Simplified Gender Theory Ignores Subjective Reality


Jack Portman

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.