In its annual tradition, Oxford Dictionary declared the ‘Word of the Year’ for 2018 as ‘toxic’. “From ‘toxic air’ to ‘toxic politics’, the sheer scope of its application in 2018 made ‘toxic’ the stand-out choice for our Word of the Year,” wrote Oxford Dictionary.
While we can’t ignore ‘toxic air’ and ‘toxic politics’, of late the conversation has been around “toxic masculinity”.
It’s the boss who responds to sexual rejection by taking away key projects, it’s the lover who demands a “blow job, right now”, it’s the friend who says “get over it” when a woman cries about sexual harassment.
However, although the term “toxic masculinity” is used loosely to imply that men, in general, are insensitive beasts, this is not true. What toxic masculinity really refers to is when stereotypically male traits that are endorsed by a culture take forms that damage society and ultimately men themselves. Strength morphs into violence, assertiveness warps into entitlement, stoicism is twisted into emotional stuntedness. The result is men who can’t take no for an answer, who are unable to empathize with others, and who sometimes become the subjects of #MeToo posts.
But as any self-help guru worth their salt will tell you: where there is a yin, there is a yang. Is there such a thing as toxic femininity? I believe there is, and it takes many forms.
It’s the manager who verbally abuses teammates and then blames pre-menstrual syndrome, it’s the lover who withholds sex until she gets her way about a vacation, it’s the counsellor who empathizes so deeply with a client that she tells her to file a false rape case. Toxic femininity is when women use their gender to obtain certain privileges. It is when noxious, indirect modes of confrontation are masked with gentleness. It is when empathy turns into ethical shortsightedness. Just like toxic masculinity, toxic femininity is the product of a deeply patriarchal society and systems and thus requires greater examination.
The imminent rise of toxic femininity
Urgent whispers that stop when you walk into the room. When you ask what the secret is, they say, “nothing”.
An offhand comment about your shoes, elegantly summing up how you just cannot fit in.
She’s the kindest boss you ever had, yet why is her name on the report you authored?
You once bonded over feminism but she treats you like a pariah now that you’ve had a baby.
Constant comments about your body, but how can you be offended? She’s a woman after all.
Traditionally feminine values such as empathy, compassion, nurturance, team-playing—whether they are expressed in men or women—are already being valorized, with good reason, as being generally better for society. However, just as we erred by placing male traits on a pedestal (look where that got us!), we also need to exercise caution when we extol feminine virtues.
Thing is, men and women are part of the same species. It’s just that we’ve been conditioned differently and so our gendered pathologies are different. Men have long had a physical and social advantage, allowing them to aggress more forcefully and openly. Women have been deeply and systematically oppressed so they have had to hone their skills in subtler but also devastating forms of warfare.
Just as toxic masculinity harms men and women, so does toxic femininity. Except that toxic femininity has not really been unpacked in mainstream discourse, except for the poorly thought through rantings of men’s rights groups. This is because in many cultures women have only recently started entering positions of power and leadership in the public sphere.
Their participation in the workforce is still low. Archetypes such as the smothering mother, the entrapping lover, the scheming mother-in-law, the backstabbing friend have been around for a long time but they have been seen as individual nuisances in the private sphere.
However, these types of toxicities are likely to get a corporate “makeover” as more women assume their rightful place in society and in larger decision-making. Female forms of power-seeking and covert aggression will be more evident and more capable of inflicting greater damage.