Is Toxic Masculinity Real?
The Monstrous Crew
Today we’ll be defining toxic masculinity, debating the concepts it was invented to describe, and asking whether the term and the reasoning behind it are useful for Christians.
I once watched a video that moved me to tears. It was directed towards men, lifting them up and thanking them. Shot and scored to seem supportive and inspirational, it proclaimed, “We believe in the best in men” as it graciously encouraged them to continue the good work in standing up against bullying and harassment, and setting a good example for young boys, the men of the future.
There was only one problem with the video. Near the start, it used the words “toxic masculinity.” And social media erupted in a furore. The internet blossomed out into thinkpieces. People genuinely watched this video and came away feeling matronised at best and at worst, made to feel guilty just for being born with a Y chromosome.
The only explanation I can think of for the viral infamy of the Gillette ad, is that for many people “toxic masculinity” is a trigger phrase so strong as to drown out literally everything else. For many, especially conservatives and/or Christians, “toxic masculinity” is a weapon invented by feminists to discredit all manhood. Yet that, quite clearly, was not what the Gillette ad was intended to do. Taken on its own terms, it was intended to be inspiring, encouraging, and supportive of masculinity. So what went wrong? I mean, let’s recap here: you have a multimillion dollar corporation producing a major video ad aimed, or ostensibly aimed, at men, and it uses a two-word phrase that results in thousands declaring a boycott on their products. I mean, it’s kind of unlikely that the Gillette board members got together and said, “Hey, how can we insult half the human race?” It’s a lot more likely that they very cynically sat down to create something that was going to be wildly controversial, or that the ad is not in fact aimed at men but at women, who, let’s face it, are always going to prefer to shave their legs with products that aren’t cool with sexual harassment. But, the fact remains that even if this was a cynical shock-jock gambit, the ad still needed plausible deniability. After all, the vast majority of women, even the vast majority of women who prefer not to be sexually harassed, love and respect and would never want to belittle the men in their lives. Even if it briefly used some controversial language – good gravy, I can’t believe “me too” is controversial but there ya go, welcome to 2019 – even if the terms it used were open to misunderstanding, the ad still needed to be by and large genuinely supportive of men. For this gambit to work at all, “toxic masculinity” needs plausibly to mean something other than “all men are garbage and the world would be better off without them.”
And that’s what we’re going to talk about in this episode. Welcome back to the Monstrous Regiment. I’m Suzannah Rowntree, and today we’ll be defining toxic masculinity, debating the concepts it was invented to describe, and asking whether the term and the reasoning behind it are useful for Christians.
Defining Toxic Masculinity
So…what is the definition of toxic masculinity?
One trap I think a lot of people fall into when it comes to defining this and similar terms is to say, 1) don’t use this term, it’s their term, it’s a worldly term, and 2) this is what it means, don’t listen to how they define it. Well, you can’t have it both ways. If it’s their term, they get to define it. What I see people doing is defining the term without regard to its actual meaning, and then complaining, when it is used, that it means whatever horrible definition they have themselves imbued it with. That’s toddler behaviour – poking yourself in the eye with a stick and using it as evidence to tattle on your little brother.
Which is not to say that there aren’t some bad definitions of toxic masculinity out there, and in researching this episode I did come across a couple. We’ll be discussing them later, but the vast majority of the definitions I’ve found are actually quite reasonable.
For instance, the first place I went in order to define “toxic masculinity” was Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online resource defining slang words and phrases. Since Urban Dictionary defines terms according to their current cultural usage and is crowdsourced, I thought this might be the quickest and most accurate way to see what the phrase “toxic masculinity” means right now to the largest number of people.
The very first definition is lengthy, but I’m going to read it in full.
Toxic Masculinity: A social science term that describes narrow repressive type of ideas about the male gender role, that defines masculinity as exaggerated masculine traits like being violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth. Also suggests that men who act too emotional or maybe aren’t violent enough or don’t do all of the things that “real men” do, can get their “man card” taken away.
Now, pay attention to this, because it directly contradicts what you may have been told “toxic masculinity” means. Quote:
Many people confuse the difference between Masculinity and toxic Masculinity. However, one can be masculine without having toxic Masculinity.
Some beliefs of toxic masculinity is that:
- interactions between men and women always have to be competitive and not cooperative.
- men can never truly understand women and that men and women can never just be friends.
- That REAL men need to be strong and that showing emotion is a sign of weakness… unless it’s anger, that is considered okay.
- The idea that men can never be victims of abuse and talking about it is shameful.
- The idea that REAL men always want sex and are ready for it at any time.
- The idea that violence is the answer to everything and that REAL men solve their problems through violence.
- The idea that men could never be single parents and that men shouldn’t be very interactive in their children’s learning and development and that men should always be the dominant one in the relationship or else he’s a “Cuck.”
- The idea that any interest in a range of things that are strictly considered feminine would be an emasculation of a guy.
Thus the definition. Although it could definitely be more carefully worded, it’s quite clear that this definition does not view masculinity itself as evil. It’s also clear that this definition is what the Gillette ad had in mind as it encouraged men to stand up to aggressive or sexual bullying and harassment. By this definition, toxic masculinity is NOT masculinity proper, but rather a perversion of it. And for those who accept this definition, this is clear in the terminology used. One says “toxic masculinity” for the very same reason that one says “acid rain”: as a specifier, because most rain is not acid, just as most masculinity is not toxic.
