The Classroom Origins of Toxic Masculinity

It’s a relatively new term for a concept as old as time.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 8 minutes (1,974 words)

Covington Catholic High School, St. Michael’s College School, Georgetown Preparatory School. All three are Catholic, mostly white, mostly rich, all-boys, and all three have recently made the news. At Covington, student Nick Sandmann went viral after a video emerged showing him, surrounded by a bunch of white classmates in the same glaring MAGA hats fresh off the same anti-abortion rally, mocking Native American Indigenous Peoples March attendee Nathan Phillips. At St. Mike’s school — Canadian, suggesting we may be less nice than we are similar — several students were charged after a video appeared on social media in which their fellow classmates were assaulted, one with a broomstick. Eight boys were eventually expelled after several incidents were investigated, all, according to reports, involving football and basketball players. Georgetown Prep, meanwhile, made the news when Christine Blasey Ford accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers while fellow Georgetown student Mark Judge watched. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said. The quote reverberated across social media once again after the Covington video went viral.

“I’d think it important to consider the presence of the peer group, since for boys and young men that’s often the crucial public in shaping the enactment of masculinities,” says University of Sydney Professor Emerita Raewyn Connell, an Australian sociologist and one of the first to carve out men’s studies as discipline in the 1970s. She is referring to the Covington video but could just as well be talking about any of the other schools, or any other all-boys school in America, really. She says that “collective bullying behaviour” can target anything from gender to sexuality to race. Same-sex environments can be particularly noxious, Connell explained in a 2003 report: “Some institutions designed for boys, such as sporting clubs and boys’ schools, define a strongly-marked, even exaggerated, masculinity in their organizational culture.” These days we would call that toxic masculinity, but back in the ‘80s, Connell, who wrote the seminal 1995 book Masculinities, called it something else.

“Hegemonic masculinity” was first coined in 1982 by Connell and co-authors Dean Ashenden, Sandra Kessler, and Gary Dowsett in Making the Difference: Schools, Families and Social Division. The Australian government had released a report in 1975 — “Girls, School and Society” — which prompted the 1982 study, in which students, teachers, and parents in local schools were interviewed in order to explore social inequality. They did their field work in the late ‘70s, an era in which questions of sex were in vogue following the women’s liberation movement and subsequent feminist critiques of the patriarchy. “It wasn’t that gender hierarchies had become more pronounced,” Connell tells me, “but that debate about them had become more intense.”

Though certain elements of “hegemonic masculinity” were later heavily critiqued, the fundamental concept persists, which is that of a dominant masculinity in any given situation that supersedes all other masculinities around it. “Because the concept of hegemonic masculinity is based on practice that permits men’s collective dominance over women, it is not surprising that in some contexts, hegemonic masculinity actually does refer to men’s engaging in toxic practices — including physical violence — that stabilize gender dominance in a particular setting,” Connell and James W. Messerschmidt wrote in their 2005 reevaluation of the original theory. That same year, these “toxic practices” were dubbed elsewhere by another academic as “toxic masculinity,” marking the term that 14 years later has become so pervasive its origins have been almost entirely lost.

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One of the first appearances of toxic masculinity in the mainstream press was in a 1990 New Republic article by Daniel Gross. “The Gender Rap: ‘Toxic Masculinity’ and Other Male Troubles” focused on a new-age movement that appeared to resonate with a healthy number of American men (the first annual Men’s Studies Conference had launched the year before). Gross credited Shepherd Bliss — who preferred the term “mythopoetic” to “new age” — with coining toxic masculinity as a phrase “to describe that part of the male psyche that is abusive.” Bliss comes from a military family and says his authoritarian father embodied the term he defines to me as “behavior that diminishes women, children, other men.” He still has a men’s group, which he separates from “negative” men’s rights groups, and he emphasizes that the expression he invented is “not meant to condemn all males.”

The California-based retiree is surprised his ‘80s neologism has gotten so much attention lately, considering no one really seemed to notice it before. Bliss couldn’t recall exactly when or where he first uttered “toxic masculinity,” but claims it was around the time he named his men’s group. That would have been in 1986, when he was a contributing editor of Yoga Journal and wrote about how the mythopoetic movement “seeks to learn from ancestors and retrieve wisdom from the past that can be applied to the lives of men today.” The man he proposed was the opposite of the urban industrial model; he lived more primally, with stronger father-son connections, male bonding, and a close relationship with the land. Bliss held $200 healing retreats that were attended by about 50,000 men looking to get back to literal nature, but also the figurative nature of man. “I use[d] a medical term because I believe that like every sickness, toxic masculinity has an antidote,” he told TNR. (In practice, this antidote, according to one attendee, involved “farting, crawling around on all fours, wrestling, crafting animal masks, and butting heads.”)

