When Men and Women Go “Toxic”
Hitting a peak of popularity in recent weeks with the release of a Gillette ad, the term “toxic masculinity” is a contentious one, a sore spot for feminists on both sides of the progressive-conservative split. Pointing to the attitudes of entitled men who perpetuate a patriarchy that subjugates women, the term is used to decry a very broad range of injustices, from rape to the patronizing of female coworkers. Some ask if the term is innately sexist unless one also posits toxic femininity; some reach across a divisive topic to take a nuanced stance in defense of authentic manhood and in agreement with the feminist objection to male aggression.
While it is easy to invoke meme-like, fast-food versions of the masculine and the feminine in this discussion, to do so is to keep our discourse only on the surface, which is clogged by the buzzwords and verbal boxes of modern gender wars. But little thought on this trending topic has taken advantage of the most comprehensive approach to understanding what it means to be male or female—John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” The beloved pope spent many years contemplating the meaning of manhood and womanhood in the light of revelation.
What might we see if we were to stop simply repeating popular jargon, and instead modeled our approach on his? If “toxic” means “harmful for living things,” how would John Paul II define “toxic masculinity” or “toxic femininity”? To find out, we need look no further than Genesis.
John Paul II pointed to the anthropology woven into the Genesis account of man’s creation in solitude and unity, the original meaning of human sexuality, and how sin affected these things. He explained that the duality of man’s sexuality—male and female—reflects specific attributes of God; and the very fact that humans are sexual beings at all indicates a deeper reality about their identity as persons. Human sexuality incarnates the reality that man is meant for communion with God and other humans. Man finds his identity through being other-centered in these relationships. Spousal relationships express this truth, John Paul II insisted, as do motherhood and fatherhood.
At least, that is how masculinity and femininity were intended to work, from the beginning. But with the fall, human sexuality did indeed go “toxic.”
Toxic masculinity is Adam, hiding from God after sin, squirming with the guilt of betrayal under the love of the divine gaze, trying to slough off responsibility for the harm he has done. Toxic masculinity fails to care for and take responsibility for those it is given to love; it is willing, like Adam, to find excuses to do evil if it means gains in power or pleasure, but then tries to hide from the consequences. The toxic male treats those he ought to love with contempt and aggression, seeking self-aggrandizement.
Toxic femininity is Eve, listening to the serpent, willing to believe lies and choose destruction over order if it means a power grab; willingness to share the evil done, spread the poison, and bring others down with it, instead of nurturing the souls of those it should love with the strength of compassion and selflessness. The toxic female warps what should be relationships of love into exchanges of use, manipulation, and power struggles.
For both sexes, “toxicity” in light of Genesis means a rejection of gift, of other-centered love; an erection of self and its desires in the center of the cosmos as the god to be slavishly served. This is an unstable arrangement; a world centered on ourselves crumbles as quickly as we do. Adam and Eve look at each other after they have sinned and no longer see each other as whole persons; they “realize they were naked,” a symbolic way of saying that, fixated on the exterior, they become tempted to use one another as objects for ends, instead of unique body-soul persons to be loved for who they are. This is the “toxic” gaze: to see our fellow human beings only for what we can get out of them.
Before his election to the papacy as John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla penned a play, The Jeweler’s Shop, that dovetails with his theology of the body, offering succinct poetic image rather than lengthy exegesis.
One character comments: “Love is bad / when there is a lack of it.” So we can say, the masculine is bad when there is a lack of it: when men abandon their strength to abuse, domination, aggression, turning away from selfless service to self-serving. The feminine is bad when there is a lack of it: when women betray the feminine genius, their unique capacity to create, nurture, and multiply goodness, by turning away from selfless love to aggressive self-worship. In practice, this looks like harassment, sexism, domestic violence, contraception, exploitation, and the glorification of abortion.
In The Jeweler’s Shop, a woman named Anna has grown apart from her husband Stefan. Tempted to abandon her marriage, she awaits the passing by of the Bridegroom, a reference to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. When she sees him, she is startled, and turns back to speak to her friend Adam.
ADAM: I know why you have turned back. You could not stand the sight of his face.
ANNA: I have seen the face I hate, and the face I ought to love. Why do you expose me to such a test?
ADAM: In the Bridegroom’s face each of us finds a similarity to the faces of those with whom love has entangled us on this side of life, of existence. They are all in him.
ANNA: I am afraid.
ADAM: You are afraid of love. Are you really afraid of love?
ANNA: Yes. I am afraid. Well, why do you torment me? That man had Stefan’s face. I am afraid of that face.
Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, fallen man fears to see the face of God, which should be his greatest joy. And that means also that we are too afraid to see each other’s faces. At root, “toxicity” in both men and women is a hiding from love, a love which requires self-emptying and self-gift. To be toxic is to take, and refuse to give; to take pleasure, refuse to give commitment; to take intimacy, and refuse to give fertility; to take power, and refuse to give compassion; to take temporary union and reject the permanent fruit of that union—a child.
Genesis says Adam and Eve hid among the bushes after the fall, trying to escape from the God who loved them into being. Gender war jargon similarly keeps our discourse bogged down in the weeds, hiding from the truth, so to speak; it leaves us unable to see the forest of the meaning of human sexuality, for the trees of blame games or conflicts over empowerment and rights. But much light and clarity for this dark situation can be found in John Paul II’s extensive and beautiful thought on this topic, and it should be.
Our toxic world needs it now more than ever.