A blogger named ‘femgoggles’ has been kind enough to read and like (or possibly just like!) some of my blog posts and I’ve tried to return the favour whenever he has posted content I particularly enjoyed. Through his blog I learnt about an article written on the website ‘Aero’ by Freya India Ager which explores the idea of ‘toxic femininity’ as a counterpoint to ‘toxic masculinity’. femgoggles has also written about toxic femininity here and here in response to Ms. Ager’s article and also Jordan Peterson’s view of the subject.
In this post, I mainly want to express where I (respectfully) disagree with Ager’s article and my own thoughts on the idea of toxic femininity.
Since I’m just a random guy writing a blog barely anyone has read, I don’t presume to be any kind of expert in this area so people are free to agree or disagree with me as they wish. I don’t particularly like either ‘toxic masculinity’ or ‘toxic femininity’ as a term but since the former has now passed into common usage, it’s important to discuss what these terms mean and how they affect debates on the differences between men and women.
Overview of the article ‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’
The central idea of Freya India Ager’s article is that the current social justice culture that is pervasive in college/university campuses and increasingly across society is directly linked with the predominance of women in the education system and consequently in other institutions. This is because social justice has many features that correlate with “typically female psychopathologies.” Three of the main features described are:
- ‘Cancelling’ others – i.e. cancel culture
- Valuing ’emotional reasoning’ and ‘lived experience’ over rational thinking and empiricism.
- Being overly protective and prioritising safety.
These traits are said to be more predominant in women than in men.
There is certainly a lot of truth in this. ‘Cancel culture’ involves expelling those who are deemed incompatible or threatening to the group whilst avoiding any kind of physical risk or exertion. This reflects women’s tendency to avoid physical conflict and instead engage in ‘reputational destruction’ and social exclusion which is more costly and psychologically upsetting for women than men.
Additionally, the promotion of ‘lived experience’ and personal narratives reflects a female tendency to prioritise feelings and emotions to a greater extent than men. The psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has suggested that women, on average, have an ’empathising brain’ whereas men have, on average, a ‘systematising brain’ which reflects this difference. Ms. Ager notes that the problem with personal narratives is that “faulty conclusions are drawn from subjective experience.”
Finally, over-protectiveness and ‘safetyism’ is rampant across society with the ubiquity of political correctness, ‘trigger warnings’ and the over-emphasis of victimhood and concern for people’s mental health. This, according to Ms. Ager, is reflective of women reacting more strongly to negative experiences and scoring high on personality traits like neuroticism and agreeableness.
Since women are said to be more empathetic than men, it is claimed that these behaviours are an extreme expression of altruism and empathy that has emerged due to women having more power and influence in politics and culture. At these extremes, they do more harm than good and thus can be labelled as ‘toxic femininity’:
“While toxic masculinity may involve caring too little about how others feel, toxic femininity seems to involve caring too much.”‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’ – Freya India Ager
While I agree with Freya India Ager’s observation that social justice culture has many similarities with feminine behaviour, I have some disagreements with what motivates that behaviour and what can be defined as ‘toxic femininity’. It seems to be automatically assumed that social justice warriors are driven chiefly by empathy and compassion as if it is inevitable that if you are high in these traits, you will become a supporter of social justice and political correctness. On the other hand, if you criticise it, then you must be lacking in these traits and must be a less caring person as a result.
Freya Ager ends her article saying:
“Healthy discourse should not put the genders against each other or present women as morally superior, but recognise that we’re all fallible, and need to work together to eradicate all kinds of issues from sexual assault to safetyism.”‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’
This is a fair point, but although she states that we should not “present women as morally superior”, the issues of ‘sexual assault’ and ‘safetyism’ she cites as ones that need addressing by society are presumably meant to represent ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘toxic femininity’. However, sexual assault is clearly worse than safetyism so it comes across in my mind as a little imbalanced. This is especially true if ‘safetyism’ really comes from a place of compassion. It’s a little like saying “we need to work together to eradicate all kinds of issues from murder to talking about other people behind their backs”. Any moral person would agree that, in this example, one is much worse than the other. In short, toxic masculinity comes across as worse than toxic femininity so women could still be perceived as being morally superior.