This is just one definition of toxic masculinity, so I decided not to stop my research there. Would other definitions sound similar? Well, see for yourself. In the video essay What is Toxic Masculinity, the Youtube channel Pop Culture Detective says,
Very broadly speaking, masculinity is a set of behaviours 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 behaviours which are harmful or destructive. It’s often used as a sort of shorthand to describe behaviours linked to domination, humiliation, and control. It’s marked by things like emotional detachment and hypercompetitiveness. It’s also connected to the sexual objectification of women as well as other predatory sexual behaviours. It’s also linked very closely with aggression, intimidation, and violence. The modifier “toxic” is used to highlight the fact that these behaviours carry with them some potentially serious and even deadly consequences. Much of this type of masculinity is relational, and as such, it’s 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, the fear of being perceived by others as feminine and therefore unmanly.
Just to make sure there is 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 behaviours are inherent or biological traits of men. There’s 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; rather, it’s something that some men do.
I’m going to quote yet another Youtube video essayist, Lindsay Ellis. In her lengthy discussion of The Complex Feels of Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Ellis states,
I see a lot of confusion over this term, like, people hear the term “toxic masculinity” and they think it just means that being a man is bad…which…*deep, beleaguered sigh*.
Seems like the most common point of contention is not the underlying concept but the term itself, so if you don’t like the term “toxic masculinity”, why don’t you call it, I don’t know… “machismo no bueno”, whatever. For now, “toxic masculinity” is the term we have, so that’s the one I’m going to use. When we talk about toxic masculinity, the simplest way to describe it is “men feeling the need to prove their perceived masculinity through unhealthy means, harmful to others but just as often, harmful to themselves.” These toxic elements are attached to attributes we as a culture tend to attach to masculinity, including but not limited to anger, being the strongest, pwnage, eschewing emotional attachment. Toxic masculinity eschews attributes associated with femininity, things like emotional vulnerability, crying, giving a bleep about other people, and flowers. I say “associated with” because obviously, everybody has all of these things in them. Women get angry, and men like flowers. So the fact that little boys are taught from a very young age that they’re not allowed to cry or that expressing emotion is unmanly, that is a part of toxic masculinity.
Finally, and most concisely of all, Geek Feminism Wiki says, “Toxic masculinity refers to the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.”
I have quoted all these definitions and explanations in order to avoid the trap I mentioned at the outset of this episode, that of defining toxic masculinity without reference to those who use it sincerely. By now I think it should be clear that this is not a pejorative term designed to discredit men. Indeed all the definitions I’ve quoted make it very clear that toxic masculinity is not inborn but learned, or more precisely a subset of learned behaviours. And, since toxic masculinity is rather a culturally expected ritual performance of masculinity than something inborn, biological or inherent, it should go without saying that women, too, can contribute to a culture of toxic masculinity. Mothers as well as fathers can shame their sons for showing vulnerability, or perpetuate unbiblically rigid gender roles when it comes to either masculinity or femininity.
Anyway, I think this distinction between inborn masculinity and culturally expected rituals of masculinity is a very important one. As Christians, we should all agree that our masculinity and femininity is something imparted to us by God’s created design, not something that we slap on top like a last-minute coat of paint. It is true that a faithful Christian man who longs to live in harmony with this created design will likely gravitate towards at least some of the cultural rituals that signify masculinity in his culture, while largely avoiding signifiers of rebellious or confused sexuality. But he will not mistake such cultural expressions for Biblical directives, nor will he fear that culturally designated signifiers of femininity might compromise his sexuality. The meaning of a man dancing around in a see-through shirt varies wildly depending on whether we’re watching a rainbow parade or a Bollywood film. Either way, the Bible is silent on the topic. It nowhere tells us to dress only in the way approved by some internet famous 21st century American pastor.
Where God does give us strict commandments, we must of course obey them: as a woman, if I am to marry anyone it ought to be a man rather than another woman. But that is still a function of my ontological design, not the be-all and end-all of it: I am still a woman and still feminine if I sleep with another woman, and that is the problem, because I was specifically told that a woman should not do that. For that matter, I am still a woman and still feminine if I fail to marry a man and produce babies. For a Christian man or woman, masculinity and femininity is about living in loving harmony with the bodies God gave us, and the idea that we can somehow lose, compromise, or erase our masculinity or femininity through wearing the wrong kinds of clothing, the strength of our emotions or the pitch of our voice has more in common with transgenderism than it does with Biblical doctrine. Taken to the extreme, we find parents afraid to let their little boys play with dolls or bake cupcakes – true story, apparently a Christian women’s podcast recently sanctioned cooking lessons for boys as long as they don’t bake cupcakes – all out of a rather strange fear that our sexual identity depends upon our ritual performance of gender roles. This is nothing less than a sort of sexual works righteousness. As always, we have no problem with ritual itself, with men enacting masculine behaviours and women enacting feminine behaviours, whatever those happen to be in your culture. But those things can only ever flow out of something that is already there, something that cannot itself be created by those gendered roles and rituals. To say that they can be is magic religion.
But for more on this topic, give our episodes on transgenderism and Christian witchcraft a listen.
Here’s another thing that I think emerges pretty clearly from the definitions I have quoted. All these very careful definitions are presented because the people using the term “toxic masculinity” know that it is a heavily loaded term open to real or wilful misinterpretation. While this misinterpretation is very easy to refute, the fact is that it does persist and I have certainly found that using the term, even with careful definition, does lead to stumbling blocks being placed before my listeners. When a term must be defined so carefully in order to escape misinterpretation, there’s an excellent argument that we should rethink the term altogether. After all, if the purpose of language is to communicate, a term becomes useless if it throws up barriers to communication.
