It’s finally time to talk about toxic femininity. In our previous discussions of toxic masculinity there were two types of masculine identities that I identified as toxic: those which are puerile, and those which are outdated. The man-child who expects his wife to look after him the same way that his mother did falls into the first category. The man who resents modernity and dreams of returning to a version of the past that exists only in his own fantasies falls into the second.
Both essentially resist the demands of adult reality. They do not want to assume the responsibilities that living in the world as a contributing member of society entail.
This leads to a conception of masculinity that is toxic both to others (especially women) and also to oneself. A restrictive and immature notion of gender serves to delineate and excuse a set of behaviours which prevent the individual from thriving, and which places the blame for his failure on others, especially others of the opposite sex.
I want to use this same rubric to analyze toxic femininity. We’ll start from the basic assumption that gendered toxicity stems from a rejection of individual and cultural maturation, and that this leads to a lack of individual thriving that in turn prevents the thriving of others.
In the Beginning
Before we move on to a discussion of what immature femininities look like, though, I want to spend a moment looking at one of our oldest rubrics for broken gender dynamics: Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis. Genesis is important because it sums it, very neatly, the effects of power inequalities between the sexes: “Your desire shall be for your husband and he will lord it over you.” The dynamic is straightforward: one party (Adam) becomes dominant, and the other party (Eve) henceforth subordinates her desires to his.
Another ancient story that illustrates a different aspect of this dynamic is that of Echo and Narcissus: as he becomes increasingly obsessed with his own image, his own concerns, he ceases even to notice that Echo exists. She, in turn, loses her own identity and starts to literally echo his speech. His concerns, his beliefs and his ideas totally consume her attention, just as man’s desires become the desires of woman in the Genesis account.
What does this tell us? It reveals something that psychologists have frequently observed about the nature of inequality and oppression: specifically, that those who are routinely exploited or abused have a curious tendency to start seeing their oppressor’s interests as being more important than their own.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward: if someone has the power to harm me and they use that power whenever they are unhappy or unfulfilled, then increasingly it will be in my best interests to make sure that they are happy and fulfilled.
The slave who attends immediately to every one of his master’s whims, even supplying the master’s comforts before he is instructed to do so, will tend to fare better than the slave who first considered his own needs. The more perfectly the dominated party anticipates and secures the desires of the dominant party, the more they will receive praise, affection and provision for their own needs. But this dynamic demands continual self-erasure: the other person’s desires become your desires and the effort to become what the other person wants you to be slowly, over time, erodes your own identity.
There’s a feedback loop that emerges here, where the dominant party in turn comes to see their desires and goals as being continuous with the true needs of the dominated person. After all, everyone seems to be happier when the dominant person’s needs are being put first. This serves to more deeply entrench the powerful party’s narcissistic self-involvement and the less powerful party’s Echoistic self-erasure.
It’s important to note that this power dynamic is not specific to either sex. If you want to see a particularly creepy illustration of it, you can check out the Act of Killing. There’s a very uncomfortable scene where a male survivor of genocide laughs along with the perpetrators about their crimes against his family – pretending to identity with their violence provides him with a sense of safety. They, on the other hand, fail to see this and the film ends with a sequence in which one of the killers imagines his victims thanking their slaughterers for killing them. (Really do check it out – it’s an amazing, if very difficult, film.)
What Genesis portrays, then, is a breach in human relationships. An original relationship of equality and mutuality is replaced with a dynamic of domination. As John Paul II observed in his Theology of the Body, the broken sexual dynamics of the fall become paradigmatic for all broken power dynamics among human beings. None the less, while other forms of domination certainly proliferate the domination of man over woman remains the most primary form of social inequality.
I bring that up to forestall a certain line of argumentation that attempts to define toxic femininity as a clumsy mirror-image of toxic masculinity, assuming that both are based on excessive self-assertion and lack of concern for others. On the contrary, the primary struggle for historical masculinity is to appreciate that the other is truly a person just like the self; the primary struggle for historical femininity is to appreciate that the self is truly a person just like the other.
