Toxic Masculinity: “Masculinity Must Be Killed” by Carol P. Christ

Carol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 2A few days ago I watched the movie An Unfinished Life starring Morgan Freeman, Robert Redford, and Jennifer Lopez. Though it was recommended as a sensitive psychological drama, and though on the surface level it criticizes (male) violence against women and animals, on a deeper level, it confirms the association of masculinity with violence, suggesting that violence is the way men resolve their problems with each other.

At the beginning of the film, Robert Redford, who lives on a ranch in Montana, picks up his rifle with the intention of shooting a bear who mauled his friend Morgan Freeman. This act of violence is stopped by local authorities who arrive to capture the bear. However, the bear is not removed to a more remote area, but rather is given to a local make-shift zoo where it is kept in a small cage. At the end of the movie, Redford frees the bear after Freeman realizes that it should not be punished for injuring him. The bear is last seen crossing a mountain ridge in the distance.

Redford is grieving the death of his only son who died in an automobile accident while his son’s wife (played by Jennifer Lopez) was driving. After being beaten by her current boyfriend, Jennifer Lopez escapes with her daughter and ends up on Redford’s doorstep, announcing that her daughter is Redford’s granddaughter.  Redford, who believes Lopez is responsible for his son’s death, grudgingly allows them to stay.

When Lopez’s boyfriend tracks her down in Montana, Redford drives him out of town, threatening to kill him with his rifle. When the boyfriend comes back, Redford shoots out the tires of his car, smashes the car’s windows with his rifle, and beats the boyfriend bloody before putting him on a bus out of town.

The movie asks us to condemn the boyfriend’s violence against Lopez and Redford’s desire to kill the bear, but it also asks us to condone and even to celebrate Redford’s violent acts against the boyfriend. After all, in this case, justice is done. Right? 

In recent days a number of articles discussing the association of masculinity with violence have appeared on my Facebook feed. Reflecting on the Orlando murders, the authors point out that mass killings are almost always carried out by males. They note further that the vast majority of murders are also carried out by males. When women who murder men who abused them are taken out of the picture, the numbers are further skewed toward males as the ones who murder. According to Damon Linker, “Murder is an overwhelmingly male act, with the offender proving to be a man 90 percent of the time the person’s gender is known. When it comes to mass shootings, the gender disparity is even greater, with something like 98 percent of them perpetrated by men.”

Reflecting on these statistics, Amanda Marcotte writes:

[T]oxic masculinity is a specific model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control. It’s a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.

Quoting Marcotte, James Hamblin adds:

When men seek that control—when we feel it’s our due—and don’t achieve it, we can resent and hate. Toxic masculinity sets expectations that prime us for disappointment. We turn that disappointment on ourselves and others as anger and hatred.*

Coincidentally, while the murders were occurring in Orlando, I was stranded in an airport with only one piece of reading matter that I read more than once: a small pamphlet titled Liberating Life: Women’s Revolution, a compilation of writings by Abdullah Ocalan on the need to make women’s issues primary in every struggle against injustice. Ocalan writes:

[I]t is important to place on the agenda the problem of man, which is far more serious than the issue of woman. It is probably more difficult to analyse the concepts of domination and power, concepts related to man. It is not woman but man who is unwilling to transform. He fears that abandoning the role of the dominant male figure would leave him in the position of the monarch who has lost his state. He should be made aware that this most hollow form of domination leaves him bereft of freedom as well. … When man is analyzed in this context, it is clear that masculinity must be killed. (50-51)

Is it masculinity or toxic masculinity that must killed? Adding the word “toxic” in front of masculinity softens the blow, suggesting that it is only the extreme forms of masculinity—for example those that lead to mass murders—that need to be rejected. This suggests that everyday garden varieties of masculinity are not shaped around concepts of male dominance and the threat of violence.

When I first read Ocalan’s statement that “masculinity must be killed,” I was shocked that a man would say such a thing. No, it was not Mary Daly speaking, it was the respected imprisoned leader of the struggle for Kurdish liberation.