So, yes, technically toxic masculinity was coined in the mid-’80’s, but Connell had already recognized the concept. And there are reasons Bliss’ version didn’t really take off outside of that side-eyeing TNR article. This was the era of the feminist backlash, so there wasn’t much room for a backlash against men outside the minutiae of academia. And Yoga Journal hadn’t exactly cracked the mainstream — the ‘80’s were, ironically, not a very radical time — and even if it had, toxic masculinity would have still been bathed in a vague fanciful hippie-ish light. Not to mention that Bliss’ definition of his own term was itself a little airy-fairy. No, masculinity was too impervious for yoga — we needed science.

Scholars point to psychiatrist Dr. Terry A. Kupers as the source of “toxic masculinity” as we now know it, particularly his definition in a 2005 prison study: “Toxic masculinity is the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.” Kupers has been studying incarcerated masculinity for most of his career (his most recent book is Solitary), but in the ‘80’s he was involved in the pro-feminist men’s movement and realized he could integrate his knowledge of gender with his knowledge of prisons. Kupers found that Connell’s hegemonic masculinity, when applied to prisons, was in fact toxic masculinity — which is to say prison is toxic masculinity in its “pure form.” He points specifically to black men who are disproportionately (along with Hispanic men) incarcerated by America’s “justice” system. These are men for whom institutionalized racism has shut them off from “positive ways” of expressing masculinity — excelling at school or at work, for instance — causing them to resort to “negative ways” like crime. In prison the lack of authority is complete, so the toxicity is equally complete. “I don’t think it’s a matter of them being inclined to fight with each other and gain dominance; they’re not,” Kupers says. “Rather they’ve been deprived of all the more positive avenues to get ahead so they choose to maintain their manhood in the prison yard.”

What does this have to do with a bunch of white upper crust school boys? “My sense was that what we see in prison, the sort of tough guy on the yard kind of thing, where prisoners buff up and fight each other for dominance and where sexual assault is the ultimate humiliation,” Kupers explains, “my sense was that that’s not that different from what men do out in the world.”

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“[Y]oung men use crime as a means of constructing the kind of stereotypic masculinity that helps them traverse their adolescence and win the acceptance of peers, as well as fathers, coaches, and other hypermasculine role models,” writes Kupers. This is where stealing a car, joining a gang, bragging about rape — or confronting a Native American, groping a girl, assaulting a boy — becomes a way of being a man. This is also where privileged white boys are divided from other boys. While the kids at Covington and St. Mike’s and Georgetown Prep are acting out in their adolescence, they have the opportunity to graduate to a more socially acceptable adulthood of building a career (a Supreme Court position, maybe?) and a family. Without the same opportunity, the boys who are not white, who are not privileged, sidestep from the school yard to the prison yard.

Without his friends around him, sitting in front of NBC interviewer Savannah Guthrie, Nick Sandmann, the Covington teen from the viral video, looks like he’s soiling himself. Unblinking, speaking in a slow monotone, he is the opposite of how he looked in the video — smug, shameless, full of power. He is emasculated, as ineffectual as Brett Kavanaugh’s red-faced temper tantrum as he testified after Christine Blasey Ford. Yet both have arrived: Sandmann’s voice in the media has drowned out that of Nathan Phillips, and Kavanaugh is comfortably installed in the Supreme Court. And St. Mike’s, though none of its students have spoken publicly, has reinstated a Varsity team in which police say members participated in the assaults. These young men have successfully used crime as a means of constructing the kind of stereotypic masculinity that helps them traverse their adolescence and win the acceptance of peers, as well as fathers, coaches, and other hypermasculine role models.

This is the reason Gillette’s latest ad shows, among other aggressive male behaviors, a group of boys chasing another, and asks, “Is this the best a man can get?” Men who thought the ad was portraying them — yikes — believed they were being made to feel toxic just for existing. They responded with the hashtag #gilletteboycott and dumped Gillette’s products en masse. A week after the ad went up, Toronto writer Audra Williams posted a vintage image of Kris Kristofferson comforting Sinead O’Connor on stage at Madison Square Garden in 1992. It was two weeks after she had ripped up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live to protest abuse in the Catholic Church, and the audience would not quiet down. Kristofferson had been tasked with removing the 25-year-old singer from the stage, but instead he held her until she was ready to perform. “The recent Gillette ad has started/furthered a lot of conversations about what alternatives to toxic masculinity look like,” Williams tweeted. “This is it.”

“There’s a very strong confrontation between the two ends of the spectrum right now and in it I think there’s the potential to form a new idea about masculinity,” says Kupers. On the right side there is the President and his hatred of the other, whether it be a woman or literally anyone else who is not like him. That is to say, the loudest voice in America “is giving permission to the most reactionary, the most racist, the most homophobic tendencies in people to be expressed.” On the left side, however, there are a growing number of others — women, women of color, LGBTQ people — in politics, there are campaigns like Gillette’s, there are fourth-wave feminists calling out oppression. So even though hatred may be freely expressed, it will no longer go without being challenged, and therein lies the option to change. “Masculinity is not a fixed entity embedded in the body or personality traits of individuals,” writes Connell. “Masculinities are configurations of practice that are accomplished in social action…” To paraphrase Kupers, they’re not bad kids, but it’s up to their parents, their role models, society as a whole, to ensure that they don’t grow up to be worse.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.