The Toxic Male: Why We’ll Never Really Escape Him

Does no one care about “toxic masculinity” anymore? For a brief moment after the mainstream rise of MeToo, it seemed like the worst thing ever for a man to get called out for bad behaviors. But now the toxic male is thriving – he’s getting worship on our movies and on our TV screens, he’s got a million TikTok followers. Here’s our take on why the era of outrage over toxic masculinity is truly dead – and Hollywood and social media have doubled down to put the toxic male back on top and at the center of our stories.


Does no one care about “toxic masculinity” anymore? For a brief moment after the mainstream rise of MeToo, it seemed like the worst thing ever for a man to get called out for bad behaviors. But now the toxic male is thriving – he’s getting worship on our movies and on our TV screens, he’s got a million TikTok followers.

He’s not only saying stuff that might have gotten him canceled a few years ago; he’s riding a MeToo backlash that seems to be making him bolder and more unapologetic than ever. So it’s not so much that the toxic male is back, he just took a quick breather, and the 2.0 version that’s arisen from the ashes of #MeToo is somehow even more toxic.

The men who were declared banished from entertainment back in 2017 are selling out venues, returning to the director’s chair and getting grammy nominations. And the toxic male hearthrob onscreen is winning the Internet’s heart. Here’s our take on why the era of outrage over toxic masculinity is truly dead – and Hollywood and social media have doubled down to put the toxic male back on top and at the center of our stories.

Dawn: “We got another toxic dude on our hands!” Girls5Eva

In the Irish black comedy Bad Sisters, a group of sisters decide to take down their brother-in-law because he’s an example of a male so toxic that he’s beyond redemption – the only way to help their sister Grace live again is to cut out the cancer that is this toxic male.

This is a fictional representation of the MeToo mentality – that certain toxic males simply must be banished from society – and it seems to have held true at least for the most infamous target of MeToo, Harvey Weinstein, who was actually convicted for his crimes in court.

Revisionist Western series The English is also about taking down the toxic white male– in this case a ruthless Englishman who’s massacred countless Native Americans and others – while the series underlines how that colonial brutality is what the Wild Wild West (and modern American culture) are truly built on.

But these storylines about holding the toxic male accountable feel like the exception, in contrast to what we’re seeing in s lots of other TV and movies (and in real life) to this day.

Let’s kick things off with the toxic-male-as-heartthrob trope, which never truly went away. Take Euphoria’s Nate Jacobs – a tormented,violent, narcissist. The show does explore what’s wrong with him in a critical way – but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a fan favorite. Or look at another unapologetic HBO bad boy, Daemon from House of the Dragon.

Viserys Targaryen: “The good and honorable lady of the veil –”

Daemon Targaryen: “In the veil men are said to fuck sheep instead of women. I can assure you the sheep are prettier” – House of the Dragon

His character doesn’t even bother to sugarcoat any of his terrible behavior – but after just a few episodes, the internet was “shipping” an incestual, sexually charged scene with his niece. On the same network, White Lotus Season 2 gave us two storylines with an unspoken toxic male subtext, and ended up suggesting that when it comes to carnal, libidinal attraction – women are turned on by the alpha bro and not by the nice guy.

The show paints self-proclaimed “male feminist” Albie DiGrasso in a pretty unsexy light; his love interest Portia eventually comes to value his safe trustworthiness but only after the more macho Jack turns out to be a dangerous criminal. In all these situations the writing isn’t portraying the toxic male behavior as right, but fans still respond to the toxic guy’s charisma – some of House of the Dragon’s team said they were “baffled” that Daemon became the Internet’s boyfriend.

But is that really such a surprise when we look at the long tradition of glamorizing the toxic male onscreen? Perhaps the most epic toxic male bravado performance of all time is Marlon Brando In a Streetcar Named Desire, as the ill-mannered, non-talkative brute who a woman could barely relate to – but who summoned deep, libidinal desires. Since then, we’ve seen a thousand Stanley Kowalski’s. Brando shook his fists, so that Tony Soprano could rage-eat his way through 6 seasons of The Sopranos.

The introduction of Tony Soprano in 1999 ushered in a new, modern anti-hero in pop culture – sure he’s bad, but we could find reasons to forget about that like his nice family and a house in the ‘burbs. With shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the glorification of anti-hero protagonists became synonymous with prestige TV. And when it comes to the game of ‘who would you rather’ for classic TV and movie love triangles, the toxic option typically wins out for fans, all the way from Rick Blaine in Casablanca, to Tom Grunick in Broadcast News, to Troy Dyer in Reality Bites.

Troy Dyer: “What happened to your normal clothes…. You look like a doily. Reality Bites

To Jordan Catalano in My So Called Life, to Edward Cullen in Twilight to Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights, to Jughead Jones in Riverdale. Generations of folks just can’t get enough of the troubled, distant, monosyllabic, tortured, angry, leaning-against-walls dudes who more often than not, have a “wounded animal please fix me” storyline. At least when the toxic male is given redeeming characteristics onscreen, it’s easier to understand the appeal of his morally grey boldness, but today we reach the zenith of toxicity, with characters who are actual murderers and still liked by fans.

Penn Badgley, who portrays fictionalized serial killer Joe Goldberg from Netflix’s You has said he’s creeped out by his character’s female fanbase. And our culture’s true crime obsession has contributed to the glamorization of real serial killers – like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. Across the board the tenets of toxic masculinity are still overly represented in the media. In a recent report that analyzed TV programs aimed at boys – it was found that male characters were: Less likely to show emotions than female characters, including empathy, anger, or even happiness, more likely to be shown taking risks, and more likely to be perpetrators of violence.

