No, ‘toxic masculinity’ is not an illness

During the Soviet era, the notorious Sherbsky Institute in Moscow was well known for categorising dissidence as a form of mental illness characterised by illusions of grandeur, pathological obsession with ideas of justice, and distrust of accepted social values. They claimed to identify the neuronal disturbance that causes such pathology and, as expected, proposed drugs to cure it. Is this just a memory of the dark old days of Communism? Not quite – is exactly the same not happening today? In a recent public statement, The American Psychological Association proclaimed ‘traditional masculinity’ toxic – here are the exact words which somehow entered the public space without blushing out of shame.

Traits of so-called ‘traditional masculinity,’ like suppressing emotions & masking distress, often start early in life & have been linked to less willingness by boys & men to seek help, more risk-taking & aggression – possibly harming themselves & those with whom they interact.

A careful reader cannot miss the mixture of ideology and neutral expertise: a strong ideological gesture of excluding phenomena considered unacceptable is presented as a neutral description of medical facts. Under the guise of medical description we are imposing new normativity, a new figure of the enemy. In the old days of heterosexual normativity, homosexuality was treated as illness – remember the brutal treatment to which Alan Turing any many others were submitted. Now it is masculinity itself which is medicalised, turned into an illness to be fought – we should not be surprised if chemotherapies to cure toxic masculinity will soon be available.

In justifying this diagnosis, APA refers to power, patriarchy, and oppression of women – but all this cannot obfuscate the ideological brutality of the operation. Let’s not forget that we are dealing with APA, the psychological wing of the medical establishment, which means that we are dealing with nothing less than a shift in the mainstream ideological hegemony.

The contours of this shift become clear the moment we take a closer look at the list of features supposed to characterise ‘toxic masculinity’: suppressing emotions and masking distress, unwillingness to seek help, propensity to take risks even if this involves the danger to harming ourselves.

What is so specifically ‘masculine’ about this list? Does it not fit much more a simple act of courage in a difficult situation where, to do the right thing, one has to suppress emotions, one cannot rely on any help but take the risk and act, even if this means exposing myself to harm? I know many women – as a matter of fact, more women than men – who, in a difficult predicament, didn’t succumb to the pressure of their environment and acted like this. Obviously, in our age of politically correct conformism, such a stance poses a danger. What is replacing courage?

Let’s make a brief detour. One of the few convincing arguments for the notion of toxic masculinity was offered by George Monbiot in The Guardian.

‘Why do so many men love Jordan Peterson and hate the Gillette ad? If they’re truly strong they don’t need to prove their virility.’

In short, if men are truly strong, why did so many of them (including Piers Morgan who had a Twitter meltdown) react in such a panicky way to the APA warning about toxic masculinity? Wouldn’t a strong man just dismiss attacks on masculinity as the complaint of a weakling?

Incidentally, the same goes for the anti-immigrants’ populist panic. When Angela Merkel extended the invitation to refugees to come to Germany, her act exuded trust that Germany can do it, that it is strong enough to retain its identity in accepting refugees. Although anti-immigrant patriots like to pose as strong defenders of one’s nation, it is their position which betrays panic and weakness – how little trust they must have into the German nation when they perceive a couple of hundred of new immigrants as a threat to German identity? Crazy as it may sound, Merkel acted as a strong German patriot while anti-immigrants are miserable weaklings.

Signs that weakness is the key to the most brutal displays of toxic masculinity abound. Let’s just mention the serial killings of women in Ciudad Juarez at the border with Texas: they are not just private pathologies, but a ritualised activity, part of the subculture of local gangs (first gang rape, then torture till death which includes cutting off breast nipples with scissors, etc.). They target single young women working in new assembling factories – a clear case of macho reaction to the new class of independent working women. But what if such violent reactions point to the violent core of masculinity itself which openly explodes when its reign is threatened? True, but one should for this reason not reject the type of a strong person ready to take risks, one should rather desexualise it and, above all, look into what is replacing it.

Years ago, Alain Badiou warned about the dangers of the growing post-patriarchal nihilist order which presents itself as the domain of new freedoms. The disintegration of the shared ethical base of our lives is clearly signalled by the abolishment of universal military conscription in many developed countries: the very notion of being ready to risk one’s life for a common cause army more and more pointless if not directly ridiculous, so that armed forces as the body in which all citizens equally participate is gradually turning into a mercenary force. This disintegration affects differently the two sexes: men are gradually turning into perpetual adolescents with no clear passage of initiation that would enact their entry into maturity (military service, acquiring a profession, even education no longer play this role).

