Chapter 6: Spiritual Anthropologies II: Ecofeminism, Iris Murdoch, and Other Reflections on the Human Situation

6.3 Toxic Masculinity and Other Deadly Pollutants

One misconception that is important to deconstruct is that the current social hierarchy and overly dominating society is beneficial to men, and only harmful to women. In reality, the structure is damaging to our planet, women, and men alike. As concepts of masculinity dominate women, they dominate men as well, holding them to standards that are both unrealistic and often detrimental to society and the environment.

The term ‘toxic masculinity,’ while often associated with third-wave feminism [1], actually originated from male activists of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement in the 1980s and 90s. Begun as a self-help group for men, this movement viewed the forces of industrialization as poisonous and dehumanizing to male identity, leading to over-competitiveness, lack of friendships, and suppression of emotions—all characteristics associated with a modern understanding of ‘toxic masculinity.’ According to American sociologist Michael Messner, toxic masculinity was responsible for “trapping men into straitjackets of rationality, thus blunting the powerful emotional communion and collective spiritual transcendence that men in tribal societies typically enjoyed”(Messner, 2000). [2]

Susan Faludi discusses the harm that the modern paradigm of masculinity inflicts on men in her book, Stiffed. Faludi explains a flawed assumption permeating many feminist theories that argues “male crisis in America is caused by something men are doing unrelated to something being done to them” (Faludi, 2000). The reality is that the patriarchal expectation of masculinity dehumanizes men as well as women. Cultural norms pressure men to take control “to survive in a nation that expects them to dominate” (Faludi, 2000). Since the post-world war II era, American culture has recreated the ideal of what it means to be a man, and reinforced it repeatedly with priming and media messaging. Industrialization came with the emphasis that masculinity meant consistent drive to rise from rags to riches, and “claim, control, and crush everyone and everything in your way” (Faludi, 2000).

Men are expected to be the makers of history, the financial breadwinners, and physically and mentally strong at all times. The United States itself was created by “metaphorically orphaned Sons of Liberty,” and the firm belief that hard work is essential to an ultimate goal of “individual success” in the material form (Faludi, 2000). While there is nothing inherently evil in working hard, doing so in a way that harms others or oneself is detrimental to societal wellbeing. When determining the source of this masculine ideal, it is noteworthy that perhaps an American national feeling that we must “prove ourselves” to the world [3] has contributed to a culture that praises power and domination. In any case, this ideal perpetuates toxic masculinity, and adds fuel to the myth of the American Dream.

Elements of the idea of heroism in America are directly related to a history of domination: through war, imperialism, the manifest destiny, and the constant push towards increased “productivity.” The American dream itself is wed to dehumanization–through male exploitation as expendable soldiers and the oppression, exploitation, and domination of multiple marginalized groups, including women. Historically, in a domination-driven culture, profits have always been prioritized over people. Thus in part, the environmental problem lies in the reality that an American man’s self-worth is defined by his ability to attain and provide wealth, in a world where resources are finite. This unrealistic expectation leads to male feelings of inadequacy and environmental destruction, a cycle that is perpetuated by American consumerism.

Accompanying the male expectation to dominate, is the male expectation to suppress emotion. From a young age, men are taught that crying is something to be ashamed of, one of the first introductions to the societal expectation that being emotional is a feminine characteristic. Western culture discourages feeling as feminine, and feminine as weak, in a world desperately short on empathy. Empathy extends beyond the awareness of one’s feelings, to fully understanding the feelings of another being. It is emotion in the selfless form, and has been cited as one of the final hopes to resolving the ecological crisis. In an age where humans must prioritize the interests of others and future generations as well as their own, empathy is needed now more than ever before.  Like the boy’s choices in The Giving Tree, our collective actions as a society often seem void of empathy. Rather than tending to the environment for the benefit of others, vulnerable populations and future generations, Western society strips nature of all she has, regardless of who bears the pain of this overconsumption. It is said that the ecological crisis is really a human crisis, as the physical problems in the environment are a direct result of human action. Arguably, much of the problem lies not in the environment, but in an aggressive culture that suppresses empathy. Will American society ever achieve collective empathy, if nearly half of its population  is discouraged from even expressing their own feelings?

Carol Gilligan described the societal deficiency of empathy in her influential book, In A Different Voice. Through numerous case studies, Gilligan determined that both men and women alike associate “the acquisition of adult power as entailing the loss of feminine sensitivity and compassion,” and that “to be ambitious means to be power hungry and insensitive” (Gilligan, 1982). Traditionally, research showed that men are more likely to tie moral dilemmas to “rights and rules,” while women tend to view these issues as “problems of care and responsibility in relationships” (Gilligan, 1982). This social tendency revealed itself through a three-year study on adolescent responses to various social dilemmas, led by researchers Norma Haan and Constance Holstein. When faced with difficult moral decisions, the largest distinction between male and female participants were “the greater extent to which women’s judgements are tied to empathy and compassion” over logic alone (Gilligan, 1982).

More recently, this widely perceived gender distinction has been applied to the study of a gender basis for perceptions of eco-friendly behaviors. Studies have shown that overall, women lead more environmentally conscious lifestyles, care more about climate change, and believe humans have a moral obligation to protect the planet (Brough & Wilkie, 2017). Furthermore, a recent study led by Dr. Aaron Brough and Dr. James Wilkie suggested that there could be a psychological perception among men that “green behavior” is feminine (Brough & Wilkie, 2017). Study participants overwhelmingly perceived behaviors that were good as opposed to bad for the environment, such as using canvas bags over plastic, as “feminine” actions. While these findings cannot be applied to all people, as there are likely as many environmentally-conscious men as there are wasteful women, this study highlights a societal notion that masculinity is characterized by competitiveness, individualism, and the drive to accumulate power and wealth above all else.

While biological gender differences in fetal brain development have been suggested as a source of distinction, cultural expectations and traditions undoubtedly exacerbate and reinforce behavioral gender differences. Today, patriarchies, which by definition are the systems of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women, continue to persist (Giddens, 2006). Women are taught to be submissive and self-sacrificing in a world where influence is attained through aggression and competition. These patterns have been most associated with the Western world, but that influence has spread, and the results are detrimental to all.

  2. The following podcasts explore related topics further: 2019: All Sides with Ann Fisher:; 1999: Susan Faludi on White Male Discontent:; 2016: NPR Health Shots:; 2017: Tom Ashbrook, On Point:
  3. Joseph Sax argues in Mountains Without Handrails that Americans, in part, set up national parks to show off our lofty mountains to the rest of the world, to argue that young America was just as amazing as older European countries. This was born of our national insecurity, and new-nation feelings of being weak or young or small, so we needed to make ourselves feel bigger and more impressive.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.