I’ve been reading Robert Greene’s book The Laws of Human Nature. The book explains the psychological reasons people, ourselves and others, behave the ways we do, and seeks to help individuals improve in both self-awareness and awareness of others’ motives and feelings to increase our ability to work with and relate to each other. It’s been a fascinating read including many case studies and familiar stories of famous figures throughout time.

“We are subject to forces from deep within us that drive our behavior and that operate below the level of our awareness. We see the results—our thoughts, moods, and actions—but have little conscious access to what actually moves our emotions and compels us to behave in certain ways.” Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature

One of the chapters deals with the issues that occur as a result of gender roles, how these occur, and how to resolve them. Let’s start with a thought experiment. Research shows that there is no difference between a male and female brain. When a child is born, that child is self-centered, displaying similar traits regardless of sex: demanding, fussy, crying, contentment. Even young children continue to display the variety of traits we later refer to as “masculine” and “feminine”: empathizing, being aggressive, crying, dominating.

Let’s suppose that children are randomly assigned to Group A or Group B at birth. The children in Group A are told that their group likes salty foods and isn’t afraid of heights. The children in Group B are told that they like sweet foods and are afraid of heights. In reality, some of the children in both groups are afraid of heights, and their group assignment does not actually correlate to whether they prefer sweet foods or salty. But because of their group assignment, if children in Group A express fear of heights, they are shamed for it. If a child in Group B doesn’t like sweets, the child’s identity is questioned and ridiculed by other members of Group B who do like sweets. Over time, those children begin to feel resentful. Depending on how much they internalize the messages they receive, they may project an exaggerated version of the desired traits to prevent further shaming.

Robert Greene’s book explains that gender roles are not only a byproduct of social and cultural cues, but also an identity issue occurring when we are exposed to an opposite sex parent. We identify with the parent who is biologically similar, and we differentiate from the one who is not. This awareness becomes more acute during puberty, and as we age, we begin to suppress the qualities that we associate with the “other” sex in order to forge an acceptable identity.

“Boys lose their rich range of emotions and, in the struggle to get ahead, repress their natural empathy. Girls have to sacrifice their assertive sides. They are supposed to be nice, smiling, deferential, always considering other people’s feelings before their own.” Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature

“Toxic” Masculinity

Toxic masculinity is a term to describe the pain that a patriarchal system creates in men who are required to suppress their natural feminine traits, and the backlash that this pain causes in society. When particularly sensitive male children are consistently told that crying or showing feelings is “shameful,” they fear discovery or exposure. Here’s one definition of the term:

“Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.” Source

The term doesn’t mean that masculinity is bad or toxic. It means that measuring one’s “manliness” by these exaggerated qualities (or conversely calling someone “less than a man” who doesn’t possess these traits) is harmful to individuals and society at large. How does that harm manifest? For conflicted men, the results can be dire, but men also have more potential to harm others because of the specific ideas associated with being “masculine”: physical strength, virility, and dominance. From the same article:

“in a culture that equates masculinity with physical power, some men and boys will invariably feel like they are failing at “being a man.” For these particular men and boys, toxic masculinity has created a vacuum in their lives that can be filled through violence: through the abuse of women and of children in their care, through affiliation with the so-called “alt-right” or ISIS, through gun violence or any other promise of restored agency that those parties wrongly equate with manhood.”

“Toxic” Femininity

So what, if anything, is toxic femininity? First, there are some Men’s Rights Activists who claim “toxic femininity” is a byproduct of feminism, that women want to blame men for violence while enacting violence themselves, then playing the “woman card” to get away with it. That’s not what Robert Greene’s book is talking about (and he avoids the term Toxic Femininity as well as the term Toxic Masculinity) nor is it what this OP is about. The negatives that we see leaking out when women are forced into a “feminine” role are:

“The hyperfeminine woman will often be concealing a great deal of repressed anger and resentment at the role she has been forced to play. Her seductive, girlish behavior with men is actually a ploy for power, to tease, entrap, and hurt the target. Her masculine side will leak out in passive-aggressive behavior, attempts to dominate people in relationships in underhanded ways. Underneath the sweet, deferential façade, she can be quite willful and highly judgmental of others.”