So do we need the term at all?
To answer that question, let’s talk about history, and what it meant to be masculine at varying points in history. We’ve just identified certain elements of the definition of toxic masculinity, such as aggression, hypercompetitiveness, fear of appearing weak or feminine, and so on. Let’s see where these things crop up in history, and how Christians have tended to respond.
We’ll start with the pagan world of antiquity. Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that preaching the crucifixion of Jesus was “unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” Why was this? Well, to the Greeks, the incarnation of Jesus was foolishness because the Greeks viewed the physical world as being inferior to the world of abstract ideas and perfect mathematical harmony. But the crucifixion was offensive too because the idea that God Himself could humble himself to the shameful death of a common thief went against every pagan concept of heroism and divinity. Since Greeks believed that mortal men would experience a shadowy afterlife without memory, pleasure, or purpose, their highest standard for a hero or god was a life of glory, rage, and power. The opening lines of the Iliad read:
RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon–
The Greek warlord–and godlike Achilles.
In his book Heroes of the City of Man, Peter Leithart explains the worldview on display here like this: “Living and dying with glory, the hero is no longer a mere man but has become eternal like the deathless gods. …In its extreme form, a man guided by this ideal will devote his life to achieving a reputation for courage, strength, and bravery, and he will protect that reputation against all challenges. Just as the deathless gods are completely self-absorbed, so the consistent hero is concerned above all with his own name. The answer to the first question of the hero’s catechism is, Man’s chief end is to glorify himself forever.” Leithart goes on to note that along with rage, revenge, and obsessive defence of one’s own reputation, the heroic ideal also includes competitiveness – “heroes do not even want their friends to surpass them in battle”. So far, pagan heroism is ticking off a lot of the toxic masculinity boxes.
As you can imagine, pagan heroism was power religion on steroids. It was into this world that Jesus came to die on the cross. It was in this world that Christians raised up new heroes like the Hebrews 11 saints, who were mocked, tortured, and pitiably killed while humbly pursuing a better life beyond the grave. This was the scandal of the cross: that a god should become a weak and suffering man who served rather than lording it over others to the point that he allowed himself to be tortured and killed as a common criminal. This was a totally foreign conception of heroism in a world that was completely under Lamech’s spell: remember the man in Genesis 4 who boasted that “I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” Lamech’s sensitivity to insult is exactly the kind of thing the term “toxic masculinity” was coined to describe; Jesus rejected this whole paradigm, counselling his followers to turn the other cheek when someone slights them.
Don’t forget that Lamech making this boast to his two wives. Sexual aggression was another important aspect of pagan masculinity. In fact, in ancient Rome, sexual aggression was so foundational to Roman masculinity that almost the only limit on how a Roman paterfamilias could have sex was that he was always to be the aggressor. In his article 3 Awful Features of Roman Sexual Morality, Tim Challies explains:
Romans did not think in terms of sexual orientation. Rather, sexuality was tied to ideas of masculinity, male domination, and the adoption of the Greek pursuit of beauty. “In the Roman mind, the strong took what they wanted to take. It was socially acceptable for a strong Roman male to have intercourse with men or women alike, provided he was the aggressor. It was looked down upon to play the female ‘receptive’ role in homosexual liaisons.”
A real man dominated in the bedroom as he did on the battlefield. He would have sex with his slaves whether they were male or female; he would visit prostitutes; he would have homosexual encounters even while married; he would engage in pederasty (see below); even rape was generally acceptable as long as he only raped people of a lower status. “He was strong, muscular, and hard in both body and spirit. Society looked down on him only when he appeared weak or soft.”
This was the world Jesus arrived in. In this world, Jesus voluntarily gave up the benefits of divinity to become a man. He chose to become weaker. He chose to serve. He chose to suffer and die. He chose not to lift a hand in his own defence. He died a virgin, in mockery and shame, for the sake of the weak and lost. Jesus was in the eyes of his world a schmuck. The only reason we don’t still remember him that way is because his followers, empowered by his Spirit, went on to change the world.
As Christendom grew through late antiquity and the early to high Middle Ages, we see Jesus’ paradigm of heroism come into sharp conflict with the old pagan model. New words and concepts started to appear in the vocabulary of this new world, many of them with theological roots. Words like pity, gentle, mercy, anguish, beauty, bounty, charity, comfort, compassion, courtesy, delicate, devotion, grace, honour, humble, passion, patience, peace, purity, and tender all originated as theological terms that gradually filtered into the medieval vocabulary to create a new cultural mood of softness and tenderness. Owen Barfield says in his excellent book History in English Words:
A new element had entered into human relationships, for which perhaps the best name that can be found is ‘tenderness’. And so – at any rate in the world of the imagination – children as well as women gradually became the objects of a new solicitude. … [L]yrical devotion to the Virgin Mary and to the infant Jesus had helped to evolve a vocabulary which could express, and thus partly create, a sentiment of tenderness towards all women and young children.
If you’ve read a lot of medieval literature, as I have, you can actually watch this new element developing. For example, the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, which is one of the earliest Old English literary works we have, works hard to depict Jesus as a hero in the pagan sense:
The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty)
strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many there, since he wished to release mankind.
Now of course this is a completely legitimate way of imagining Christ – we all believe in the victory of Jesus over sin and death. But it’s very significant that as the Middle Ages reached its height and the Gospel transformed culture, it became far more common to depict Jesus on the cross as weak, anguished, and helpless. By the late Middle Ages, this had begun to decline into a weird sentimentalised courtly love situation, with Jesus as a pining knight whose lover had had him tortured and beaten. But the point remains that it was now possible to imagine a new kind of hero: someone who suffered and died in the service of others without regard to his own reputation. You didn’t have to be a brave warrior anymore to be a hero. And if you were a brave warrior, you were celebrated more because of your willingness to suffer on behalf of others than because of your personal glory and destructiveness.
