How To Challenge Toxic Masculinity As A Writer

Toxic masculinity is a set of ideals about how men should be and act that makes life worse for everybody. As writers, we can challenge and criticize these ideas in our stories, so this article is going to explore how we can do that. (And for any men reading this article - don't worry, it doesn't involve hating or demonizing men!) Also, special thanks to the men and masculine-presenting enbies who've given me their insight on the topic!

Table of Contents

So what is toxic masculinity, exactly?

What we describe as toxic masculinity isn't just a bunch of harmful behaviors perpetrated by men. Rather, it's a collection of expectations and behaviors that are perpetuated by certain cultural ideals of what a "real man" should be like and what men can expect from women. Here's the gist of it:

Those perceived as men - particularly if white - are more or less taught to see themselves as the pinnacle of creation and the center of the universe while simultaneously loathing themselves for failing to meet a myriad of unrealistic standards.

To be a "man," supposedly, is to be tall, fit, wealthy, and working, and to be married and procreating. He is to be bold and confident. He is to have total mastery over his emotions, to the point where you'd never know he has any at all, except for the occasional bout of righteous anger. Furthermore, he ought to have taught himself how to do and gain all of this on his own. The less help he needs from other people, the manlier he supposedly is.

He is also expected to be a being of pure reason and intellect, and to be tirelessly perseverant in his goals and duties. Physical desires are to be ignored and repressed in the pursuit of his noble goals, emotions are to be quenched.

He is supposed to be master and commander of his domain; to be anything but is unforgivable weakness. He is not allowed to decide it's fine if things are outside of his control, but instead, he must rise and conquer them and bring them all to heel.

At the same time he is expected to endure relentless abuses from his boss and workplace in general, and thereby "earn" the right to become the boss himself one day. No matter how cruelly or callously he's treated, he's supposed to suck it up and subject himself to it day after day. His only alternative is to simply leave and start his own venture, where by default he'll have the right to abuse whoever works for him. Of course, leaving and starting one's own venture is rarely feasible for most men, and this perceived right to abuse others simply because you've put yourself in charge or something helps nothing.

When he is physically and emotionally exhausted from these impossible demands, he is supposed to turn to his wife for support, even though she's no better off. Because she, too, is slowly destroying herself by trying to live up to equally impossible expectations. She's supposed to manage the house and raise the children, and thereby feel thoroughly accomplished and fulfilled. Despite household management being neither easy nor emotionally rewarding, she is supposed to feel ashamed of herself if she fails to be perfect at it or fails to find it a fulfilling experience.

Like the man, the woman is promised that if she endures abuse without complaint, she will be rewarded. The beast she married will turn into a prince if she simply loves him long and hard enough. Her exhausting and repetitive domestic life will supposedly feel rich and rewarding once she comes to accept that it's her natural place in the world. One day, she is told, she will look back on her life and realize it was all worth it.

She is expected to be an endless fountain of love, support, and gratitude while never expecting any of the same in return. She is supposed to be content with the house and gifts her husband provides for her, and to receive her emotional fulfillment from her husband and children's success.

Should her husband or children fail in any way, she will be accused of being cold, selfish, or irresponsible.

She is also expected to be the virginal sex goddess; she is to have no desire but for her husband, and she is supposed to remain ever desirable for him. Should he stray, she is blamed for being unavailable or for letting herself go. Should she stray, she is treated as a selfish monster.

As for the man, if he fails to live up to the standards he's expected to meet, his proverbial man card will be revoked. He'll be branded weak, girly, etc., and subjected to the disdain and scorn of his peers. Regaining his status as a man requires him to perform toxic masculinity to their satisfaction. In addition to this, men are expected to compete for the coveted position of "alpha male." One way to stay ahead in this game is for the current "alpha" to continually raise the goals higher and higher, forcing men to go to commit increasingly extreme behavior just to keep their social standing as-is.

It's a rigged system, of course. The only people who can "win" are a few lucky individuals here and there, most of them white men born into families who are already relatively affluent. Yet people keep playing because they are promised that they can win if they just keep trying hard enough, or because they're told that they're only failing because somebody else is cheating.

The only way to win this game is to refuse to play: to recognize that these standards are not realistic and sustainable; to recognize that there's nothing wrong with us for failing, but rather that the problem lies with the game for trying to hold us to impossible and self-destructive standards.

We must stop trying to prove who has it worse in this system, because it quite frankly doesn't really matter. It's hurting us all, and we're all miserable. Every moment we spend arguing over who has it worse is a moment we could be spending on finding solutions and moving forward to a happier life for everyone.

So what can we do about it as writers?

Show that dismantling and escaping toxic masculinity doesn't mean hating men or hating oneself for being a man. This is a misconception that far too many people fall into. But the idea isn't supposed to be about hating men or hating oneself for being a man; it's supposed to be about recognizing that men are being held to absurd standards and are taught to behave in ways that harm themselves and others, and finding alternatives that don't cause harm or nurture self-hate.

Write in a way that reflects the true nature of humanity. While there might be a few traits that men are more likely to express than women and vice-versa, there are none that are exclusive to any gender. It's not a personal failure to fall outside of the bell curve; it's simply how we are as a species.

