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The problem with toxic masculinity
It's not what you think!
One of the most unpleasant aspects of researching Momfluenced was digging through momfluencer accounts that either spread misinformation and conspiracy theories (the QAmoms and the sunscreen-is-the-devil mamas) or uphold racist, misogynistic, trans-phobic, and homophobic beliefs.
And unfortunately, once you start hurtling down the rabbit hole of problematic (usually white) momfluencers, you realize it’s a deep, deep hole.
Inspired by Venn diagram extraordinaire, Amanda Montell, here’s my attempt to illustrate this corner of the mamasphere (a corner of which was scary, depressing, and extraordinarily un-fun to research).
The beautiful momfluencer sponconning the “only facial oil you’ll ever need” and brandishing her guasha stone is also highly likely to be homeschooling her kids, ranting about toxins, orgasming while pushing a baby out of her body, invested in “freedom-fighting,” making cynical reels mocking vaccines, curing whatever ails her with adaptogens, and topping her linen jumpsuit off with a jaunty red MAGA hat.
In my research, one such momfluencer popped up in my feed over and over again. She’s anti a lot of things. She’s anti-sunscreen, anti-mold, anti-vaccines, anti-chemical birth control, anti-mask, anti-Tylenol, and anti-caesarean section.
But she’s not a total Debbie Downer. She’s also very much pro-melatonin, pro-sun, pro-castor oil, pro-beef liver, pro-magnesium baths, pro-mouth tape, andddddddd . . .
There are many, many momfluencers who champion similar beliefs as the ones highlighted in today’s WTF, so I’m not really interested in doing a specific “take-down” of this particular person. I AM interested in interrogating the beliefs she’s sharing with her 136k followers.
In addition to outlining which “masculine” traits are disappearing in our apparently not-toxic-enough modern men, this momfluencer reveals the main offenders in the “war against men.”
Unsurprisingly, feminism, godlessness, the erosion of the heteronormative nuclear family unit, and “feminizing” chemicals in our food and water are to blame. Sadly, Netflixxing and chilling also takes a hit.
What’s not to blame for toxic masculinity? A culture that glorifies guns and dominance and argues that boys will be boys and that girls should be pure and sweet and that boys should learn to take things like a man and girls should stop being so hysterical and emotional and gender essentialism and gender binaries and rugged individualism and stiff upper lips and we should all be in servitude to the bottom line.
The base-line absurdity of this post is clear: the problems plaguing our culture can mostly be blamed on women: either by being too feminist, too masculine, or not knowing how to “follow” men who don’t know how to “lead.” This is text-book pro-femininity, anti-feminist rhetoric.
As is typical with posts designed to be inflammatory, the comments are a trip. Many people chime in to back up and “contextualize” the post, arguing that many of the qualities we associate with “toxic masculinity” (“aggression,” “avoidance,” “disrespect”) are actually caused by too little testosterone (and apparently not enough lumberjacking or whatever).
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Toxic masculinity arises, these people argue, when men are not free to be “natural” men and women’s “natural” qualities are perverted by feminism. Toxic masculinity arises when modernity (and perhaps more liberal, inclusive, empathetic politics) get in the way of a Good Man leading his Good Wife to create a Good Family in a Good America.
It’s easy to be outraged by the loud part of this Instagram post, that “toxic masculinity” is actually caused by failure to adhere to heteronormative ideals, and that if “men would be men” and “women would be women” and shun modernity in favor of getting in touch with the “good old days,” masculinity would be appropriately masculine and femininity would be appropriately feminine and all would be well with the world. Good Men would be confident, strong, and “in control,” while Good Women would be submissive, happy to be led, and protected.
So yeah, the loud part of this post indisputably sucks. But the quiet part of this post is just as worthy (maybe more so?) of exploring.
The quiet part of this post claims that an appropriately testosterone-y man (ie a Good Masculine Man not a Toxically Masculine Man) believes that “family>everything else.”