Note that this does not mean that all men or all women will express these tensions in the same way or to the same degree. These are archetypes and patterns that are caused by the social disequilibria described by Genesis; they are not essential to maleness or femaleness much less descriptive of every individual man or woman. In any case, toxic femininity must be understood in this light. It does not compete with or mimic toxic masculinity, but rather complements and reinforces it.
Paging Aunt Lydia
Toxic femininity, then, is a series of ideals that lead women to adopt behaviours that promote the subordination of women’s needs to those of men.
At this point, I think we need to pause for a moment and discuss the fact that this system (what feminists call “patriarchy”) is not produced by men at the expense of women. It is produced by both men and women at the expense of both women and men. Patriarchy doesn’t mean “men seeking power over women” but men having power over women. This power exists and influences relations between the sexes regardless of whether any particular individual man desires or benefits from it. Obviously there are many men who do desire it, and a lot of men benefit from it. But there are also a lot of women who desire it and who benefit, albeit in a less direct way.
One of the most well known forms of toxic femininity is the meddling church-lady type; basically, a woman who polices the behaviour of other women and serves as an enforcer of patriarchal ideals.
This kind of toxic femininity takes many forms. As many guys have noted, women tend to be much more ruthless in policing other women’s dress than men are. In the Church, women are much more likely to aggressively promote and enforce NFP than men. Women often counsel other women to stay in marriages that are toxic or even abusive. And women can be very aggressive in defending sexual predators if those predators are part of the community and their accusers are outsiders or, worse, women who are perceived to be promiscuous.
Why? There are a few reasons.
The first and simplest is that patriarchy often benefits the women who enforce it. One of the things that I observed literally hundreds of times during my time in more conservative Catholic circles was that the men were very quick to applaud and reward any woman who demonstrated or defended subservient roles for women.
Stay at home mothers, obedient wives and fruitful multiparas were treated to routine adulation. We were lauded as “Real Women,” and were frequently contrasted (always favourably) with other women who were derided as strumpets, banshees, feminazis, or hairy-assed lesbians.
It wasn’t just doctrinal orthodoxy that was rewarded in this way. If you got the guys their beer, made them fancy dinners, put up with misogynistic jokes, responded to being called “wench” or otherwise co-operated with the denigration of woman you could expect to be praised in outlandish terms. Of course if you tried to point out that maybe jokes about domestic violence aren’t funny, you immediately transformed into a feminist kill-joy.
But so long as you played along, and especially if you encouraged these behaviours in other women, you could expect a steady stream of affirmation and access to privileges that the majority of women were denied. (The hierarchy’s practice of inviting “faithful,” i. e. sexually obedient, women to speak, teach or even participate in a limited way in the Church’s power structures is a good example of the type of privilege that you can access by toeing the patriarchal party line.)
Women who enforce ideals that serve the baser instincts of men benefit from doing so. In such cases, the purpose isn’t to encourage the same behaviour in other women (if everyone else adopted the same ideals then they would no longer confer the benefit of being “one of the good ones”), but rather to find a back door where you can access personal privilege by upholding beliefs that are contrary to the interests of women generally.
Alright, so this harms women but does it also harm men? Absolutely. One of the most harmful myths that feeds this type of feminine toxicity is the myth that women’s meekness and humility inspires men to better themselves. It does not. On the contrary, it panders to male attitudes that are narcissistic, entitled, misogynistic and immature.
The problem is, Paul’s counsel for women to obey their husbands and for men to love their wives as their own body only works if the man leads by first putting his desire for domination to death. If the woman obeys a man who is in the grip of immature passions, she reinforces those passions. If the man gets what he wants by being demanding, arbitrary and intemperate then a purely unconscious pattern will be established in his brain – a pattern that will lead him to be more intemperate, more demanding and more arbitrary.
This unconscious strategy benefits the man in the short term, but it has deeply damaging long-term effects. It erodes his ability to relate properly to others, often leading to broken relationships in the family or the workplace. It can destroy his children’s respect for him, and it usually leads to a slow break-down of the marriage.
