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Understanding Toxic Masculinity: Why Defending Men Isn’t Enough

Conservatives and liberals may have cleared a space in which toxic masculinity can take root and run amok among men.

I love boys. This is true just in general, but three in particular hold a special place in my heart, in which they will forever be clad in footie pajamas, racing matchbox cars across the kitchen floor. Boyhood really is rather magical. In the wildness and lawlessness and explosively imaginative world of little boys, I can see glimpses of all those qualities that are most truly admirable in good men. I see gallantry and courage and burning curiosity. I see a thirst to build and discover. Perhaps most of all, I see an eagerness to pursue justice and protect the weak.

Don’t misunderstand me. My kids are kids, and still very much “works in progress.” They can be barbaric, egotistical, destructive, loud; in short, they are everything one expects from young children. What I see in them are mere glimpses of the potential for manly virtue. Actualizing that potential requires a long road of discipline and self-sacrifice, which many have failed to walk.

Still, I want to enjoy these years, because they may represent the only time in my sons’ lives when they can aspire to a glorious, heroic manhood without the faintest trace of self-consciousness. I watch them play as they throw themselves joyfully into Homeric myths or Marvel comics, pausing along the way to build a few skyscrapers, discover lost Atlantis, and toss off a bouquet of flowers to their lady. (At this stage, that’s me.) They can revel in their budding masculinity without complication or regret. It’s a precious moment to savor, especially because I know that it can’t last.

It can’t last, in the first place, because little boys eventually have to grow up. At three, the Batman games are adorable. At 30, not so much.

Vast forums host scores of lonely and deranged life drop-outs regularly assembling to rail against The Matriarchy and obsess about sex.

Beyond that, though, our culture is deeply conflicted about manhood. We can’t decide what it is or should be, or even whether we’re in favor or not. My boys will have to sort through those questions as they mature. I’m deeply grateful that they’ll have each other to lean on, as well as their father, extended relatives, a church community, and me. But I’d still be crazy not to worry.

A huge part of my life is dedicated to converting these little barbarians into responsible, virtuous gentlemen, so I get concerned about what seems to be a growing consensus that boys and men are not thriving in America today. I read about them dropping out of school, and marriage, and life. It only takes a few minutes with a search engine to find vast forums in which scores of lonely and deranged life drop-outs (I just call them “the bitter men”) regularly assemble to rail against The Matriarchy and obsess about sex. It seems “toxic masculinity” is becoming a broad cultural issue. As a conservative, but especially as a mother, I’d like to get more perspective on the problem.

Toxic Masculinity: What Is It?

Feminists are now in love with the term “toxic masculinity,” but interestingly, it doesn’t seem to have originated with them. It was coined in the 90s by men’s advocates (such as the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement) who were looking to contrast a normal, healthy masculinity with more negative manifestations of manliness. As more and more boys grew up without fathers, and as their struggles were continually overlooked by a world anxious to promote the welfare of women, the stereotypical hyper-aggressive and sex-crazed man became more common and more feared.

This is the essence of “toxic masculinity.” It is emotionally stunted and obsessed with sex and violence. Toxic males seek the thrill of danger and shun responsibility and commitment. Since they lust after women but don’t want to marry or love them, their attitude towards the other sex tends to be offensively objectifying, and can easily turn misogynistic if (as often happens) they experience rejection. When a young man is unable to talk to girls, and vents his frustration by killing them instead, toxic ideals of manhood are clearly in play.

We can’t decide what manhood is or should be, or even whether we’re in favor or not.

Happily, very few men do that. Wall-to-wall media coverage may give us the impression of living in a violence-drenched society, but the reality is that murderous rampages are exceedingly rare. Optimistically, then, we might conclude  that toxic men are likewise rare, that the pathologies manifest in the occasional rapist or spree killer are almost completely non-representative of American men as a whole. Parents should rest easy about their sons unless they see signs of psychopathy or mental illness, or some other obviously aberrant trend.

It’s certainly an attractive thought. But even though homicidal maniacs are rare, the fact remains that relatively large numbers of American men have problems of a more plebian kind. For every one who goes on a killing spree, countless more are quietly struggling to find and hold down jobs, to overcome addiction or to keep their finances in order. Men are overwhelmingly more likely than women to be incarcerated. (Although the percentage of female inmates has risen over the last decade. Equal rights!) They are less likely to go to college, and less likely to be actively involved in the lives of their children.