Ocalan contines:

If we are unable to make peace between man and life, and life and woman, happiness is but a vain hope. … The male and female identities that we know today are constructs that were formed much later than the biological male and female. (51)

From this perspective, I would say that An Unfinished Life attempts to criticize “toxic masculinity” identified with men who batter women and men who shoot wild animals. At the same time, it celebrates and condones the “ordinary masculinity” in which problems between and within men are sorted out with fists and the barrel of a gun. A deeper critique is clearly needed. This is why Ocalan coined the unsettling slogan: “masculinity must be killed.”

What would be left after masculinity is killed?

How about the human values of love, care, compassion, and generosity which are not the exclusive property of any sex?

*This also illuminates the reasons so many angry white men are drawn to Donald Trump.

Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Sign up now for the fall tour and save $150. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ.  Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the GoddessGoddess and God in the World final cover design will be published by Far Press in 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in August 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.




Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

43 thoughts on “Toxic Masculinity: “Masculinity Must Be Killed” by Carol P. Christ”

  1. I agree with this critique wholeheartedly even though I have not seen the movie. I live in the western mountains of Maine where I see male violence acted out routinely against the rest of the population. Male Gunners target shoot for hours destroying the peace, they ride four wheelers in the forests driving away wildlife in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. Men shoot guns on a daily basis. My sense is the moment they have a bad day out comes the gun.They drive around with no mufflers attached to their vehicles. NOISE pollution is routine. Hunting animals for sport is the norm, and during deer and bear season trophies are hung in trees to bleed out, and pictures are posted of spectacular kills in the local papers. Women don’t do any of these things although some adolescent girls are encouraged to hunt, and “youth day” is something of a celebration for hunters with daughters and sons who actually do hunt. Add all these normalized forms of male violence to the statistic that one out of three women is abused (rape, incest terrorizing) within the family structure. Women simply don’t do any of these things, with the exception of being taught by fathers to hunt, the latter behavior is seen as some kind of bizarre initiation…into what – A culture that celebrates and condones male violence. In my view masculinity must be killed if the rest of us are to survive.


    1. don’t get me started on motorcycles without mufflers. i cannot open my windows winter of summer because of this–here in molivos. the police decline to enforce the law. one just went by, and yes it is a form of violence and ego assertion, no matter who it violates.


      1. Sometimes it’s just a relief to have another name this violence for what it is. It is not by accident that virtually all the NOISE POLUTION is created by men whose wives laugh and shake the their heads saying “boys will be boys.” Disgusting.

        On another note, I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your essays Carol or how much I look forward to reading more … you have a way of explicating ideas that leaves me hungry for more, perhaps because your thoughts are grounded in your body. I don’t just hear what you say, I can feel the truths spoken. Thank you


    2. The attitudes you describe permeate where I live–Panhandle of Texas. People move out in the country so they can shoot, tear up the land with four wheelers, etc. Men at least cannot go to the country it seems without doing something to it. When you say anything, you get called names.


        1. thank you for saying what many think, and few have the courage to say. In my rural days I have often been dismayed by beautiful land that has been, in essence, raped – and in the fall, the enduring cult of men who go out into the woods to enjoy “nature” and shoot anything that moves.


    3. Sara I live in Maine, too, and I totally agree with you, although I do know some women who hunt. Recently one woman, who happens to be highly educated and a feminist, was telling our Bible study group how her ex-boyfriend taught her all about hunting and what fun it was. I replied that I could understand how tracking an animal might be fun, but I did not understand how taking a life could be considered a sport! She didn’t reply to that, no doubt chalking it up to my California roots.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your post, Carol. I, too, believe that hyper-masculinity (and your word “toxic” fits well) is one of the core causal factors in this kind of violence in American society. I wrote a post on the “angry young man” on my blog right after Orlando the might interest you.
    I hope we can all keep working to dismantle the annihilating ways hyper/toxic masculinity cultivates anger and violence in our culture.


      1. I think socialization is a major factor for the behavior of many men throughout the world. They are taught that you are not a man if you cannot control your women, children, the world around you. When this fails to work, many become violent. Even women buy into this.


  3. Interesting topic Carol, thanks. As regards sexism and film, and the problem of man, there came a time maybe fifteen years ago or more when I could no longer watch movies on TV or in a theater, etc. I had begun to live a very quiet life. The movies seemed so overwhelming, so masculine, so violent and sexual. Sexuality can be delightful of course if you love your lover sincerely, and not only because of desire, but out of admiration, respect and real affection. But that kind of companionship doesn’t seem to be understood in modern media, It’s too subtle, too quiet, too hidden.


