We're all familiar with the concept of toxic masculinity, right? Whether witnessing it ourselves or seeing it reflected in popular culture, we've bumped up against it. If you need your memory jogged, toxic masculinity is a gendered structure that further facilitates the movement of male violence, misogyny, and other harmful gendered behaviours that are rooted in the patriarchy.
If we're looking at the rigid structure of the binary, then femininity is supposed to be masculinity's direct opposite, right?
So, if toxic masculinity exists - does toxic femininity?
In the article Is There Anything Toxic About Femininity? The Rigid Femininities That Keep Us Locked In written by Hannah McCann, it is proposed that rather than femininity itself being toxic (in the same way as toxic masculinity) there are specific approaches to femininity or practices of femininity that are toxic. McCann suggests that this includes hegemonic patriarchal femininity, pariah femininity, and femmephobia (just to name a few).
So, what's toxic about femininity?
Sit down. Get a cup of whatever. (We both know I've got a coffee in hand). Let's break it down.
First, the influence of patriarchally instituted or controlled femininity. That just screams toxic. And not in the fun, Britney Spears, catchy sort of way. Within this idea, women are pretty possessions that are eager to meet the expectations of men. These gender expectations place men at the top and trickle down to negatively affect communities and individuals, ultimately reframing how femininity "should" be perceived.
McCann explains that the blame for reproducing these ideals does not sit with the individuals or communities but with the hierarchy itself. "We ought to analyze the ways that women are culturally constrained to think and act in particular ways that facilitate women's vulnerability" (McCann, 5). This is what brings McCann to her notions of rigid femininity. In short, simple terms, only certain forms of femininity are largely acceptable and will lead to success, while others will subject persons to systemic othering.
Does this sound like an exclusive-members-only girls club to anybody? 🤨
Some typologies that McCann explores in relation to rigid femininity are:
Trans-exclusionary feminist femininity: the critique and exclusion of transgender identities.
Entrepreneurial feminist femininity: the reinforcement of a patriarchally controlled capitalist hierarchy.
The cult of feminist femininity: as if being "natural" than someone else who prefers to wear makeup and express themselves differently.
Compulsory heterosexual femininity: the strict reinforcement of heterosexuality as the norm and the ideal.
Neocolonial femininity: the support of white supremacist colonial "fantasies"
Remember that girls-only club I just mentioned? Yeah. The invitation for that club to participate in femininity "correctly" seems to only go out to white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied females. Rigid feminism exists to further deeply entrenched patriarchal norms that are inherently connected to racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism. 😾
On Medium.com, I came across Kiki and her opinion piece Yes, There is a Toxic Femininity. To Kiki, toxic femininity is a set standard of femininity that is instilled by white bodies existing within an ecosystem of white supremacy. White women are complicit in the toxic displays of femininity that were created by white men. Although Kiki does not necessarily believe in the concept of patriarchy as a firm hierarchy itself, I find many of her arguments useful in the discussion of toxic femininity.
Kiki writes: "just as toxic masculinity is a standard that is set by white males via the system of white male patriarchy that is pervasive in our society - toxic femininity is a standard that is set by white women who are living under that system." While white women face gendered violence, aspects of femmephobia, and misogyny, they have a leg up on the competition the Olympic event of femininity, as they are the white male ideal for what femininity should look like. Meanwhile, many others are left in the dust. 🏃♀️
The truth is, in our current culture in North America and in Canada, not everyone gets to participate fairly and self-authentically in expressions of femininity. That's super toxic. ☠️
"Since the beginning of the feminist movement, white women have refused to acknowledge the power imbalances that exist within the movement between themselves and women who were not white, but also between themselves and men who are not white." Kiki, 2018.
Towards the end of her article, Kiki suggests a shift away from white-centered feminism towards Africana Womanism, which you can read about here.
It should go without saying that femininity is something to be explored, traversed, expressed, and questions rather than something that means to restrict. Instead, it is complicatedly entangled with toxicity, patriarchies, and white privilege.
After all, the performance of femininities as it shifts from person to person means different things. Let's look at Person A. Person A is heterosexual, cisgender, and white. Person A may feel solid in their femininity. Whereas someone who is not a member of these groups, Person B, becomes ostracized by society for their different interpretation of femininity.
If this is true, what happens to the (patriarchally dubbed) outliers? The feminine BIPOCs? The feminine expressing transgender persons? The feminine LGBTQQIP2SAA persons?
What happens when people step outside of the rigid confines of femininity and embrace individuality? Resistance? Liberation? Harm?
Hannah McCann (2020): Is there anything “toxic” about femininity? The rigid femininities that keep us locked in, Psychology & Sexuality, DOI: 10.1080/19419899.2020.1785534
Kiki Bryant's Blog Post: https://cleoj.medium.com/yes-there-is-a-toxic-femininity-9f9afaef0587