Similarly, the quote about toxic femininity involving “caring too much” seems to conclude that the negative outcomes of social justice are simply the result of social justice warriors, and women as a group, being too nice for their own good. “Caring too much” is not always a positive trait, of course, as it can mean being hypersensitive and easily offended. In this context though, it’s presented as a good trait gone wrong. It’s as if the argument is: ‘toxic femininity is bad, but at least it comes from a good place’.
I’m not targeting Ms. Ager directly for this view as she has obviously been influenced by other thinkers like Jordan Peterson who has made similar comments. While I agree with a lot of what Jordan Peterson has to say and have definitely being influenced by him, I don’t completely share his view on this which comes down to other disagreements I have with him, and other psychologists, on differences between men and women.
I should make clear that I absolutely believe that there are biological and psychological differences between men and women and most of the research that has been carried out to show this. When it comes to some areas of psychology, however, I believe that some differences between the sexes are more complicated than they are often presented.
If we take empathy as an example, it is widely stated that women are more empathetic than men, reflecting Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories of a distinctive male and female brain. Ager herself writes:
“they’re (MM: women) better at feeling what someone else is going through. For example, when watching others in pain, women show higher activation in a sensory area correlated with pain than men.”‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’
This could be due to women having more pain receptors than men but may also be an evolutionary function relating to caring for infants who can’t communicate what they are feeling verbally. Whatever the reason, empathy is often automatically assumed to be a good thing so there is an assumption that women are generally more selfless and caring than men are.
From my point of view, which is admittedly from a non-psychologist, lay-person perspective, empathy is more complicated than we think. The definition of empathy presented on Wikipedia states that it is “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” While Wikipedia isn’t always the most accurate source of information, in this case this is a suitable summary of how the word is widely understood.
However, if the general idea of empathy is to put yourself in another’s position, does this necessarily mean you need to ‘feel’ what someone else is feeling? Consider that you can ‘think’ about what someone else is going through as well as ‘feel’ it. In order to see someone else’s perspective, you have to detach yourself from your own thoughts and feelings and try to take on someone else’s. This is different to “feeling what someone is going through”. Moreover, the Wikipedia article describes different types of empathy such as cognitive, emotional and spiritual. This suggests that empathy is not wholly tied to feelings.
Thus, even though men don’t feel the pain – or other emotions – of others as readily as women seem to do, they can certainly imagine the experience of being in pain in their mind. This could be the difference between ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking about feeling’. After all, the common phrase to express understanding is ‘I know how you feel’, not ‘I feel how you feel’.
Furthermore, women may very well be better at “feeling what someone else is going through” but does this mean they will inevitably be compassionate and have solidarity with the person they are empathising with? Or could this type of empathy be simply an ability to ‘detect feelings by feeling them ourselves.’ This can definitely lead to sympathy (note that sympathy is a different word) towards a person who is suffering, but could it not also generate an indifferent or, even worse, a malevolent response from other women?
Our ability to understand other people has dark underpinnings as well as virtuous ones. Jordan Peterson has noted, when talking about the story of Adam and Eve, the significance of their covering themselves up after they have eaten the fruit in the Garden of Eden and obtained the knowledge of good and evil. Through this newfound knowledge, they become aware of their nakedness and vulnerability. The ability to feel vulnerable, such as the potential to experience pain, means also recognising the vulnerability of other people. As Peterson puts it: “If I know what hurts me, I know what hurts you too.” In essence, people are aware of suffering which makes them capable of inflicting suffering onto others. In terms of empathy, the ability to feel the pain of others could lead to a positive reaction – i. e. wanting to help and alleviate the pain – but also a negative one – wanting to cause or increase the pain, depending on the individual.
It’s possible that men and women simply have a different way of empathising, although this is just speculation on my part. The important point here though is that empathy is not necessarily just about feelings and compassion; it may primarily be a means to ‘read’ other people by how they feel and then act on it.
