What Is Toxic Masculinity?

You may have bumped into the term toxic masculinity during your travels around the internet. It usually shows up in connection with particularly abusive male behavior, but what does it really mean? In this episode we take a closer look at the term using Biff from Back To The Future as our example.

If you’d like to see more videos tackling sociological topics related to media and manhood, hop on over to my Patreon page and help fund the Pop Culture Detective Agency.

• How Toxic Masculinity Feeds Rape Culture
Toxic Masculinity and Murder
6 Harmful Effects Of Toxic Masculinity
• Toxic Masculinity on Geek Feminism Wikia

• The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks
• The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy by Allan G Johnson

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Below is a full transcript of the embedded video.


During your travels around the internet, you may have bumped into the term “toxic masculinity.” It usually shows up in connection with particularly abusive male behavior– so, things like harassment, homophobia, sexism, or violent outbursts. But what does it really mean? Well let’s find out.

Now, since there tends to be so much confusion and defensiveness surrounding these two words, I think we might need to start off with a really clear example. You know, something that we can all agree on. Okay, yeah, but honestly I think he needs his own video so maybe something else would

[Clip from Back to the Future]
Biff: What do you think you’re doing?!

— ok, that’s gonna work. This charming fellow is Biff from the Back to the Future series.

[Clips of Back to the Future series]
Biff: Hello, hello, anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly, think!

Ok, so let’s start with the word masculinity itself. Very broadly speaking, masculinity is a set of behaviors and practices that have traditionally been associated with men and manhood in our culture. And that includes both positive and negative things.

“Toxic masculinity,” on the other hand,  is a loose term that’s used to refer to a subset of those behaviors which are harmful or destructive. It’s often used as a sort of shorthand to describe behaviors linked to domination, humiliation, and control.

It’s marked by things like emotional detachment and hyper-competitiveness —

[Clip from Back to the Future II]
Lorraine: Look Biff, somebody already asked me to the dance.
Biff: Who? That bug George McFly?
Lorraine: I’m going with Calvin Klein, ok?
Biff: Calvin Klein? No, it’s not okay. You’re going with me. Understand?
Lorraine: Get your cooties off of me!
Biff: When are you gonna get it through your thick skull, Lorraine? You’re my girl.

It’s also connected to the sexual objectification of women, as well as other predatory sexual behaviors.

[Clip from Back to the Future]
Biff: You know you want me to give it to you.
Lorraine: Shut your filthy mouth. I’m not that kind of girl!
Biff: Well maybe you are, and you just don’t know it yet.

It’s also linked very closely with aggression, intimidation and violence.

[Clip from Back to the Future II]
Biff: Do you wanna take a poke at me?
Lorraine: Damn it, Biff!

The modifier “toxic” is used to highlight the fact that these kinds of behaviors carry with them some potentially serious and even deadly consequences.  

Much of this type of masculinity is relational, and as such, it is mostly defined in opposition to anything culturally associated with women. Which is why toxic masculinity is driven by this overwhelming fear of emasculation, that is to say the fear of being perceived by others as “feminine” and therefore “unmanly.”

Many of the most popular male heroes in movies are depicted as engaging in at least a few of these toxic behaviors.

[Clip from Goldfinger]
James Bond: There, now let’s both play.

But because they’re the good guys, their actions are framed as admirable displays of strength, power, and manhood.

[Clip from Goldfinger]
James: Dink, meet Felix Leiter.
Dink: Hello.
James: Felix, say hello to Dink.
Felix: Hi, Dink.
James: Dink, say goodbye to Felix.
Dink: Huh?
James: Man talk.

[Clip from Back to the Future]
Jennifer: It’s like Doc’s always saying–
Marty: Yeah, yeah, I know: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

And even when those behaviors are not celebrated, it’s often framed as acceptable or normal and then excused as just “guys being guys” or “boys being boys.”

Just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, I want to make something absolutely clear. This term is not a condemnation of men or manhood. Because again “toxic masculinity” only refers to a particular set of harmful actions and cultural practices. And none of those behaviors are inherent or biological traits of men.

There is nothing toxic about just being a man, but some men do act in toxic ways. So in other words “toxic masculinity” is not something that men ARE, but rather it’s something that some men DO.

Alright. So, let’s return to our friend Biff here. Now Biff is an obvious buffoon. I mean, he’s a schoolyard bully. He’s like a cartoon villain. His actions are easy to spot and understand as damaging, because really toxic masculinity is what defines him as a character.

[Clip from Back to the Future II]
Biff: You heard him, girls. Party’s over.

At every point in Back to the Future there might as well be a giant neon sign hanging over Biff’s head that says, “Hey, this is the bad guy.” So that’s really easy, but things are rarely so clear cut.

In the real world all kinds of men can participate in toxic masculinity. Including seemingly normal guys who might also be nerdy or charming or witty or intelligent.

Since toxic masculinity is a set of behaviors, and not a biological trait, the real men who participate are not really one dimensional character archetypes like Biff.  And they usually don’t do all of the things on the list. — Okay, well, sometimes they do, but usually that’s not the case.

There is a mistaken impression out there that “toxic masculinity” means that everything about masculinity is somehow toxic. But that is not the case.

In fact, the term “toxic masculinity” is used very deliberately to try to differentiate the more damaging or destructive male behaviors from more positive male behaviors. When it comes to this term, it’s really important to understand that it’s used to reinforce the fact that there are many types and formulations of masculinity, or as RW Connell puts it, different masculinities.

And since there are many ways to practice masculinity, we as men, can choose not to engage in the more toxic behaviors, and instead choose to pursue more positive, empathetic, and cooperative forms of masculinity.

Now we only just scratched the surface here, but I’ll leave some links and resources in the box below if you want to learn more. I hope this video did give you a better understanding of this term and maybe help clear up some of the misunderstandings about it. If you’d like to see more videos related to media and manhood, just hop on over to my Patreon page and help fund the Pop Culture Detective Agency.

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