We're always hearing about toxic masculinity, but what does it mean for us? Is there such a thing as non-toxic masculinity, and if so, how do we embrace it?
Among the many terms thrown around in today’s world, few produce more consternation than “toxic masculinity”. What is it? Does it mean all men are toxic? Can women exhibit it? Is there such a thing as toxic femininity? Even when there is a broad consensus on what the term refers to – predominantly masculine behaviours and attitudes that can cause harm – there are disagreements, such as whether the theory excuses harmful actions by downplaying the role of personal agency and accountability.
Generally speaking, toxic masculinity refers to aggression, dominance, self-reliance and emotional suppression, each of which can and do have their place in society but can also contribute to harmful beliefs and patterns of behaviour. Even when it does not manifest in ways that directly hurt others, it adds to and enables a societal norm that allows these actions to go unchecked. In many instances, the first victims of toxic masculinity are men themselves. Toxic masculinity is a societal expectation, and those who feel pressured to conform, or who feel that they cannot, are affected in equal measure.
I think the pertinent question is, what does non-toxic masculinity look like? Often, I see people online saying that the opposite of toxic masculinity is, essentially, femininity. The truth in this lies in that we all embody both masculine and feminine roles, and I believe that we are at our most complete when we are able to embrace and constructively engage with both sides. However, I don’t think that rejecting toxic masculinity means rejecting masculinity entirely – to do so means rejecting a huge part of ourselves and our expression, whatever our gender - so let’s look at what masculinity involves.
From an evolutionary standpoint, males have traits that are beneficial to their roles in a traditionally gendered social structure. While it’s true to an extent that society is a social construct, it does not exist in a vacuum, but as a result of humans trying to understand and rationalise our biological impulses. Males are bred to be hunters, protectors, builders and leaders, roles which served us well in ancient times but are increasingly uncalled for in a modern society where we enjoy vast privilege. In the western world we do not need to hunt for our own food, or build our own shelter, or fight rival tribes, so these attributes go unused, and are allowed to fester into unhealthy expressions of masculinity, as we instead create problems in order to exercise these encoded gender roles.
“Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” – T.K. Whipple
The psychologist Robert Moore argued that masculinity is most expressed through four dominant archetypes, each representing the potential and power of masculine traits. These are the King, the Warrior, the Magician, and the Lover.
The King is decisive, firm, but fair. They care for the wellbeing of others but have a great integrity, practicing what they preach, and seeking to inspire greatness within others. They provide and maintain order, remaining calm in a crisis, and carefully thinks through their options before acting, taking many viewpoints into consideration. They are not only concerned with themselves, but in leaving behind a legacy, knowing that their actions will reverberate beyond their own boundaries.
The Warrior is loyal and protective, using their strength to achieve their goals, of which they are certain and clear. They are disciplined and professional, always keeping the wellbeing of others in mind, vigilant but cautious when necessary. While they are decisive, they are also adaptable, changing to suit the situation.
The Magician recognises the value of wisdom and knowledge, and wants to share this with others. Reflective and insightful, they have a gift for turning thoughts into action, achieving results through non-direct means and consideration of all the information they have available. Those with a strong Magician energy are frequently drawn to mentorship positions, becoming teachers, spiritualists, guides or counsellors.
The Lover is sensitive to the world in its entirety, experiencing everything to its fullest. They are spiritual and creative, having a great insight into other people and the world at large, often seeing things that others might miss. They seek out the pleasures in life because they want to see all that life has to offer, and learn from it, driven by a ceaseless desire to expand their horizons.
Again, these traits are in no way exclusive to men – we all embody each archetype through the collective unconscious – but what varies is in how they are integrated into our sense of being and how we choose to express them.
Looking deeper, each of these archetypes has a shadow represented by two polar expressions. Moore called these “active” and “passive” shadows, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s consider the active shadow to represent what we would today call toxic masculinity. The passive shadow, meanwhile, is effectively just the opposite. So, is this the non-toxic masculinity we are searching for?
The active shadow of the King is the Tyrant, who seeks to destroy rather than create, putting themselves ahead of others and being reluctant to share their gifts. They fear losing power and so they exploit others for personal gain. The opposing force is the Weakling, who avoids conflict altogether, staying silent rather than speaking their mind. They abdicate their power to others and takes no responsibility.
The active shadow of the Warrior is the Sadist, who sets unattainable high standards both for themselves and others. They look down on others and allow themselves to become emotionally detached and cruel, bitter at never being good enough. The opposing force is the Masochist, who struggles with personal boundaries and complains about situations but never does anything to fix them. They are experts of self-sabotage, enjoying victimhood and allowing others to walk all over them.
The active shadow of the Magician is the Manipulator, who uses their knowledge for personal gain and to manipulate others. They withhold knowledge from others, as they enjoy feeling superior, and are selfish and self-centred. The opposing force is the Innocent, who feels entitled to success without having to work for it. They give up on tasks too readily and resent others who are successful, believing that all should be on their level.
The active shadow of the Lover is the Addicted Lover, who is eternally restless and always looking for more. They are overly-ambitious and too quick to fall in love, while hoarding and collecting things to fill the void in their life, often obsessively fixating on one person or idea. The opposing force is the Impotent Lover, who is instead depressed and disconnected, not feeling the sensuality of life. They feel shame about experiencing pleasure and find it hard to maintain relationships.
So, looking at this, we can see what the opposite of toxic masculinity would look like: a weak-willed, indecisive, unambitious, passive-aggressive, self-defeating, entitled, petty, miserable and shallow individual, wallowing in self-pity. I don’t think it’s a bold statement for me to argue that this is toxic in its own right.
The truth is that while we associate toxic masculinity with dominance and aggression – the more active shadow – it is equally rooted in the passive attributes. While the active traits may be harmful to others, the passive traits are harmful to those expressing them, which is what leads to the attitude of men feeling unable to express their emotions. To use a few cliches, “Boys will be boys” is excusing the active traits, while “Boys don’t cry” is enforcing the passive.
I will revisit this topic in future, but the truth is, the opposite of toxic masculinity is masculinity. Expressing one of the polar forces in isolation, unintegrated into our sense of being, will inevitably be harmful to someone because we are missing the whole picture. Masculine energies – not just from men, but from all of us – are powerful and beautiful, and incredibly important to the world we share. The secret is to find the balance between the extremes and embrace the whole.
Maybe you feel like a weakling, but your shadow is a tyrant. Embrace this part of yourself, reflect on what it means, and don’t feel shame, because when you bring these parts of you together, you are a king.