Political correctness as a form of compassion and agreeableness
Freya Ager also writes that ‘excessive political correctness’ is a result of the personality trait agreeableness:
“Political correctness is best predicted by the trait agreeableness. In an influential 2003 study, in which over 23,000 men and women from 26 cultures completed personality questionnaires, women scored consistently higher in the traits agreeableness and openness to feelings, whereas men scored higher in assertiveness and openness to ideas.”‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’
Again, whilst speaking as a non-psychologist, I have some disagreements with the conclusions drawn here, which is largely due to my reservations about personality tests in general. It would take me too long here to explain in detail my mixed feelings on personality tests such as the ‘Big 5’ or ‘five factor model’ but I may do one day in the future. I’ll just say that, while there are obviously personality differences between individuals and between men and women, I also believe personality tests are highly subjective which skews their results.
It’s important to note that the argument that ‘political correctness is just compassion’ is also put forward by proponents of it. The same can be said for people who identify as ‘woke’. Like I mentioned before, one of the assumptions made through this argument is that people who oppose political correctness and ‘wokeness’ are therefore lacking in compassion for supposedly disadvantaged groups. In reality, critics of political correctness can be sympathetic and empathetic to less fortunate groups but simply disagree with how to help them.
Also, the idea that certain racial groups, or women and LGBT people, are helpless and inevitably disadvantaged could be said to be very demeaning and patronising. Similarly, the people who support political correctness could be viewed as arrogant and self-satisfied for believing it is necessary for them to protect and rescue groups they’ve designated as disadvantaged or oppressed. Bernard Chapin, on his YouTube channel, used to sometimes do an impression of social justice warriors by patting himself on the back and saying: “I care! You don’t! I care! You don’t!”
It’s not very surprising when we consider this to find that people who support political correctness score themselves highly on wanting to help people and being caring – traits associated with agreeableness. There’s a big difference though with ‘thinking’ you’re agreeable and ‘being’ agreeable. In much the same way, the fact that some people believe themselves to be intelligent doesn’t mean they actually are intelligent.
The academics Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young note in their excellent book Spreading Misandry the tendency to conflate political correctness with compassion or kindness but argue against this assumption; comparing it negatively against other qualities like courtesy and etiquette:
“Far from fostering genuine courtesy, it (MM: political correctness) actually fosters nothing more than outward signs of respect for those deemed on political grounds to be worthy of them. Not all human beings, in other words, are deemed worthy. The term “political correctness” has thus come to imply not only smugness and self-righteousness but hypocrisy as well. Unlike etiquette, which fosters harmony, political correctness fosters disharmony and even polarisation.”‘Spreading Misandry’ by Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young
Political correctness is also useful in smearing certain groups as bad – the most obvious being heterosexual ‘cisgender’ white men. Despite their overwhelming compassion, it appears supporters of PC don’t extend it to this particular group of people.
Nathanson and Young also note:
“What all this amounts to is a very convenient way of silencing potential enemies. Some people are given permission to say anything they want about their real or perceived enemies; the latter are not given permission to respond in kind or even to defend themselves.”‘Spreading Misandry’
This suggests there’s a controlling and belligerent aspect to PC, but this doesn’t fit in with the conventional view of femininity and social justice advocates.
This hostility towards ‘privileged’ groups like straight white men nonetheless has been argued to come from a place of compassion by Jordan Peterson who has labelled it ‘maternal outrage’. The idea here is that this anger towards the designated ‘oppressor’ groups is equivalent to the classic idea of the ‘mother bear protecting her cubs from predators’. There could be something to this but it’s worth noticing how behaviour deemed as negative can be viewed as actually positive and
compassionate depending on how you perceive it. In other words, if you view political correctness as compassion taken too far, any examples of it can be labelled as compassion even though it doesn’t appear that way. In this way, you can reason that any disagreeable acts by agreeable people are actually agreeable. Therefore, political correctness can be justified.
