Because the nature of this question is gendered along male/female lines, there’s going to be a lot of him vs. her in this post, and if that turns you off because binary gendering is BS, I totally get it, and I’ll see you next time.
A reader asked me if I’d write a piece about “toxic femininity.” I felt immediately suspicious, then turned to my Facebook crew to ask their thoughts: is “toxic femininity” a thing? I read responses all day. I read some articles shared by the person who’d asked me about it in the first place.
And the last time I had this much to unpack, I’d just gotten back from a two-week beach trip with my infant and toddler. Much like that day when I stood in the airport baggage claim and surveyed the 17 suitcases, the travel crib, and the car seat in its scuffed, zippable canvas glove, I don’t know where to begin.
Should I find a generally agreed-upon definition of toxic masculinity and then sub in the word “femininity” so that we have a foundation from which to discuss the concept of “toxic femininity” (if it exists)?
Should I list some examples that other writers have used when they argue for the existence of “toxic femininity” (if it exists) and explore why they do or don’t hold water?
Should I ask a rhetorical question, like, “Does toxic femininity exist?” And then answer, “Fuck off, no,” and then put on my fancy sunglasses and eat a soft pretzel?
Much as I want to dive through door #3 and ask for extra cheese sauce, I don’t think I can. The fact is that I have a knee-jerk response to a man who asks me to discuss “toxic femininity” (if that’s a thing?). That knee-jerk response looks a little something like this:
What are you asking me, friend? Are you asking me if I am complicit in my own oppression? Are you asking me if we can stop talking about toxic masculinity for a minute? Are you asking me to agree with you that bitches be lyin’?
Yeah, I’m suspicious, and I think it has something to do with the identity of the questioner. If you ask a white woman about “toxic femininity,” she’ll probably point to slut-shaming, fat-shaming, pro-life women, and cattiness. If you ask a woman of color, she might talk about white feminism and de facto racism. If you ask a man about toxic femininity, get ready to hear about alllllll the ladies who couldn’t see what a nice guy he was, and possibly some fucking disturbing accusations of greediness, stupidity, and shallow cunty whoreishness from said nice guy. Are there exceptions? Sure. But exceptions prove the rule, and when it comes to a neat segue from a conversation about the toxic patriarchy to a conversation about troublesome women, the rules are unbreakable.
Yet there’s an important issue that underpins the fact that the question was even asked, and that makes me want to answer the question of “toxic femininity” (if that’s a thing?) in more detail. I think it’s worth discussing the relationship between toxic masculinity, misogyny, and internalized misogyny. You know, The Devil’s Triangle?
So I’m going to go start at door #1 and see how deep we can go into this particular devil’s triangle before I have to take a break and watch a Hallmark movie to remember that there is goodness in the world.
DOOR #1: Find a generally agreed-upon definition of toxic masculinity and then sub in the word “femininity” so that we have a foundation from which to discuss the concept of “toxic femininity” (if that’s a thing?)
The Good Men Project defines toxic masculinity this way:
Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.
Toxic masculinity weaponizes hyper-masculine traits to the detriment of all people. It’s important to note that the term “toxic masculinity” doesn’t condemn male character or lock all masculinity into toxicity; toxic masculinity is a social construct (ugh, sorry) created by a competitive, violent, inherently insecure patriarchy. (BTW, hi! I’m Katie and I like Alan Rickman, salted carbs, and calling the patriarchy what it fucking is.)
So let’s flip this coin and see what happens if we substitute female-gendered words for the male-gendered words to get a definition of “toxic femininity” (if that’s a thing?):
Toxic femininity is a narrow and repressive description of womanhood, designating womanhood as defined by cooperation, sexual subservience, status, and passivity. It’s the cultural ideal of womanliness, where the ability to please is everything while troublesomeness is a weakness; where beauty and ability to make men feel good are yardsticks by which women are measured, while supposedly “masculine” traits—which can range from expressing anger to sexual independence — are the means by which your status as “woman” can be taken away.
Oh my god, you guys.
This is so accurate that I need a goddamn inhaler and an ice pack. This is maybe the best description I’ve ever heard of life as a lady in the patriarchy. Wait, no, second best. First-best is still Lindy West’s line, “Everything you love hates you.”
