There has been a lot of talk lately about toxic masculinity, that domineering bullying behaviour void of empathy or concern for others, which is exhibited by some (but not all) men. Now the focus is turning to women. People are starting to realize that if masculinity can be dialed up to the extreme and become toxic, it is likely to happen to femininity as well. They are questioning what toxic femininity looks like, how it is created and what can be done. Some women are holding up a mirror to see if they are unwittingly a victim…
Let’s consider how it happens- the insidious patriarchy divides people into one of two groups. They are born, labelled blue or pink and the blues are immediately considered more valuable, securing a superior position on the hierarchy. Blue people are not only allowed to develop a strong individual identity they are encouraged to do so. Meanwhile the pink people are expected to be selfless, putting the needs of the blue above their own. It sounds like something out of the ‘Hunger Games’ movie, yet we live it every day.
In the book, Why Does the Patriarchy Exist author Carol Gilligan says, “patriarchy harms both men and women by forcing men to act as if they don’t have or need relationships and women to act as if they don’t have or need a self”. She then describes how men end up suffering from emotional detachment while women become compulsive caregivers. Gilligan also discusses how these codes are culturally sanctioned in our society with consequences when we don’t comply. Men feel anger and shame when their autonomy is threatened or vulnerability exposed while women feel guilty when they put the needs of others ahead of their own.
Such conditions lead to toxic gendered behaviour. The daily interactions between Trump and Pelosi provide entertaining examples of toxic masculinity. Trump is enraged that Pelosi is not treating him with the respect he believes he deserves. She isn’t abiding the patriarchal system by being selfless and serving his needs. In fact, Pelosi is making no attempt to hide her disdain for him and he can’t abide a woman with authority. He is used to women taking care of him and each day on the news we see him throwing a temper tantrum when that doesn’t happen.
Pelosi is an empowered woman, the antithesis of those afflicted with toxic femininity. A sad example is Liza Minnelli who, when married to David Gest, was only allowed to eat 900 calories a day based on his edict. He hit her hand away if she reached for food, demanding she spend copious amounts of time practicing and performing. He promised to make the aging star as famous as when she was performing Cabaret and she totally turned herself over to him. Gest didn’t deliver the publicity for her singing though, it came instead as sordid stories in the divorce courts and she was devastated.
Unfortunately, many women who find themselves at the bottom of the pyramid-shaped patriarchy fold themselves into men. They never find their voice or step forward into their power. Instead, they acquiesce to those deemed more powerful, making the man’s identity their own and taking on all his opinions. Each day they wake up and work hard to make their man’s wishes come true, without consideration for what they want for themselves. These women believe that men determine their value. They become dependent and sit helplessly by waiting for a man to rescue them from even the tiniest issue. Some even have sex with men they aren’t attracted to because they feel guilty turning them down.
Why would the patriarchy, which harms both men and women, continue to exist? Partly it’s because demolition threatens those with power and such people fight hard to maintain it. Another reason is that those without power perpetuate it because they feel protected -they are fearful for what life would be like without it. Gillian argues that women give up their voice in order to be accepted and have relationships. Paradoxically, in giving up their voice they also give up their ability to connect authentically, the basis of a good relationship.
We all live within the confines of the patriarchal culture so it’s natural that when women hold up the mirror they will see that they are influenced by it. Some more than others. Yet, there are things that every woman can do to step outside her conditioning and escape the clutches of toxic femininity:
1) Practice Independence- Learn to identify your own needs and ambitions, and make decisions based on your own well-being and self-interest instead of disappearing into the wishes of others.
2) Practice Making Declarative Statements- Notice how most men are not overly concerned about the impact of their needs and/or desires on others? Follow their lead and assertively express your opinion.
3) Practice Driving the Agenda- Think about the result you want to achieve, take control and exert authority. This may be uncomfortable at first because you have been conditioned to avoid conflict, but the more you rely on yourself, the easier it will be to take control and exert authority.
By consciously practicing these three things daily we will start the baby step process of exorcising ourselves from a system which promotes the superiority of men over women. It will help us find our voice and establish our identity. While our conditioning makes this more difficult for women, it is crucial. Your voice is central to having rights and living your own life. Women who know their opinion and state it openly feel good about what they see when they hold up the mirror. Change will come when the silence of toxic femininity is broken and we can start that process today.