As pointed out in the article, the focus on personal safety and avoiding harm as much as possible – safetyism – in social justice culture is a clear example of its similarities to femininity. One of the most distinctive differences between men and women is their contrasting attitudes to risk taking, with men being more willing to take risks and women being more risk averse. This can also be seen in how mothers and fathers relate to their children. Typically, fathers take a more encouraging and risk-taking approach to their children whilst mothers take a more comforting and risk averse approach. Because of this, the rise of safetyism can be connected to greater female participation in society.
Nevertheless, like political correctness, the emphasis on safety above other considerations is often perceived to come from a place of caring and compassion when, in actuality, it may be motivated by a variety of emotions.
We can relate the motivations of safetyism to what Nathanson and Young outlined in their analysis of political correctness because both can be presented as largely driven by compassion and empathy to certain groups that are labelled ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘oppressed’. However, if you happen to belong to a group considered ‘privileged’, then you may not be considered worthy of social justice warriors’ concerns for safety and protection. To put it another way, if you’re ‘in with the in-crowd’ – i.e. you are a woman, or gay/lesbian, or trans, or a racial minority, then you are viewed as needing protection from harm and criticism. Conversely, if you’re not, then you’re on your own. We could call this ‘selective safetyism’.
Speaking as somebody who has had problems with anxiety and risk-aversion in the past, I also think there’s a misconception about the psychology of risk-taking and risk-averse people. There’s an idea that risk aversion is related to a lack of self confidence, self-belief or a small ego compared to risk-takers who can be characterised as being very confident or having a big ego. This can certainly be true but risk aversion can also be motivated by having a big ego – or a least a fragile one. This is because taking risks does not just expose somebody to life-threatening dangers, but smaller dangers that can ‘bruise’ somebody’s ego and self-image.
For instance, somebody may be wary of saying or doing something that might make them appear stupid or incompetent. This is a fear that can be shared by someone who is shy and timid but also someone who can’t bare people disagreeing with them or criticising them. The person who can’t handle the risk of being proven wrong might find safetyism appealing to cushion their large, unhealthy egos. Risk-takers, alternatively, may have a healthy ego and be willing to be proven wrong.
In my own case, my risk-aversion stemmed from both a lack of self-confidence but also not wanting to ‘look bad’ and be looked down on by others. This isn’t always a bad thing to be concerned about, but it does show that self-interest is a factor in risk-aversion and safetyism.
Social justice as a product of more female influence
Elsewhere, the article argues that social justice culture is a result of greater female influence in politics and society, again echoing some of Dr, Peterson’s ideas. Peterson has argued that men prioritise ‘production’ whereas women prioritise ‘distribution’ as a result of their different personality traits. Women’s increased involvement in politics is said to have influenced social justice because of this. This is plausible, but again I have some disagreements here.
This argument seems to imply that the only genuine power that is possible is direct power. In other words, since men have predominantly wielded power throughout history, only ‘masculine’ versions of it, whatever that may mean, has proliferated. This in itself has shades of feminist thinking in it. Effectively, women have never had direct power, at least in relation to men, therefore they have never had any means to influence society as a whole. This ignores other forms of power like the ability to influence others or ‘indirect power’. A classic example would be Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play. Therefore, we cannot assume that women have never had any power just because they’ve rarely been in positions to directly wield it like men have.
If we look at any cult or dictatorship that existed in the past, even though they were almost always headed by men, both men and women were equally swayed by their influence and often their destructive and damaging tendencies. Whatever social justice tendencies women have, it clearly wasn’t enough to topple these systems, so it’s important to draw a distinction between ‘feminine thinking’ and ‘feminist thinking’.
This raises some interesting questions: if feminism had never occurred, would women have gradually moved into the public sphere anyway? The advance of technology meant that women were no longer as disadvantaged physically from participating in outside endeavours as they once were and breakthroughs in medical science meant that dangers that mostly affected women like death in childbirth and unwanted pregnancies were alleviated. It’s no surprise, then, that women began to advance outside their traditional environment of the home and into greater society. This had been occurring more strongly during the 19th Century onwards before feminism, as we understand it today, had taken hold. Women could have done all this without assuming they were victims and men had historically oppressed them. Of course, feminist thinking advanced whilst this was going on so you could argue that you can’t have one phenomenon without the other.