On the surface, toxic masculinity and “toxic femininity” (if that is a thing?) do appear to be two sides of the same coin. Toxic masculinity encourages violence and domination, which hurts both men and women; this idea of “toxic femininity” encourages acceptance of violence and domination, which hurts both men and women.
Yet there is a critical distinction to make: Toxic masculinity encourages violence and domination in order to hold disproportionate power. “Toxic femininity” (if it exists) encourages silent acceptance of violence and domination in order to survive.
I can’t go any further into this conversation without pointing out the glaring truth that toxic masculinity forces men to play a certain role in order to hold their position at the top of the pecking order, which toxic masculinity tells them they must do in order to matter. Conversely, the all-time best EGOT-winning performance of textbook five-star femininity would never approach the top of the pecking order, because that textbook performance of femininity would not seek power. It would seek to please Power. Because that’s one of the perks of being Power—you get a whole gender that seeks to please you to avoid pain.
Power is at the center of this entire conversation, because toxic masculinity isn’t fun. It is a tool, not a pastime. It’s not a thing men do for kicks. It’s a thing men do to keep their value, which toxic masculinity has told them is conditional upon their violent domination of other people. Femininity also isn’t fun. Femininity is also a tool and not a pastime. It’s a thing women do to keep our value, which the patriarchy has told us is conditional upon our ability to bear violent domination.
Toxic masculinity is, among other things, misogyny. And when you asking me if there is such a thing as toxic femininity, the truth is that all femininity is toxic. All of it. You made sure of it. You own and operate a society in which all things “female” can be categorized in one of two ways: inconsequential or punishable. Brush it off or slap it down. It’s not serious until it needs to be destroyed.
Chick lit? Inconsequential.
Female academics? Punishable.
Rom coms? Inconsequential.
Woman hero in Star Wars? Punishable.
Working mom? Punishable.
If toxic masculinity makes men feel ashamed of the normal impulses they have toward tenderness, beauty, sadness, gentleness, or creativity, then toxic masculinity also makes women feel locked into a performance of their gender bereft of the normal impulses we have toward independence, sexual agency, anger, volume, messiness, ugliness, and being a tough bird to swallow.
If we substitute female social norms into the definition of toxic masculinity, which describes a code of behavior engineered to maintain male dominance in our society, the ensuing definition of “toxic femininity” describes misogynistic oppression and the tactics that women use to survive that oppression, not the tactics that a woman might use to rise to dominance within a patriarchy, which is by definition impossible.
Basically, most behaviors that you might think of as examples of “toxic femininity” are either examples of misogyny (or, as we’re about to see, internalized misogyny), or examples of white women who are racist and practice their racism in particularly female ways, i.e. “You’ve got a Klan meeting tonight, honey? Oh, let me wrap up this bundt cake for the fellas.” Racism? Yes. “Toxic femininity?” I’m starting to wonder if that’s really a thing.
DOOR #2: List some examples that other writers have used when they argue for the existence of “toxic femininity” (if that’s a thing?) and explore why they do or don’t hold water.
Example #1: Toxic femininity is hot women protesting male sexual interest
Sex and gender roles have been formed over hundreds of thousands of years in human evolution, indeed, over hundreds of millions of years in our animal lineage. Aspects of those roles are in rapid flux, but ancient truths still exist. Historical appetites and desires persist. Straight men will look at beautiful women, especially if those women are a) young and hot and b) actively displaying. Display invites attention.
Hotness-amplifying femininity puts on a full display, advertising fertility and urgent sexuality. It invites male attention by, for instance, revealing flesh, or by painting on signals of sexual receptivity. This, I would argue, is inviting trouble. No, I did not just say that she was asking for it. I did, however, just say that she was displaying herself, and of course she was going to get looked at.
The amplification of hotness is not, in and of itself, toxic, although personally, I don’t respect it, and never have. Hotness fades, wisdom grows— wise young women will invest accordingly. Femininity becomes toxic when it cries foul, chastising men for responding to a provocative display.
Where we set our boundaries is a question about which reasonable people might disagree, but two bright-lines are widely agreed upon: Every woman has the right not to be touched if she does not wish to be; and coercive quid pro quo, in which sexual favors are demanded for the possibility of career advancement, is unacceptable. But when women doll themselves up in clothes that highlight sexually-selected anatomy, and put on make-up that hints at impending orgasm, it is toxic—yes, toxic—to demand that men do not look, do not approach, do not query.
OOOOOOOOOKAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY. Sorry, all the blood just drained out of my brain and into my slapping muscles. Please excuse me for a moment. I need to slap some things to muscle failure before I can articulate an appropriately nuanced response to this article.
That was a lot of slaps.
Whew, I’m flushed and my yoga/slapping clothes are a little sweaty… OH NO… OH NO!!! My leggings highlight sexually-selected anatomy (#birthinghips) and my rosy cheeks probably hint at impending orgasm! STAY AWAY FROM ME! I AM TOXIC! Before I go get Chicken from school, I must white out my face with talc and hide my suggestive butt girth or else I’ll poison the dads at pickup. HOW DARE I. HOW. DARE. I. BE. A. PERSON. WHO. IS. JUST THE THING SHE IS—SWEATY, HIPPY, AND POTENTIALLY ATTRACTIVE TO PEOPLE WHO ARE INTO THAT KIND OF THING.
This author’s example of toxic femininity is a woman who is:
2. Dressed in a way that displays that hotness
3. Uninterested in fucking you
But wait, isn’t that misogyny? Or because the author is a woman, internalized misogyny? Internalized misogyny pits women against other women by identifying certain female traits as “good” and other female traits as “bad.” To this author, studiousness, wisdom, and sexual discretion are “good.” Overt sexuality, confidence, and rejection of male attention are “bad.” BTW, the sad part of that internalized misogyny is the false promise that if you’re “good,” you’ll be safe. Also, it’s not an accident that the “good” and “bad” qualities are universally subjective and therefore bound to the unpredictable whims of whoever’s in this particular place at this particular time.
The real slipknot of this author’s point is that hot women are toxic unless they’re cheerfully complicit in their own objectification, which leaves all of us sexy bitches at the shitty intersection where “fuckability” dead-ends at “self respect.” Is that toxic femininity? No, that’s internalized misogyny.
(I can’t decide if this article is more insulting to men or women because according to her, men are animals unable to control their urges, and women should eschew hotness for book learning and seasonally-appropriate shmatas.)
Example #2: Toxic femininity is blaming your period for being bitchy and/or clinically diagnosed sociopathy.
From “#MeToo Will Not Survive Unless We Recognize Toxic Femininity” by Meghan Daum
Raise your hand if you’ve ever behaved badly and blamed it on your period.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever acted helpless in the face of an unpleasant-if-not-physically-demanding task like dealing with a wild animal that’s gotten inside the house.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever coerced a man into sex even though he didn’t seem to really want it.
Raise your hand if you’ve thought you were at liberty to do this coercing because men “always want it” and should feel lucky any time they get it.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever threatened to harm yourself if a man breaks up with you or doesn’t want to see you anymore.
Raise your hand if you’ve been physically abusive with a male partner, knowing you’d be unlikely to face any legal consequences.
Raise your hand if you’ve lied about being on birth control, or faked a pregnancy scare, to see how a man would respond.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever manipulated a divorce or child custody dispute in your favor by falsely insinuating that a man has been abusive toward you or your child.
In this hypothetical gathering of every woman I’ve ever known or encountered (I’m imagining a football stadium at decent capacity), I’m certain there is not a single one of these questions that, if answered honestly, wouldn’t send hands into the air. Including my own. I know I’m guilty on the pest control front. I don’t want to think too hard about some of the others.
Listen, I’m all for honoring the full range of humanity that women occupy. Women can be assholes, just like anybody else. That’s right. Ladies, girls, floozies, and squares do all the asshole stuff, from begging our partners to flush spiders down the toilet to having tempestuous mood swings during that time of the month… to… lying about our birth control to try to get pregnant on the sly…?... to… raping men???... to… falsely alleging child abuse about the father of my children?!?!?!?!
Yikes, that list takes a few hard rights, lefts, and loop-de-loops, and takes for granted that of course we all think those kinds of behaviors are:
3. Free for women to do without consequence
Yeah, because a woman can just go off her birth control and then lie in a field of daisies and sing a song about her dreams that are definitely going to come true now that she has to factor in the cost of child care. Wait, sorry, no, I meant the OPPOSITE OF THAT.
