjugating others to the mother’s will. It can even be used as a form of power to use in a rape. James Landrith recounts how his (pregnant!) rapist used her unborn child as a human shield against him to keep him from defending himself against her while she raped him.
The Moral Guardian: The Moral Guardian is now almost exclusively a female role (although until recently you saw men doing it to. It still exists in communities of the religious right.)
Ninni Tokan recounts a story over at Pelle Billing’s blog of being regulated on by a Moral Guardian:
It is October 2008, I am on the train to Stockholm. I will finally meet my wonderful friends from an online forum. Then I will go directly to this weekend’s conference; I have already gotten myself together for that. I’m all dressed in black slacks and a black blouse, with thin white lines. I’ve made myself up and fixed my hair.
After a while on the train I need to use the bathroom, and I’m not alone, so I get into a queue of 3-4 people ahead of me. The man at the front of the queue throws a glance backward, finds me in line, halts with his eyes and smiles. I respond to his smile and he disappears into the bathroom. When he comes back, he stops for a moment and we talk. Before he goes, he asks me to come back to his place to talk more later.
The man goes and I take a step forward when the queue shortens. On my left is a lady who stands up, about to get into line. She casts a quick glance, which lands on me, and looks down at what she has in her hands again. The fraction of a second later, the reaction, the death gaze.
In slow motion, she lifts her eyes and the eyes meet mine. Then as she scans her eyes, slow down along my body, my shoes, flip and go as slowly up and look into my eyes again. Her eyes are razor grass, her facial expression clearly says “improper”, but the entire procedure lasts just a second. After bobbing her lightly on the neck and looks conspicuously obliquely upwards, before she returns to what she was doing.
What exactly happened? What was the social game that took place? Why did the man and woman act like this when they saw me on the train?
What we call gender roles can be likened to a flexible picture frame of standards, within which we “should” find ourselves. The frame will vary depending on social context, but also factors such as age. That both men and women reacted to was that I, on a train, found myself a step outside my picture frame in terms of “fitting clothes.”
The man would have reacted the same way if we’d met at a pub. His response is what we call “flirting”, “encounter”. It’s part of his gender to be the “fishing” (poor men, so tiresome it must be!). He obviously showed interest, without being the least disruptive; he is both pleasant and enjoyable (we talked more later) … and not without me taking his interest as a compliment. Sure it has happened that I happened onto to men who “fish” without it being the least pleasant. And yes, some men sometimes be a bit “too on”. But men who do not ” fish nicely” are a crystal clear minority.
The woman, however, she had not reacted as if we’d met at a pub. She probably had not even noticed I existed. At a pub, I would had been dressed “right” in my gender (hence flexible picture frame). While the man’s reaction was “fisherman”, the woman’s reaction “moral guardian” whose purpose is to get me in line and teach me how a woman should act / be. It is almost exclusively women who guard women so that we stay within our gender!
The Church Lady: Churches are almost female-dominated with male front men, which is why they are typically so toxic for women. This dynamic is called “The Blue Hair Mafia” in the Catholic Church and in Black churches it’s called the Amen Corner. These women quite often control, and in Protestant churches, even choose the clergy. They are tools of power in female hierarchy struggles. Of course this dynamic is harmful to men and especially to boys, but its real victims are women who happen to fall outside the Amen Corner. All the hyper-emphasis on policing women’s sexuality is no accident. See Ninni Tokan’s story above.
Female Approval: “Man up!” “Get a pair!” The Real Man discourse and the whole concept of what makes a man a good man usually come down to one thing: how useful is he to women. That’s the measure of how good and masculine a man is. The measure of what made a woman a good woman used to be the mirror image of this. Thank God feminism eroded that away to nothing. Now it’s time to do the same with this.
“Man up!” “Get a pair!”—Lectures from a woman on toxic masculinity are probably going to get a readier hearing than from a man, and the history of 1970s feminism as a broad cultural change shows that. But harangues for more masculinity, especially a masculinity destructive to the man and beneficial and profitable to the woman, from someone who never has and never will have to meet the same standard are just patently offensive.
Ultimately men’s need for female approval stems from childhood, where women are the only authority figures around because all the men have to leave the kids for most of their waking hours and support the whole arrangement. Where mothers do need this kind of authority to raise kids, especially in the absence of the fathers they have sent off to support them, it’s dysfunctional when this authority gets transferred to women in general as a feature of a gender role. It’s disastrous when it gets transferred to wives.