Toxic masculinity holds that people must be carefully groomed into their "natural" social roles or else they'll fall into "unnatural" behavior patterns that run the risk of destroying society. The kind of toys they're allowed to play with, the interests they're encouraged to have, the role models they're shown, and how other people react and respond to their opinions and behavior sets very clear expectations of how they "ought" to be and how they should be ashamed of themselves if they aren't. But the fact that such conditioning is necessary in the first place is proof that these roles aren't natural. If they were, it simply wouldn't be necessary.

You might write a world that understands and accepts this reality. But it could also mean writing a world where most people don't, and exploring the conflict and suffering that results from it. Mad Men is a good example of this. Every season is a thoughtful, nuanced criticism of toxic masculinity. We are shown (not told, because Mad Men doesn't assume its viewers are unintelligent) how trying to live up to the standards of toxic masculinity makes us all miserable, and that we'll never truly be happy and alive until we let them go. Those of us who can't let go of these ideals are doomed to live a life of bitterness and disappointment until it kills us from the inside.

Watch out for some common mistakes in trying to write "empowered" female characters. First and foremost among these mistakes is trying to "empower" a female character by making her act like a man under toxic masculinity; EG, stoic and capable of physical combat. While there's nothing wrong with writing a female character who has both of these traits, this should not be treated as the ideal model of an empowered woman, let alone an empowered human being. Being sensitive and emotional should never be treated as weakness in anyone, period.

Don't depict stereotypically "feminine" interests and hobbies as symptomatic of weakness or of being shallow or unintelligent. Don't frame a female character as being better or stronger than other girls or women because she's not interested in clothes, parties, etc. has got to go. Don't use an interest in parties, fashion, etc. to signal that a character is shallow or self-absorbed. It should be fine for anyone to be interested in these things, and find for them not to be. (For the record, some of the sweetest, nicest people I've ever met loved fashion and parties, while many of the most petty and self-absorbed ones had more "intellectual" interests.)

Don't demonize stereotypically "masculine" things or use them to signal that a character is corrupt or irrational. For example, don't depict it as fine to shame or punish a character for trying to use physical force against a deadly enemy when all other available options have failed. Don't try to signal that a female character is bad, evil, or even insane by giving her a male-coded wardrobe or by giving her stereotypically "masculine" characteristics such as tallness, bulky muscle, or an interest in weapons or combat. Don't just mindlessly accuse things of being bad or wrong simply because they're typically associated with men. If you are going to criticize things associated with men that might be bad, do it in a thoughtful manner that doesn't demonize men as a whole.

Don't frame violence as intrinsically desirable or necessary. There's nothing inherently wrong with depicting violence. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with writing protagonists who fight. However, there is a problem with depicting violence as something that's intrinsically desirable or necessary in some way. This can include failing to depict scenarios where combat isn't the best or only solution, framing combat skill as something that increases one's objective worth or value as a person, or framing non-violent solutions as weak, ineffectual, or tedious.

This also includes framing revenge as something that's glorious and sweet, or at the very least a necessary step in moving forward from trauma. In reality, the best way to heal and move on is to take the time to process and talk about your feelings, connect with friends and family for general support, and to focus on what makes you feel happy and fulfilled as a person. Revenge might sound sweet, but it's pretty likely to just give you a quick emotional high followed by a massive mood crash because all the effort you put into it does nothing to address the real reasons you're unhappy with life.

Put more thought into themes of self-sacrifice. Toxic masculinity romanticizes men dying for things, which creates some major problems. First, it makes other men feel justified in sending them to die for things, or at the very least work in extremely hazardous conditions. Secondly, it makes men feel like the very act of dying for something is intrinsically noble, even if the sacrifice didn't actually accomplish all that much or there was actually a way to get things done without personal sacrifice. Third, it promotes and reinforces the idea that men are cowardly for simply wanting to live and see their loved ones again. And finally, it promotes and reinforces the idea that death is somehow redemptive, which itself can make men who feel like they're never good enough feel like the only thing they can do to make things better is to kill themselves.

This isn't to say that self-sacrifice is intrinsically bad, but rather that the subject should be handled with more care and thoughtfulness. Don't romanticize self-sacrifice for its own sake, and consider criticizing the idea that men should be expected to die or put themselves into mortal peril because that's just what real men do. And don't treat self-sacrifice as the only way for someone who's seriously messed up to redeem themselves - that's a nasty message to send to depressed, self-loathing men.

Acknowledge and show that the right way to treat a woman is how she, personally, wants to be treated. A lot of men were led to think that there's one single right way to treat women, which usually involves ideals of "chivalry" that many consider to be outdated and sexist. When scores of women are inevitably unimpressed by their perfomance of so-called "chivalry," they assume there's something wrong with the woman instead of how they've been taught to treat women. In reality, women have all kinds of individual preferences as to how they'd like to be treated, and if she doesn't like the whole "chivalry" gig it doesn't mean she's been brainwashed by a sinister agenda. It just means that she's not into the chivalry gig, and any guy who wants her needs to find out and resepect what she does like instead. (Also, you might want to take a look at A Few Things Guys Need To Know About Writing Straight Romances.)

