As guests spilled onto the pink carpet at this year’s Met Gala, Twitter users live-tweeted the event with characteristic fawning over their favorite celebrities’ gowns. This year, though, there was a distinct focus on a certain type of man: “What’s toxic masculinity? We don’t know her!!!!!,” one user tweeted alongside images of Darren Criss, Harry Styles, Ezra Miller and Cody Fern adorned with makeup, ruffles, nail polish, jewels and sequins — receiving 44,000 likes and 9,000 retweets. “I AM LIVINGGGG FOR THE DEATH OF TOXIC MASCULINITY,” another gushed about roughly the same lineup of men, with a similar volume of retweet approval. The sentiment was echoed many times that day.
The precedent for these tweets was set earlier in the year when Twitter user @tchalamarvel captioned images of Cody Fern, Harry Styles, Timothée Chalamet and Ezra Miller — yes, the same fan favorites crop up again and again — wearing florals, sheer fabric and makeup with the following words: “their ‘fuck toxic masculinity’ power.” The tweet went viral, receiving a whopping 112,000 likes, nearly 30,000 retweets and spawning the formula copycats utilized come the Met Gala in May. Now, nary a (white) male celebrity can don a floral shirt or eyeliner without his standom sounding the death knell for toxic masculinity. (The praise for “non-toxic” black and working-class men is conspicuously quiet, and on those topics it’s worth reading bell hooks and Amber A’Lee Frost respectively.)
The term “toxic masculinity” has exploded in popularity since the rise of the #MeToo movement, triggered by the raft of accusations of serial sexual abuse against disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, followed by a wave of allegations about other powerful, famous men. Defined by psychiatrist and professor emeritus at The Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology Terry A. Kupers as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence,” the term tends to refer to characteristics such as dominance, aggression, rage, emotional repression, status-seeking and fierce competitiveness. It is, in short, the socially destructive side of masculinity that causes harm to women, children, queer and non-binary people and men themselves.
Often associated with the feminist movement, the term actually arose out of the drumming, chanting, hugging and weeping new age men’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which posited that manhood is many-sided — it can be “mature,” “soft,” “cooperative” and/or “toxic” depending on various Warrior, King and Lover archetypes — but its nature is fixed across time and space (“men are a certain way and no other”). This fixed view of masculinity was challenged by sociologists like Raewyn Connell in the late 1980s, who argued instead that masculinity was shaped by factors like class, race, culture and sexuality, and varied dramatically across time and space — i.e., it’s not fixed at all. “There is abundant evidence that masculinities are multiple, with internal complexities and even contradictions,” Connell writes. “[A]lso that masculinities change in history, and that women have a considerable role in making them, in interaction with boys and men.”
Connell and her cohort theorized that the so-called “toxic” traits of masculinity like violence, dominance and control are actually responses to the social pressures on men to be, well, manly, at least according to that society’s definition of manliness at the time. When men feel they fall short of these standards — that they’re not socially respected, physically strong and virile, say — they behave in “toxic” ways, becoming violent, aggressive, angry and entitled. This isn’t because of some inherent “side” to masculinity, but rather because of social ideas about manhood that encourage certain behaviors (self-reliance, shows of dominance, hypercompetitiveness) and discourage others (softness, vulnerability, deference).
The happy upshot of all this is that what it means to be a man can change. Connell argues that disruptive forces can redefine what it means to be a man, and cites the feminist and queer movements as well as laws about divorce, domestic violence and marital rape as examples. The question, then, is whether stan favorites wearing ruffles and floral shirts on the red carpet is another such disrupting force.
Contra the wave of “RIP toxic masculinity!!!!” tweets, fundamentally altering the nature of masculinity probably involves a little bit more than kiss curls on male actors. After all, European men in the 16th century wore dangling earrings with wide, padded breeches that looked like puffy skirts as well as long hair, nipped waistlines and elaborate embroidery. In the 17th century, festive sashes, lace garter bows, high waistlines and pointed toe poses were manly fashions. Ancient Egyptian, Aztec and Roman men wore skirts, pink was once a boys’ color and haikara men in the late 19th and early 20th century wore makeup and carried scented handkerchiefs.
All of which is to say that there have always been men who dress “femininely,” but were capable of violence, aggression, rage and entitlement (i.e., “toxic” behavior), and the gender orders in these societies still produced male domination, violence against women and homophobia. So we should be skeptical about the idea that minor aesthetic shifts toward feminine fashion will fundamentally alter masculine norms of behavior, mostly because they have nothing to do with behavior at all.
In fairness to the Twitter users above, there is a sense that they understand this point. Many are being tongue-in-cheek about sounding the death knell for toxic masculinity, and @tchalamarvel pointed out that she was praising the celebrities’ behavior and general demeanor, not just how they look. Plus, the tweets about Chalamet et al overwhelmingly come from Stan Twitter, and often stans are aware of the actions and personal politics of their “faves,” to the extent that these can be determined from publicly available information. Perhaps these men and non-binary people are genuinely paragons of non-toxic masculinity, and an army of young stans who openly adore soft, gentle, non-sexist men is the kind of thing that could change the gender order, or at least indicate that it is already changing.
Despite the hurried provisos about behavior, though, the overwhelming implication of these tweets is that a refusal to conform to male aesthetic norms is itself praiseworthy, and that’s an idea worth interrogating. After all, men are as capable of violence and sexism in nail polish and sequins as they are of being gentle and emotionally available in denim dungarees and steel cap boots. The problem is the wife beating, homophobic slur hurling and endless pissing matches, not the outfits men wear when they do these things.