The Flag-Waving Civilian Hyper-Patriot: Never served a day in her life, but she is ready to hound any man in sight to “man up” and go lay down his life for her. This chicken hawk is a real moral guardian of patriotic values. See also White Feather Society.
“Boys Will Be Boys”: Listen around and you will see how general the meme is that men are eternal boys and that women are long-suffering adults picking up after them. It comes out in teachers saying that girls mature faster than boys—by the gender-biased standards of teachers. It comes out in 20-something women presuming to lecture men their age on manners and mature behavior. It comes out in TV commercials and programming showing men as helpless, clumsy, and incapable but always with some superior woman coming to the rescue, or more often just looking on, clucking her tongue.
Creep-shaming: This is how women take the Church Lady out on the street and use it on men. Lots has been written about creep-shaming and if we want to go further into it, we can. It generally comes down to a content-free grenade a woman can lob at a man, though of course though content-free it is not necessarily consequence-free. It can all too easily have real legal and criminal consequences.
Ninni Tokan says that to free women, women have to dare to “make femininity problematic” and to shift the focus from demonizing men to women’s real gender problems—collectivism, moral guardianism, and social punishments. She related (above) her own experiences of being slut-shamed by an older woman as an example of the damage gender role policing does to women. She insists it is mostly women who enforce gender roles on other women.
She says the problem is not so much gender roles as the pressure to conform to them, and that to a large extent exerting that pressure is a part of the feminine gender role itself. I can confirm that for her: I have certainly experienced policing of male gender roles at the hands of women.
I consider it a perversion and a distortion of the feminine role, and I call it toxic.
- The Woman Card - May 2, 2016
- Frat boy bachelorettes and the invasion of gay bars - April 15, 2016
- “Not my kid….” - February 22, 2016
Glad you find it interesting. I intend it for reference. The concept of toxic femininity is slowly starting to gain currency. What is ironic is how much of it captures a lot of things 2WFs decried, and that 3WFs celebrate and demand be given obeisance.
I made this recently.
Excellent. It ought to be carved into the concrete in the walkway going into every elementary school – for starters.
I like to call certain types this: “entitled little princess syndrome” and ‘damsel in distress” syndrome
I was looking for references to this toxic femininity as a way to contrast toxic masculinity for a paper I was doing, and until I came to this article it was mainly sexist bloggers who were complaining that feminists. I was afraid that this was how this article was going to swing as well, but I’m pleasantly surprised. Good on you mate.
I really liked this article. It is hard to find treatments of this topic that do not just hate on feminism and convolute toxic femininity with femininity itself. So thank you.
I think basically what toxic femininity boils down to is a kind of privilege. But it’s even more invisible than male privilege because we are not supposed to have it. But we do. I am appalled sometimes by the amount of things I could say and do in my relationship with my fiance that would be absolute deal-breakers if he did them to me. Especially in terms of emotional manipulation.
Example, last winter he got his foot ran over by a car and it broke in two places. The first week or so with the injury, he was more comfortable sleeping on the couch than in bed with me. It was an elevation thing and lying all the way down was painful.
Now i love sharing a bed with this man, on every level. And I was really sad about sleeping apart. The second night, while we were saying our goodnights, I burst into tears. I was tired, work had been really tough, there was stress from worrying about him with his injury and I just had a moment of wishing everything at home was normal but it wasn’t.
His response was that he wanted to fix that I was sad. So he said he’d take some pain pills so that he could join me in bed.
I said I did not want him to do that and I had to clarify that I was sad about the situation of his being hurt and having to sleep on the couch. I was not upset with him and his decision to do what was best for him while he was injured, that my tears were part of an emotion I was having and not some moral arbiter for him to re-direct his actions to benefit me.
So we finished our good nights and I went to bed.
But it’s lucky that my parents did succeed in giving me something of a moral compass (being raised basically atheist seemed to work). Because I realized even at the time how absurdly easy it would have been to manipulate him into doing something he probably shouldn’t have done, just because I’m the woman he loves and I was unhappy.
With great power does come great responsibility. And when we have power over someone be it institutional or personal, that is reason enough to make sure we treat them with respect and expect the same, especially if that power and responsibility over and for each other comes from love.