“I’m toxic?” “No, you’re toxic!”: Does toxic femininity exist?

toxic femininity
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Recently, I talked with a former male student of mine who had been hearing and reading more about “toxic masculinity”: what it is, how it can be expressed and its implications and consequences.

Related: Two more cis Black women banned from Olympics for their natural testosterone levels

“Toxic masculinity” has been defined as an extreme form of masculinity regarded as doing harm to society and to males themselves. Examples include forms of misogyny, sexual assault, bullying, domestic and other forms of violence.

“Is there such a thing as ‘toxic femininity’?” my friend asked. His question intrigued me with its potential to bring up many other questions. I gave him my point of view, asked if I had his permission to write an editorial on this topic — he agreed — and I then contacted some colleagues and several current and former students in my social justice education courses.

All respondents define themselves as female and are, except one, current undergraduate and graduate students in several academic disciplines. I included their replies in their own words below with nearly no edits.

My Response: “Toxic femininity” might be like “reverse racism”

“Toxic femininity” is as much of a misnomer as is “reverse racism,” which cannot exist when we follow the simple equation that defines “oppression.”

Oppression (O) = Prejudice (P) + Social Power (SP) to enact that prejudice on all levels of Personal/Interpersonal, Institutional, and Societal.

While women and people of color may have prejudice toward males or white people and can discriminate against them on the individual/interpersonal level, they simply do not have the social power necessary to enact largescale discrimination on the institutional and greater societal levels.

What may seem like “toxic femininity,” then, is actually a reproduction of “toxic masculinity” but manifested by females.

On the other hand, some people who do not see the transformational and counter-hegemonic potential in female impersonation and drag could interpret those as forms of “toxic femininity” and oppressive to women and girls by reinforcing the most extreme expressions of gender.

Societal gender roles are handed down to us through culture and language

Gender roles (sometimes called sex roles) include the set of socially defined roles and behaviors assigned to the sex we are assigned at birth. This usually varies from culture to culture.

Our society recognizes basically two distinct gender roles. One is “masculine,” having qualities and characteristics attributed to males. The other is “feminine,” having qualities and characteristics attributed to females.

A third gender role, rarely condoned in our society, at least for those assigned “male” at birth, is “androgyny” combining assumed male (andro) and female (gyne) qualities.

Many people are contesting the gender binary and are understanding it as a false social construction, and they are defining themselves in several alternate ways, for example, as “gender non-binary,” “gender fluid,” “agender,” and others.

According to social theorist Judith Butler in her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, “Gender” is constructed as a verb (a repeated action).

“The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act, which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again,” she wrote.

For example, “The doctor who receives the child and pronounces, ‘It’s a girl’ beginning the long string of interpolations by which the girl is transitively girled.

For Butler, “There is no gender identity behind the expression of gender.” That is, one’s identity and expression can differ — one doesn’t necessarily dictate the other.

Some languages also gender nouns. In French, for example, “desk,” le bureau, is masculine – males study and work at desks, while “table,” la table, is feminine – females set and clean tables.

In American Sign Language, all “male” signs are presented near or at the forehead (thinking) while all “female” signs are presented near or at the chin or mouth (talking). These suggest the behaviors and mindsets of gender as much as French and other gendered nouns do.

“Is there such a thing as ‘toxic femininity’? If so, how is it expressed, and what are the implications and consequences?”

Female Colleague U.S. Educator:

 I’m toxic? No, you’re toxic! It is an interesting idea and I did a little reading about it.

Personally, I feel as regulated in my behavior by societal expectations of how women are supposed to act. And that expectation is imposed on me by both women and men. Maybe TM (toxic masculinity) and TF (toxic femininity) are just two sides of the same coin.

I just went to play pickleball with a group of beginners. A friend of mine is the instructor. I was younger than the other three women in the group. There was also a man who was younger than me.

I love most sports. I would say that I’m athletic, but not very athletic.

