In its annual tradition, Oxford Dictionary declared the 'Word of the Year' for 2018 as 'toxic'. "From 'toxic air' to 'toxic politics', the sheer scope of its application in 2018 made 'toxic' the stand-out choice for our Word of the Year," wrote Oxford Dictionary.
While we can't ignore 'toxic air' and 'toxic politics', of late the conversation has been around “toxic masculinity”.
It’s the boss who responds to sexual rejection by taking away key projects, it’s the lover who demands a “blow job, right now”, it’s the friend who says “get over it” when a woman cries about sexual harassment.
However, although the term “toxic masculinity” is used loosely to imply that men, in general, are insensitive beasts, this is not true. What toxic masculinity really refers to is when stereotypically male traits that are endorsed by a culture take forms that damage society and ultimately men themselves. Strength morphs into violence, assertiveness warps into entitlement, stoicism is twisted into emotional stuntedness. The result is men who can’t take no for an answer, who are unable to empathize with others, and who sometimes become the subjects of #MeToo posts.
But as any self-help guru worth their salt will tell you: where there is a yin, there is a yang. Is there such a thing as toxic femininity? I believe there is, and it takes many forms.
It’s the manager who verbally abuses teammates and then blames pre-menstrual syndrome, it’s the lover who withholds sex until she gets her way about a vacation, it’s the counsellor who empathizes so deeply with a client that she tells her to file a false rape case. Toxic femininity is when women use their gender to obtain certain privileges. It is when noxious, indirect modes of confrontation are masked with gentleness. It is when empathy turns into ethical shortsightedness. Just like toxic masculinity, toxic femininity is the product of a deeply patriarchal society and systems and thus requires greater examination.
The imminent rise of toxic femininity
Urgent whispers that stop when you walk into the room. When you ask what the secret is, they say, “nothing”.
An offhand comment about your shoes, elegantly summing up how you just cannot fit in.
She’s the kindest boss you ever had, yet why is her name on the report you authored?
You once bonded over feminism but she treats you like a pariah now that you’ve had a baby.
Constant comments about your body, but how can you be offended? She’s a woman after all.
Traditionally feminine values such as empathy, compassion, nurturance, team-playing—whether they are expressed in men or women—are already being valorized, with good reason, as being generally better for society. However, just as we erred by placing male traits on a pedestal (look where that got us!), we also need to exercise caution when we extol feminine virtues.
Thing is, men and women are part of the same species. It’s just that we’ve been conditioned differently and so our gendered pathologies are different. Men have long had a physical and social advantage, allowing them to aggress more forcefully and openly. Women have been deeply and systematically oppressed so they have had to hone their skills in subtler but also devastating forms of warfare.
Just as toxic masculinity harms men and women, so does toxic femininity. Except that toxic femininity has not really been unpacked in mainstream discourse, except for the poorly thought through rantings of men’s rights groups. This is because in many cultures women have only recently started entering positions of power and leadership in the public sphere.
Their participation in the workforce is still low. Archetypes such as the smothering mother, the entrapping lover, the scheming mother-in-law, the backstabbing friend have been around for a long time but they have been seen as individual nuisances in the private sphere.
However, these types of toxicities are likely to get a corporate “makeover” as more women assume their rightful place in society and in larger decision-making. Female forms of power-seeking and covert aggression will be more evident and more capable of inflicting greater damage.
Women vs. women
There is a lot of discussion around making workplaces better for women, but an inconvenient fact seems to have been lost along the way: women are aggressors too, particularly against others of the same gender.
In a recent study, more than 70% of women reported feeling bullied by their female colleagues. This is compatible with the findings of a 2014 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute that found that while more males are bullies, they are a bit more equal opportunity about it (57% female targets and 43% male targets). Women prefer to unleash on other women (68% female targets, 32% male targets). There is nothing surprising about this.
Because of how society has been structured, women have traditionally targeted other women, usually within domestic or personal settings. You have the mother-in-law with her handy can of kerosene, friendly neighbourhood aunties who make humiliating observations about your reproductive status, friends who patiently eat biscuits while they plot to destroy your standing in a social group. At the workplace too, women keep other women in line in various ways: malicious gossip, rumour campaigns, the threat of social exclusion and disapproval. This kind of aggression is often difficult to call out since it is operates under the cover of sweet smiles and friendly greetings. Women can be really, really good at plausible deniability—“Oh I forgot to CC you in about the junket invite, silly me” or “I thought you didn’t want the promotion because you have kids to think of” or “We didn’t call you for lunch because you’re so quiet we sometimes we just forget you exist tee hee”.