  4. We can begin raising the vibration around the world by chanting AM– in the Great I AM, I is masculine. We can all simply begin at home several times throughout the day. Pleae share this important tidbit.

    Important read Ms. Christ. thank you


  5. Every time I try to explain why these age old views as to what it means to be masculine need to go, I am told by males that it is human nature to be violent. Even if that were true, if we do not change, I explain that humans and human life on Earth will not exist in the future. It is also an attitude that is very demeaning to men because it says that men are unable to control themselves–hence veiled and hidden women, boys used as sex slaves when women are not available, etc. The question then arises, what can we do to change this?


  6. To begin, we need more women in positions of power – especially in government – to start changing the rules. We need to stop supporting the worship of violence and start supporting cooperation instead of competion, per Riane Eisler.


  7. This subject of uber-male violence is hard for us to grapple with as we all have been born and raised in a patriarchal world…hard to see “wood for trees”. Susan Faludi in her new book, In the Darkroom, begins to address this and the opposite, uber-feminine helplessness. After her abusive father left the home for his birth-place, Hungary, he went through a sex change and became a strangely uber-acting female.
    Don’t we need to address the exaggerated gender characteristics that trap us in this cycle of misunderstanding, violence, and pain. This has to start with the education of boys and girls to be kind, and to use their minds and mouths to deal with conflicts…to be able to say “I’m angry” and then walk away…till they can deal verbally with whatever situation has cropped up…or just let it go. We have to step back and learn how to see “wood for trees”…then speak up.


      1. Are we not we grappling with the deconstruction of the patriarchal model itself? And replacing it with a new “gender-equal but different” thought out model that respects the earth and all sentient beings, including all humans. This is so big and complicated. It will take so many of us to create this, to come up with the language, to do our own inner work, and to build step by step a new vision. I’m thinking of my grandchildren, what beginnings of this new world vision are we able to leave them with?


  8. Great article (as always)! Thank you! I see the arising of the Goddess in all of Her diversity as really about the next evolutionary step for humanity, if we have any chance of surviving into the 22nd Century.

    Years ago I was visiting the Temple of Hanuman in Ubud, Bali. A forest surrounded it full of grey monkeys, and of course I had to buy a bunch of bananas and visit them. Often the little female monkeys would have an infant on their chest, and an older child literally riding on their backs, and I felt kind of sorry for them, so I made an effort to pass out bananas to a little group that congregated around me. Then I saw the Alpha Male approach, walking exactly like a human bully – he stood in front of me, snarled with some impressive teeth, and grabbed the entire bunch from my hands (I was not about to argue with him). Then he sauntered away, sat down, and proceeded to eat the whole bunch while all the other little monkeys clustered around him hoping he would drop one.

    I remember thinking “wow. I sure do hope we eventually outgrow that one.l”


    1. Lauren – I think you would have had a much different experience, had you visited a group of bonobos!


  9. I am reminded of the Clint Eastwood movie “Gran Torino”, a perfect example of Walter Wink’s “Myth of Redemptive Violence”. Roger Ebert says the movie is “about the belated flowering of a man’s better nature”. but in fact it’s about violence begetting violence, ending in violence. Eastwood dies by a violent act that he initiated, ostensibly to defend his new Hmong friends. He is last seen in the position of a cross, reminding us that the crucifixion is often used as a justification for redemptive violence.

    I worry that all the talk about gun control won’t change a culture of violence, of which guns are only a part. How do we further the conversation about toxic masculinity?


  10. Carol,
    Thanks for this post and for contributing to the ongoing conversation about masculinity in our culture. I offer these comments in the spirit of ongoing dialogue.

    It is indisputable that the vast majority of violent acts in the world (including acts by nation states) are performed by males — and that the violence must stop. The question we all (men and women) are asking is, “How?” As with any profound question, the answer will not be simple. No single action (no “silver bullet” to use the current violent vernacular) will fix the problem. As a culture we need to find new images (or recover old images) of what it means to be a man. What is the proper role of the masculine? What shall we teach our sons?

