Rori Hakucho Chojun by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1753-1806), a traditional Japanese ukiyo-e style illustration of a brave warrior with katana in his mouth fighting through a hail of arrows. Original from Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Risuko, My Father, and Toxic Masculinity

I tell yeh, Bright Eyes. Men and women? A bloody mess. Every time. — Kee Sun on sex and gender, Risuko

Is “toxic masculinity” just a way of saying men are toxic?

I get asked a lot about why I decided to write about young women in my Seasons of the Sword novels. There are lots of reasons.

But an online conversation I was part of recently made one of them very clear to me.

In the conversation, someone argued that “toxic masculinity” was feminist code for the assertion that all men are bad/toxic.

No. No. No.

Masculinity ≠ Men

Masculinity isn’t the same as male — however we may define that term. Masculinity refers not to men as individuals or as a group, but to certain behaviors that societies associate with “being a man.” In Shakespeare’s England, being masculine meant wearing tights, painting their nails, and carrying a sword. In medieval Japan, being a man (of the samurai or daimyo classes) meant wearing robes, writing poetry… and carrying a sword.

Today, societies hold many different views of what constitutes masculinity. Some of them are positive, some are negative, but all are completely arbitrary. They have nothing to do with chromosomes, with physiology. They’re codes of behavior, in other words.

Toxic Masculinity

American poet and “masculist” Robert Bly

Toxic masculinity is actually a term that originated in the so-called Men’s Movement started by Robert Bly and others back in the 1980s.

The phrase refers to a particular set of social rules about what a “real man” can and can’t do that are destructive — toxic — to men themselves, to their partners, to their families, and to society at large.

  • Big boys don’t cry.
  • Real men don’t ask for help.
  • Real men provide for those around them — letting others provide is a sign of weakness.
  • Real men never show weakness.
  • Real men do; women and children are done for (and to).
  • Real men don’t have time for talk.
  • Real men don’t ask for directions.
  • Real men don’t express affection. Especially to other men.
  • Real men don’t wear pink. Or own anything that might look pretty, girly, or soft. Or eat quiche. Or dance ballet.
  • Real men don’t admit failure. EVER.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Our culture imposes all of those restrictions and expectations — there’s nothing innate about any of them. They are, in the current terminology, social constructs.

And since each of them runs contrary to nature — because each of us has moments of weakness, each of us needs help sometimes, emotion overwhelms us all sometimes, some of us like to wear nice clothes — they leave men feeling like failures. Which is humiliating. Which causes us to become defensive and lash out — at ourselves and those around us.

These constrictions constitute a crushing burden that poisons our self-image and interactions with those around us. That’s why the image of masculinity they project is toxic.

My Father and the Non-toxic Masculine

I was lucky. My dad was raised by his mother and grandmother (his dad died when he was two — not at all lucky). They raised him as a nurturant, caring, talk-first man, atypical for his generation (born in 1932 — he’d have turned 90 last year). He and our mother raised me and my brother in a similar mold.

Since he had no model for what it meant to be a man, he turned to popular fiction and movies – especially Westerns. His idols came from John Wayne movies and books by Louis Lamour, where the hero was ALWAYS strong, silent, and solved problems with a six-shooter or his fists. Later in life, he loved samurai movies, which sprang from a similar ethos.

Watching The Seven Samurai and the Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven, with my father remains one of my favorite memories

But the fact of the matter was that as much as he aspired to the strong-and-silent ideal, it wasn’t who he was. At all. He talked about his feelings a LOT. He relied on my mother as much as she relied on him. And he was fortunate to have grown up in a household that didn’t enforce all of the soul-crushing rules that many American men were and are raised to live by.

Okay: he was never good at admitting failure, but that sprang from the fact that he felt he had to live up to his family’s American Dream expectations. No one’s perfect. But he admitted that weakness, even as he struggled with it to the end of his life. And his expressions of affection and concern could sometimes run toward the stifling extreme referred to in our society as “mothering.” Which both my brother and I sometimes bristled at. But that didn’t stop him from being a wonderful father, husband, and man.

In any case, he was a poster child for the kind of man who wasn’t the strong, silent type.

That was his great strength.

So no, “toxic masculinity” isn’t a way of saying that “men are toxic.”

It’s a way of saying that certain social constraints that we place on men are toxic, both to the men and to those around them.

Risuko, Femininity, and Masculinity

I’ve talked before about how the theme of gender has affected the way I write the Seasons of the Sword books. In Risuko, our protagonist wanders across a war-torn Japan, but most of the characters she encounters are female. In Bright Eyes, two armies of men invade Lady Chiyome’s sanctuary, the Full Moon, so there’s a really different gender balance.

But the toxicity of gender stereotypes infects both books, just as it affects both men and women in all ages.

In Risuko’s Japan, women are expected to be gentle and decorous. Men are expected to be strong and honor-bound.

But obviously, no one can behave as expected all of the time.

And having such strong divisions between the sexes allows people to take advantage of the conventions.

Some men in the books feel free to bully the women, certain the women can’t and won’t fight back. Of course, they’re wrong to be certain, as it turns out. That’s because Lady Chiyome created her kunoichi army knowing that no one expects a group of deadly blossoms to be lethal assassins, brutal bodyguards, and cold-blooded spies.

When expected gender roles become too constraining, they become toxic.

And when they camouflage a threat, they can prove lethal.

Kunoichi Companion Tales covers


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