The Myth of Toxic Masculinity

Ever since my 1998 article, THE CRISIS OF MANLINESS, and the ensuing books WHAT IS A MAN: 3000 YEARS OF WISDOM ON THE ART OF MANLY VIRTUE and THE CODE OF MAN: LOVE, COURAGE, PRIDE, FAMILY, COUNTRY, people from all over the world continue to write to me about them, including new generations of readers. The following Q and A is with a junior at a Christian high school in Florida who wanted to interview me for an essay he is writing.

Many people believe that the natural behaviors of men are "toxic." Why is this opinion potentially dangerous to hold?


“Toxic masculinity” is a myth that ascribes to men as a whole the most retrograde behavior of which some men are capable. More importantly, it is based on a caricature of manliness as the worst kind of “macho,” aggressive, coarse behavior. In reality, according to the traditional meaning of manliness going back to the ancient writers, that kind of behavior is the very opposite of manliness. A true man is moderate, self-restrained and courteous in all of his dealings, especially with women.

Are typical masculine traits (competitiveness, boldness, risking-taking, etc.) harmful to society? If not, what causes them to become harmful?

In themselves, these traits are not necessarily harmful. It all depends on whether they are directed toward good or bad ends. If competitiveness means ruthlessness, if boldness is aimed at harming or taking advantage of other people, if risk-taking involves mad daring and endangering others, then those are traits that should be discouraged. But if competitiveness is in the desire to prove oneself excellent in school, in business, in a profession, as members of families, then that spirit of emulation should be encouraged. The same with boldness and risk-taking — if they are at the service of a just cause, such as improving human rights or remedying an injustice, then that kind of vigor can be positive and praise-worthy.


How do negative stereotypes of men portrayed in the media affect the way masculinity is perceived?

The problem with caricaturing the entire male gender as displaying toxic masculinity is that young men are then tempted to act out the worst male  behavior in the mistaken belief that this is what they need to do to “be a man.” This was brought out very well in the novel and movie of FIGHT CLUB, where the main character is torn between being a wimp — Ed Norton’s character — and a beast, Brad Pitt’s fascistic thug. In reality, these are radically unsatisfactory extremes. Young men are tempted by them to avoid being a wimp by becoming a beast, which they think is manly. In reality, manliness is a balance between gentle traits and bold traits aimed at just purposes, Aristotle’s golden mean. To be a man means to become a gentleman.


In what ways does society and the media emasculate men? How can men combat this?

 I think I cover this in my last answer.


Can men be too masculine? Where is the line drawn between emasculate men and (for lack of a better word) macho jerks?

Yes, it’s definitely possible for men to be too masculine, to be macho jerks. The traditional writings on manliness made this very point. Men, and especially young men, do have a temptation to act on impulse, to make a stand for their honor, to be thin-skinned about perceived slights, or to be too aggressive in pursuing a relationship with the opposite sex. Through education and through being exposed to the positive meaning of manliness, we have to hope that young men’s characters can be shaped to feel revulsion for becoming macho jerks, and to re-direct their bold and aggressive energies toward constructive aims. When we fall in love with another, we want to prove worthy of love in that other person’s eyes. That is the best possible incentive for us to try to be good men. Love is the key.


One of the common arguments against "toxic masculinity" is that men need to be more like women in order to balance out their over-masculine traits.What are the consequences of femininity and masculinity too closely resembling each other?

While as I’ve said, a man’s character should strive for a golden mean between gentler and bolder traits, it’s a mistake to think that men should be habituated to become more like women. Men and women are equally  capable of pursuing the same goals, but men do so along a different psychological path. There is increasing empirical evidence that masculine traits like competitiveness and a love of risk are hard-wired into our natures, not simply a result of cultural influences. Studies of students in school show that girls are better at working in teams than boys. Boys are more restless and eager to move around. Girls don’t respond well to a teacher admonishing them, but in boys, it produces a “fight or flight” reaction and an adrenaline boost that is actually an aid in their learning. So while the aggressiveness of boys needs to be directed constructively, we should not attempt to eradicate it entirely. it is rightly said that education should enable girls to become all that they can be as girls. But the same can be said about boys.