On Friday night in southeast London two adult men held hands and cried in front of millions of people. It was Roger Federer’s last professional game of tennis — he lost alongside long-time rival and friend Rafael Nadal. The tears were not about the result, though I am sure we have all cried over less. But instead it was an emotional commemoration of a great career. And, an antidote to concerned hand-wringing and furious screeds about how we live in an ‘age of toxic masculinity’.
In recent years toxic masculinity has become a zeitgeisty and catch-all explanation for all instances of poor male behaviour. It is associated with traits such as aggression, competitiveness, stiff-upper-lip stoicism and plenty in between. The term makes sense and is a helpful sociological tool. There are some masculine characteristics, such as strength and chivalry, that in certain circumstances can warp into violence and cruelty. The inverse — vulnerability, softness, as displayed by Federer — is rightfully celebrated.
But now the accusation of toxic masculinity is so ubiquitous — and thrown around so frivolously — that the Independent said it was responsible for “climate hesitancy”; another report went further, contending that “toxic masculinity is killing the planet”; one magazine alleged that “Toxic masculinity costs Americans $15.7 billion every year.”
Mansplaining — when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending manner — is written off as toxic masculinity. Manspreading — when men take up too much room on public transport — too. There is little, it seems, that can escape the description, and even fewer things that can’t be blamed on it.
In 2019 even the multinational consumer goods corporation Procter & Gamble got in on the action, releasing the advertising campaign “The Best Men Can Be” for their safety razor brand Gillette. The ad’s examples of toxic masculinity included bullying, catcalling and interrupting women. Perhaps fair. But a cynic might say that Procter & Gamble is probably more interested in selling razors than it is in redressing the wrongs of the patriarchy. And so, to add to the non-exhaustive functions or consequences of toxic masculinity: it sells grooming products, too.
Newspapers have blamed toxic masculinity for Brexit, Donald Trump, online echo chambers and the Ukraine war. Of all the ill-informed attempts to decipher why Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, this is perhaps the most absurd. And with it, we have truly gone through the looking glass.
For such an intellectually unserious suggestion, it still manages to severely undermine the gravity and brutality of Putin’s actions; it eradicates the complicated motivations of Putin, reducing them into an easily understandable, throwaway quip; and it makes a mockery out of the term toxic masculinity itself.
It is adjacent to those who indiscriminately deploy the moniker “strongman” for male politicians of all stripes, often lumping together Putin and Johnson — eroding their differences, drawing a moral equivalence and erroneously citing masculinity to be the source of their problems.
Johnson, for a start, is as much of a strongman as Theresa May was a comedian. And, the source of Johnson’s failure was not alpha male posturing and violent tendencies but slipperiness and laissez-faire morality.
The comparison, however, shines light on the problem with the phrase toxic masculinity. We are too quick to reach for it as a label and no one has agreed what it actually means. Instead, we just randomly assign it to behaviour we do not like — everything from being patronising to active warmongering can be cast away as the fault and follies of masculinity.
By aligning Putin and Johnson, or manspreading and violence, under a singular umbrella term we are demonstrating a total cognitive failure to understand scale. And these equivalences we draw are not just ludicrous — we unknowingly make them all the time.
And this isn’t a flippant problem. Rather it is one that comes bearing huge downstream harms, far more impactful than razor sales or drawing false equivalences. By chalking all manner of things up to a failure of masculinity we are asking men — particularly young, malleable men — to continuously align themselves with the most severe examples of violence and misogyny. We might as well tell them there is something inherent to their existence that is bad. A toxicity that needs to be cleansed, so to speak.
Some may say it’s not the job of feminism to be concerned about the wellbeing of men — just as sheep seldom bother themselves with the happiness of lions — but I think that is wrong. We would be more likely to cultivate a generation of healthier men if we were not so quick to erroneously suggest that a bloody and unjust war is being fought solely thanks to Putin’s unfettered machismo.
Humane and mature feminist discourse should be capable of recognising this. And, it ought to understand that we might encourage more Federers and Nadals if we were not so quick to draw false equivalences between Johnson and Putin.