What Is Toxic Masculinity?
Toxic Masculinity Actively Opposes A Sustainable Future
When I first embarked on my sustainable living journey in the fall of 2018, I diligently sought out social media experts from whom I could learn. As I started to dive deeper into the sustainable fashion community on Instagram, it became evident that there were very few male creators or activists in that space.
At the time, I attributed this to both Instagram’s wonky algorithm and my inability to use the search function properly. But the pattern never truly left my brain. It wasn’t until a year later that I discovered the trend I’d observed was not imagined at all. It turns out that toxic masculinity is one of the road blocks discouraging men from being environmentalists.
What Is Toxic Masculinity?
Toxic masculinity is a value system that encourages men to engage in behaviors that reinforce misogynistic gender roles. Men who align themselves with these value systems can be aggressive, dominant, and participate in unhealthy emotional restraint.
The term, which is sometimes referred to as “traditional masculinity,” was reportedly coined in the ‘80s by Shepherd Bliss, Ph.D., and recently found its way into the cultural mainstream. Dr. Bliss was one of the prominent leaders of the movement and sought out a new kind of masculinity. In a similar trend, many advocates have stepped up to encourage men to reimagine masculinity in the 21st century.
Toxic masculinity can further be defined in the following ways:
“Deriv[ing] from a rejection of the perceived opposite, femininity, that is so pervasive as to become unhealthy for both men and those around them.” — The Good Men Project
“Traditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors.” — The American Psychological Association
Since toxic masculinity exists as a rejection of femininity, it’s no surprise that then it would also staunchly reject any behaviors seen as feminine. As a result, men typically avoid actions tied into this, like recycling, vegetarianism, or carrying reusable bags. According to a study run by the University of Pennsylvania, both men and women see caring about the environment as ‘feminine.’ This is because, rather than reinforcing the toxic masculine traits like dominance and competition, environmental stewardship is nurturing and cooperative. It’s inherently at odds with internalized, problematic perceptions of masculinity and femininity.
It’s in that logic where toxic masculinity finds itself at odds with environmentalism. However, the real problem is not that some men won’t recycle or carry reusable bags. Instead, it’s that this collective mindset is an opposition movement, and it’s causing real damage. Enter climate deniers.
The Environmental Impact
Conservative white men represent the largest demographic of the climate denial movement in the United States, and a key pillar of climate denialism is what researchers Martin Hultmand and Jonas Anslhem call industrial breadwinner masculinity:
“There is a package of values and behaviors connected to a form of masculinity that I call ‘industrial breadwinner masculinity.’ They see the world as separated between humans and nature. They believe humans are obliged to use nature and its resources to make products out of them. And they have a risk perception that nature will tolerate all types of waste. It’s a risk perception that doesn’t think of nature as vulnerable and as something that is possible to be destroyed. For them, economic growth is more important than the environment.”
Although this climate denialism originates in toxic masculine attitudes, it didn’t manifest out of thin air. CEOs of the top polluting industries, namely fossil fuels, have worked diligently to spread climate denialism through right-wing think tanks for decades, despite knowing about an impending climate crisis since the late 1970s.
The main goal is to prevent any legislation from being passed that would harm their businesses by curbing fossil fuel consumption. They’ve even propped up ‘scientists’ to further legitimize their false information. While these fossil fuel CEOs recognize that climate change is a result of their activity (among other top polluters), they’re so tied to the success of their companies that they’d rather spend billions to oppose necessary climate policy.
Since this misinformation is pushed out through conservative think tanks, their main target is politically conservative individuals who, based on Gallup’s 2019 data, are mostly white men.
The inherent danger here is that these CEOs are leveraging their wealth to create a positive feedback loop for climate denialism fueled by industrial breadwinner masculinity on both ends.
Actions We Can Take To Ensure A Sustainable Future Is Realized
It’s easy to feel defeated when faced with the fact that an anti-environmental framework has been baked into the industrial fabric of our world. However, there are a few ways we as citizens can work together to overcome this:
Push Back on Toxic Masculinity in Your Personal Life: Sometimes, the work we need to do starts with ourselves. If you catch yourself perpetuating toxic masculinity—such as ridiculing someone for behaving in a way that doesn’t align with traditional gender roles—take a moment to stop and reflect. Ask yourself why you felt that either you or someone you know should have behaved in a certain way because of their gender? Do you have to meet that expectation?
Learn How to Be an Intersectional Environmentalist: Intersectionality in the environmental movement is critical for understanding and dismantling harmful structures such as this. This framework can reveal how seemingly unrelated social issues like toxic masculinity are inextricably linked to the climate crisis. (The Intersectional Environmentalist account on Instagram is a wonderful resource to launch this learning journey.)
Get Politically Engaged: Multiple climate movements are working to implement real change to prevent the climate crisis, and there are just as many ways to get involved: join climate protests, donate and support activists’ work, amplify the work already being done, or get involved with climate initiatives at a local government level to drive change in your communities. Here are some great social media accounts to follow: Isaias Hernandez, Farmer Nick, Donté Colley, ALOK, Deon, and Phil the Fixer.
Advocate for New Systems: Toxic masculinity is dangerous for the environment because white men hold an inordinate percentage of wealth and power. This power can be wielded to promote climate denialist agendas. Outside of the political work, we need to reimagine a new world where power is shared equally. We already see examples of this as the California government looks to indigenous groups to lead wildfire management practices.
No matter how you choose to get involved, remember that your activism will never be perfect. What matters is that you continue to show up.
How else can we advocate for a sustainable future while opposing toxic masculinity? Share your ideas in the comments below!
Zach Thomas (he/they) is a Boston-based writer, stylist, and photographer who focuses on sustainability and environmentalism. When they’re not creating, you can find them scouring their local vintage/thrift shops. You can connect with him on Instagram.