The phrase “toxic masculinity” has become increasingly popular, a concept which suggests that men suffer from a kind of sickness. Western men, particularly those who are straight, white, and cisgender, are now demonized as harassers, abusers, adulterers, and the architects of an oppressive patriarchy.
They’re told endlessly by companies, celebrities, academics, and even their own families to cure their inherently toxic attitudes. We all remember that Gillette advert in 2019, which depicted men as patronizing and sexually inappropriate toward women, before concluding that “men need to hold other men accountable…to say the right thing, to act the right way.” But, is it only men that need to reflect on their behavior?
What creates these dangerous men? What’s feeding toxic behavior?
Nobody can deny that masculinity can be taken to the extreme, whether this manifests as bullying, domestic violence, or sexual assault. But it’s too simplistic to say that men are the only ones who need to change. If we want real progress, we need to look deeper. What creates these dangerous men? What’s feeding toxic behavior? What we don’t often consider is the other side of the spectrum: that toxic femininity could also be playing a role. I think it’s time we look at the main influence in most young boys’ lives — their mothers.
The Negative Feminine
The simplest way to understand toxic femininity is through archetypes. Conceptualized by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, archetypes are universal symbols that show up in dreams, art, religion, and literature, as part of humanity’s “collective unconscious.” Jung outlines several female archetypes, one of which is the “Great Mother” — the protective and nurturing feminine, the symbol of birth, fertility, and creativity. Think of the Virgin Mary in Christianity or the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella.
But, in Jung’s world, every archetype carries a shadow — a darker side. If a mother becomes overprotective, shielding her children entirely from the world, she turns toxically feminine and morphs into what Jung calls a “Devouring Mother.”
The nurturing Great Mother can become corrupted into the toxic Devouring Mother.
According to Dr. Jordan Peterson, the Devouring Mother is a pathological manifestation of motherhood. She devours her children’s potential, using emotional manipulation and even physical abuse to keep them close. “The standard pathology of mom,” Dr. Peterson claims, “is that she did everything for you.” Her fear of loneliness triggers controlling, obsessive, and even homicidal behavior. For example, the old woman who lures in Hansel and Gretel with candy and comfort, all the while planning to consume them. Or the mother in Rapunzel who locks her beautiful daughter away to preserve her own youth.
Sons of Devouring Mothers
So what kind of sons do Devouring Mothers raise? Well, Dr. Peterson argues that overly “agreeable and protective people have a proclivity to divide the world into defenseless infants and predatory oppressors, and that’s projected onto the political landscape.”
Devouring mothers either coddle their sons, creating a man-child, or terrorize them, creating a predator.
He suggests that this type of parenting “tends to go one of two ways”; devouring mothers either coddle their sons to the point of creating a man-child, or terrorize them into becoming a predator. Of course, there are many variations between these extremes, but I think we can clearly see “predatory oppressors” and “defenseless infants” in the forms of toxic masculinity most discussed today.
For fear of losing him, a Devouring Mother doesn’t allow her son to become a man. And so he grows into an adult infant, overly reliant on her and incapable of living alone. These men are thought to have “little masculine energy” after being emasculated and feminised by overbearing mothers. They struggle to look after themselves, and if they don’t remain dependent on their mother, they desperately seek a female partner as a nurturing replacement.
If they don’t remain dependent on mom, they desperately seek a female partner as a replacement.
Today, terms like “simp” and “beta male” are used to describe this type of man. “Simp” is a word for a guy who will do anything to impress a woman, often letting her walk all over him. Some even suggest that a boy with an overprotective mother is more likely to become the “perfect and virtuous ‘anti-patriarchal, feminist white-knight’ that the Social Justice crowd would like him to be.” These men are thought to be toxic in their own way, defending whatever they think women support to win them over sexually, or constantly harassing them for attention. Then there’s the self-proclaimed “incels” (involuntary celibates) who, when unable to find a romantic partner, turn to misogyny or wage a violent vendetta against women.
On the other side of the spectrum, when infantilized men feel powerless and humiliated, they may become hypermasculine. Overprotected by their mothers, these boys become overwhelmed by the feminine, often leading to predatory and controlling behavior like sexual or domestic assault. Just look at Harvey Weinstein, who after being identified as a sex offender in 2017, announced, “I have created a $5m foundation to give scholarships to women directors. It will be named after my Mom. I won’t disappoint her.”
These boys can become overwhelmed by the feminine, leading to predatory and controlling behavior.
To clarify, I’m not saying that all toxicity can be explained by an overbearing mother or that all boys with overprotective moms become pathological. But when you look at statistics on male convicts, childhood experiences do seem very important. In one 2017 study, of the offenders surveyed:
66.1% reported childhood sexual abuse
72.6% reported childhood physical abuse
66.1% reported childhood emotional abuse
54% of the men who were sexually abused were victimized by a woman
Looking forward, it’s important to remember that how men act with women is often a reflection of how they bonded with their mothers. It’s popular to demonize all men as “toxic,” but if we want real change in society, “toxic femininity” must also be part of the discussion. Yes, some men need to change their behavior, but women can also work on bettering themselves. And ultimately, most men aren’t dangerous, so incendiary terms like “toxic masculinity” are just going to make things worse. Sure, within each man is the potential to be toxic, but equally, within each mother is the ability to devour.