This is What Toxic Masculinity Looks Like 

Rus Ervin Funk 

Oct 7, 2020 

Over the past few years, most recently as a part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, there has been increasing attention and use of the term “toxic masculinity.”  A term which is poorly defined at best but widely used.  The assumption seems to be that we all know what it is we’re talking about.  

Most commonly, toxic masculinity seems to refer to individual men. In practice, “toxic masculinity” has become a way of identifying some (most, many…) men’s pathological expression of what it means to be a man. This focus – that there is something “wrong” with the men who express manhood in these ways (again, what exactly “these ways” are is not defined), is both troubling and problematic – and, it misses the boat. It reinforces a false binary between these “good” who are presumably not toxic, and those “bad” men who are. 

The masculinity that is toxic is not in individual men. The masculinity that is toxic is in our culture, in our systems, in our institutions! Like so much other toxicity, the toxicity of masculinity is in the air we all breath.  

In the last few weeks here in Louisville, KY, toxic masculinity has merged with white supremacy and has been readily visible!  Here is just some of what toxic masculinity looks like in this current moment:   

  • Pre-emptively define the terms of the debate
  • Unemotionally expressing “sympathy”  
  • Shutting down “oppositional” voices & Criminalizing peaceful protests 
  • Prioritizing property over people 
  • Sidelining compassion and care for the purpose of law and order 
  • Escalating intimidation  
  • Lack of accountability  
  • Inability/unwillingness to apologize 

And to clarify, these examples of toxic masculinity were in full affect in our institutions and systems, in our social environment, in our communities and organizational culture. My point here is to identify the toxicity of masculinity in the air we breathe, rather than focus on the individual manifestations. 

About a week before the Attorney General of Kentucky announced releasing this report, the City of Louisville (which is disproportionately male dominant in positions of authority) began boarding up windows and announced the shutting down governmental businesses. As we got closer to the announcement, these city powers defined a curfew. These actions effectively defined Black people’s pain, sorrow, grief and anger as a “threat” that needs to be managed, controlled and dominated.  

These behaviors, on a community level, looks eerily similar on a personal level to how male perpetrators of domestic violence attempt to control, manage and dominate their partners pain, sorry, grief and anger to the violence they face. Managing, controlling and dominating is a symptom of toxic masculinity. These symptoms are not just present in individual men and their personal relationships.  It’s built into our many of our city’s and country’s structures and organizational patterns. 

The killing of Breonna Taylor has evoked an outpouring of men’s sympathy for her death. We heard and saw this again from the Attorney General of KY, and the Louisville Mayor when they announced that no one was going to be charged with her killing. These pronouncements of sympathy consistently lack any sense of emotion to this sympathy.  

Toxic masculinity prioritizes logic and thinking while discounting and dismissing emotion — and certainly emotional expression. We have heard this uprising often described as being “overly” emotional, as if there is something wrong with feeling deeply about a woman killed in her own home in the middle of the night. In this context, it follows that people in positions of authority and power would feel compelled to express “sympathy” without emotion.   

But real sympathy, like its cousin’s empathy and compassion, doesn’t work like that. For sympathy to be legit, it must be felt, not just thought. Admittedly, brain science does indicate that we can express sympathy from a distance. This is unlike compassion that demands that we stand and act in solidarity. But distance does not mean removing the emotion that makes sympathy real. The degree to which we and our institutional, organizational and structural responses are unwilling or hesitant to express emotions is the degree to which our institutions, organizations and structures have evolved into a one of toxic masculinity. Since our government can’t express the emotion attached to the sympathy, why would we expect our governmental officials to be appropriately emotional? 

Throughout the local version of the uprising, there have been relentless and escalating attempts by the police and the city to silence oppositional voices and criminalize peaceful protests. This has included outright lies as a way to discredit and delegitimize the uprising, as well as generate a rationale for the severity of the response. The local police, for example, have claimed an uptick in “looting.” Looting, however, is not a crime in Kentucky. The closest crime is robbery, and while there have been a few robberies during this time, they have been geographically far removed from the site of the protests. When pushed, the police speculate that the robbers are taking advantage of distracted police. There appears to be no real relationship between these robberies and the protests.   

Furthermore, in an effort to maintain the imagery of (masculine) control/dominance, the police have armed themselves heavily, pulled out the militarized vehicles and other resources, and arrested some protestors for felony charges – all clearly in an attempt to intimidate the protests. The only black woman legislator in the Kentucky general assembly and her teenage daughter were arrested and charged with “threatening to cause harm to the library building.” If one reviews the data, during protests such as these, any and nearly all property damage that is being done is being perpetrated by young males, not middle-aged black women and their daughters!   

Toxic masculinity lives and breathes in our systems and institutions!  

There is persistent and consistent evidence that in the US, compassion and caring are deemed as nearly exclusively feminine qualities. It seems that we, in this country, believe quite strongly that it is not manly to care – and certainly not to express care. Law and order, on the other hand, are defined as masculine traits. As we have seen since this uprising started last March, “maintaining law and order” is also a white response to black people’s public expressions of pain and anger. This doubling down on “law and order” against black led protests positions these protests and inherently unlawful and disorderly. And let’s not forget that most of these protests and the movement behind them are women led!  

To the degree that its necessary, a law and order response that is based on compassion and care looks very different than a law and order response that is stripped of compassion and care. Admittedly, most police departments (and certainly the Louisville Metro Police Department) is a highly masculinized environment and as such compassion and caring are de-emphasized.  Still, there are ways and practices that meaningfully integrate care and compassion into the culture of policing. Law and order absent of compassion and care looks like bullying and intimidation.  

Lastly (for the purposes of this blog) toxic masculinity includes a lack of accountability and an inability to apologize. These two are different, although related. Our institutions, organizations and administrations are often told that they can’t apologize for doing so is seen as acknowledging responsibility. But one can’t be accountable without acknowledging responsibility. On the individual level, we see far too often examples of men who refuse to be accountable and who are unable to apologize. And while this is clearly problematic, what is more the issue is that this is the norm of our institutional and organizational practice. In short, these elements of toxic masculinity, like so many of the others described above, are in the air we all breathe. Is it any wonder that individual men struggle with accountability and amends making when our social environment is one in which accountability and apologizing is systematically and structurally made impossible? 

There is an ongoing debate as to the value of “toxic masculinity” as a concept in addressing and advancing gender equality.  The degree to which there is value in this concept, we need to shift our focus from thinking of individuals who “suffer” from toxic masculinity, to the ways that it is prevalent in our culture and institutions. Combatting toxic masculinity requires more than teaching men to express their feelings and supporting them to share caring.  



© 2020 by Rus Ervin Funk, All Rights Reserved