Some of you may remember that in January this year, someone called Paul Maxwell, of something he grandiosely describes as “the Selfwire phenomenon” published a video and accompanying article claiming that women are more religious than men because in evangelical Christianity today, everything is “orderly, neat, clean, and well-behaved” in a way that leaves no room for “the chaos of masculinity from which man draws his power”. I mean, good gravy, I wish some of these people would read Rushdoony. Anyway, this idiot went on to say:
“[Men] are more aggressive, more combatant, and more straightforward. This didn’t conflict at all with the cultural form of religion in the middle ages, other than that Christianity called men to live virtuous lives, which was enough of a challenge.”
Thereby proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he doesn’t know the very first thing about the cultural form of religion in the middle ages, so let me break it down for you. In 1097, Pope Urban II called the knights of Europe to travel to Jerusalem to liberate the eastern church from the rule of the Muslim Turks. The response was staggering, far beyond anything that Pope Urban, or Emperor Alexius Comnenus, could possibly have imagined. Knights by the thousand took the cross, liquidated their assets, and set out on a dangerous journey from which many of them never expected to return. Why did they do this? Because for the thousand years leading up to that moment, there was no firm theory of just war. Knighthood was, in the eyes of medieval Christians, a sinful lifestyle, practically synonymous with damnation. It was a lifestyle marked by anger, extortion, violence, and lust. At the council of Clermont Pope Urban slammed them: “Let those who in the past have been accustomed to spread private war so vilely among the faithful advance against the infidels…Let those who were formerly brigands now become soldiers of Christ.” Count Raymond of Toulouse states his aims for going on crusade like this: “For the redemption of my crimes and those of my parents and for the honour and love of St Giles, whom I have frequently offended by many kinds of injuries.” Another knight, Nivelo, described his knightly behaviour as “atrociously tyrannical”: “Whenever the onset of knightly ferocity stirred me up, I used to descend on the aforesaid village, taking with me a troop of my knights and a crowd of my attendants, and against nature I would make over the goods of the men of St Peter for food for my knights.” One biographer wrote of one of the knights who went on crusade: “Frequently he burned with anxiety because the warfare he engaged in as a knight seemed contrary to the Lord’s commands. The Lord, in fact, ordered him to offer the cheek that had been struck together with his other cheek to the striker; but secular knighthood did not spare the blood of relatives. The Lord urged him to give his tunic and his cloak as well to the man who would take them away; the needs of war impelled him to take from a man already despoiled of both, whatever remained to him. And so, if ever that wise man could give himself up to repose, these contradictions deprived him of courage.” Guibert of Nogent summed it up: “There had been no previous hope that these would bear witness to their faith.”
The truth is that medieval knights were often little better than brigands locked in a series of neverending feuds. Things were so bad that the church teamed up with ordinary peasants in three-hundred-year movement, the Peace and Truce of God which was the first mass peace movement in history, in an attempt to restrict knightly violence and protect ordinary people from the local gangsters. Yes, the medieval church did look for ways to regulate and reconcile knightly behaviour with Christian ideals, such as the crusades, and some solutions were eventually found, including the development of just war theory. But you would have to be either a complete ignoramus or a barefaced liar to say that masculine aggression and violence were happily accepted by medieval Christianity. The idea is ludicrous.
Let’s move on. In the Renaissance and again in the Enlightenment, antiquity became fashionable again. The medievals had never really lost ancient pagan learning; on the contrary they spent centuries discussing Plato and Aristotle, writing thoughtful commentaries that identified a lot of places where the ancient Greeks had got it wrong. The Renaissance was not so much a rediscovery of something that was lost as a rejection of the progress that had been made since, with thousands of medieval books being destroyed or lost (for more on this topic read James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers). This regression was compounded in the Enlightenment by a regression in the status of women. Now, apparently it’s fashionable in certain places to decry the Enlightenment as a triumph of egalitarianism, and I want to make it clear that none of my problems with the Enlightenment have to do with whatever it may have achieved in terms of equality and liberty for the oppressed. The truth is, however, that this equality was not extended to women. As Rushdoony notes, “The Age of Reason saw man as reason incarnate, and woman as emotion and will, and therefore inferior.” For this reason, he notes, “Few things have depressed women more than did the Enlightenment, which turned woman into an ornament and a helpless creature. …A legal ‘revolution’ brought about the diminished status of women,” and he cites a 1947 study titled Modern Woman, The Lost Sex.
This is important to our topic because it shows the origins of our cultural obsession with definining masculinity in opposition to femininity. For Ancient Romans, men were hard and sexually aggressive, while women were soft and sexually vulnerable, and a man safeguarded his masculinity by never allowing himself to be vulnerable. For the Enlightenment, reason and nature, science and masculinity were pitted against emotion and faith, art and femininity, and so again, a man must safeguard his masculinity by staying on his side of the divide.
One very clear example of Enlightenment masculinity was Frederick the Great, emperor of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. By the time Frederick became emperor, Prussia had already acquired a reputation for military strength. Frederick’s great-grandfather believed that it was not diplomacy but military power that had guaranteed Prussia’s safety: “Alliances, to be sure, are good, but a force of one’s own on which one can rely better. A ruler is treated with no consideration if he does not have troops and means of his own.” This advice was taken to heart by his descendents. “A king needs to be strong,” said Frederick William I, also known as “The Soldier King”. “In order to be strong he must have a good army.”
