Fear of femininity: The root cause of toxic masculinity

Lili Hakimi

Historically, Western society has always viewed a woman’s place to be in the home – the primary caregiver responsible for keeping everything in line. However, this trope not only enforces a stereotype for women, but it also plays a key role in the formation of the male identity. 

Psychoanalyst Stephen Frosh researched how problematic expressions of masculine identity are a result of young boys distancing themselves from identifying with a typically female caregiver.

“Masculine identity is constructed on the basis of a separation from that which the infant knows – the mother and all her feminine power. It has no positive content of its own. Indeed it is portrayed as very vulnerable and fragile; it exists only as a defense rejection of the ‘other,’” Frosch said.

Thus, the cause of toxic masculinity lies in a deeply rooted fear of femininity, which young boys develop as they associate their primary caregiver, a universally assigned female role, with being nurturing and caring. This fear of femininity leads to overly aggressive men who project their internalized misogyny on others.

“Femmephobia” is a term used to describe the fear and hatred of things associated with femininity and includes behavior, physical presentation, rejecting the color pink and showing emotion. Those who are femmephobic can internalize misogyny, shame others, police other’s gender expression and behave violently. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center found that 46 percent of men reported that it was either very or somewhat important for them to be perceived as “manly or masculine.” While wanting to be viewed as masculine isn’t necessarily a bad thing alone, when this desire becomes coupled with femmephobia, it leads to a harmful outcome.

Research in this field indicates that femininity is regarded by men as an endangerment to a man’s sense of self, and leads to emotional inexpressiveness and difficulties with intimacy. By rejecting everything feminine, the basis of masculinity is established on the principle of exclusion. This results in the male identity becoming so incredibly fragile that men go to extreme lengths to avoid any bends or breaks in tha identity. 

Reporter Zanta Nkume reflected on how he was encouraged to denounce femininity from a young age in an article for Mail & Guardian.

Illustration by Carsen Goltz

“‘To man up,’ I began to [defeminize] myself … I monitored my hand gestures, started spending my break times with the boys and took up sports I had no particular interest in. The further I was from being feminine, the closer I was to acceptance — or so I thought,” Nkume said.  “My own defeminisation stemmed from my desire to fit into the [standardized] concept of masculinity.”

Some argue toxic masculinity is simply a shaming tactic for modern feminists and that so-called “toxic” traits are entirely subjective. However, there are certain aspects of masculinity that are harmful when expressed in an extreme way. Psychiatrist Terry Kupers defined toxic masculinity as, “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence.” 

Within the last few years, the American Psychological Association released new guidelines for therapists working with boys and men, issuing a warning that aggression, misogyny and negative health outcomes are all possible results of extreme expression of “traditional” masculine traits. Toxic masculinity stemming from the fear of femininity is not attacking manhood or masculine identity by any means; it is simply calling out the harm in expressing specific masculine traits to the extreme. 

Societal masculine ideals, like physical strength, strong sexual performance and social respect, have the potential to become dangerous when unrealistic standards are set. In fact, they can pressure boys and men to use  force to maintain positions of dominance and control. For many men, lowering the facade of masculinity means putting their privilege and power in jeopardy. Thus, to reverse this narrative, we must teach young boys and men that there is power and respect in vulnerability and not just one single way to “be a man.”