Toxic masculinity has been a topic of discussion in our current culture for several years now, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Toxic male conduct is basically the adoption of inherent behaviors that men are brought up and conditioned to live by without realizing that this set of guidelines has been ingrained in them, acting harmfully to society in general, but also to themselves. This consists of repression of emotion due to the stigma of men needing to be tough and strong. It usually results in any emotion coming out as anger—especially when expressed as violence, subconsciously or consciously indicating power.
It is the rejection of anything seen as feminine, therefore producing homophobia and misogyny. These are not inherent traits that men simply possess; they have been learned in a society that has allowed it and encouraged it.
So, it’s no wonder that these types of characters would show up in popular teen series, whether it be to make a bigger point about the issue or whether it be an unconscious choice that has since been used to contribute to the conversation of what masculinity could look like going forward—and how to replace the learned toxicity with something less damaging.
Here are six examples of toxic masculinity in young adult series:
1. “13 Reasons Why”
There are tons of toxic masculinity prevalent in the controversial teen mystery/drama series “13 Reasons Why.” It’s evident just how much the behavior of these young men impacted not only Hannah Baker, who ultimately took her own life.
In fact, many of the reasons or issues that Hannah discusses in her tapes, which act as a detailed suicide note, have stemmed from toxic masculinity and male entitlement in one way or another, even how these boys’ actions and thoughts influenced the behavior of female allies.
Of course, the most toxic character in this show is Bryce Walker—serial rapist and antagonist of the series. But I’d say toxic masculinity is portrayed in every male character in one way or another in varying degrees, and I also believe it’s intentional to make a bigger point about problematic ideologies adopted in society.
The story doesn’t accept any character to be wholly good or bad; these are flawed teens like anyone else, some much more than others, and they’re all struggling with their identity in some way. They contribute to a bigger conversation about what needs shifting in society going forward.
This recent series shows so many issues that teens are facing in today’s world. There is an extensive cast of characters with all different struggles, especially in terms of identity, and one of the many topics explored is that of toxic masculinity.
This is particularly evident in Nate’s character—as well as in his father’s. He continually perpetuates violence, misogyny, and homophobia, acting as the definition of toxic masculinity. Nate has been taught to mask his feelings from an early age and conform to the standards society has put forth for how a man should be, and he has become more vile and violent as he entered manhood.
The issue of toxic masculinity is done so well in this series because Nate’s rage and resentment almost seem to direct itself at society for boxing him into who he has become at this point.
This is a psychological thriller series based on the books of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, and this is also a surprising take on toxic masculinity, albeit extreme.
Joe is not the typical toxic male that we would think of when we hear the phrase. And we see other forms of this more classic toxic masculine behavior in the show in Joe’s neighbor Ron and Beck’s ex Benji and Joe outright condemns and expresses his disgust with both. But, Joe, he’s an avid reader, he’s respectful, he looks out for his young neighbor’s safety, he’s chivalrous and romantic—and yet, he’s a stalker and murderer.
One of the most surprising aspects of the show is how much viewers love and defend Joe, and I actually believe that’s a commentary on us and our values. Joe is a literal killer, and he constantly tries to justify his actions, and we start to think maybe he is justified.
We’ve been conditioned to believe a person who presents well on the outside, who is well-groomed and well-educated, and the series acts as a cautionary tale that just because a man seems to stand for all the right things, and is all-around progressive, does not mean that he is a good man. This is one of the freshest and most extreme takes that contributes to the discussion of male entitlement and toxicity in an important, fascinating—and, of course, entertaining way.
4. “Gossip Girl”
Although entertaining and well-loved, especially at the time “Gossip Girl” was on the air, we have since recognized as a society how problematic the show’s representations were, and although we can’t judge everything from a different era by 2020 standards, we can still use the material to contribute to conversations.
Sometimes toxic masculinity is intentionally used to make a bigger point, and although that didn’t seem to be the case most of the time in “Gossip Girl,” it may have been intentional at moments.
Most of the boys in the series possessed toxic masculine traits in one way or another, but I think we all know the biggest perpetrator was Chuck Bass. His sense of entitlement in every aspect of his life was hugely problematic, and he only mildly and rarely had consequences or repercussions for his actions. He did grow as a character somewhat over the course of the show, but his damaging attitude and how he perceived women and the world around him have since contributed to a discussion of what a man should not aspire to be and how great wealth does not give one right over other human beings.
Although a lot of the males in the series embody toxic traits, there are some positive portrayals of masculinity as well, particularly in the male friendship bonds when real conversations are had about feelings and fears—plus, they’re into fashion.
5. “The Vampire Diaries”
Even though this is a show in the fantasy genre and the characters are vampires or other supernatural creatures, it presents many metaphors to real life. One such metaphor is that of abusive and toxic behavior.
Although one of the most toxic male characters in the series, Damon, has been a vampire for over one hundred years, his actions are often making a point about the type of person who might embody these traits. The series often shows extreme acts of violence, which the males engage in more gruesomely than the female vampires, and that in itself speaks to ideas about gender roles in society—even when the characters are vampires, they behave differently according to their gender.
Damon is also abusive and controlling with Elena, disregarding what she wants constantly, and the brothers are always left to save her, playing into the roles of gender stereotypes.
I do feel in this series that some of these decisions were intentional to reflect how deeply rooted the idea of what masculinity should look like is in our society, that it even translates into the world of vampires.
Here we have another vampire movie series, based on the bestselling novels by Stephanie Meyer. And although fantasy, the toxic masculinity portrayed in the story is similar to that of The Vampire Diaries as it does speak to real life. Edward behaves in an abusive and controlling manner much of the time and argues that it’s for the sake of love and his protection over Bella.
This could contribute to the conversation about problematic behavior, especially in relationships, and ask if we would accept this type of behavior if Edward was human. Unfortunately, I don’t think his behavior is that far off from that of this type of human male who has been conditioned to protect even when they do not realize they become the one that their love interest needs protecting from because they are so far off from how to provide safety in the first place. And, perhaps, that is part of the point to be made here.
Aside from his supernatural abilities and having lived for over one hundred years, the commentary on his behavior toward the woman he is with speaks loudly about societal norms that we have been working to deconstruct.
We may still have a long way to go to break down something that has been so deeply rooted in society and molded our relationships with the world and ourselves, but it’s encouraging to see that, especially in the more recent and modern series these toxic male characters have mostly seemed extremely intentional, acting more as a caution and a lesson rather than an aspiration for young men going forward.
There are also great representations of young women learning not to be okay with the behavior of these toxic male characters and finding solidarity in allies and the confidence to stand up for themselves and one another, refusing to let boys be boys any longer.