The importance of the military was one of the things that Frederick William I was able to beat into his son, Frederick the Great. As a boy, young Frederick loved to visit his mother’s palace, where he would dress in soft clothes and curl his hair to play flute-and-lute duets with his beloved sister Wilhelmina. His father was outraged by this and any other evidence of what he believed to be effeminacy, beating Frederick savagely when he caught him wearing gloves on a cold day, or using a silver fork instead of steel. Young Frederick was taught little beyond religion, economics, and war. His father commanded his tutors, “Infuse into my son a true love for the life of a Soldier…and impress on him that, as there is nothing in the world which can bring a Prince renown and honour like the sword, so he would be a despised creature before all men, if he did not love it, and seek his sole glory therein.” In one letter to Frederick, his father said, “You know very well that I cannot abide an effeminate fellow who has no manly tastes, who cannot ride or shoot…is untidy in his personal habits and wears his hair curled like a fool instead of cutting it.” On one occasion, Frederick turned up to parade with his hair and clothes askew, and his father attacked him, throwing him to the ground, kicking him, dragging him by the hair in full view of the men. When he was finished, his father spat at him, “Had I been so treated by my father, I would have blown my brains out, but this man has no honour.”
As his life worsened, Frederick turned in desperation to a new friend, Hans Hermann von Katte. Katte was a Prussian noble who also played the flute and painted. Frederick’s sister suspected that Katte and her brother were lovers, but it wasn’t this that brought down the king’s wrath. After the two young men were discovered plotting to escape Prussia together, an immense scandal erupted. Frederick’s father seriously considered executing him. One morning, Frederick’s guards asked him to follow them. Frederick believed he was about to be executed, but instead, he watched in horror as Katte was beheaded outside his window.
Frederick was eventually able to win his way back into his father’s good graces, win some toleration for his artistic pursuits, and succeed to the throne of Prussia, although he never showed much interest in women and never produced an heir. After his death, the Prussian crown passed to his nephew.
As Prussia’s power grew throughout the mid-nineteenth century, a young royal couple of German ancestry began debating how best to encourage the growth of free and liberal democracies in Germany, rather than the military dictatorship that was transforming Prussia into a superpower. Most people could never dream of being so influential, but this couple happened to be Queen Victoria of England and her consort Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In 1858, Victoria and Albert’s eldest child, Princess Vicky, married the heir to the Prussian throne. Vicky’s marriage to Frederick III was a love match, and at first the plan seemed to be working as she and her parents persuaded Frederick to advocate more freedom and a limited, constitutional, parliamentary government for Prussia. But Vicky and Frederick’s view was in the minority at the militaristic Prussian court, and Frederick’s father Wilhelm I was a staunch autocrat. In 1862, the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck announced that the country’s future would be assured not by “Prussia’s liberalism” but by “Prussia’s might.” Quote, “The great questions of the times will not be solved by speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood.” Over the next decade, Prussia went to war against its neighbouring kingdoms and in 1871 Wilhelm I was declared Kaiser of a new, united Germany that was ruled semi-autocratically by the emperor himself, its parliament a mere formality unable to introduce legislation or to hold ministers accountable. Vicky’s husband was now the heir to exactly the kind of Germany she had dedicated her life to preventing. Frederick was torn between his autocratic father and his liberal English wife. Vicky was despised and ignored at court. And worst of all, her eldest son rejected her liberal ideals and embraced his grandfather’s autocratic politics. When Frederick III died of cancer within months of his own accession to the throne, Vicky was left to process her grief through a long, lonely, marginalised widowhood as she watched her son, Kaiser Wilhelm II, lead Europe step by step closer to war. ‘Power now belongs to brute force – and to cunning,’ she lamented as Wilhelm ascended the throne of Germany.
From the beginning, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II faced significant struggles in life. During a traumatic birth he suffered nerve damage that resulted in a withered left arm that, by adulthood, was six inches shorter than his right. Matters were made worse by the ghastly and painful remedies that were tried throughout the young heir’s childhood. It’s also possible that during his birth Wilhelm may have suffered brain damage, and from a young age he was subject to violent fits of rage that frightened his mother. Vicky herself was a very exacting parent with high and unyielding standards of behaviour. But Wilhelm still didn’t have to turn out the way he did. The fact was that Prussian social expectations for masculinity and monarchy, which we’ve already seen at work in the miserable early life of Frederick II, wreaked havoc on Wilhelm as well.
Miranda Carter explains,
In Germany, the dominance of and cultural fascination with the army pressed upon the Berlin court and predominant class a caricature hyper-masculinity. In England the aristocracy’s insistence that they lead society by virtue of their virtue meant that they believed they must appear above reproach in everything. Too much was expected, too much forbidden. The conflict could be seen in Wilhelm himself: the imperative to be manly and soldierly all the time had turned him into a caricature and forced him to take refuge in periodic breakdowns.
Today, reading the letters of his frustrated royal relatives, it’s easy to see Wilhelm as he was, a pitiable, absurd, and hysterical figure. Certainly, historians have suggested that he showed all the signs of a narcissistic personality disorder, including “arrogance, grandiose self-importance, a mammoth sense of entitlement, fantasies about unlimited success and power; a belief in his own uniqueness and brilliance” and so on. But at his accession to the throne in 1888, Wilhelm seemed to be magnificently Prussian – young, martial, and energetic. Prussian social expectations cannot be blamed for Wilhelm’s personal failings. But they did everything to harm and nothing to help.