In short, men are struggling. The reasons for this are complex, but when toxic masculinity does rear its ugly head it’s natural to ask: is there a relationship? Do the pathologies transparent in hyper-aggressive males throw light on the broader challenges seen among men and boys? In short: is toxic masculinity a more widespread cultural phenomenon than conservatives have generally supposed?

It can be hard for conservatives to find time for such questions because they expend so much energy defending men from a more overtly misandrist narrative. For liberal progressives, male privilege and patriarchy have long been favorite villains. Feminists may enjoy disparaging badly-behaved men as “toxic,” but it’s not really surprising that they didn’t come up with the concept, because they clearly have trouble distinguishing any non-toxic strain out of a traditional understanding of masculinity. In their minds, gelding is really the only safe response to masculinity.

Wall-to-wall media coverage may give us the impression of living in a violence-drenched society, but the reality is that murderous rampages are exceedingly rare.

Feminists aren’t surprised when aggrieved, misogynistic men boil over and rain horror and death on their fellow citizens. It’s what they expect men to do, and they simply take it as a sign that the gelding process still is not complete, and that further anti-male measures are in order. This explains the nastily anti-male tone of the #YesAllWomen campaign, as well as Fredrik De Boer’s rather uncompromising call to “destroy traditional masculinity.”

Conservatives rightly reject this perspective. We understand that healthy societies need their men to be manly. Children, in particular, need manly influences in their lives. Masculinity may sometimes seem “unsafe,” and indeed it can be. But the world is unsafe, and good men are usually the ones who protect the weak and innocent from its terrors. They also represent the majority of humanity’s builders and explorers. They create beauty and seek truth. If we know what’s good for us and them, we should want our sons to grow into paragons of virtuous, disciplined manhood.

That means we should steer them clear of misandrist feminists. But toxic masculinists can be dangerous, too, and unfortunately, the two groups don’t cancel each other out. I sometimes wonder whether conservatives and liberals together, in the midst of their intense combat over the merits of masculinity as such, may inadvertently have cleared a dangerously large space in which this weedy, insidious strain of toxic masculinity can take root and run amok.

For more perspective on the matter, it might be worthwhile to contrast the work of two conservative writers who have shown interest in modern masculinity.

Christina Hoff Sommers: Let Boys Be Boys

Christina Hoff Sommers is something of a professional advocate for men and boys. She has a demonstrated talent for exposing the follies of liberal feminists, and has done a real public service in drawing attention to injustices committed against men, especially in family law. More recently, her work on the anti-boy proclivities of schools has been eye-opening.

Distinguishing between healthy and pathological masculinity is an important theme of Sommers’ work. In the aftermath of the #YesAllWomen campaign, she tweeted:


Similar ideas can be found throughout her other writings. Ten years ago she summarized her position on the matter neatly: “Boys who exhibit aberrational masculinity define their manhood through anti-social and destructive acts; instead of protecting the vulnerable, they exploit them. Healthy masculinity is the opposite. Males who possess it—the vast majority of American boys and men—strive to be helpful and to achieve. They sublimate their natural aggression into sports, hobbies, and work. They build rather than destroy. And they do not exploit women and children, they protect them.”

I readily sympathize with Sommers’ objective here. She wants us to understand that masculinity is not intrinsically pathological. Boyish aggression can “go bad,” but it isn’t bad as such, and when properly channeled it can be an enormous force for good. In our eagerness to address the problems of boys, we must take care not to diagnose boyhood itself as a problem.

In feminists’ minds, gelding is really the only safe response to masculinity.

In the face of feminist misandry, this point certainly does need to be made, and I appreciate Sommers’ willingness to champion the cause of boys. I still can’t help but wonder whether the healthy boy/aberrant boy dichotomy is less stark than Sommers’ work seems to suggest.

Cultural and environmental factors presumably do play some role in determining whether masculinity develops in a healthy way. If so, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that a culture like ours (which is over-sexualized, drenched in violent media, and notoriously poor at fostering healthy family structures) edges potentially-healthy boys in a more toxic direction. That’s the worry that has parents like me wondering whether our job might really be more complicated than just letting our boys be boys.

Ross Douthat: Diagnosing Men’s Pathologies

Ross Douthat recently tackled the subject of “toxic masculinity” in a characteristically well-argued column in the New York Times. Douthat rebuts De Boer’s assertion that “traditional masculinity has to die” by reminding us that the manly heroes of the Western tradition have always been more Superman than Scarface. Contra feminist narrative, men have not historically been urged to assert their privilege at the expense of the weak and innocent. Cads and criminals have long been subject to the strongest condemnation, while applause was reserved for true champions of justice and honor.