No wonder, then, that, in order to supplant this lack, post-paternal youth gangs proliferate, providing ersatz-initiation and social identity. In contrast to men, women are today more and more precociously mature, treated as small adults, expected to control their lives, to plan their career, etc.

In this new version of sexual difference, men are ludic adolescents, out-Laws, while women appear as hard, mature, serious, legal and punitive. Women are today not called by the ruling ideology to be subordinated, they are called – solicited, expected – to be judges, administrators, ministers, CEOs, teachers, policewomen and soldiers.

A paradigmatic scene occurring daily in our security institutions is that of a feminine teacher, judge or psychologist taking care of an immature asocial young male delinquent. A new feminine figure is thus arising: a cold competitive agent of power, seductive and manipulative, attesting to the paradox that, as Badiou puts it ‘in the conditions of capitalism women can do better than men’. This, of course, in no way makes women suspicious as agents of capitalism; it merely signals that contemporary capitalism invented its own ideal image of woman, a figure which stands for cold administrative power with a human face.

To fight these new forms of subtle oppression, courageous individuals of both sexes who are ready to take risks are needed more than ever.


  • James Gatehouse

    Well pointed out, Mr Zizek. These are indeed actually subtle forms of oppression and hinting that, according to Alain Badiou, they have their bases in nihilism is pertinent.

    Your solution is shot through with some pretty old fashioned concepts, however, including courage. Are you advocating that people become virtuous once more? I do hope you are. The way back is fraught with danger, but the alternative is to go further down the road we tread now, which is towards moral and ethical weakness. I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”

    Yours is a correct interpretation of courage; courageousness is not simply the presence of a sturdy intention in the face of adversity. To be the opposite of weakness courage is indeed required, for without courage you have no possibility at all of defeating oppression.

  • Monica Savant

    “when they perceive a couple of hundred of new immigrants as ”

    numbers are seriously skewed – Come on!

    • Michiel van Haren

      lol yeah. Try a couple of million. As if decades of mass-immigration haven’t already markedly changed European identity.

  • Michiel van Haren

    How is “Why do so many men love Jordan Peterson and hate the Gillette ad? If they’re truly strong they don’t need to prove their virility.” a “convincing argument” for toxic masculinity? How is criticizing a highly ideologically skewed ad “proving your virility”?
    If someone suggests “all men are potential rapists” shouldn’t I as a man oppose such a statement simply because it’s untrue? Standing up for the truth against the toxic ideologies of “social justice” and radical equality is not weakness. It is strength. Don’t you think a “shift in the mainstream ideological hegemony” towards ever more extreme egalitarianism is dangerous? I presume you know the history of the 20th century and the horrors such an ideological shift could produce? Jordan Peterson makes it very clear that the danger lies in thinking more in terms of trying to ensure equality of outcome than in providing for equalty of opportunity. The latter is a good thing while the first leads to oppression.
    It is not weakness to react strongly to statements that clearly show these ideologies’ increasing influence on main stream culture because if these ideas become main stream, it poses a clear and present danger to our society.
    A strong man doesn’t just “dismiss” attacks when these attacks actually threaten something he cares about.
    Incidentally letting in millions of migrants who (at least for a large part) care nothing about German culture or identity is not being a strong patriot either. A strong, if naive, altruist perhaps, but not a strong patriot.

    • Victor Joseph

      It is obvious you believe in the myriad bogeymen half-educated wannabe-demagogues like Dr Peterson comes up with when he claims that equality of outcome was ever accepted by any ideology. None have explicitly claimed it in history, and, if any do today, they aren’t taken seriously by the sane members of that particular ideological political clique. It is, thus, equally obvious why you might misunderstand what Mr Zizek would say about interpreting the Gillette ad as threatening and liking what Dr Peterson has to say as indicative of a fragile or “toxic” masculinity. He isn’t making a point suggesting that you cannot stand up to what you fear will become the cultural zeitgeist if the proponents of “radical equality” are allowed to legitimise their ideology culturally. He is, instead, suggesting that the breadth of reactionary zeal (of which your belief in “equality of outcome” happens to be a part of) suggests that there is a toxic aspect to masculinity- he just doesn’t know whether it is a core aspect of masculinity. Criticising the ad is precisely the opposite of “proving your virility”, which just reveals that there is confusion in both sides of the argument regarding how masculinity is being performed today. As for your claims of patriotism, I have nothing to say, except that you are fighting a losing battle against the demands of global capital. The cheap labour provided by the immigrants will outcompete that which the locals provide. It’s up to you whether you think your polemic will still be of use then.