Whenever I am in this kind of situation, I feel a bit uncomfortable because I always feel like I have to perform in a way that is dictated by some unspoken rules of feminine behavior: don’t be too competitive, aggressive, and be super nice — nicer than I really want to be, and I don’t think there is any expectation of this “niceness” with men.

I don’t know if I can describe it well enough, but it isn’t about being nice — which I hope I am — but instead about being super nice.

There are other rules, too. One that has been particularly hard for me: Don’t be too funny! I might need therapy! I never like going out with a big group of women — I tend to find the imposed rules difficult. Ugh.

Female U.S. Graduate Student 1:

I believe that toxic femininity does not exist. Toxic masculinity upholds various forms of oppression.  As a group, women are oppressed by the patriarchy. Arguing that toxic femininity exists is like arguing that white people can be on the receiving end of racism. You cannot be oppressed if you are in the dominant group. Men cannot be oppressed by women.

Female International Graduate Student 1:

A Women’s Studies professor at [my undergraduate university] once told me that there were two kinds of successful women in the world: [The first kind are] those who fought and clawed and made their way to the top, and held the door open for other women to not suffer & enter with ease after them.

And those who fought and clawed and made their way to the top, and slammed the door after them, ensuring that every woman after would have the same challenges (if not worse). To me, that is toxic femininity.

However, toxic femininity, I would agree is a product of toxic masculinity. A masculinity that is so fragile, so weak, so founded in complete and utter BS —like men are made to be stronger, men are more logical, men have alwaaaaayyyys brought home the bacon — that it must protect itself at all costs.

And it does so by convincing women that if they succeed it is because they alone have done it (when we all need a little help whether from friends, networking, privilege, etc.).

Toxic masculinity is SO toxic, in order to survive we must think these men are not the problem, but the MEAN GIRLS are, the women who tear us down. But if “behind every successful man is a woman,” behind every woman who is bitter and cruel is a man who told her she must protect what she has “earned,” even if that means she is fighting her sisters, her mother….

I believe toxic femininity has to exist to keep women so entrenched in this deep-seated hatred we have for the prettier girl, the smarter woman, the more successful female partner, to keep our focus off of the men in our lives that are responsible for us thinking this way.

I think of it like this: In Pakistan, there is a lot of secular violence — Shias against Sunnis, Sunnis against everyone else. People are so entrenched in WHO A GOOD MUSLIM IS, and at war with their literal neighbors.

They are not focused on the atrocities other countries commit against their brethren, like drone attacks, justified bombings to hunt out terrorists. How can one be concerned with what happens outside of the borders, when outside of your very home there is a war raging?

How can I be concerned about how men have decided what constitutes a successful woman, a fit woman, a smart woman, when the women in my life, friends, foes and family berate and bully me because I am not their sister, not their friend, at the very crux I am and always will be competition. Toxic femininity at its finest.

But toxic femininity was taught to us by our illustrious white male (heterosexual) peers. The white master and the white savior once again step in to teach us who we are, who we should aspire to be, and what we should look like.

The number of times I have heard female faculty and advisors tell me how awful their own advisors were in the doctoral program has shocked me. I have never heard this from a male professor directly about their advisor (not their committee members). And yet, these same women who have said this, to my knowledge through what my peers have told me, have continued this cycle of abuse on their advisees.

Slamming the door in their faces, reminding us all of how hard they worked, as if helping another woman would take away from this, as if helping another woman would make them any less than what they are, as if another woman’s success takes away from their own and as if we are the problem.

Female U.S. Undergraduate Student 1:

This will be sloppy, for time’s sake, but I couldn’t leave this question unanswered.

Recently, someone I follow on social [media] made this observation: When she recently started speaking out about “emotional labor” (the disproportionate distribution of tasks and planning/prepping/buying etc. that largely falls on women), her audience loved it, shared it, commented on it, etc. When she switched gears to talk about Black women’s struggle, the ongoing theme was, “Let it go, already!”

