“Toxic masculinity” is kind of like “white feminism.”

Not all feminism is “white feminism“; that’s why the modifier “white” is needed. White feminism operates as a system; it’s also a specific set of behaviors that feminists who enjoy certain privileges (among them whiteness, class privilege, etc.) can fall back on in order to keep people who don’t enjoy those privileges in their place. So it’s both systemic and behavioral. At any given point, behavior can reinforce the system, or actively work against it.

Not all “masculinity” is “toxic”; that’s why the modifier “toxic” is needed. It’s to qualify that you’re talking about a specific mode of masculinity—a mode of masculinity which actively reinforces, through individual behaviors, a system which keeps non-men in their place. At any given point, behavior can reinforce the system, or actively work against it.

I can see where you’re going with this piece, and even the strategic value of approaching individuals whose behavior we want to change with terms that have been couched in softness in order to limit their reactivity. (A “safe space” for masculine fragility, if you will.) But that is a tactical choice—one that presents a sugar-coated view of a reality where the concepts that the terms “toxic masculinity” and “white feminism” signify are in fact very powerful systems of limitation placed by a dominant, hegemonic power in order to enforce an order in which everything is soft and safe for one kind of person, and violent for others.

If someone told me I was being a “white feminist,” I could choose to exercise my power over that person by insisting that that person stop using words in ways that hurt my feelings. In this moment, I would be shutting off all possibility of communication with someone I’ve unintentionally hurt with my behavior. On the other hand, I could choose to take the criticism, no matter how much of a blow it might deal to my ego in the moment, and use that information to learn and grow and maybe—if everyone’s lucky—become a slightly better person for it.

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

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