When you have to pretend to be nicer and less aggressive than you really feel, the natural byproduct is to weaponize your niceness. You can couch an insult as a compliment, for example: “Usually girls your size can’t pull off that type of outfit, but you really look great in it!” Manipulating men through childish behavior is the entire premise of the book Fascinating Womanhood, a book that was popular in Mormon circles in the 70s and 80s. In the book, women are encouraged to act helpless, use a baby voice to get their way, and to stamp their foot during an argument to seem more “feminine” and dependent which is supposed to boost their husband’s ego. It’s all a play act designed to help a man who is insecure feel more masculine.

This enforced femininity can also create other problems for women, such as eating disorders, depression, or even mental illness like Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy which disproportionately affects women and is also a form of child or elder abuse.

Group Dynamics and Gender

Greene’s book explains how “masculine” teams or organizations tend to be run:

“in a group setting the masculine style is to require a leader, and to either aspire to that role or gain power by being the most loyal follower. Leaders will designate various deputies to do their bidding. Men form hierarchies and punish those who fall out of line. They are highly status conscious, hyperaware of their place in the group. Leaders will tend to use some element of fear to keep the group cohesive. The masculine style of leadership is to identify clear goals and reach them. It puts emphasis on results, however they are achieved.”

Second wave feminists know very well that to succeed in these environments, women must suppress their “feminine” traits and bolster their “masculine” traits to succeed and get ahead, and yet, they pay a price for doing so, both internally and also within the group because they are seen as acting “unfeminine.” In my own storied career, I once received the feedback that some of my male colleagues wanted to see me be more “vulnerable.” I was confused. What was I supposed to be vulnerable about? How would they recognize my vulnerability? Were they also supposed to be vulnerable? What did that look like? [1]

By contrast to these masculine group dynamics, women’s groups tend to run in a different manner:

“The feminine style is more about maintaining the group spirit and keeping the relationships smoothed out, with fewer differences among individuals. It is more empathetic, considering the feelings of each member and trying to involve them more in the decision-making process. Results are important, but the way they are achieved, the process, is equally important.”

For this reason, I have often noted that simply giving women the Priesthood is not optimal. The Priesthood organization itself is a masculine organizational structure, containing the qualities of male group dynamics. Suppressing male empathy has a negative effect on organizations, including ones that are supposed to promote Christian ideals. An all male leadership is particularly prone to problems caused by these gender roles.

But the style women use has also suffered from another disadvantage, being defined by men:

“For millennia, it has been men who largely defined masculine and feminine roles and who imposed value judgments on them. Feminine styles of thinking were associated with irrationality, and feminine ways of acting seen as weak and inferior. We may have outwardly progressed in terms of inequality between the genders, but inwardly these judgments still have profound roots in us. The masculine style of thinking is still esteemed as superior, and femininity is still experienced as soft and weak. Many women have internalized these judgments.”

Restoring Balance

The war of the sexes is really an internal struggle.

“This outer conflict between the genders, however, is merely a reflection of an unresolved inner conflict. As long as the inner feminine or masculine is denied, the outer distance will only grow.”

The best path for individuals and organizations is to embrace both “masculine” and “feminine” traits, because these traits exist within all of us. They don’t have to be manufactured or learned; they are already there, being suppressed. The most effective leaders are those who embrace both types of traits. Men who are empathetic. Women who are ambitious. Men who can express emotion. Women who are confident and outspoken.

“What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.” —Susan Sontag

  • Do you see these group traits within the church’s all male or all female groups?
  • How do we help people achieve their potential in a church that is so focused on complementarian gender roles?
  • Do most of the couples you know adhere strictly to the gender roles outlined by the church, or are they more individualistic?
  • Does the church’s emphasis on gender roles foster toxic masculinity or toxic femininity? Why or why not?


[1] Even my boss, also a woman, couldn’t really figure out how I was supposed to do this. She said maybe I could ask for help when I didn’t really need it. Sounds like Fascinating Womanhood in a workplace setting.