We’re all familiar with toxic masculinity.
Many of us know at least one person who embodies some of its creepy characteristics, and all of us can conjure up images of the 90s jock with frosted tips, spending his time engaging in bullying, sexual harassment, and “locker-room talk.”
But, what about its eyelash-batting female counterpart—toxic femininity?
Before we get into toxic femininity, its examples, and why it’s so toxic, I want to be clear about something: femininity in of itself is not inherently bad. Femininity becomes problematic when gender stereotypes are forced onto women, forcing them to conform to norms that are harmful to everyone.
So, what exactly is toxic femininity?
At its core, it’s the cultural ideal of womanliness; defining it as gentle, sexually subservient, and aiming to please. It’s the ideals that a woman’s worth is measured in her beauty and ability to please a man. Through the lens of toxic femininity, traits outside of these narrow ideals or typically, masculine traits like expressing anger, sexual independence, or even the dreaded “bossy” label are ways in which our statuses as a woman is threatened.
We all know the woman who won’t date a guy who makes under six-figures, or some bullsh*t arbitrary financial requirement; it is valuing a man for his archetypally masculine trait to provide and look after a woman. It assumes that a woman’s role is to be taken care of.
It’s not just limited to male/female dynamics though.
Most of us have experienced group dynamics between women where one person’s status and value is being suppressed in order to elevate another. There are many Regina Georges out there, in school, in the workplace, or at your Zumba class.
Women who use their “hustle” and competitive nature to disguise toxic behavior also uphold this trope. Toxic femininity in the workplace often rears its ugly head in the form of ruthlessness and an individualistic agenda—essentially toxic masculinity perpetrated by a woman.
In Toxic Femininity: Machiavellian Mary in the Workplace by Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D., they write:
“Toxic femininity’ refers to women who are hostile to nurturance and cooperation, opting instead for aggression and backstabbing to get ahead…A particularly virulent personality leadership type by a woman is one we label “Machiavellian Mary.” This style denotes a superficially agreeable, yet ruthless, self-focused, and false individual…Yet, Machiavellian Mary often rises to high-level positions. Why? Because she plays well in the “male” game of pyramidal hierarchies. She knows how to be pleasing to those on top and how to control and step on-and-over those below.”
To a lesser extent, I would argue that a certain tech executive, who asked women to—I don’t know, what was is it again: Opt-in? Buy-in? Lean-in?—would be an example of this kind of toxicity. The type of toxicity that doesn’t aim to upend toxic masculinity in the system but to participate in it to serve one’s own interests.
Another example of toxic femininity is using feminine traits, norms, and even biology to excuse poor behavior. Raise your hand if you’ve ever blamed your bad mood on your period. This form of toxic femininity can range from the mildly problematic (my husband kills all the bugs in our house) to dangerous like lying about being on birth control or faking a pregnancy.
But at its worst, this internalized misogyny bolsters the worst forms of toxic masculinity—the doting wife who stays home and bakes apple-pie for her white supremacist husband to take to a meeting.
Toxic femininity is the many, small ways in which women themselves are complicit in the patriarchy.
While toxic masculinity at its worst is masculinity weaponized to further the acquisition and expansion of power, toxic femininity is femininity weaponized to uphold that power.
A classic example of this type of toxicity is Amy Cooper, the Central Park Karen, who weaponized her femininity to try and wield power rooted in white supremacy in its most abhorrent form against a Black man.
Part of creating equitable spaces is holding everyone accountable for perpetuating gender stereotypes and engaging in toxic behavior. Ultimately, whether we call it toxic femininity or toxic masculinity as internalized misogyny doesn’t really matter; Labels are just that.
What matters is that these are all tools of patriarchy—designed and created by men to serve men—and it’s pretty evident that that is serving nobody.