Thus, Wilhelm’s propensity to uncontrolled rage was never checked. He was so terrified of appearing weak that his withered arm became a constant source of shame and insecurity, which he went to great lengths to conceal in photographs and portraits. His young cousins, the princesses of Hesse, complained that he was a controlling bully. This was true. He flew into a violent rage when one of his sisters wanted to marry a prince who had one, single, non-royal ancestor, hysterical at the thought of diluting the magnificent Hohenzollern pedigree. When another sister Sophie, who had married the heir to the throne of Greece, wanted to convert to Greek Orthodoxy, Wilhelm flew into a rage and banned her from returning to Berlin to see her family. He learned to flatter his grandmother Victoria but shut his mother out of all influence, one of his younger brothers proclaiming that “Imperial Prussia can never allow itself to be ruled by a woman.” He was passionately obsessed with the military, collecting equally useless uniforms and honorary military ranks from all over the world. He appeared in propaganda as a heroic warrior in uniform wearing a fierce face, mustaches bristling, flanked by his six equally manly and uniformed sons. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Wilhelm took over more and more of the running of the German government, seeking yes-men and sycophants to act as his ministers. He was by all accounts a rather pitiful and deeply insecure man who strutted and postured in a desperate attempt to live up to his own image. “He throws his weight about, and fancies that others worship him,” wrote Alexander III of Russia.
Rage, controlling behaviour, fear of weakness, obsession with military glory, contempt of women and femininity – I admit that whenever I hear the words “toxic masculinity”, Kaiser Wilhelm II is the very first person I think of. But above all else, it was his hypercompetitiveness that drove Europe to the brink of war. At the time, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was being adopted as a political theory as well. The survival of the fittest was seen as something that applied to states and empires. Miranda Carter explains,
“The notion that countries must inevitably clash and fight for dominance had become a truism of the 1890s, given a spurious pseudo-scientific credibility by theories of Social Darwinism which interpreted Darwin’s phrase “the survival of the fittest” as the survival of the most aggressive rather than the most well-adapted. By extension it had become an established cliche that an empire that didn’t expand would find itself being torn apart by other circling imperial predators.”
“In all the colonial and would-be colonial states, war had become legitimised as a test of national racial fitness, and pronounced inevitable as a vital mode of natural selection by the idea of Social Darwinism – which also, by no coincidence, legitimised the domination of “backward” and “inferior” races by “advanced”, “superior” ones.”
Nobody embraced this ideology as wholeheartedly as Wilhelm II. Even his grandfather’s empire-building chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was appalled by what he called Wilhelm’s “lust for war”. “Woe to my poor grandchildren” he wrote, towards the end of his life. By the late 1890s Wilhelm was obsessed with building a navy which would be able to destroy the British navy, as well as grabbing more and more colonies in Africa to boost his imperial standing. When war did actually come in 1914, Wilhelm himself was aghast and tried to stop it. Nevertheless, it was his own unstable, impulsive, and insecure behaviour over the previous decades which had precipitated the crisis. Constantly terrified that other European nations would turn on him, Wilhelm had resorted to constant posturing and sabre-rattling to keep them at bay. In fact, his erratic behaviour offended the commoners of other nations and drove the other world powers into ever-closer alliances against him. Meanwhile, Deborah Cadbury writes,
“He seemed ever more autocratic to the point of instability. ‘Suprema lex, regis voluntas’ – ‘The will of the king is the highest law’ – he wrote on a visit to Munich, much to the concern of the Reichstag. Vicky recoiled from his absolutism, what she called his ‘Caesarism’, and his needlessly bellicose speeches proclaiming his desire to lead Germany to glory. It was as though his very identity had fused with heroic legends of old, stepping from some ancient Valhalla to defend his country against all slights and insults, whether actual, imaginary or provoked by himself.”
Once again, I should note that there was much more than harmful social definitions of masculinity at work in Kaiser Wilhelm’s disastrous life. A harsh upbringing, a personality disorder, imperial ambitions, Social Darwinism, and monarchical absolutism all had major roles to play. But there’s one thing that most of these elements have in common: power religion, the worship of strength for its own sake. When it comes down to it, the loose group of harmful behaviours we’re discussing under the label of “toxic masculinity” are simply power religion applied to concepts of masculinity.
This kind of behaviour, of course, did not go away in the twentieth century or even in the twenty-first. In telling the stories of Wilhelm II and his great-great-great-great-uncle Frederick II, I’ve merely chosen two of the most obvious examples I’ve come across. It’s important to note that not all examples of this behaviour will be so clear-cut, since this is not an inborn trait that we’re discussing but certain types of behaviour which anyone can be involved in. My goal in giving these historical examples was to take the elements of the feminist definition of toxic masculinity, and trace them through time together with the ways in which Christianity has already critiqued and rejected them.
I differ with Peter Leithart, for instance, in some very important respects. But in Heroes of the City of Man he quite rightly identifies rage, hypercompetitiveness, aggression and obsession with one’s own glory as anti-Christian to the core. I am sure Leithart would never use the term “toxic masculinity”, but whether he would or not, he still identifies those same behaviours as being harmful and unChristian.
In other words: this is a real thing. This is a thing that happens, a thing that harms everyone, both male and female.
And if that is so, then we need a term for it.
