Toxic femininity: What it is, what it is not

Some men try to pass off manipulative behavior and other harmful stereotypes as 'toxic femininity' because it makes it easier to ignore the actual cases of gender-based violence and discrimination.


Shrutika Raut

  • Read Time 3 min.

With the rise of public discourse about the controversies surrounding Hollywood stars Amber Heard and Jada Pinkett Smith, we’ve seen people throw around the term ‘toxic femininity’ and say how these women are examples of it. But what exactly is toxic femininity?

To understand what toxic femininity can mean, we need to first understand toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is the pushing of the ideas of what counts as masculine and what doesn’t to the point where it harms men as well as the people around them. The idea that a man needs to be in control all the time or that he needs to be unemotional. Toxic masculinity can also be the rejection of all things feminine–like makeup of fashion or even self-care. This doesn’t mean that masculinity is in itself harmful. It just means that it becomes harmful if followed rigidly, as we see everyday.

Toxic femininity, on the other hand, is mostly used in a reactionary way. Thus it is harder to define. If we’re to explore the idea along the line of gender roles, if toxic masculinity is about being in power, toxic femininity is about pleasing those in power. 

A lot of people have tried to equate conduct like gossiping, backbiting, manipulation, playing the victim card etc to be a part of toxic femininity. But this is not the real case. Those traits are seen in female circles not because it’s expected of women to backbite, it’s seen because women aren’t allowed to be aggressive or confrontational like their male counterparts. In that way, toxic femininity can be defined as sticking to the female gender roles to the detriment of their own autonomy in order to uphold patriarchal ideas, whether willingly or unwillingly.

A lot of toxic femininity expectations and rules have been broken down over the years due to the various waves of feminism throughout the decades. Although gender roles and expectations do still exist for women, they don’t face the same rigid gender barriers as they used to. However, there hasn’t been the same level of fighting of gender roles on the male side. There are still many men who still hold on to traditional ideas of masculinity–the strong, protector and provider. This is because these are the ideals that keep them in power and uphold the patriarchy. The men who hold gender role expectations for other men also bully women who don’t act in the traditionally expected ways or who try to explore their sexuality. 

Patriarchy adversely affects us all in different ways, which is why it should be fought against together. 

The reason why some men try to pass of manipulative behavior and other harmful stereotypes as ‘toxic femininity’ is because it makes it easier to ignore or brush off actual cases of gender-based violence or discrimination.

The reactionary part of the internet latches on to cases like Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s trial because it helps paint women as ‘untrustworthy conspirators’. Even though there are legitimate discussions to be had about how unjust standards in society makes it harder for male victims of abuse to come forward, some people have decided to make the subject about how women ‘use their femininity to victimize men’. They seem to ignore the face that these issues are mostly a product of the patriarchal gender role expectations.

Although there is an echo of sexism in the term ‘toxic femininity’ because of its frequent usage by the misogynists, there is some truth to the fact that toxic femininity is a real thing. But it usually doesn’t affect men. It harms women. There are a lot of expectations placed on women by other women about how to dress, where and how often to shave, how to look, what body type is the best, how much makeup to put on, what’s appropriate to wear etc all in an effort to police women’s bodies and behavior. A lot of women themselves scrutinize these things as a parameter of womanhood. Fortunately with the advent of intersectional feminism, people are protesting against gender roles on both sides. The patriarchy adversely affects us all in different ways, which is why it should be fought against together.