Diversify your male characters. Take a look at "heroic" make characters. Notice how most of them have most of the following characteristics: tall, thin, fit, white, straight, cis, strong-jawed, clean-shaven, full head of hair, neurotypical, more street smart than book smart, with no "feminine" interests or affects to speak of. Notice how male characters who don't have most of these traits tend to end up playing secondary or antagonistic roles to these guys. Shake and scramble things up! Make your male protagonists less idealized and more diverse. Don't use stereotypically "unmanly" traits to mark other characters as sinister, inept, or cowardly, nor reserve marginalized/minority status for male characters meant to be seen as such.

Don't frame it as shameful for men to be strong or talented in stereotypically "feminine" ways. As explored in On Writing Empowered & Empowering Characters article, there are many ways to be strong. Allow some of your male characters to be strong like this without it being framed as weak or demeaning.

Don't do social Darwinism. Toxic masculinity always involves some amount of social Darwinism. This can manifest as the belief that personal value is established by proving oneself stronger, smarter, or more dominant. It can also manifest as the belief that you owe nothing to peers, subordinates, or random people on the street and if anything bad happens to them, they need to suck it up instead of expecting help or compassion from anyone else. This should not be framed as an ideal way to live - instead, it should be acknowledged as a justification for predatory behavior that harms people by alienating them from each other and by forcing them to compete with and harm each other for everything from basic respect to basic necessities.

Challenge authoritarianism. Toxic masculinity is predicated on the idea that society must be ordered into an authoritarian hierarchy to function, and that with very few exceptions, those in positions of power and authority should be trusted and obeyed without question. Authoritarianism teaches that leaders typically know what's best and that we should trust and follow them to the end - even at the expense of our health or our lives. It teaches that if they seem irrational or inconsistent, we should assume they actually have a brilliant plan that's just too subtle or complicated for us to see. You can challenge authoritarianism by showing that people in charge are not intrinsically smarter or more deserving of respect than anyone else, if for no other reason than they're flawed human beings like everyone else, or by showing how power corrupts people, or by showing how putting people at the top of a hierarchical system for any length of time will make them unable to perceive the people they're supposed to lead as truly human because they're so far removed from them and their concerns that they can only visualize them in the abstract.

Challenge elitism. Elitism is the notion that some people or groups are inherently better than others in some way, such as being naturally smarter, stronger, nobler, more spiritual, etc. It also holds that because of this, members of this group deserve more privilege, power, and sympathy than others. And elitism holds that no other groups can compete - aside from a few rare exceptions, they're always going to come in second place at best. How To Avoid Elitist Overtones In Your Fiction has some useful tips.

Show that people aren't broken or some kind of failures just because they haven't gained the achievements somebody told them they "should" have. Failing to live up to somebody else's standards doesn't make one an objective failure; all it means is that one didn't live to somebody else's standards. The real questions are, are these standards worth living up to? Are they even feasible or healthy? Why should we feel bad about failing to thrive in a system that values profit above compassion, conformity over kindness, and brand loyalty and hero worship above community?

Challenge the idea that fear and shame should be used to control people. Toxic masculinity typically uses fear and shame to control people's behavior. But we know that shame and fear harm people without promoting long-term personal growth. A study found that those who experience fat shaming tend to gain weight, rather than lose it, and were more susceptible to depression. A New South Wales parliamentary report found that shaming does not prevent recidivism in juvenile offenders. And shaming people for using drugs harms, rather than helps. We also know that simply incarcerating criminals doesn't to much to stop recidivism - only rehabilitation does. We know that spanking leads to aggressive behavior and mental illness, and that there are better ways to teach children self-control.

Show that it's okay for men to be vulnerable and open about their emotions, especially with other men. Even if they have to overcome a social stigma against it! Toxic masculinity holds that men are weak for having emotions, let alone talking about them or offering each other emotional support. Show that there should be no shame in being open about their feelings and giving each other support.

Don't treat manhood as if it's something that must be earned or something that can be revoked. Gatekeeping manhood from men is used to shame and punish men who don't uphold the standards of toxic masculinity. So, we should avoid promoting this idea. This can include not idealizing the notion of males needing to overcome dangerous challenges and put themselves in harm's way to prove themselves as "real" men, not insulting men who fail to meet the standards of toxic masculinity by referring to them as girlish, ladies, etc., and by not telling males to "man up" or "start acting like a real man." Manhood should never need to be earned, nor should it ever be revocable.

You might also be interested in:

Framing: What It Is And How To Use It
Representation: Why It Matters, & How To Do It Well
Factors That Contribute To Abusive & Dysfunctional Systems/Institutions
Harmful Myths YA Fiction Could Stand To Counter
Ways Female Characters Are (Still) Badly Written
How To Redeem A Villain

MensLib Reddit (Offsite)
It's All Right to Cry - Men's mental health and what we can all do to help (Offsite)
"I'm Not Like Other Girls" (Offsite)

Back to Responsible & Socially-Conscious Writing
Go to a random page!