Issue 185: 2019 01 17: Toxic What?

17 January 2019

Toxic What?

More misery.

By Neil Tidmarsh

There’s been a lot of debate about ‘toxic masculinity’ this week, with three stories in the news: ballet dancer Sergei Palunin has been dropped from a starring role in a production of Swan Lake by the Paris Opera House because he’s twittered insults against gay men and overweight people; the American Psychological Association has just published a study saying that all traditional masculinity is toxic; and Proctor and Gamble has come under fire for its new Gillette advert “The best men can be.”

But the debate has in fact been rather sterile, and inevitably so.  First of all, the issue isn’t very complex; after all, bad behaviour is bad behaviour, and typically male bad behaviour is easily spotted, impossible to defend and rightly condemned.  Insulting people on Twitter may well be bad behaviour, but is it typically male?  Some traditionally male traits such as “adventure, risk, stoicism and competitiveness” are not bad behaviour; far from it, they’ve enabled our species to survive over the millennia, so the APA’s claim that they’re toxic is clearly absurd.  Secondly, some of the arguments are misdirected; the Gillette advert has been attacked on the one hand by people who think it promotes toxic masculinity, and on the other hand by people who thinks it demonises men.  In fact, it does neither – there’s nothing wrong with its content – what stinks about it is the way it has climbed on board the bandwagon and is opportunistically and self-righteously exploiting an important and admirable issue for the petty and sordid purpose of selling stuff and making money.  Proctor and Gamble should know better after Pepsi sailed into a storm last year with its advert riding on the back of the “Black Lives Matter” protests.

No, by far the most interesting point – and possibly the only interesting point – to come out of the debate was made by Professor Frank Furedi of Kent University who, commenting on the APA’s report, said “The words toxic and masculinity are casually put together in a way that would be beyond unthinkable if you were to talk about ‘toxic femininity’”.

‘Toxic femininity’!  A new and dangerous concept, perhaps, but – hot on the heels of my comments last week – it immediately made me think of The Favourite.  After all, the film shows us a trio of women so poisonous that it’s practically a misogynist’s stereotype of ‘toxic femininity’.  Abigail poisoning, Sarah poisoned, Queen Anne ill with all kinds of poisons breaking out of her body.  And the unhappiness produced – by them in the story and by the film among the audience (well, I found it depressing) – could that be another type of dangerous poison produced by this kind of toxicity?

In last week’s Shaw Sheet I observed that female lead characters invariably seem to have an unhappy time in current films which tell women’s stories – stories which are invariably unhappy.  This week, the film Roma made the news because Netflix has launched the most expensive and exhaustive campaign in the history of the Oscars to get it nominated as Best Picture.  I haven’t seen the film, but apparently it’s a story about the unhappiness and guilt of a Mexican maid who is made pregnant by a lover who then abandons her; she works in a house where the wife is abandoned by her husband…

Also this week, cultural offerings other than movies registered high on my miseryometer.  I couldn’t help noticing that all three of the literary (ie non-genre) novels reviewed in one newspaper last Saturday appeared to tell unhappy stories about unhappy female main characters (and were written by women, presumably for a female readership).  This isn’t intended as a critique of the books themselves – I haven’t read them and I should emphasise that the reviews were all very favourable – but the reviewers’ comments were interesting: in one book, the main character “is married off” to a husband who “hits her… that is what men do…”, then she “is forced into a relationship with a … thug”; in another, the main character “is estranged from her family… she lives alone, confined by agoraphobia… she self-medicates with merlot, prescription drugs…”; and in the third, the main character is abandoned by her mother and beaten by her father – “her isolation, aged ten, is complete…”, she is mocked at school, she is humiliated in a diner, “other children have been forbidden to play with her.”

Of course, unhappiness is part of the human condition, and thus a relevant subject for art.  And perhaps all human beings have an innate appetite for things melancholic, just as they have an appetite for, say, sugar?  John Keats’ Ode to Melancholy is a hymn in praise of the pleasures of this “wakeful anguish of the soul”.  Perhaps it’s another “survival of the species” thing: empathising with your fellow human beings’ pain is the first step towards helping them.  And perhaps women, being more empathetic than men (if such generalities are still valid and still allowed), are more responsive to sadness in others, more receptive to the call of “Veil’d Melancholy”, more vulnerable to its appeal, more ready to “taste the sadness of its might”?  But is our culture exploiting this appetite, making the female consumer gorge on melancholy like some sort of addictive poison?  After all, it’s been making the traditionally male consumer gorge on the addictive poison of violence for decades now.

I asked last week if unhappiness was just a lazy story-telling trick to involve the audience by harnessing sympathy with the heroine; but could it be more than this – are the people who make our culture – the film producers, the TV commissioners, the publishers, etc – demanding and pushing Melancholy because they know it will reliably shift copy and put bums on seats (and win awards for gritty realism), just as food producers know that lots of sugar will shift their product?  But is it unwise – even perhaps immoral – to feed certain appetites?  It certainly isn’t wise to feed the unhealthy appetite for sugar, which is now being labelled as a toxin, addictive and harmful, responsible for today’s epidemic of obesity.  Let’s not forget that there’s currently an epidemic of depression among girls and young women.

Is an unhealthy taste for misery a sign of ‘toxic femininity’, just as an unhealthy taste for violence is a sign of toxic masculinity?

I’m simply observing what looks to me like a definite trend in our culture today, and asking questions about it.  I couldn’t explain it and I couldn’t answer those questions.  I certainly don’t want to be guilty of mansplaining.  (And I wouldn’t suggest any kind of censorship, of either misery or violence.)

But, as an antidote to my observations and questions, I would certainly recommend a superb film – well-made, inspiring and uplifting – which I saw last week; a true story about a truly strong woman (not one who is simply obstinate and selfish) of great achievement and power who has had the strength and dedication to develop her gifts, and the courage and goodness to dedicate them to improving the world.  Competent indeed, perhaps even contented.  (Yes, she’s suffered unhappiness and misfortune – as have most of us, I imagine – but the film doesn’t linger over it or sentimentalise it or exploit it, but simply faces up to it in passing as just a part of life.  And she certainly isn’t a victim.)

The film is RBG, and it’s about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.  It’s a documentary (perhaps significantly), but it is in cinemas on general release.  Do see it, if you can.


Follow the Shaw Sheet on

It's FREE!

Already get the weekly email?  Please tell your friends what you like best. Just click the X at the top right and use the social media buttons found on every page.

New to our News?

Click to help keep Shaw Sheet free by signing up.Large 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list