With all that has been happening – from protests to seminars on how to end patriarchy and do away with it, there is a term that also needs to be explored: Toxic Feminism or Femininity. The term is a spectre that sits aside invocations of mainstream discussions of ‘toxic masculinity’.
The term ‘toxic femininity’ refers to the gender expectations that keep women subservient, quiet and submissive to men’s domination and aggression. It also refers to when women use their gender to obtain certain privileges. It is when noxious, indirect modes of confrontation are masked with gentleness. It is when empathy turns into ethical short sightedness. Just like toxic masculinity, toxic femininity is the product of a deeply patriarchal society and systems, and thus requires greater examination.
Because we have, for centuries, been blaming men for their toxic masculinity on patriarchy, we have not had the chance to really unpack toxic feminism, and this is because of the way in which it manifests through traits that have been associated to be part of a woman’s personality.
To substantiate, a woman who is on her period is often let off because ‘it is that time of the month’. Her swearing at a client and or being rude to an ordinary individual in the name of ‘it’s that time of the month’ is not an excuse. It is toxic and should be addressed.
With toxic femininity not really being unpacked in mainstream discourse, one may argue that this is because, in many cultures, women have only recently started entering positions of power and leadership in the public sphere.
As a result, their participation in the workforce is still low and the archetypes, such as the smothering mother, the entrapping lover, the scheming mother-in-law, the backstabbing friend have been around for a long time, but they have been seen as individual nuisances in the private sphere. This is why they have been normalised – even when they are toxic.
These toxic traits about women have existed for centuries within society – and they have been represented through means of the friendly neighbourhood aunties who make humiliating observations about your reproductive status, and friends who patiently eat biscuits while they plot to destroy your standing in a social group.
Sometimes, this is manifested in the workplace too, where women keep other women in line in various ways: malicious gossip, rumour campaigns, the threat of social exclusion and disapproval. This kind of aggression is often difficult to call out, since it is said to operate under the cover of sweet smiles and friendly greetings.
Thus, when we speak of toxicity that exists within society, we should not forget that toxic feminism does exist as well. When a woman tells another woman she has been inappropriately touched and her friend brushes it off with, ‘it’s not that serious; I am sure he was just looking for attention’, that is toxic, because you are making excuses for a perpetrator.
We need to do better as women too.
• Frieda Mukufa’s lifestyle section concentrates on women-related issues and parenting every Friday in the New Era newspaper. She also specialises in editing research proposals, proofreading as well as content creation.