Simplified Gender Theory Ignores Subjective Reality

It apparently doesn’t go without saying that masculinity is socially constructed. Anthropologist David Gilmore defines it as “the approved way of being an adult male in a given society.” It is situated historically and contextually — my masculine experience likely differs from those of males in Ethiopia or Norway.

An individual acquires masculinity through interpellation, a process of internalizing socially prescribed expectations. The means by which these “elusive or exclusionary image[s] of manhood” arise are just as diverse as the conceptions of masculinity they create. This must be acknowledged if one is to understand toxic masculinity: testosterone contributes to biological maleness, not socially constructed masculinity. 

The particular shape one’s masculinity takes is largely informed by other aspects of identity such as gender, ethnicity and class. How these identities intersect contributes to the extent of one’s advantage or disadvantage in society. In this way, masculinity is experienced differently by everybody — it isn’t ubiquitous. 

The diversity in how people conceive of masculinity makes rigid expectations of masculine behavior dangerous. When a boy abstains from an athletic competition and is called a bitch by his male peers, gendered behavioral expectations have limited his capacity for self-determination and inflected femininity with negative gender stereotypes. When he departs from the standard uniform and his male peers say he dresses like a queer, his self expression is infringed upon, and queer identities are essentialized. 

Toxic masculinity is prohibitive of a person’s ability to express their identity. It leaves no room for gender fluidity and promotes strict adherence to a regimen of machismo, intimidation, aggressive sexuality and power brokerage. 

Masculinity that perpetuates male privilege is also considered toxic. An analysis of how men exercise power in social and occupational settings suggests that notions of male supremacy exist within the structure of toxic masculinity. That the United States has yet to elect a female president illustrates how ideals of leadership and power are largely conflated with maleness. That the criticism facing female politicians regards how they dress and how they assert themselves further exemplifies that our political institutions are gendered. 

Feminist theory doesn’t aggravate an irrational rejection of masculinity; scholars such as Peggy McIntosh react critically to their disadvantaged prospects, disregarded contributions and diminished roles in an aggressively gendered society. To describe feminist theorists as “men-haters” is profoundly problematic and implies an allegiance with the system of toxic masculinity and those who perpetuate it. The visceral masculine impulse to reject feminist theory for its analysis of male hegemony reflects the precariousness of its institution, as does disproportionate and irrelevant criticism of female politicians. 

Masculinity is fine when it can be enjoyed in its total variety and when it doesn’t employ privilege to maintain exclusionary male groups. But toxic masculinity is exercised all too frequently, and men may not notice the extent to which they benefit from it. As such, when their privileged is checked, it may feel like oppression. 

How does the self-identifying male who “will never truly understand” the hegemonic influence of toxic masculinity proceed? Enroll in a Women and Gender Studies class. Only by contextualizing one’s identity in the historical processes that gave it value and the social structures that continually reenforce it can one fully perceive the nature of its impact. 

  • Hank Wordsworth

    Jack, perhaps I should preface my response by noting I am not a conservative and have no association whatsoever with The Wake Forest Review. That said, your column is well-written, even while its conceptualizations owe their origin largely to charlatans, all of whom had a self-interested ax to grind against Western Civilization, especially Western white men. Unless your opinions are simply received ones, their pedigree should be familiar to you: Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Gramsci, Lukacs, Horkheimer, Fromn, Reich, Marcuse, Bernays, Adorno, Block, Lowenthal, Friedan, et al. You get the flavor. Their agenda was always about breaking things down, never building things up. And when their class struggle shtick failed to incite a permanent revolution to get the job done (except in the Soviet Union until 1991) these leftist theoreticians abandoned the working class altogether and switched to cultural critiques calculated to polarize personal grievances into embittered identity groups–women vs. white men, blacks vs. white men, LGBT vs. white men, the world vs. white men, ad infinitum vs. white men. Given these historical/philosophical contexts. pardon me if I suspect that “toxic masculinity” is just another Cultural Marxist pejorative du jour for shaming white men into groveling apologias for being based white men. Besides, you may be only charging at eternals here, which is pretty much what Marxian materialism does from the get-go. Men (and women) have always had their rough edges per the environment they were civilizing or coping with. Europeans may blame Russians for their historical crudity, but look whose country encompasses 11 time zones. Respectfully, maybe you should thank “toxic masculinity” for taking on the challenge and horror (of genocide if necessary) to found a continental nation on your behalf. What more than that, in the first instance, allows you to sip wine in the comfort of your dorm tonight without the least fear of being raided or subject at any moment to the tender mercies of Geronimo? Moreover, since the frontier millions of inoffensive, even gentlemanly, men have been compelled to fight wars and quell riots instigated by elites (leftist to neo-conservative) that consequently traumatized them into habits of cynicism and gaucherie you would call “toxic.” Is it fair to fault them for the psychic wounds they incurred doing your dirty work? And if by some chance the power grid or welfare state collapses this year, the thin red line between civilization and barbarism will again depend on—you guessed it– so-called “toxic masculinity”—the frontier ethos, or what survives of it, warts and all—to draw a line in the dust and cast the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And these are not remote hypotheticals. As 9/11 cautions, they can be imminent catastrophes. And so, Jack, I beseech you and my good friends on the left to engage in some objective soul-searching while in Gender Studies class, hopefully ultimately to find in your hearts a more magnanimous, inclusive attitude towards these toxic traits you breezily condemn yet owe so much. If the men and women in your class want to move beyond one another’s traumas, recriminations, and the epithetic conceptualizations you allege, they should start by exchanging backrubs in class, not arid critiques. Although initially, true, I may need xanax for yours.