To reiterate, Freya Ager does make a valid point that social justice culture has feminine traits, but this has been enhanced by turning women in a victim group in need of social justice. In essence, social justice and femininity, toxic or otherwise, have fed into each other so it’s no surprise that social justice culture has developed in this way.
Does ‘toxic’ mean ‘too much’ or just ‘bad’?
At the heart of Freya Ager’s article is the idea that ‘toxic femininity’ means ‘too much femininity’ which is presumed to mean ‘excessive empathy and compassion.’ Essentially, femininity is naturally good but you can always have too much of a good thing. Contrast this with ‘toxic masculinity’ which seems to mean ‘bad masculinity’ as it is associated with too much aggression and violence which, understandably, can be considered bad male qualities. Notice how there’s never an assumption that toxic masculinity could mean ‘too much of a good thing’. A possible positive example of ‘toxic masculinity’ would be a man who works himself so hard that he becomes exhausted and physically unwell which is something that I’ve observed myself. Another example would be a man who risks his own life to try and save someone else’s even though the act is futile.
Something that I’ve noticed is how people assume ‘too much masculinity’ is inevitably a bad thing. Words like ‘hypermasculinity’ or ‘ultramasculinity’ are used to conjure up images of violence, exploitation and destruction. In this way, ‘toxic’ can mean both ‘too much’ and ‘bad’. These terms seem to imply the idea: masculinity is bad – taken too far it’s even worse! Contrastingly, phrases like ‘tonic masculinity’ and ‘healthy masculinity’ suggest that masculinity is only good if it’s presented in a certain way. The word ‘masculinity’ on its own now has so many negative connotations that it has to be prefixed by positive words to soften some of its supposed ‘badness’ and you can no longer assume that there is anything positive about masculinity without them.
This reminds me of a sketch by the comedians Mitchell and Webb whereby Jesus is telling the story of the Good Samaritan to a group of his followers and stresses the goodness of the Samaritan, as if this is uncharacteristic of Samaritans as a group: “He was a GOOD Samaritan, if you can imagine such a thing.” One of his followers takes exception to this and argues that Jesus is reflecting a cliché that “all Samaritans are wankers” and “implying the fact that he was good is worth a story in itself.” I know that isn’t the point of the actual story, and the sketch could also be a parody of people who are easily ‘triggered’ by such things, but to me it also shows how some people view masculinity.
So what is ‘toxic femininity’?
If we have to use the term ‘toxic femininity’ then I think it should be the female equivalent of ‘toxic masculinity’ in that it should be defined as feminine behaviour that society considers to be bad and which should be discouraged. Defining the term as something like ‘excessive compassion and empathy’ simply presents femininity as universally good and selfless. It’s true that anything good taken too far can be a bad thing but that’s not the same as identifying something as distinctively bad.
Here are some examples of what I would consider to be toxic femininity:
- Falsely accusing a man of rape, sexual harassment and/or misogyny/sexism
- Lying to a man by telling him that he’s the father of her child and expecting payments from him when he isn’t (paternity fraud)
- Denying a man access to his children even though he is not a danger to them
- Playing the victim and not taking responsibility for her actions
- Engaging in psychological and physical violence
- Being vindictive and duplicitious
- Highly manipulative
- Using sex and appearance as a way to exploit men
No doubt a woman would complain about the examples I’ve presented here and say: “men do them too!” For some of these, she would be right but the point is that there are behaviours that women need to be aware of as a group that should be discouraged in the same way that men need to be aware of their own flaws too. Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t do anybody any favours.
Ultimately, I was interested in what Ms. Ager had written and was glad it came to my attention (thanks femgoggles) but my understanding of toxic femininity and the psychology of social justice and political correctness differs from hers. I hope I’ve expressed my own position clearly here.