The Internet Wants to Talk About ‘Toxic Femininity,’ but Gets It All Wrong
The thing about power and oppression is that in the bigger picture, it is often enacted in one direction, and one group of people are overwhelmingly recipients of it. This is the case with toxic masculinity: a patriarchal byproduct that affects and harms men, but also, and this is important, harms all women, cis and trans, gay men, and non-binary people. Toxic masculinity is a repressive, poisonous force that constrains cis men from feeling emotions and propels them to act in ways that maintain the patriarchal status quo through brute force. Toxic masculinity turns men into foot soldiers of the patriarchy. The same operations of power do not, however, apply to what the Internet calls “toxic femininity.”
Currently, the overwhelming conception of “toxic femininity” in the wake of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial is that of a villainous woman leveraging laws and sympathy against men. “It’s high time we talk about toxic femininity,” say many social media commentators about the case, implicating, for some reason, Jada Pinkett Smith too in the whole affair. Comedian Bill Maher went on air to deride the infamous Oscar’s slap as Smith’s fault: “Alopecia is not leukemia… I blame toxic femininity,” he said.
Some others say that toxic femininity is when women act against the best interests of other women, putting them down and competing. In this conception, toxic femininity acts as a pipeline to toxic feminism itself. Still others call it the “ying” to toxic masculinity’s “yang” — citing false rape cases, instances of people withholding sex, and blaming PMS while verbally abusing people as examples of toxic femininity. Toxic femininity is understood as repressive feminine gender roles by some among the more charitable. Then U.S. Senator Ted Cruz was posed the following question on a podcast: “The Women’s March was this weekend. We are seeing women like Amber Heard, Jada Pinkett Smith, Megan Markle, Kim Kardashian. Is it time we start talking about toxic femininity?”
When we talk about toxic femininity, however, we are missing the point. “I still think that, if we really want patriarchy to change, we are in trouble if we turn our backs on men and not really want to examine, Why are men so violent?” said bell hooks last year, before her death. hooks has been one of many pioneering feminist intellectuals to diagnose toxic masculinity as a systemic condition of the patriarchy that affects everyone.
There is a clear discomfort in struggling to find expression about women in the public eye who take up space and who wear their infallibilities on their sleeves. In “toxic femininity” is an underlying rage and resentment leveled against certain women for being seen too much — and, importantly, for their association with fallen men. Bill Maher’s comments about Jada Pinkett Smith turn toxic femininity red herring leading the path back to toxic masculinity. What else explains Will Smith instructing another man to keep his “wife’s name out of [his] mouth”?
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It seems that these definitions of toxic femininity are a guise for vilifying women in the public eye who are imperfect. The tide gets one fundamental thing wrong: that women are human beings, and human beings can be bad people or at the very least, be flawed, just like everyone else. Accusations of toxic femininity then carry the underlying implication that anyone marginalized by gender carries the additional burden of “goodness” and respectability. A few individuals failing to meet a standard that, at the very outset, has been set higher for the less privileged as compared to the most, means that the entire community is indicted.
Moreover, the more recent conversations around toxic femininity seem to be coming from men’s rights groups who have been keeping a close watch on the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial. “Amber Heard, sobbing on the witness stand, represents the red-pilled man’s most cynical fantasies of womanhood,” writes author Jessa Crispin.
These reactions tell us the phrase “toxic femininity” itself is a rhetorical tool that undermines legitimate critiques of patriarchy and masculinity. It is, after all, a factor of toxic masculinity that makes male survivors of violence less likely to be believed, and less likely to come forward. And yet, the blame is deflected back onto other fellow sufferers, rather than interrogating the culture at large.
Toxic masculinity lies at the heart of everything from wars, systematic rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. At the core of it is not only upholding rigid gender norms but also enacting the suppression of women and feminized bodies. “This use of toxic femininity is a reactionary backlash against feminist discussions of ‘toxic masculinity,’” Hannah McCann, a University of Melbourne lecturer in cultural studies, told Vice.
There are very few corollaries for this into which “toxic femininity” can neatly fit — to equate the two, in the way that the Internet insists on doing now, is, therefore, a false equivalence. Toxic femininity, in its most generous interpretation, only constrains women; it is a gender role at its most extreme. The only way it is leveraged as violence against a whole group of people is when trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFS) gate-keep womanhood to exclude and oppress trans women.
If we are to talk about toxic femininity, therefore, men’s rights activists cannot be the ones speaking.