Full disclosure: I have asked my husband to empty mousetraps, although I wouldn’t say I was acting “helpless” so much as “dry heaving.” I could have done it, but it would have made a much bigger mess and he could toss a dead rodent with his left hand while eating a chicken kebab with his right, so our equitable division of labor puts “pests” in his column unless he’s out of town, in which case I glove up like the boss I am.
I have also been a raging bitch when I have PMS. But I resent the implication that because I ask my husband to take out the mouse trash, I am also likely to commit sexual assault against men. The other items on this list sound a lot more like narcissism, domestic abuse, sexual assault, sociopathy, and literal perjury, which are all terrible and all basically antithetical to femininity, the ideal of which is passive, nonviolent, and pleasing to behold.
In short, some women can and do inflict violence on other people. They do it because they’re hateful. They do it because they’re bigoted. They do it because they’re greedy and selfish. They do it because they’re desperate. They don’t do it because they’re trying to meet society’s expectation of “feminine.”
I do want to point out that the author goes on to make an important point about the weaponizing of fragility, which is a real thing that women do. Sorry, I meant to say a real thing that white women do.
Weaponizing fragility is as racially specific as it is sexually specific, and its roots stretch back to the end of slavery when one of the ways that white men sought to criminalize black men was to paint them as predators of their white women. White women, who were and continue to be as racist as white men, were fine with being used as an excuse to punish black people for existing.
While many white women enthusiastically consume white supremacy, even if they have to choke down a heaping side dish of misogyny, too. It’s important to recognize that weaponized fragility is rooted in racism, misogyny, and internalized misogyny, which I guess you can try to rebrand as “toxic femininity,” but that’s pretty white feminist of you.
PS, it should be reiterated that if a woman of color had asked me about toxic femininity, I would have written an essay about white feminism in a heartbeat. If a queer person had asked me about toxic femininity, I would have written an essay about trans-exclusionary radical feminism in a heartbeat. Because a man asked me about toxic femininity, I am writing this essay.
Guys, when you ask women to describe their complicity in their own oppression, we’re gonna have thoughts about it, and we’re gonna wonder what you’re really asking us to say.
Example #3: Toxic femininity is professional ambition without nurturing or cooperation.
From: "Toxic Femininity: Machiavellian Mary in the Workplace" by Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D.
"Toxic femininity" refers to women who are hostile to nurturance and cooperation, opting instead for aggression and backstabbing to get ahead… A particularly virulent personality leadership type by a woman is one we label “Machiavellian Mary.” This style denotes a superficially agreeable, yet ruthless, self-focused, and false individual... Yet, Machiavellian Mary often rises to high-level positions. Why? Because she plays well in the “male” game of pyramidal hierarchies. She knows how to be pleasing to those on top and how to control and step on-and-over those below.
I really wish this essay had a different title, because it is thought-provoking and addresses the historical disadvantage of “female” leadership, personality, and work styles. The essay explains why “Machiavellian Mary” might intentionally model herself after male leaders and managers, and why such emulation would be rewarded, initially, even as it was harmful in the long run.
GAWRSH (in a Goofy voice)! SOUNDS A LOT LIKE TOXIC MASCULINITY TO ME! A-HYUK!
Remember earlier in this piece when I was like, “Yet toxic masculinity encourages violence and domination in order to hold disproportionate power. 'Toxic femininity' (if it exists) encourages acceptance of violence and domination in order to survive.”
DOOR #3: Is Toxic Femininity a Thing?
Fuck off. No.
Toxic masculinity, when performed by men on men, looks like toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity, when performed by men on women, looks like misogyny.
Toxic masculinity, when performed by women on women, looks like internalized misogyny, which you could call “toxic femininity” if you decided to imagine that women did this shit cuz idk, no reason, just for fun.
This post originally appeared on katykatikate.com and is reprinted here with permission.
Top photo: RawPixel.com/Pexels Creative Commons
More from BUST
Katie Anthony writes about feminism, scotch, parenting, small daily victories, and 90's pop culture references at www.KatyKatiKate.com. She is also the author of Feminist Werewolf, available now as an ebook on Amazon.com. 100% of the proceeds of Feminist Werewolf sales are donated to RAINN and Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault. Follow her on Patreon www.patreon.com/KatyKatiKate, and Facebook at www.facebook.com/KatyKatiKate, and on Twitter @yokatykatikate.