      • magi83

        Zizek doesn’t know what he’s blabbing about and why should he when he will impress pompous dimwits like yourself regardless.

        You’re correct regarding equality of outcome though. This concept is a red herring used to scare bourgeois types that the mob wants to get its hands on their hard earned property (which isn’t an unwarranted fear).

        • Victor Joseph

          Hmm. I wasn’t aware that simply calling someone a “pompous dimwit” was enough to suggest that their trying to interpret something you aren’t prepared to or have already made up your mind about makes them a “pompous dimwit”. Certainly, the overwrought language would warrant “pompous”, but I would take exception to being called a “dimwit”, as I was told that using language in this manner was a way to suggest that I was anything but a “dimwit”. Nevertheless, I’ll take it under advisement.

          As for whether Zizek knows what he is “blabbing about”, he obviously does not stay on topic, moving between the behaviour of nationalists and a discussion on “post-patriarchal nihilists”. But I would contend that, as a general commentator held in regard, at least within Left-wing politics, his point is neither inconsequential nor possible to ignore. His work will receive readers, especially those who aren’t “pompous dimwits” who need to defend his work in the comments section (of all places).

          Concerning your suggestion that the fear of “mobs…get[ting] their hands on [the ‘bourgeois types”] hard earned property” is not an unwarranted, it is true. However, I do not see how it relates to the “equality of outcome” argument. How does the assumption that everyone performs the same way, regardless of their talents and abilities, related to the idea that property owners should fear that their “hard earned property” is in danger of being seized by “the mob”? You’d have to explain, because I’m apparently a dimwit.

          Finally, the people who believe in actualising their work by owning property cannot see “property” and “ownership” outside of the limitations imposed upon them by the environments they have been raised in, as well as the amount of prosperity these concepts have apparently brought them and their surroundings. Depending upon that, they may see anything from increased taxation to expanding the “free-market” as the best way to alleviate income inequality, a problem that is very real. The removal, repression, subsumption, suppression, and/or sublimation of this “fear” by the political ideology that has power in a given time will decide whether this “fear” remains “unwarranted”.

  • J0hn029

    For me, women are now the embodiment of conformity. Take any office, whether the men are in charge or not (mostly not these days), the women are the example of behaviour to show in the office.

    Childish? check. Secret santa and all that forced fun? check. Micro-management? check.

    My last 5 managers have been women and only 1 has been any good at talking to men, and she was south african.

    Personally I don’t see women as strong at all. I seem them as being weak because they appear to need special treatment at every opportunity in order to achieve their goals. Men just admit life is shite and so play the game.

    Women just want to change the game to suit them. The worst thing about that though is that it is just an illusion and when women realise that they’re just being given lip-service, they turn into rabid, visceral freaks. Which is also tolerated.

    We are contsantly told in business to remove your emotions from decision making, the paradox is that women think that bringin emotions back into business makes them more prosperous. No. It makes you more politically correct and as the BBC would notice if they weren’t funded by taxpayers, PC products are bloomin awful

  • magi83

    Zizek the sophist strikes again. I’ve read this article three times and I still can’t work out what he’s actually trying to say.

    So, toxic masculinity is an ideological concept of a new ‘normativity’… it portrays ‘courage’ as masculine and undesirable… but courage isn’t actually a masculine trait… and those men who are offended by the Gillette ad and like Jordan Peterson are not strong and courageous and are more of a representation of toxic masculinity…what on earth are you blabbing about Slavoj?

    You actually sound a bit like Peterson here; “Get your own house in order before concerning yourself with the world! Never mind the barbarians at the gates!”.

    The straw man of the demographic conservative position was especially intellectually dishonest and weak.