At first glance, this seems like an innocuous statement. Family first; home is where the heart is; live, laugh love; etc.
But “family>everything else” paves the way for a whole host of apparently innocuous but actually quite insidious beliefs, and those beliefs work to rationalize a whole host of harmful actions.
“Family>everything else” enables people to focus only on insular upward mobility, prioritizing the needs and desires of a minority (one’s own immediate family OR one’s own racial “family”) regardless of whether doing so directly or indirectly hurts others.
Maybe this means opting out of public school in favor of private school or homeschooling so that you can raise your child without external influence (this influence might be exposure to some kid on the bus teaching your kid a curse word or it could be exposure to children from different races or socioeconomic backgrounds, which would necessarily broaden your kid’s viewpoint and perspective).
Maybe this means spending the bulk of one’s time researching the best macrobiotic diet to ensure the best health outcomes for one’s children while simultaneously ignoring the fact that your neighbor who works three jobs can’t afford to feed her children dinner.
Maybe this means #protectthechildren but only if those kids are white and certainly not if those kids are Black and being killed by the police.
Maybe this means investing energy in making American great again for people for whom America has historically been great: white, straight, cis, non-disabled men with access to cultural capital and generational wealth.
Maybe this means protecting (at all costs) assumed norms (patriarchy, capitalism, heteronormativity, white supremacy) to defend against the threat of change (gender equality, socialism, LGBTQ+ equality, and racial equity).
“Family>everything else” means that a lot of “everything else” can be ignored, indirectly damaged, and deliberately destroyed under the guise of “family values.”
I recently read (and absolutely loved) Jeanna Kadlec’s meticulously researched and beautifully written memoir about leaving the evangelical church and finding herself, Heretic. Kadlec not only outlines the historical, social history of American evangelicalism (an impressive feat - there’s a lot there!) she also argues that evangelical rhetoric bleeds into mainstream American life in ways that most of us are simply not able to see.
According to a 2020 Pew Research study, half of Americans, far more than the white evangelical population alone, think the Bible should influence US law. [!!!!!!!!!!! this is from me not from Heretic] Nearly a third—28 percent—insist that strict adherence to Christian scripture should supersede the will of the American people [!!!!!!!!!! me again!]. This is the theocracy the Puritans dreamed of, not the so-called “land of the free.” Consider that the Bible gets trotted out in the law, wielded against LGBTQ+ folks, especially children (Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill); trans kids in Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Iowa, and elsewhere); against people who get abortions, against immigrants seeking asylum.
In the above passage, Kadlec shows how evangelicalism does not merely refer to organized religious bodies, but to a type of worldview that desires to shrink and contain the world and its citizens, a worldview that seeks to dominate, a worldview that works to legally erase some people’s right to exist.
This worldview—a worldview which idealizes masculine men, feminine women, patriarchal leadership, and the white nuclear family—is easily disseminated by at-first-glance-benign phrases like “family>everything else.” And many of us are so accustomed to the belief that family should be greater than everything else, that we fail to see how such a belief is not inclusive, benign, or apolitical. “Family>everything else” is by design exclusionary and deeply invested in upholding, empowering, and enabling the rise of the alt-right.
As Kadlec writes in Heretic, “evangelicalism itself is not a singular denomination but an ideology,” and that ideology espouses the status quo at all costs. And the status quo is pretty scary! Family values but only if your family has the right skin color, the right sexual orientation, the right bodies, the right income, the right ethnic background, and is on the right side of power.
So yes. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at this type of momfluencer content. It’s easy to be angered and annoyed by ignorant, misguided, bad-faith arguments against feminism and pro-toxic masculinity. But the more I’m confronted by this type of content, the more I’m convinced that the cloak of respectability (read: whiteness and heteronormativity) encasing the bombastic, polarizing rhetoric is sometimes more frightening than the rhetoric itself. Especially when that cloak of respectability is embroidered with white maternal authority, an idealized identity which sanitizes even the most hateful messaging and renders it as American and easy-to-swallow as apple pie.