After all, on some level the woman has been investing in patriarchy. She’s bought into the idea that her persevering self-sacrifice and long-suffering forgiveness will eventually inspire her husband to repentance and to virtue. But this does not happen. Over time, the costs of pandering to his whims increase and the benefits of being patted on the head for subservience seem more and more inadequate.
Eventually, most women realize that they are not inspiring virtue but enabling vice and they slam on the breaks. Men who are accustomed to a lack of accountability may be left reeling and I’ve seen a lot of cases where the man either cannot or will not change his behaviour quickly enough to avoid a total marital train-wreck.
(It’s worth noting that the same thing can happen with single women or women in religious life. The hierarchy of the Catholic church is arguably reeling right now from the sudden imposition of accountability for sex crimes against children, but it has been in crisis since the ‘60s as a result of women, including nuns, overwhelmingly saying “no” to Humanae Vitae. The #metoo movement would be another society-wide example of women very suddenly and decisively choosing to hold men accountable for bad behaviour – and of men freaking out because they always thought they were getting away with it.)
The second reason why women enforce patriarchal ideals is that we have a very long history of living under conditions where our well-being, and even our survival, often depended on our ability to avoid provoking male violence. When those old female Saints counselled women to be meek and flexible in order to avoid abuse they were giving the only advice that was really possible in a context where women often had no legal recourse and no means of protecting themselves from abusive men.
Tip-toeing around, being constantly agreeable, obeying orders and trying to continually manage another person’s emotions may be exhausting and soul-sucking, but when you are trapped in a relationship with a volatile person it sure seems like the best strategy for minimizing outbursts.
When a woman learns that she can avoid the brunt of a man’s anger by being meekly compliant with all of his demands, she will often encourage other women to adopt the same strategy. Mother will teach her children, especially her daughters, to mimic this self-effacing behaviour and will often become angry if anyone else in the home disturbs the beast that she has so carefully lulled to sleep.
Experts in the family dynamics of abuse often observe that abusive behaviour on the part of one parent often sets the rest of the family against each other. Everyone is constantly stressed out, on edge, and there is no safe way to confront the source of the problem – so instead, they take out their anger on one another.
On a social level, this produces the same effect. Almost everyone is aware that men commit every type of violent crime at a much higher rate than women, and women, as a group, are continually encouraged to make accommodations for male passions in order to avoid becoming victims.
We counsel one another not to wear certain types of dress which might invite rape. Not to go walking alone after dark. Not to antagonize male authority figures. To be polite and non-confrontational if we find ourselves in a dangerous situation.
At the same time, male and female expressions of anger and aggression are treated very differently. From a young age, boys’ aggression is treated ambivalently. Sometimes it’s bad (don’t hit your brother), sometimes it’s neutral (just “rough play”) and at other times it’s heroic (beating up the bad guys.) Male heroes in media directed towards boys routinely use violence as a legitimate way to solve problems, and even when they become angry and lash out without just cause it’s often treated as a misunderstanding or a foible.
Girls, on the other hand, are more consistently taught that violence is always wrong, that aggression is bad, and that overt expressions of anger are not appropriate. This early training seems to take effect by around the age of 4. Until that point, both boys and girls deal with their anger through direct aggression. By the time they are heading into kindergarten, most girls have learned that it is never okay to express their anger in this way and they adopt a different strategy: what psychologists call “relational bullying.” They become “mean girls.”
Girls in elementary school don’t have the ability to effectively manage their anger any more than boys do, but they have learned that they will always get in trouble if they hit, push, bite or yell at the other children. So they adopt strategies that are harder for adults to recognize and that are more likely to go under the radar: undermining, passive-aggressive jibes, spreading rumours, excluding, gossiping and name-calling become the favoured tactics for expressing female aggression.
