Australian award-winning author and critic of toxic masculinity Tim Winton.

“Toxic masculinity” is, we learn, the topic of novelist Tim Winton’s latest work. The guy hasn’t only written a book about it, but embarked on a national tour that promises some sort of audio-visual antidote to this much-feared poison. Didn’t see it myself, as I (a) had something on that night and (b) sincerely doubt that Winton meaningfully explores a popular concept that few have bothered to define. As a phrase, “toxic masculinity” is currently everywhere, even The Australian.

As a useful means of assessing gender in the present, it strikes me as slightly less instructive than Married at First Sight.

What the eff is “toxic masculinity”? We can currently see it identified all over the shop, but never analysed. I have read no serious attempt to describe this thing, apparently a contagion, as a true disorder. It’s more a collection of symptoms seen in the person of Donald Trump and even named as the source for death of persons and the planet. It’s less a recognised disease than a “syndrome”, really. None of which stops anyone from diagnosing this Irritable Gender Syndrome and prescribing “better education” as a cure.  

There have been critiques of the term — one first used in the 1980s by theorists of that decade’s softer, gentler men’s movement. But, these are generally of a knee-jerk, anti-feminist sort. They dismiss the concept as though it were a powerful feminist concept. In my view, “toxic masculinity” is not a true concept, and not truly feminist at all.

There are, of course, many feminists who use the term. They use it passionately, publicly and, presumably, with sincere hope that their diagnosis will rid the world of delimiting gender norms. Now, being a fairly blokey woman, I’m all for an end to such rot. But, I fail to see how one unties the straitjacket of gender by sewing a new one.

Now, leave aside your views about the naturalness of gender here, and just try to help the rest of the class share its frustration. You may continue to believe that ladies are predisposed to the soft touch of velour, that men are inclined to drive trucks by evolution, etc, and still see “toxic masculinity” as hostile to the aims of a feminism that seeks freedom from the gender that is imposed by the social.

The thing is, you either want socially constructed categories of masculinity and femininity, or you don’t. If you go about defining one of these categories as “toxic”, you necessarily define its benign opposite. The hope for a non-toxic masculinity is entirely dependent on a belief in a masculinity that will always exist outside the social realm.

So, which is it? Are the categories “masculine” and “feminine” ascribed by society, ergo, themselves, in one feminist understanding, always “toxic”? Or, are they, as popular articles of the type suggest, a case of nature turned sour? Seemingly, it’s both. There is both a toxic way to be a man and a “non-toxic” way. The non-toxic way is natural, I guess, and the toxic way is synthesised.

You can’t have your feminism and cannibalise it, too. If you believe that gender norms are both harmful and socially created, you don’t get to go about teaching folks about the great, new gender norms you’ve invented. If you believe that gender norms can be healthy and are best guided by nature, which Ms Magazine appears to in this recent piece on Donald Trump and explosions construed as semen, then, frankly, you’re Jordan Peterson.

Now, I’m not claiming it’s impossible to synthesise an understanding of gender as the product of biological difference and of society. There are feminist scholars who have done so, and their ideas, for mine, are the most fearless where the origin or the future of gender is concerned. But, few who talk about “toxic masculinity” do so from that psychoanalytic standpoint. Honestly, the whole thing seems unhelpful and confused.  

Look. Is this “toxic masculinity” a system that is socially imposed, or is it a thing that individual bad dudes catch? And, if a woman behaves in this “toxic” way — say, like, when she’s US Secretary of State and openly says that the death of half a million Iraqi children was “worth it” — was she infected by maleness, coerced by the toxic masculinity of others, or somehow alienated from a “natural” femininity, that is, in essence, nurturing and life-giving and all that palaver?

None of this is to counter the claim that acts of violence in the West have been overwhelmingly enacted by men. It is to suggest that the attribution of a gender to widespread, systemic violence may be a bit bloody thick. Violence may have been, and may still be, required of a man in work, in war or in the maintenance of an identity that none of the people currently talking about “toxic masculinity” can identify as either socially or naturally acquired. But to say that it is natural, or a perversion of the natural, or a historical misstep with an actual gender just seems to me to be very close to the evolutionary stupidity of a Peterson or a Dawkins.

I have little to say about the natural or the desirable man or woman. I would say that the desirable human does not permit their consciousness to become a landfill where pointless ideas refuse to degrade. “Toxic masculinity” is a pointless, even a harmful, idea. And so is the idea of the civilising, or somehow more “natural” woman.

Get your thinking sorted, people, before resuscitating all this state-of-nature rot. It’s not the 18th century and all this spiritual malarkey about “natural” law, or non-toxic being, is the business of Enlightenment twits. Sort it out before banging on again about poison men, corrective women or a list of rules for our gendered redemption.

Peter Fray

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