What is toxic femininity? It's when positive feminine traits – like agreeableness, nurturing, and sensuality – become corrupted into negative, unhealthy behaviors, attitudes, and qualities.
We've All Heard of Toxic Masculinity, but No One Talks about Toxic Femininity
A concept once confined to academia, “toxic masculinity” has quickly become part of our everyday language. It’s commonly used to refer to the “inherently harmful,” traditionally masculine traits such as stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression. Socialization of these norms supposedly hurts both men and women, damaging men's mental health while contributing to sexual violence, domestic assault, and internalized misogyny in society. In 2019, the American Psychological Association even developed guidelines against symptoms of “traditional masculine ideology” in young boys.
But, while we’ve all heard of “toxic masculinity,” why do we never discuss the possibility of “toxic femininity”?
So What Is Toxic Femininity?
If we’re to accept that masculine traits can become warped and exaggerated, with strength turning into unbridled aggression and stoicism becoming cold-heartedness, surely typically feminine characteristics can morph into something equally insidious as well?
Negative feminine traits include emotional manipulation and the weaponization of gossip.
Psychological studies show that forms of femininity can also be taken to the extreme. Negative feminine traits typically include emotional manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, and the weaponization of gossip. For example, the typically feminine trait of “agreeableness” can become servility, a woman’s tendency to nurture can turn into possessiveness, and feminine sexuality can distort into the abuse of sexual power to tease men and then play the victim. Picture the wife who gives her husband the silent treatment when she can’t go to her favorite restaurant or the overbearing mother who says, “If you leave me, you don’t love me!” when her kids move out.
Women vs. Women
Toxic femininity can harm other women, too. Studies have shown that, while males are typically interested in gossip about other males, females can become obsessed with stories about other females. For instance, during a surprise recall test women were more likely to remember details about other women from gossip-like stories than men did about other men, especially regarding physical appearance.
Women can be obsessed with gossip about other women.
Gossip between women tends to be more aggressive and competitive in nature, seeking to exclude other girls from social groups and destroy their reputation. Anyone who’s been to an all-girls school (like me) can definitely vouch for that.
So, Why Do We Ignore Toxic Femininity?
Despite the progress women have made, progressive third-wave feminism continues to attack men for their historical dominance in society. Popular culture constantly presents women as victims and ignores the other side of the argument. It’s also a lot easier to disregard the toxic side of femininity because it’s just not as obvious. Both genders can be aggressive, but men tend to be more directly and physically so than women, for instance, throwing punches rather than spreading rumors. But that doesn’t mean that women are exempt from bad behavior.
Toxicity isn’t a gendered trait, but an individual one.
Not only has this imbalance led to the mass stigmatization of men (e.g. “all men are trash”), but also to a loss of gratitude for any virtue in traditional masculinity. Where do we draw the line between healthy masculine behavior and toxic masculine behavior? Are strength and stoicism never a good thing?
Ultimately, it seems to me that terms like “toxic masculinity” just aren’t useful. When we consider the extent to which femininity can also be misused, maybe this isn’t a gender problem after all.
Toxicity isn’t a gendered trait, but an individual one. Society isn’t a battlefield between men and women; there’s good and bad in all of us. Divisive rhetoric implying that femininity is entirely virtuous, while masculinity is inherently harmful, is just going to make things worse. Instead, we must reflect on our own actions as individuals, aware that we all have the capability to be toxic toward others. We can all strive to be better people, while still appreciating the beauty and strength in both traditional masculinity and femininity.