NEW YORK - Before anyone coined the term “toxic masculinity,” there was “testosterone poisoning,” and the shade of difference in their meanings says a lot about the way culture and behavioral science have shifted over the last 40 years.
The notion of toxic masculinity just had its big cultural moment when it was uttered in a voice over at the beginning of a Gillette ad, “The Best Men Can Be.” The series of vignettes that followed seemed to be saying that nice men should stop bullies and harassers in their tracks, and bad men should try to be nice.
Less noticed at the same time was a new set of American Psychological Association guidelines, which declared harmful some traits the APA associated with traditional masculinity, including stoicism, dominance and aggression.
The moment for “testosterone poisoning” occurred in 1975 with the publication of a Ms. Magazine essay by Alan Alda — a nice guy who isn’t known for dominance or aggression. He was known for becoming the first prominent male celebrity to declare himself a feminist, for helping create one of television’s most acclaimed shows, and for being funny.
Symptom No. 1 of testosterone poisoning was competitiveness so strong that victims pride themselves in finishing before their partner in bed. Another symptom was an obsession with measurement (Alda went so far as to reveal which body part men are most likely to measure), as well as the tendency to walk around on chicken legs while evaluating women on the shapeliness of our legs.
It wasn’t meant to be taken literally, though it wouldn’t have been funny if there weren’t some truth to it. The term also acknowledges biology, while toxic masculinity implies a cultural problem. A recent New York Times column made the case that social science has become politicized so that the left sees culture as the source of all gender-related conflicts and disparities, and the right sees only innate differences.
Reaction to the Gillette ad followed political lines, with commenters on the right seething and those on the left reporting that they cheered, even cried. I tried to watch it a couple of times for research purposes. It was pompous, humorless and weirdly retrograde, with men swooping in to save pretty damsels from thuggish jerks. But then if Gillette ads depicted the real world, they’d have to switch from selling razors to selling pepper spray.
There are several common types of toxic male behavior. Gillette addresses what I’ll call Type 1, which is street harassment — a problem I’ve experienced since I was 13 (and yes, I looked 13). In the real world, the kinds of adult men who sneak up on women, or teenage girls, to make obscene propositions or harass them with catcalls don’t hang out with the kinds of nice guys who would stop them with a brotherly “not cool.”
Type 2 toxicity goes the other way: Men sometimes attack me online for looking so “ugly/unattractive/hideous” that my viewpoint can’t possibly matter. Why would science columns inspire this? Who knows? The subject matter gives them material; they tell me I’m so ugly a Neanderthal wouldn’t sleep with me. (There is evidence to the contrary when I step outside and several Neanderthals treat me to an uninvited description of how they would go about that very thing.)
The takeaway for me is that some men believe women exist solely for decorative purposes, and if we’re decoratively inadequate, we’re worthless. U.S. President Donald Trump is a big user of this kind of toxicity. Remember when he accused New York Times columnist Gail Collins of having the face of a pig?
Let’s be realistic: I don’t ask men to defend me against this sort of thing, and I can’t get excited about a razor company pretending to care. True defense must come from within — from reserves of stoicism, self-reliance and perseverance.
The American Psychological Association is in a better position than Gillette to figure out what’s wrong with these men. Quoted in that New York Times column, Harvard professor Steven Pinker argues the APA is following false leads. Stoicism, for example, is a good quality, not, as the new guidelines say, harmful. He’s got that right. And he argues that the guidelines should encourage “one side of the masculine virtues — the dignity, responsibility, self-control and self-reliance.”
Wait — don’t I and other women need those virtues as well? These are the kinds of character traits that separate children from adults, but not men from women. I emailed him for clarification and he said that indeed, these are human virtues but “might be associated with men because they get into more trouble without them.”
In The New York Times, he also criticized the psychology guidelines because they never mentioned testosterone, instead insisting the root of all gender problems must be cultural. Sound familiar? The punch line at the end of Alan Alda’s essay is that testosterone poisoning doesn’t exist. But it sounds like the matter may require a little more study.
Science writer Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.