Open Twitter or TikTok, and you’re likely to see a widely-followed teenage boy posing in a skirt or showing off a self-administered black manicure much to the delight of his largely female following. This avenue of male gender nonconformity has reached a semi-mainstream level of approval within liberal spaces and is an excellent development. Open the comment section, however, and you will see thousands of people applauding these men for “saying no to toxic masculinity” or for rejecting gender norms. Outside social media, this response is common as well. Bystanders applaud men clad in crop-tops or who sport eyeliner for eschewing the norms of masculinity. Yet, this seems like giving them too much credit.
We need to expand the scope of male gender nonconformity that we encourage and regard as revolutionary, and to do so, we need to acknowledge our fundamental misconceptions about the definition and functions of toxic masculinity.
Common perceptions of “toxic masculinity” are flawed. We tend to view it as a nebulous, external force with which men must contend, rather than something passed down and perpetuated.
Psychiatrist Terry Kupers defines toxic masculinity as a cluster of socially destructive behaviors that “foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence.” Many have incorrectly distilled it into the notion that men are barred from engaging in stereotypically feminine things or expressing emotions and that it can be combated fully by engaging in these things. By framing it like this, we diminish the people who withstand the true brunt of toxic masculinity, from small-scale disrespect to large-scale acts of violence and abuse.
At my beloved sleepaway camp, experimentation with gender presentation among male staff members is common. They will often borrow friends’ dresses to wear to formal dinners or adorn themselves with flowers and jewelry. It’s wonderful that these young men have the space to present in a way that might earn them ridicule in other communities, and it’s even more valuable that young campers can learn from their example.
However, my female coworkers and I often found ourselves lamenting the gender conformity in other aspects of their behavior. They were still quick to interrupt and speak over us in conversation, inadvertently made misogynistic remarks and left the bulk of the cleaning to their female peers.
Despite the gain in personal feelings of liberation through attire and presentation, any larger implications for equality were unclear. Like the much-praised adolescents of social media, the men at my camp had neglected to shed the deeper hallmarks of masculinity in their quest for gender nonconformity.
Even in the most progressive spaces, this aesthetic sense of nonconformity is not always easy to achieve. The risk of ostracization and even harassment is still present. Still, it is far easier than deeply reckoning with ingrained sexism, standing with survivors of violence rather than acting on a sense of male solidarity and affording female peers and colleagues the same automatic trust and respect granted to their male counterparts. It is easier than contending with anger and aggression and attempting to rewire it into something more productive or calling out sexism in friends and institutions.
These are the gender nonconforming behaviors that will actually aid in dismantling gender norms and hierarchy. We should regard them as the bare minimum, but they should be encouraged and celebrated in the same way that we celebrate flashier, surface-level demonstrations.