Arthur Fleck: “You get what you fucking deserve!Joker

So how did the toxic male engineer such a speedy comeback in both fiction and real life? Almost as soon as the conversation surrounding toxic masculinity entered the zeitgeist there was right-wing backlash. Which was followed by the introduction of the “supposed crisis” of boys and men in the media acting too feminine. And slowly but surely, Hollywood started backtracking from feminist stances that were now seen as “overcorrection.”

Surely, there are some problems with the toxic masculinity outrage discourse. For one, it can be pretty unforgiving and lacking nuance – lumping in true criminals together with more borderline cases of people with flaws who can learn and improve. One strain of thought from a handful of gender researchers pushes back against the term toxic masculinity because the term portends that manhood itself is a problem to be solved. By definition, toxic masculinity relies on a form of biological essentialism – for example, an angry male who gets into bar fights to protect his female partner is just acting on his “manly intuition”.

More centrally, the initial hand wringing over toxic masculinity has now been overshadowed by a “masculinity crisis” covered emphatically in media, politics, and academia.

Bill Maher: “There’s a lot of sort of maleness coming to the fore and announcing itself in violence and racism and hatred” Real Time with Bill Maher

And this is complicated because some aspects of this crisis are real, while some are… less so. What is true is that it’s becoming more and more obvious that young men are experiencing feelings of dissolution, rootlessness, and a scarcity mindset these days. There are signs that young men and boys are falling behind girls. Males are more likely than females to drop out of college, and the New York Times writes that “Men account for close to three out of every four “deaths of despair” —i.e, suicide and drug overdoses.”

While the men at the top of society seem to be doing fine, the majority are struggling at dating – Even sperm counts are in steep decline globally. More broadly, it’s clear that many men do feel as though their power, status and identity as a man in society is being threatened. The collective angst is amplified in the media, as there’s no short supply of punditry breaking down the crisis of manhood. On the right we have the bowtied, standard bearer of grizzled masculinity himself – Tucker Carlson, in a docu series titled: The End of Men. Senator Josh Hawley has made this issue his hobby horse. And it’s also not just a conservative topic. On the left, Professor and Podcastor, Scott Galloway is fixated on the crisis among young men, Or take this recent SNL sketch that lampooned the childlike, clueless boyfriend:

Selena Gomez: “Oh no Matt don’t cry! Ask for help like a big boy!”SNL

Across the spectrum men are being presented in the media as weak, soyboys, cucks, helpless, and useless. In response to all this anxiety, and the more real problems, unfortunately a significant portion of young men are seeking guidance by turning to some very toxic elements of society for guidance, like The Manosphere. Influencers like Jordan Peterson, Paul Saldino, some guy called Liver King, and the rampant misogynist Andrew Tate (who has actually been charged with sex trafficking) attract obscene numbers on socials.

A more benign but even more influential version of the brofluencer is Fear Factor host turned controversial podcaster - Joe Rogan, who consistently interviews former Navy SEALs, MMA Fighters, and other Bro-fluencers – and peddles products like supplements, grills, and other, different supplements. Brofluencers run the gambit of imploring young men to make their bed every morning, to insisting that women are property to be owned, to a whole other list of repugnant ideas not worth giving oxygen to here. And as a result of all these influences, males today are far more likely than their female counterparts to believe in conspiracy theories, and a whopping 86 percent charged thus far for the Capital Siege are male.

While some of these brofluencers are a lot more dangerous than others, the reality is that these manly man ideal built on misogyny aren’t helping anyone. Toxic masculinity is actually toxic to the toxic male himself – even physiologically. The most recent A.P.A. guidelines claim that men who’ve been socialized to conform to concepts of “traditional masculinity,” such as not wanting to appear weak, are more likely to suffer from issues such as cardiovascular disease and heavy alcohol abuse.

So where do we go from here? An important antidote to toxic masculinity is modeling healthy masculinity, which asks for men to be in touch with their emotions, and stand up for those they love. And we are seeing lots more examples of this healthy masculinity in the media - from Carmy from The Bear on FX – who bucks the stereotype of chefs as total egotists to really, anything that Chris Evans does. Nick Offerman (known for his iconic role as manly man Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation) won over audiences on The Last of Us as a gay survivalist, who showcases traditionally manly skills while becoming more emotionally vulnerable through building a life with his partner in the midst of a zombie-esque fungal pandemic.

Bill: “I was never afraid before you showed up.”The Last of Us

Sex Education has a toxic male heartthrob who’s gay and challenged to overcome his unhealthy habits (many of which are learned from his father). And thankfully, this is bleeding from characters on screen into the real-life actors who play them – with new Hollywood heartthrobs consistently subverting gender norms. It’s not even just the young stars – Brad Pitt’s embrace of skirts during the Bullet Train press junket was obsessed over. And Pitt admitted that trying to uphold a “Clint Eastwood” version of masculinity is exhausting.

The more we see popular male figures confidently shrugging off dusty old gender mores, the more young men coming of age can feel less pressure to live up to an unreasonable idea of masculinity and embrace a whole new future of manhood. That’s got to be better than some guy eating, well…

Liver king: “Why would you eat a vegetable, when you could devour a testicle” – YouTube