I want to be clear, I’m not wedded to the term “toxic masculinity”, especially not if it’s going to be wildly misconstrued by those who hear it. I’m told that the New Testament scholar Rikk Watts has proposed the term “Homeric masculinity” as a substitute, and I’ve used that term on occasion myself – when speaking to people who will understand what I mean by it. And that’s the catch: relatively few people today have read Homer and understand what pagan heroism was like. By comparison, the definition of toxic masculinity is freely available to anyone with five minutes, an internet connection, and an open mind. In the absence of a more accessible term, well, this is the one we have.
All this said, it’s important to note that the debate over toxic masculinity is not simply a debate over the meaning of the term, or over whether and just how open the term is to misunderstanding. A while ago, I quoted the number 1 most highly voted definition of toxic masculinity on the Urban Dictionary, a feminist definition. Now let me quote number 2, which is just as obviously meninist:
Toxic Masculinity: Any Male action that doesn’t conform to liberal ideals of what a man SHOULD be in today’s society. If he isn’t sensitive and emotional and docile he is accused of toxic masculinity. Whereas these people used to be known as “bleeps” or even “bloops” (see also blip) now they are blamed for being a product of the male driven society.
No, those bleeps and blips weren’t there in the original, I just see no reason to repeat the foul language used. You can look it up on Urban Dictionary if you really want to, but let me just say two things. The definition seems to be looking back to some better time when evil or arrogant men were described only using curse words. By doing so he is refusing me, and anyone else who prefers not to use curse words, which is traditionally women, the right to criticise a man at all. Additionally, he is ignoring several facts about the feminist definition of toxic masculinity. For instance, it is not just about “nasty men,” not just about individual jerks or yokels, but about systemic social expectations that men MUST AND WILL be jerks or yokels. Similarly, he ignores the fact that the feminist definition does not necessarily blame a “male driven society” for toxic masculinity, because inherent in the feminist criticism of toxic masculinity is the fact that toxic masculinity harms men.
In its favour, this hostile definition of toxic masculinity realises that the feminist definition does not paint all masculinity as toxic. It doesn’t try to argue that. Rather, it presents a slightly more sophisticated argument: that in the modern world a liberal conspiracy has created a new, emasculated ideal of manhood that involves being “sensitive,” “emotional”, and “docile”. And I do think that in this, he has correctly identified the whole point.
During the Gillette controversy, there were large numbers of people who were genuinely offended by the idea that boys shouldn’t beat each other up in order to resolve their conflicts, or that strange men shouldn’t follow women on the street. My co-host, Monstrous Kate Robinson, observed,
“One of the most alarming things I saw in the wake of the commercial was a guy complaining that the man following women down the street to harrass them was behaving in a perfectly acceptable way, while the friend who stopped him was ‘a scold’.”
In other words, the debate is not truly about terminology. It is about masculinity. How do we define what it means to be a man? By what standard do we say that some traditionally masculine behaviours are good and others are bad?
While I came across some very good feminist discussions of toxic masculinity during my research for this episode, I did come across one that was pretty bad. A Bustle article titled 6 Harmful Effects of Toxic Masculinity began by implying that all aspects of Western masculinity are toxic by definition, and continued thus:
“Since masculinity and femininity don’t have any inherent meaning, a healthy masculinity or femininity is one you get to define — or not identify with at all, because it doesn’t have to mean anything to you if you don’t want it to.”
On the contrary, it should be obvious to every Christian that masculinity and femininity is part of God’s creation plan for this world and as such, they definitely do have inherent meaning. As we have said on this podcast before, masculinity and femininity is far more than simply social norms and ritual performance. Marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, for instance, is not simply a social norm; it’s a divine commandment.
As Christians, it is to Scripture that we must look to determine what true masculinity looks like. Does it look sensitive, emotional, and docile? Or does it look hypercompetitive, vainglorious and both sexually and violently aggressive?
By this time, I think the answer should be obvious. Certainly Scripture depicts great men of the faith as being mighty men and warriors. Christianity is not a pacifist religion, and it does recognise a limited place for violence, aggression, and competition. Jesus himself whipped the money-changers out of the Temple. But he did it for his Father’s sake, not for his own glory. He entered Jerusalem not on a lordly war charger but on a humble and lowly ass. He wept openly on multiple occasions. He submitted himself to a shameful death on the cross. He died for his bride. He washed feet. Women were his respected friends and he never seemed to worry he’d get girl cooties from them. On one occasion he even described himself as a mother hen.
In the Old Testament, David, a man of war, showed no discomfort with weeping and despairing, or dancing in wild joy. In the New Testament, Paul frequently shares about his physical infirmities, and twice he even says that he glories in his infirmities. In Philippians, Paul tells all of us, men and women alike, to let our gentleness, or graciousness, or forbearance be evident to all (translations differ on the precise wording). From beginning to end, the Bible refuses to shame men for being infirm, emotional, meek, or humble. The highest ideal is not that of a vainglorious warrior but that of a humble and suffering servant.
Toxic/Homeric Masculinity in the Church
And yet, somehow, not only do many Christian would-be-leaders continue to embrace a pagan view of masculinity in defiance of the clear teaching of Scripture – but they use these unbiblical requirements to bind heavy burdens on their followers.
Recently, JD Hall was seen rebuking a woman on Facebook for publicly admitting that her husband was asthmatic and gluten intolerant. When she asked, “Are you more of a man than him, because you’re not allergic to gluten or have asthma?” he responded without qualification, “Yes.”
This. This is toxic masculinity, in the Christian church, in 2019. And instead of repenting for his own ungodly contempt of the weak, this man took it upon himself to rebuke a woman for supposedly disrespecting her husband when the only disrespect in the picture was his own. It’s insane!
