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Opinion – It’s time to talk about the toxicity of traditional gender roles

Despite an increase in gender fluidity, traditional narratives of what it means be male or female persist. At their most extreme, both ideals have potential to be extremely damaging.

We tend to refer to toxic masculinity as displays of aggressive, dominant behaviours by men who make considerable efforts to become the archetype of a hyper-macho alpha.

In our patriarchal society, instances of this can be found everywhere. From dads who tell their sons to ‘grow up and stop crying’, to colleagues man-splaining in the workplace, and guys who man-spread on the tube, catcall on the street, or commit acts of violence towards others in society.

The phrase became a buzzword so prevalent during the #MeToo era that it entered the sphere of political commentary, and has been used in the media to describe scandals involving male athletes and celebrities.

But as discussions surrounding male mental health gain traction, we’ve started recognising that many such behaviours stem from the intense and damaging social pressures men face to be tough, strong, and void of emotion.

As far as the narrative around ‘toxic femininity’ goes – what expressions of it look like and why they manifest in the first place – the topic is far less discussed.

What is toxic femininity?

Like men, women live by a set of rules imposed on us by the society in which we grow. While these may vary according to culture, women are typically fed the same story.

Early on, we are conditioned to be soft, empathetic, nurturing, and compassionate – traits that are admittedly glorified in our current, chaotic era – but even these qualities have potential to become problematic.

Assigning these attributes to women has ensured that we remained systematically oppressed throughout most of history. As a means of survival, women have learned to manipulate femininity in covert ways to achieve our own goals and desires, in both professional and private realms.

Although women have become increasingly present in leadership positions in the workplace, societal values of femininity subsist, resulting in a conflicting medley of expectations about how we should act.

In a bid to preserve an acceptable level of effeminateness, female leaders may engage in subtle forms of conflict with colleagues rather than take an outright authoritative stance. As a result, women often find themselves on the receiving end of accusations that they are ‘passive aggressive’ and ‘snide’ from male and female associates alike.

Never mind the plethora of self-help books for women who are navigating male-dominated workspaces. Studies on gender in the workplace suggest that when women are accused of bullying, 90 percent of their victims are other women.

Perhaps we recognise each other’s tactics because, at some point or another, we have unwittingly performed them ourselves.

In most cases, controversy arises when women abandon their role as ‘the nice girl’, because toxic femininity tells all of us that it is socially unacceptable for women not to be her. Attempts to save face often win the battle over being labelled ‘difficult’ or ‘uncompromising.’

Further manifestations of toxic femininity

Alongside the recommendation to adopt self-sacrificing characteristics, women are constantly reminded of their role through the male gaze. The usual: sit like a lady, wear makeup (but not too much), strive for the perfect body, be the prettiest in the room.

Unfortunately, this steers women into competition not just with each other, but into a constant battle with our own identity and values. The practice of measuring our own femininity (and the value of each-other’s) in line with conventional paradigms only strips us further of opportunities to break the mould.

In the words of Devon Price, ‘Sexism says that a woman is too frail or docile to play a contact sport; toxic femininity says that you don’t want to play football anyway, sweetie, you would look horrible and sweaty in the helmet and pads.’

The unending endeavour to grasp what we believe femininity is or is not, bears witness to women inadvertently perpetuating its most toxic elements throughout many moments in our own lives, too.



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Can Gen-Z scrap toxic gender roles altogether?

The growth of gender fluid fashion and the number people identifying as non-binary are indications of how the world – at least in the West – is on the cusp of treating visible gender ideals as the social construct they are.

But while those embracing these identities may be able to writhe out of traditional confinements of what it means to be a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, for the heteronormative population, these still prevail.

Studies have suggested that strict gender stereotypes can ‘distort our views of both ourselves and others,’ and that the consequences of this can be monumentally damaging to our self-image, personal success, and society as a whole.

A lack of flexibility when it comes to either heteronormative gender roles will create a breeding ground for toxic behaviour. So until we change our beliefs about these, we risk never making enough real progress.

Finally, we cannot point at a single person to blame for the existence of these narratives. But acknowledging that both men and women are vulnerable to succumbing to toxic emulations of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ can help us make a considerable step towards beginning to stamp them out.


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