If you do this to a boy, he’s likely to hit you or throw things at you. So instead, girls tend to turn on other girls. It’s basically the same dynamic as the male bully who beats up other boys because he can’t beat up his abusive father, only the source of the behaviour is cultural rather than domestic. All girls are affected by social conditioning that teaches us that it is dangerous and unfeminine to openly express our anger.
This means that even when there are no males physically present in a situation (like a girls’ boarding school), there is still the need to teach girls to control their anger in order to avoid future altercations with men. Female behaviour is still being sculpted and altered in order to conform to male desires and expectations. Girls are being taught to suppress their own desires and personalities in order to meet the needs of a male dominated society. Her emotional landscape is being prepared for her future husband because one day he will lord it over her.
Now both men and women will ideally learn how to manage their anger in healthy ways as they grow up. A mature woman should not be involved in back-biting, hen-pecking, rumour-mongering and other typically feminine nonsense any more than a mature man should be sitting around in his mancave talking shit about women with the boys while his beleaguered wife serves them pretzels and beer.
Yet this idea of femininity appears in media, especially media for women, with surprising frequency. Reality TV, sit-coms, soap-operas and prime time dramas continually present us with women who seem to have nothing better to do with their lives than to obsess over the behaviour of other women. One episode of Jim Gaffigan’s show comes to mind where his wife spends all night dragging him across town trying to spy on her sister (who is out on a date.) Because apparently a grown woman with five children is going to waste a night of babysitting to worry about someone else’s sex life.
Normalizing this kind of toxic femininity isn’t good for women. Most of us hated middle-school girl politics and we don’t want to repeat it. But when the hen-pecking rituals begin we behave much as the average grown-up man does when the beer-cave chest-thumping starts: we withdraw to the margins and hope that it’s over soon. Which is understandable: standing up to adults who have never gotten over their most immature coping methods is never fun and rarely productive. But it also contributes to the perception that these behaviours are acceptable, and it leaves the victims isolated and unprotected.
Does this harm men as well as women? Absolutely. Relational bullying is a skill, or rather a set of skills, that allow a person to use social tactics to harm or control others. In relationships, women who have learned never to deal directly with things that are making them angry will still express their anger, they’ll just do it in ways that are indirect.
A lot of the “women are from Venus” passive aggression and subtle cueing that causes unresolved tension in romantic relationships is the product of suppressed female anger and aggression. Instead of saying directly “I really need a break right now. I realize that you are tired and don’t want to watch the kids, but I am more tired and you haven’t taken a turn with them in a week. You need to take this on,” she says “No, I can see you’re tired. I’ll just do it. Like always.” He either misses the dripping sarcasm, in which case he’s going to be in trouble later, or he tries to take over – only to find that she redoubles her determination to do all the work herself in order to show him how much of a selfish jerk he is.
This is because the suppression of female anger in response to possible male aggression panders to the worst of male passions in a way that protects the woman – not in a way that resolves conflict or helps either party to grow. In cases where a man is genuinely violent and temperamental, this kind of defensive behaviour may be unavoidable. But when it’s made into a cultural norm and inculcated in women by the time they are four years old, it can interfere with the development of healthy relationships with non-violent, emotionally responsible men.
Before I move on to blogging about something else, I do want to address one more issue. It may seem that I’m saying that men are responsible for all toxic gender roles. Toxic gender roles are mutually reinforcing. The fear of male violence does not justify a woman taking her anger out on other women any more than the fear of an angry and overbearing boss justifies a man taking his anger out on his wife. The disequilibrium in relations between the sexes has long favoured men, which means that masculinity (both healthy and toxic) tends to have precedence in terms of defining gender roles. That does not, however, mean that real, on-the-ground men are more toxic than women or that men have deliberately crafted a system designed to produce toxic effects on female psychology.
Women’s bad behaviour may be conditioned by patriarchy, just as men’s bad behaviour is, but we are all moral agents capable of choosing and pursuing healthy forms of relating to one another.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic-in-exile. She writes from the existential peripheries about human sexuality, feminism, domestic abuse, queer issues, and spirituality. She offers a voice for the many Catholics who love their faith, but don't feel safe within their Church.