But the burdens get heavier than this. See, the problem is that if a Christian defines masculinity and femininity solely as enacted behaviour, it becomes, as I mentioned previously, a form of sexual works righteousness. On Twitter several months ago, Tim Bayly wrote,
“Jesus commended John the Baptist for not wearing “soft-man” clothes. The Apostle Paul warned “soft-men” will not inherit the Kingdom of God. What’s evil about soft-man? It’s an oxymoron. Soft-man is a self-contradiction. #manup”
It should be blindingly obvious to the meanest intellect that when the Apostle Paul warned that the “effeminate” will not inherit the Kingdom of God, he was referring to those who unrepentantly engage in homosexual acts, not to men who like to be comfortable and can afford it in a premodern society. Yet Bayly wilfully equates the two. In another tweet, he even embraced those Roman ethics we were talking about recently, encouraging Christian men to be hard like those Romans who weren’t ashamed of sodomising little boys, only of being sodomised. To recap, then, we literally have a Christian pastor publicly proclaiming that wearing comfortable clothes will send you to hell, while encouraging Christian men to admire Roman pagans for considering it glorious to rape little boys. But of course, shameful to be a a male victim of rape. This too is toxic masculinity, only now it’s been raised to the level of heresy. His teaching implies that if men don’t conform to a “hard” hypermasculinity, they can and will lose their salvation. This is a Gospel issue and we cannot afford to compromise on it. A Christian man cannot lose his salvation by becoming the victim of sexual assault.
These attitudes are far from being niche within the Reformed world. Douglas Wilson seems to be increasingly attracting if not courting an extreme meninist audience, and his recent podcast series “Man Rampant” contained sessions denouncing empathy as a sin and servant leadership as a lie. Yes, really. Then John MacArthur was videoed earlier this month complaining that having women in leadership positions makes men weak. Well, of course that’s a nonsensical thing to say. Just ask the great Elizabethan explorers and playwrights and poets, Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh and Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, whether they thought that having a woman on the throne made them weak. You’d end up with a foot of steel in your guts, and Elizabeth I wasn’t even modelling Christlike servant leadership! But let’s concede for just a moment that this is true, that having women in leadership does make men weak. Weak like Christ, who chose to become a man and submit to a painful death? Weak like Paul, who boasted that he had become weak in order to gain the weak? In Scripture, weakness is not a source of shame but the reason why the strong should serve. When the Bible talks about what it means to be a man, it very rarely speaks of strength or power, but rather maturity, discretion, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control. This is mature masculinity, the pattern which young men must emulate. (Parenthetically, when pursued by a woman, it is also mature femininity). If this sounds to you like sensitivity, docility, and emotion unbecoming a man, well, your argument is not with me. It’s with God.
Three years ago I was warned by a friend that the dangerous red-pill meninist ideology I had stumbled across on the darker corners of the internet might be set to grow, taking over from feminism as the default view of the sexes in westernised culture. With people like Paul Maxwell, Tim Bayly and John MacArthur spouting such views, I’m alarmed to note that this prediction seems to be coming true, and much faster than I expected. I don’t know what has tempted so many men, including some people I once respected, to start affirming a model of masculinity with which Christianity has always been at war. But I do know this: No matter what label we want to slap on this phenomenon, whether “toxic masculinity” or “Homeric masculinity” or “pagan heroism”, the church must take a stand on the pure message of the Gospel if she is to remain the church. Philippians 2:3-10:
[Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him.
Membership in Christ’s church demands a different paradigm of behaviour; a paradigm modelled after Christ, not after Ajax or Achilles. I can’t put it any better than Saint Augustine did in The City of God:
We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried to the point of contempt for self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience. The earthly lifts up its head in its own glory, the Heavenly City says to its God: ‘My glory; you lift up my head.’ In the former, the lust for domination lords it over its princes as over the nations it subjugates; in the other both those put in authority and those subject to them serve one another in love, the rulers by their counsel, the subjects by obedience. The one city loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders; the other says to its God, ‘I will love you, my Lord, my strength.’
So, is “toxic masculinity” a legitimate or even helpful term? Well…that depends on a lot of things. While I’m not wedded to the term, I think I’ve demonstrated that it was coined to describe and discuss a very real and very damaging phenomenon that goes all the way back to Lamech in Genesis.
As Christians, it is our duty to bring God’s word to bear on all of life. When Christian pastors stand up to promote a perverted and deeply anti-Christian ideal of masculinity; when would-be celebrities lie about church history in an attempt to promote neopagan psychobabble; when Christian men believe and loudly state that harassing women is normal and healthy male behaviour, then it doesn’t really matter what label we use as long as we’re taking the hammer of God’s word to the idols of power.
At the Monstrous Regiment, we want to encourage and edify the men around us, not tear them down. So let me finish with this message to our brothers in Christ. Men, our respect for you comes from your service to the people of God, from your self-restraint, kindness, gentleness, and goodness rather than from your power, aggression, or capacity for violence. Our respect for you is not conditional on your health, your musculature, your money, your looks, or your status. It cannot be lost through weakness or squandered through a failure to perform masculine rituals. Thank you for treating us as people, for talking to us as sisters, for being open and vulnerable with us, for showing us your feelings and sharing your dreams. Thank you not just for being hard when we needed you to be hard, but also for being soft when we needed you to be soft. Thank you not just for teaching us when we needed it, but also for listening and learning when we spoke. We love you.
I’m Suzannah Rowntree, for the Monstrous Regiment.