Healthy societies need their men to be manly.

Traditional masculinity, far from being irredeemable, contains at least many of the moral lessons that developing boys most need. Having said that, however, Douthat agrees that our own culture has produced some less-admirable depictions of manhood. In what he dubs the “Hefnerian” ideal (exemplified by heroes like James Bond), men prove their worth through sexual conquest and violence, while traditional mores are relegated to the sidelines. Stable employment and settled domesticity, on this model, are suitable only for dupes and patsies; real men prefer glamor and always leave the ladies wanting more.

When young men are captivated by these ideals, they can develop a chauvinistic sense of entitlement, which may then overflow into disappointment and misogynistic bitterness when the glamor and no-strings-attached sex fail to materialize. Too many boys want to be James Bond nowadays. That almost always involves a string of decorative women, and occasionally it even includes the license to kill.

It’s time for a more nuanced intra-conservative discussion of masculinity.

It isn’t traditional morality that has failed us here, and that’s a point worth stressing. Douthat asks, “Is it reasonable to describe today’s young male chauvinists, whether they’re running Silicon Valley startups or lurking in the darker corners of the internet, as prisoners of chivalry, as slaves to antiquated fantasies of dignity and honor, as straitjacketed by an ideal of gentlemanly conduct? Or are they trying to live up to a very different, much more current vision of the male good life, one that gained ground almost simultaneously with modern cultural liberalism, and that partakes more of post-1960s ideas about liberation and expressive individualism than it does of anything that deserves to be called “traditional”?”

So, it would seem that Jane Austen and John Wayne are vindicated. But they haven’t saved today’s young men from falling prey to widespread and corrosive male pathologies, which cannot be cured just through the rejection of feminism and the vindication of masculinity as such. Sadly, it would seem that liberal feminists are not the only deformed children of the sexual revolution, and their masculinist counterparts are as hostile to traditional mores as they are to feminists themselves.

It looks like we parents have our work cut out for us.

Healthy Masculinity: The Quest Continues

In truth, the apparent disagreement between Sommers and Douthat is fairly superficial. She is attentive to the injustices and follies of misandrist feminists. He considers more characteristic male mistakes. Both may be describing real phenomena.

But if both are right, it may be time for conservatives to have a more extended and more probing conversation about what healthy masculinity does entail. The hysterical excesses of the feminist Left (as seen in, for example, the #YesAllWomen campaign) sometimes warrant a strong response. But fortunately, we now have quite a number of strong writers of both sexes who are adept at supplying this, and that should open some space for a more nuanced intra-conservative discussion of masculinity.

Animosity between the sexes is a significant cultural problem in our time, which poisons romance and fractures community relationships.

My experience suggests conservatives are more or less united in seeing healthy masculinity as a positive thing, which we as a society should encourage and foster. That being the case, it should be possible to discuss potentially-toxic strains of masculine culture among ourselves without risk of becoming more generally anti-male. As a parent I certainly feel that I could benefit from more robust discussion of these matters, and it’s hard to imagine that I am alone in this regard.

Animosity between the sexes is a significant cultural problem in our time, which among other things poisons romance and marriage, and fractures community and workplace relationships. Conservatives have great potential to help heal this rift by drawing on traditional mores and applying them to our modern cultural and economic situation, respecting the unique value of both sexes without granting undue privilege to either. It’s a daunting project, but there is much to be gained in the effort.

As conservatives, we should readily appreciate how ruinous it can be when a group of people is permitted to assume ‘victim’ status without being urged on to any higher goal.

More will be required, however, than just male advocacy. Of course, combatting injustices against men and boys is still an important task. But as conservatives, we should readily appreciate how ruinous it can be when a group of people is permitted to assume “victim” status without being urged on to any higher goal. At the moment, conservative “male advocates” may be in some danger of allowing men to assume that status.

Nothing could be less conducive to the development of healthy masculinity. Through all their games and fantasies, I’ve never once seen my boys cast themselves as helpless victims in need of rescue. They want to be heroes and knights and soldiers, coming to the defense of the weak and innocent. They want to be Robinson Crusoe, surviving against the odds, or Dr. Livingstone charting new lands.

My quest is a bit less ambitious than theirs. I’ll be content to see three small manlings mature into healthy, productive, honorable men.

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