When a white woman in Central Park encountered Christian Cooper birdwatching, she aggressively grabbed her dog and called the police because he looked threatening?

I grew up believing Monica Lewinski was a “loose” girl who wanted to sleep her way to the top. Do you remember who led the witch hunt against her? Women.

I recently wrote about the scores of women supporting Donald Trump, a known predator. “It’s just locker room talk!” was heard more than once [about his infamous Access Hollywood “grab ’em by the p*ssy” tape ].

When the women marches came and a slew of like-minded women banded together, a Facebook post written by a woman was shared by thousands of women, talking about how good they had it. What was really so wrong with their (white, straight, privileged) lives anyway? I wrote, “Your experience is not the experience. How many women live as we do?” to a less than receptive audience.

Don’t get me started on [Republican Georgia Representative] Marjorie Greene. Of all the disillusioning things I’ve seen over the past five years, the willful, intentional, bombastic, ignorance of women has been, perhaps, the most heartbreaking. That is saying something.

Female U.S. Graduate Student 2:

I think there are a lot of perspectives to approach this question from, but one idea in particular, related similarly to how toxic masculinity involves emotional suppression, comes to mind for me.

I do want to note also, however, that I feel the implications are significantly different, given the power dynamics in our society and the connection between toxic masculinity and physical violence towards women.

That being said, I do believe the socialized expectations that women be caring, nurturing and submissive can be quite toxic. From a young age, women are socialized into deferential behaviors and ideas that they should be supporting the needs of others. This can often lead to women putting the needs of others above their own and people expecting women to do so.

From this, women internalize behaviors to neglect their own needs, desires, voices and sometimes even safety in order to meet the wants of others, which can potentially lead to mental and physical harm.

This can manifest in so many different ways, such as women not advocating for themselves in relationships or at work, refusing to show characteristics of authority and shaming other women for doing so, suppressing their feelings of anger or other “non-submissive” behaviors, not leaving abusive relationships and, instead, trying to care for or “fix” their abusers, and more.

This cycle of deference and nurturing is closely tied to the ideas that women not only must be married and mothers but must take on the bulk of the caretaking roles in those relationships. The toxicity further appears in the rhetoric that there is something inherently “wrong” with women who do not get married, have children or participate in monogamous dating with cis men.

This toxicity also causes harm to non-binary and gender-fluid folks too, as they are also often expected to conform to these behaviors and societally harmed for not. This is probably a bit of an oversimplification of a more complex phenomenon, but I hope it helps as somewhat of a starting point!

Female U.S. Graduate Student 3:

I feel that toxic femininity cannot exist. If toxic masculinity is a set of behaviors by the dominant group employed to oppress the subordinate one, then, the non-dominant group cannot oppress the oppressor. Just as reverse racism cannot exist because Black people are, as a group, not in a position to oppress white people.

And while I don’t think that toxic femininity is possible, I do think that femininity can be interpreted in unhealthy ways to exploit the stereotypical subordinate qualities of women. But these qualities are most often exploited by men who hold institutional power over female agency.

To me, this is seen in the laws against safe abortion access, less pay for equal work, expectations around childcare and other “domestic” needs, blaming the victim of sexual assault for her dress or behavior, and I could go on.

It is not female-identifying people who exploit their femininity to hold men down; rather, men who use their power to maintain dominance over women. If there is a toxic femininity, it’s because femininity has been poisoned by masculine expectations and power.

Female U.S. Graduate Student 4:

While I have never heard the term “toxic femininity” before, I feel very comfortable acknowledging its existence. I think toxic femininity would be a socially constructed (of course) brand of femininity that celebrates toxic masculinity.

It’s internalized oppression. It’s the kind of femininity that strives for a youthful appearance and aims to be infantilized and condescended to, because being smaller, meeker and less cognitively developed is “feminine.”