Women, more than men, exert crushing pressure on each other to look a certain way and girls’ cliques can feel as exclusionary and noxious as boys’ clubs. Also, some women colleagues are not downright malicious but they are firmly allied to whoever is in power. They may offer you empathy and snacks from their tiffin box, but if you complain to them about the big boss sexually harassing you, you may not be able to bank on them to actually support you. It is the job of feminist discourse to promote balance and equality in society, and that includes intervening when women drag other women down (although feminists themselves are notorious for in-fighting).
Weakness for the win
When it comes to men, women have some unique weapons in their arsenal.
One is using their “weakness” to their advantage. In 2017, a media company gave women the option to take the first day of their periods off. I’ll reserve my opinion on that, but in one of my workplaces, women would have a standing ploy to cadge a sickie from a male boss. “Just tell him you have your period and he won’t be able to tolerate the embarrassment!” Others would cite “family pressures” to avoid working late even if they didn’t have any, which did a disservice to the women who were actually struggling. Some did not want to do certain types of assignments, but instead of stating their preferences clearly they would make mysterious “excuses” about “woman problems”. Female bosses were often highly sceptical but male managers acquiesced quickly. Some women I know would refuse to carry their own laptop bags to the parking lot during their pregnancies (uncomplicated ones) and make the office peon do it.
Such behaviours, when used regularly as tactics to get perks, harm general perceptions of a woman’s ability and credibility. Women, in general, are seen as “unfit” to do some types of jobs. This could change if more of us spoke up assertively, right from the start, about our preferences and goals for our schedules and career paths rather than feeding into stereotypes about women as the weaker sex.
Some women also deploy their sexuality in various degrees (ranging from, say, signing off e-mails with “kiss you, miss you” to suggesting the possibility of sex), to achieve strategic ends. It is not uncommon to see professional spaces being rife with mating behaviours from women and men, which is problematic both ways. It creates a confusing environment where the dance of flirtation could go wrong for either party. Incidentally, I once had an older woman boss who liked to leverage the sexuality of younger women on the team to pander to powerful superiors at functions. It made her look good, she said if the young women dressed sexily and showed cleavage.
All the above examples, of course, show how women are complicit in perpetuating the patriarchal order but nothing will change if we absolve them of accountability, or worse, dub them as victims too.
Finally, as more women gain in power and go higher up in the food chain, women’s aggressions are likely to evolve and become more like what we identify as male patterns. A study found that male and female bosses share the same typically masculine traits. While this could be a function of having “what it takes” to get power, it could also be a function of power, which as many studies have found, has a naturally corrupting effect. Already, in Western societies we see more women committing sexual offences. It’s established fact that men are terrible, but women are slowly catching up.
We need to dispel the myth that men can never be victims of women, especially as parity grows between genders. One in seven men said they had been sexually harassed in a 2017 Marketplace-Edison Research Poll, and one in five complaints filed with the US Equal Opportunity Commission were by males. They too suffered stigma, shame and gaslighting, along with the burden of the widespread belief that men always want sex and cannot be exploited by women.
Does this mean women should be kept subjugated so that they don’t become “as bad” as men? Certainly not. The case I am making here is for an inclusive movement to address sexual harassment and workplace bullying in all its forms.
When kindness ‘kills’
Even as women embrace ambition and power, they feel pressurized to be seen as agreeable and non-confrontational. This conflict may be resolved through covert modes of conflict and passive aggression, which I have described earlier. It may also lead to poor feedback and thus poor performance of the company. At a publishing house I worked in many years ago, a managing editor was known for her propensity to redo the shoddy work of her subordinates. This is because she hated criticizing others. Everyone loved her for “kindness”, but she got burned out and quit and the subordinates never improved their skills or took responsibility. Her “kindness” was both a way of exerting control and maintaining a saintly image, but it backfired.
Empathy, a trait that is seen as highly desirable, is also a continuum with a toxic component. A good example of this is the #MeToo movement. When feelings and beliefs are given precedence over all else, any social justice movement would stand on shaky ground. #BelieveHer goes the hashtag but it truly fails the “veil of ignorance” test— to put it crudely, would you want yourself or your loved ones to be at the receiving end of a movement that is so firmly allied to a particular section of people that it doesn’t even want to hear a rebuttal? #MeToo is driven by empathy, but this is one of its greatest weaknesses too. Women have historically not been taken seriously enough, so the solution has been to promote unquestioning faith for every woman and to quash skepticism and inquiry with outrage. In their mass display of empathy, some feminists are playing into the hands of hostile parties who think that #MeToo is riddled with false accusations and is terminally biased. The message gets less buy-in, which is a pity.
When we speak of change, of equality, of fairness, we must include all of humanity. We cannot do that by pitting the genders against each other as believable vs. unbelievable, victim vs. perpetrator, good vs. bad, saint vs. sinner. These binaries do a disservice to women as well as men. Have women had a raw deal compared to men? Yes. Are they generally less violent than men? Yes. But are all women the same? No. Are women capable of causing destruction, including for other women? Yes – and that is toxic femininity for you.