This promo for the Stronger Men’s Conference made its rounds in egalitarian circles and was soundly rejected as the textbook example of “toxic masculinity.”
Which reminds me how many people misunderstand what egalitarians mean when they talk about “toxic masculinity.”
Frequently, people read “toxic masculinity” as a statement: masculinity is toxic and/or, by extension, men are toxic. On the contrary: “toxic masculinity” works just like any adjective/noun pair. “Toxic” describes a certain kind of masculinity.
For the people in the back, “toxic masculinity” does not mean that masculinity is toxic. It means that toxic masculinity is toxic.
Many egalitarians stop there.
Radical feminists take it further. They believe that masculinity (not men, masculinity) is inherently toxic, all of it, because both masculinity and femininity are gender constructs, and gender constructs are toxic. As Rebecca Kotz puts it,
Gender is the tool to maintain the patriarchal power structure. Gender/masculinity is inherently toxic because it is used to distribute power in a hierarchical, abusive, fixed way based on our biology. That is why traits associated with masculinity are often identical to traits associated with dominance and soldier-like qualities (femininity is associated with subordination, deescalation, and trauma responses to male violence).
(Quick definition of gender: radfems discriminate between biological sex and gender. Sex differences are real. Gender isn’t, as it is a social construct and confine based on stereotypes that limit real people’s real traits.)
Here’s where it starts getting tricky. Even though feminists will insist that they do not hate men, many will read misandry between the lines of these definitions of toxic masculinity precisely because our culture cannot always distinguish between violence and dominance and being a man.
Many men will defend their interests in weapons, war, violent video games, MMA, and the like on the grounds that being dominant (e.g., the spiritual leader or the head of the home) and being war-like is at the core of manhood. Simply by being masculine, violence, domination, and many things associated with them get a free pass from scrutiny. It’s okay that boys role play violence, because that’s just what boys do. It’s okay that he’s obsessed with getting to the top, because real men have ambition.
When people hear the words “toxic masculinity” leveled against things traditionally associated with men — especially one’s own self-concept as a man — it’s understandable that “toxic masculinity” feels like hatred against men.
But “toxic masculinity” is not meant as a commentary on, much less a personal insult against, individual men who choose to be or do things traditionally associated with masculinity. It’s certain things (like war) or traits (like power) situated in the context of a particular narrative that real men are like this in exclusion to balancing “feminine traits.”
That is to say, it’s not toxic that your husband is the strong, silent type. What is toxic is the idea that real men don’t show emotion. It’s not toxic that you enjoy playing football. What is toxic is the idea that men who would rather bake, read, or create are sissies. It’s not toxic that your brother serves in the military. What is toxic is the idea that real men are willing to kill others for a higher cause, and non-violent men are sub-masculine as a result.
Does that make sense? Radfem Megan Hita puts it more succinctly: “The concept of masculinity is toxic, as it says there’s only one right way to be a man. That does not mean that all things that are often said to be masculine are toxic, but that the concept itself only serves to limit people and proscribe their behavior based upon their sex.”
That’s what’s so toxic about the promo for the Stronger Men’s conference. It’s not the monster trucks and the football and the automatic assault weapons, per se. It’s that it’s all power, violence, and domination in the name of manhood, without any acknowledgement of the other nuances and interests of other real men. Even worse, it’s all power, violence, and domination in the name of Christian manhood, without even a nod to Christ’s humility, servant leadership, and non-violence.
For a conference claiming to turn men into stronger Christians, it’s emphasizing not only things non-essential to being a Christian man but things contrary to core Christian principles.
Like my husband said: It’s not that there’s MMA there. It’s that they’re calling it Christian.
This narrative of manhood presented as the promo presents it as the definition of a “strong man,” with no counterbalance, is, in my view, toxic masculinity at its finest.
*More resources: Rebecca Kotz explains how gender is more than stereotypes: it’s the basis for patriarchal oppression. Engaging, informative, and well worth the 35 minutes of your time! The Mask You Live In, a Netflix documentary on the damage toxic masculinity does to men and boys, is another must-watch. I watched it once while pregnant with my son and then insisted my husband watch it with me again.