It is clear that there are still many hurdles in the way before we achieve gender equality. While some of these battles are political, others are bound in the cultural and societal status quo. The most obvious culprit is toxic masculinity, which refers to “harmful behavior and attitudes commonly associated with some men.” Toxic masculinity manifests itself when traditionally masculine traits are taken too far. Examples include feeling the need to establish dominance, being violent and not showing emotion. But in order to truly achieve gender equality, it’s not enough to simply talk about toxic masculinity. It’s also necessary to talk about the other side of the coin: toxic femininity.
Conversations on feminism rarely discuss toxic femininity because many people don’t even realize that it’s a problem. And for the few people who have heard of this concept, it’s easy to dismiss as something that doesn’t exist. But just as toxic masculinity can be negative, toxic femininity can be just as damaging.
Many people don’t believe toxic femininity is real because its definition is vague and all-encompassing at best, and offensive at worst. Masculinity on its own is not necessarily good or bad. Neither is femininity. Perceptions of biology and society have influenced these two social constructs. Both men and women can exhibit traits traditionally attached to the other gender.
For the purpose of this article, toxic femininity and toxic masculinity refer to the overly gendered ways that girls and boys are raised that lead to harmful effects later on and hold us back from gender equality. These terms also refer to when traditional gendered traits escalate to an extreme to hurt and undermine others.
Traditional feminine qualities include empathy, compassion and nurturing, but it’s possible for these traits to turn toxic when they’re used to undermine others. Toxic femininity arises from a history of male dominance when women usually didn’t have the power or influence to overpower men. It was more effective to use subtler forms of warfare to get their way, rather than outright violence. And because women often didn’t have the power or right to fight against men at all, they tended to view fellow women as competition for positions of favor. This historical precedent continues today. Women continue to target other women more than men. Just look at the workplace, where 58% of bullies are women, but their victims are other women almost 90% of the time.
Toxic femininity is a way for women to sabotage others by using traditionally feminine qualities. This can take the form of gossip, disapproval and social exclusion. An example of toxic femininity can be 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 happens in the workplace with lines like “I thought you didn’t want the promotion because you have kids to think of,” where the facade of kindness and thoughtfulness is used to mask the issue of workplace hierarchy. It happens at school when girls judge each other on their outfits, normalizing put-downs and the threat of social ostracization. Toxic femininity occurs when women use society’s feminine stereotypes to their advantage, and it occurs when women wrap barbs and insults in veiled kindness and empathy.
It can take even darker consequences, like when a woman falsely accuses a man of physical abuse in order to gain custody of a child. Historically, white women have accused Black men of sexual assault because the court would likely take their word for it. The latter happened with Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched after allegedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white married woman. Bryant testified at the murder trial that he made verbal and physical advances. Sixty years later, she admitted that she had lied about her interaction with Till. The lynching was a textbook case of racism, and racism played a large part in the murder trial afterward — and it can’t be denied that toxic femininity helped to ensure that no one was ever punished for Till’s murder.
Toxic femininity doesn’t just arise from a patriarchal history. It comes from women’s childhoods and treatment. Society views girls as delicate and lavishes them with pink tea sets rather than toy cars. We must sit up straight and poised, to look pretty and to always act nicely. Popular media tells us that we can always be more beautiful and have a nicer body. This upbringing only fuels competition between women.
The boys’ and girls’ differing upbringings go deeper than simple sexism. It has become a way of life. Devon Price put it best when they said, “Sexism is focused on robbing women of status and rights; toxic femininity is about defining womanhood so shallowly that a woman feels de-gendered by basic human acts or neutral preferences.” Both men and women perpetuate the nature of children’s upbringings.
Growing up, it was my father who frequently bemoaned my marriageable value based on the number of scars I bore on my skin, but it was my mother who advised me to always let the man have the last word in order to not stoke his anger. I never asked, “What about my anger?”
It’s hard to perfectly define and explain toxic femininity because it isn’t a simple, enclosed box. Toxic femininity is a tangled web that has been spinning since well before any of us were born. There is no quick solution to solving toxic femininity. But by beginning to talk about it, we can at least recognize its existence. And perhaps, we can work to raise up a generation free of it.