    As a biological male who identifies as masculine, I support the use of the adjective “toxic” to describe a certain manifestation of masculine energy. Toxic masculinity is a diseased embodiment of the masculine energy that must dance together with the feminine for the world to turn with beauty and peace. Ocalan’s statement that “masculinity must be killed” isn’t a fruitful approach. Ironically, it buys directly into the very problem it is intended to fix – the idea that problems can be solved by violence. I think his subsequent statement you quote carries the true core of his message – how to “make peace between man and life, and life and woman.” So what do we do? Where do we begin?

    I think a good place to start is understanding how deeply the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” that PennyD refers to in her comment is rooted in our culture. (Walter Wink’s discussion of the myth in his book Engaging the Powers is eye-opening and inspiring.) It is one of our foundational myths; a story so deeply embedded in our subconscious that we believe it is reality, just the way things are. Our books (sacred and secular), movies, television, sports, politics, business are filled with stories of how men, when faced with someone they oppose, solve the difficulty by destroying the opposition. The good overcomes the evil by killing the evil.

    Among the many problems with this, is that good and evil are transitive properties — my good may be someone else’s evil; my evil may be someone else’s good. We only have to look at our current endless wars in the Middle East to see the futility and stupidity of approaching disputes of any kind as “I win, you lose”. Casting every dispute as an heroic tale of good defeating evil may make us feel righteous and brave, but it gets us only to the next battle.

    We need new myths, new stories, new narratives about what it means to be masculine. We need to unearth or create stories that go beyond good and evil and, instead, show us how creation and destruction are sacred forces that we need to balance within ourselves and around the world. To heal the toxic masculine, we need to recover the Sacred Masculine. A Sacred Masculine that exists joyously with the Sacred Feminine.

    I don’t believe men are inherently violent, bad, or evil. I know many truly good and virtuous men; but almost to a man they are also aware of their capacity for anger and violence. And, through hard internal work, they have chosen to not let themselves “become” anger and violence. I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Chief Sitting Bull — “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.”

    He doesn’t say he will destroy the mean and evil dog. He says he will simply nurture the good one more. It’s time we begin, at all levels of our society, to tell stories of how we nurture the good dog in ourselves.

    Tom E


    1. Thanks, Tom, for expanding my thought and adding a piece about the Sacred Masculine which goes beyond the issue of violence.


    2. I agree with you Tom about using the word kill in the phrase. I recoiled from it too.

      I am wary of the Sacred Masculine as the complement to the Sacred Feminine. I do believe men are not evil. But what does it mean to oppose feminine and masculine? What if the qualities we wish to embody are neither male nor female, masculine nor feminine. I mean do you really want nurturing to be expressing your feminine side? Isn’t it rather part of your nature as a male? I know I do not have any interest at all in speaking of my intelligence as my masculine side–it is part of who I am as a woman.


      1. I dont know, I think the concepts of contrapositions are patriarchal concepts ie day vs night, black vs white, good vs evil, men vs women etc. Imo its a concept based on dominance and militarization. As far as I understand Matrists see everything as a hole, like day and night are part of the same reality not opposed to it. men vs women and black vs white are the two faces of the same coin. We are all humans there fore there is no race and we need each other to exist (men and women). In a patriarchy its all about ME dominating you, in a matriarchy its all about US.

        But what do I know….


  11. Great article, Carol. What’s missing from the discussion is whether there’s a distinction between the masculinity engendered by patriarchy and toxic masculinity. I agree with what you state at the end of your article: that the distinction is only one of degree, not one of kind. Masculinity in this patriarchal culture is defined by control, superiority, and dominance. Dominance always implies the threat of force. Of course, femininity is defined in a “complementary” way by dependency, emotionality, submissiveness, and weakness. So what we need is a complete cultural revolution concerning gender, i.e. masculinity and femininity.


    1. I agree wholeheartedly, and this is the power of queering gender. We know that both masculinity and femininity are defined over and against each other. Thus both are dominating. I tend to see gender expression in terms of a dynamic web, not a spectrum, in which there are constantly moving and developing intersections of identity. We need new terms.

      A colleague and a friend, Joseph Hill, is writing on Muslim women spiritual leaders in Senegal who do not challenge “patriarchy” but neither do they uphold it, they are transmuting the categories through their varied and dynamic gender performances. I see so much hope in them and in all those who follow them who are learning a new way.