It is the kind of femininity that embraces the toxic idea that women are not, on their own, competent to make their own decisions or lead their own lives because either they lack the emotionally distant, cognitive capacity and/or, if unchaperoned by a man, they can count on being victimized by predatory men who are stronger, more able, more powerful and more influential than they are.

It’s the kind of femininity that expects and celebrates notions of “gentlemanly behavior” — which I prefer calling “benevolent sexism” — that insists that men do things for women when they are perfectly capable of these things themselves (opening doors, pulling out chairs, paying the bill, etc.).

It’s the kind of femininity that says women cannot keep calm when they see insects, snakes, mice, or other aberrations of nature. (Insert eyeroll.)

Little girls learn ridiculously dramatic reactions to these animals, and there is always a glimmer of understanding that this is a “girl thing” and that they’re playing along. This is also the kind of femininity that values maternal behavior and maternal longing as the only truly feminine virtue. This inevitably makes a woman’s attempt to control her own sexuality and reproductive organs monstrously unfeminine, because she’s disavowing her “place” in the social order.

For more than a decade, I have been experimenting with holding doors for white men that I don’t know in order to see how they squirm, turn red and sometimes outright refuse. They just don’t know what to do about it. Part of them clearly feels that they are shirking their gentlemanly responsibility to provide for women.

Undeniably though, it’s clear that there is also an acknowledgment in their reaction that my holding the door for them — that my granting them access to any room — is dominant, and that is deeply, deeply unsettling for them. And hilarious for me. It’s just hilarious.

Before I sound too much like I want to humiliate men, I don’t. As a mother of two children who were assigned male at birth, I am also deeply concerned about how this toxic femininity is detrimental to men. After all, if I cannot acknowledge the damaging impacts of male oppression simply because of our shared humanity, I acknowledge these impacts because men are my husband, my father, my brothers, etc.

Okay, that was tongue-in-cheek. But honestly, women yielding these oppressive ideas of what it means to be feminine only reinforce the toxic masculinity that I desperately want to help my own children and students avoid.

It’s the other side of the coin that says that men cannot have emotions, that men cannot express themselves openly and honestly, and — among so many other things — that men must fall victim to the “hero” complex if he’s any sort of man at all.

In many ways, stereotypes based on the gender binary are dehumanizing us all — masculine, feminine, both, neither, and in-between; heterosexual and queer; cisgender, agender, gender-fluid and trans. Toxic masculinity and toxic femininity enable each other, and they hurt us all, whether we’re aware of it or not.

The Truman Show
A scene from “The Truman Show”

“The Truman Show” as Analogy

This all conjures up images of the Hollywood movie The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey in the lead role as Truman Burbank. The film documents a man who for most of his life remains unaware that he lives within a human-made artificial set of a reality television show, broadcast 24 hours a day to billions of people around the world.

The show’s executive producer and director, Christof, placed Truman at birth in the fictitious town of Seahaven and manipulates every aspect of his life. (I will leave it up to you to analyze why the director of this farce has been given the name “Christof.”)

To dissuade Truman from exploring past the limits of the constructed set, Christof pretends to kill Truman’s father in a fabricated storm to teach him to fear the water. In addition, actors playing the part of TV news reporters warn of the dangers of travel and promote the benefits of staying home.

However —stemming from some unforeseen glitches in the scenery and unexplained and habitual coincidences in the placement of the actors around him — Truman becomes suspicious until he discovers the truth about the artificiality, manipulation, and control that Christof has perpetrated on him for the past 30 years. Truman eventually outwits Christof and escapes the fabricated set into the warmth and brightness of a true sun, and the coolness and wetness of natural rain.

Society, with its actors, serve as an extreme and fanatical example of a director in the larger coercive societal battalions bent on destroying all signs of gender transgressions in young and old alike, and in the maintenance of gender scripts.

Most of us function as conscious and unconscious co-directors in this drama each time we enforce gender-role conformity in others, and each time we relegate our critical consciousness by failing to rewrite or destroy the scripts in ways that operate integrally to us.

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