The term toxic masculinity is often used to imply that men, generally, are cold-hearted beasts but what it actually refers to is stereotypical male traits, validated by culture, taking forms that are not only damaging to the society but even to men themselves. In toxic masculinity strength morphs into violence and assertiveness turns into entitlement. The result is a man who can’t take no for an answer, and who often become the subjects of #MeToo posts.
Even though the conversation often revolves around toxic masculinity, there is the other side of the coin — toxic femininity. As any self-help guru worth their salt will tell you — where there is a yin, there is a yang. So yes, there is such a thing as toxic femininity and it comes in many forms. Though it is hard to perfectly define toxic femininity because it isn’t a simple, enclosed box. But like all kinds of toxic behavior, toxic femininity is rooted in the traits that epitomize it – feminine behaviors, that are used to manipulate and negatively impact those around the toxic individuals. It is when damaging and indirect modes of confrontation are masked with gentleness.
The 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 be forcefully and openly aggressive. Women on the other hand, have been deeply and systemically oppressed so they have had to hone their skills in subtle but also destructive forms of warfare. Toxic femininity is subtle unlike toxic masculinity which is often openly confrontational.
Whether expressed in both men and women, values associated with femininity such as empathy, compassion, nurturance , kindness, are viewed as being generally better for society. However, just as we erred by placing male traits on a pedestal, we also need to be careful when we glorify feminine virtues. Just as toxic masculinity harms men and women, so does toxic femininity. Except that toxic femininity has not really been unpacked in mainstream conversations. It could be because in most cultures women have only recently started entering positions of power and leadership in the public sphere.
Archetypes such as the smothering mother, the entrapping lover, the backstabbing friend, have been around for a long time but they have always been viewed as individual nuisances in the private domain. However, these types of toxicities are likely to get a corporate “adaptation” as more women assume their rightful place in society and in larger decision-making fields. The female forms of power seeking and relational aggression will be more evident and capable of inflicting significant damage.
Women against Women
Toxic femininity arises from a history of male dominance where women usually didn’t have the power or influence to overpower men. So rather than use outright violence, women opted to use subtlety in order to get their way. And since women often didn’t have the power to fight against men, they deemed fellow women as competition for positions of favor.
However, toxic femininity isn’t only as a result of a patriarchal history, it also stems from the different ways in which boys and girls are raised. The perception that girls are delicate and fragile while boys are strong and aggressive, continues to encourage toxic femininity. This kind of upbringing fuels competition between women for the male gaze. “…we raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments but for the attention of men…” ~ Chimamanda Adichie.
When you think about it, it is all internalized misogyny. See, toxic femininity is a way for women to sabotage others by using “traditionally feminine qualities”. It can take the form of gossip, disapproval and social exclusion. An example is, acting weak to get out of a task, which uses women’s physical weakness and their perceived emotional weakness as a tool for manipulation. It’s when women wrap insults in veiled ‘kindness’ or dish out backhanded compliments.
Women can be and are aggressors too. Because of how society is structured, women have traditionally targeted other women, usually within domestic or personal settings. You have the scheming mother-in-law, the passively aggressive aunties who make humiliating comments about your reproductive status, among others. This kind of aggression is often difficult to call out since it operates under the cover of sweet smiles and friendly greetings.
The Damsel in Distress?
When it comes to men, women have some unique weapons in their arsenal. Such as using their “weakness” to their advantage. An example would be, in the workplace some women may not want to do certain types of assignments, but instead of clearly stating their preferences they would rather make “excuses” about “woman problems” to their male boss. Women, in general, are viewed as “unfit” to do certain jobs therefore when we use such tactics to get perks, it harms the general perceptions of a woman’s ability and credibility. This can only change if more of us spoke up assertively, right from the start, about our preferences and goals for our schedules and career paths rather than feed into the stereotype about women being the weaker sex.
When it comes to matters of gender-based violence or sexual harassment, there’s this misconception that men can never be victims of women. It’s time to dismiss this notion, especially as parity grows between genders. Men too suffer stigma, shame and gaslighting, along with the burden of the widespread belief that men always want sex and cannot be exploited by women. Does this mean that women should be kept subjugated so that they don’t become ‘as bad’ as men? Absolutely not. The case I am making here is for an inclusive movement that addresses sexual harassment and societal bullying in all its forms.
A study found that male and female bosses share the same ‘classically masculine’ traits. While this could be a function of having ‘what it takes’ to get power, it can also be argued that it’s a function of power itself, which as some studies have shown, has a corrupting effect. Women are complicit in perpetuating the patriarchal order but nothing will change if we continue to excuse ourselves of accountability. And as more women gain power and go higher up in the food chain, women’s aggressions are likely to evolve and become more like what we identify as male patterns.
Just like toxic masculinity, toxic femininity consists of distinct rules and manipulative actions. Each victim may have their own understanding of what these rules are. But as Asavari Singh says, “When we speak of change, equality, fairness, we must include all of humanity. We cannot do that by pitting the genders against each other as believable vs. unbelievable, victim vs. perpetrator, good vs. bad, saint vs. sinner. These binaries do a disservice to both women and men.”
So, have women had a raw deal compared to men? Yes, of course. Are they generally less violent than men? I’d like to think so. And are all women the same? No. Are women capable of causing destruction just as men? Yes – and that right there is toxic femininity.