      This sort of transformation is ideal, to my mind, it is a fluid transformation that accords with the fluidity of gender performance. It constrains no one to one intersection of qualities and expressions, but allows for constant movement and becoming. It does not perpetuate gender norms because there is no fight against masculinity or femininity, there is only a transformation of meaning to the point that these particular words as we know them may become meaningless in the future.

      What happened in Orlando, to me, is in large part a result of confined and confining gender categories. Mateen had one way to be a man, both within the Muslim community, within his family, and in American culture. However he understood his gender and sexual expression, the Muslim community’s obsession with controlling heterosexual gender roles and expressions of sexuality and how that intersected with the other pressures he faced–his particular family dynamics, mental illness, the multitude of American cultural illnesses, and all the rest–is what created this killer.

      I am profoundly disappointed with the majority of responses to the murders in Orlando from the Muslim community with the exception of CAIR. The vast majority of them, especially the scholars who composed “The Orlando Statement,” absolve themselves of this complicity. I’m not sure what I expected, but still. Only the CAIR statement recognized and acknowledged these intersecting oppressions and called for their dismantling: “Homophobia, Transphobia, and Islamophobia are interconnected systems of oppression and we cannot dismantle one without dismantling the others.” They did not explicitly mention these phobias within the Muslim community, but I believe the implication is clear.

      That said, there are many individual Muslims who are speaking out. I am hopeful that those who want to break free of these boundaries (or simply the requirement to police them) see that they have allies so they live their conscience in the open. I am hopeful that those who had not considered it, feel freer to do so now.

      The link below is to a very important essay on one man’s struggle with his own faith and realization that he had abandoned his gay friend. He found a way to think through homosexuality for himself (finding Scott Kugle’s thought essential and Farah Zeb sparking his way). In the end, he realizes he had literally idolized the scholarly tradition, rather than encountering God alone, and so denied his own conscience. He is not alone.

      Sorry for the long-winded response to your comment and Carol’s thought provoking words. I just so value the observation of the danger these binary categories hold and it prompted me to share these thoughts.


  12. “From this perspective, I would say that An Unfinished Life attempts to criticize “toxic masculinity” identified with men who batter women and men who shoot wild animals. At the same time, it celebrates and condones the “ordinary masculinity” in which problems between and within men are sorted out with fists and the barrel of a gun. A deeper critique is clearly needed. ”

    YES. This is huge for me. As an aside, I’ve been learning so much about masculinity in a few different ways recently. First from my husband, who has really taken on the challenge of exploring and reading up gender roles and expectations in our culture, and listening to how he processes what he is reading as a cis, white man with a disability. Secondly, from a dear friend who came out as a trans man last year. He gets feminism and the need for it in a way I’ve found many well-meaning male friends do not, and yet seeing his ideals for what masculinity is and can be has been inspiring and affirming for me as a lover of men and a mother of boys. There is so much to masculinity that doesn’t have to be based on violence at all, but so much of it is — both toxic and patriarchal. It makes it hard for most of us to even imagine what is left of masculinity if we take the toxicity and patriarchy out of the mix.


  13. We must begin to disengage being a boy from competitions that have winners and losers and from all forms of war games. Just recently on Greek tv the presenter asked a group of little boys “What is your team (referring to professional football/soccer)?” I wanted to cry. Having a winning team is not what defines a little boy–or at least it should not be. And then on my Fb feed for Father’s Day came a picture of a father holding a small baby (good image) while reading a book titled Darth Vader to him. I wanted to scream: this is not the way to raise a gentle loving son!!!


    1. There is a difference between competition and violence. My son and daughters learned much from sports and the physical development it required. Even bad coaches taught them something about working together and dealing with winning and losing–and dealing with difficult bosses. Star Wars is a new narrative of an old story of human behavior. Let’s find ways to talk with young girls and boys that require critical thinking about these things before we try to get rid of all of them.


      1. I think it would be better to play sports that are not based on winning and losing or defeating the other. As for new versions of old narratives about defeating evil, I think we need new stories.


  14. Reblogged this on k2quill and commented:
    Thinking about this very topic, whether the worlds of Mars and Venus, whether male, female, or neither are preparing people to be integrated into serving in HUD, BIA, EPA, FCC, State, National Geographic, Smithsonian. These views of SuperMale Guardians seem to be a preparation for living near the Smokey Mountains as a park ranger but a bit stereotyped.


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