Decades of research support the notion that “toxic masculinity” — teaching men to bottle their emotions, get laid as often as possible and pursue power at any cost — takes a physical and mental toll on them. But what about the female counterpart? Can’t women be toxic too? And what would we call that?
“Toxic femininity” seems like the obvious choice. It’s a newish phrase usually bandied about in response to “toxic masculinity,” as if to say, “Hey, not all men — and besides, women are capable of equally monstrous behavior.”
I mean, what else would you call a woman who looks out only for herself and doesn’t help her female peers, like the coworker who talks shit about you to your boss behind your back? Or the women in power who perpetuate the abuses of the patriarchy, like White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a mother herself, coldly defending Trump’s ghastly policy to separate children from their families?
But gender scholar Lisa Wade explains that “toxic femininity” isn’t quite right. Instead, we should call this behavior “doing masculinity.” It’s an important distinction. “Women are encouraged to adopt masculine traits and go into masculine forms of leisure,” Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College and author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, says by phone. “We have a whole generation of women who have been taught that doing masculinity is good — it makes you better, more valuable, cooler, more powerful. So when women ‘do masculinity,’ they’re presenting the same masculine orientation to the world that men are pushed to do.”
The ‘Toxic Femininity’ Myth
Earlier this year, the New Yorker ran a humor piece called “Examples of Toxic Femininity in the Workplace.” In it, Ginny Hogan satirizes the idea that women can be toxic. Her examples are all scenarios where women are so democratic, respectful and power-averse that meetings end early because no one interrupts, and the cleaning crew has nothing to do because under women’s watch, “Everyone pushes his or her chair in at the end of the day.”
The Good Men Project describes toxic femininity as “spite, jealousy, passive-aggressiveness or clingy behavior.” Writing on Medium, Cleopatra Jones argues it’s how white women have exercised violence “in sneakier ways than the more overt violent tactics that are used by men, via passive aggression.” On Twitter, others use the term to describe similar instances where women are shitty in distinctly female ways:
Wade, however, says these examples aren’t femininity gone toxic. Not only that, but scholars don’t use the term “toxic femininity” at all.
Why ‘Doing Masculinity’ Makes Perfect Sense
Women can be shitty, of course, and individual women can advance themselves over other groups of women. It’s just that when they do, it’s either them imitating male power, or using so-called feminine wiles, which also doesn’t qualify as toxic, either.
“We call that ‘weapons of the weak,’” Wade says. “When you don’t have power, how do you exert power? Femininity overlaps with the ways all other people in positions of lower power behave. … So anyone in a position of having to negotiate low status in a relationship is going to do it in ways that are more manipulative, because you can’t just throw your weight around. You’re not accorded that privilege.”
This, Wade explains, is why women may be more likely to use what you might think of as soft power — backchanneling or manipulation. Wade says we should think of typical feminine conduct as no different from how anyone might typically behave when interviewing for a job: dress nicely, be proper, sit neatly, contain their bodies and not be overly dominant in a conversation. “From a cadet in the military, compared to his boss, who can be more brash, more comfortable, throw his weight around, touch more, take up more space, whoever is in a lower position of a power can do that much less,” Wade says.
Wade says the problem with calling such behaviors “toxic femininity”—and what’s potentially dangerous about it—is that it “defangs the observations being made about toxic masculinity, trying to neutralize it. It suggests that power has nothing to do with this, but that’s of course wrong. The thing to keep an eye on is how people in different positions of power, regardless of the axis of man-woman, employer-employee or officer-cadet, act when they’re low in power. A lot of the men who exhibit toxic masculinity are also low in power. Patriarchy puts men in a hierarchy all their own.”
So the next time a woman steals your idea at work, turns your colleagues against you or rats you out to the boss, call her what she is: a shitty dude.