Haskell used the ‘toxic femininity’ term in response to criticism (Picture: Getty Images)

In the fight for equality, there often comes a point at which phrases, words and labels get twisted and repurposed unfairly.

This week, former England rugby player, podcaster and son-in-law to Richard and Judy, James Haskell, gave an interview in which he used the term ‘toxic femininity’.

He defined it, vaguely, as women who have suffered microaggressions ‘doing it exactly back to me.’

Haskell used the ‘toxic femininity’ term in response to criticism he had received for his handling of a situation regarding women’s rugby.

In a picture posted to the Instagram page for his podcast, The Good, the Bad and the Rugby, there was a graphic that included the names of England’s most capped front rows – except the graphic only included the most capped males. 

If it had included those who play women’s rugby, the person in the top spot would be a woman (Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Clarke).

He was rightly called out for this by Bristol Bears player, Simi Pam, who typed: ‘I think you meant to say ‘most England caps – MALE front row forwards’. Please stop disrespecting women like this… Please do better’.

But instead of taking the criticism and acknowledging that a mistake had been made – a mistake that is commonplace in the world of sport and one that has previously led to the achievements of female athletes like Venus and Serena Williams often being overlooked – he simply replied, ‘Have a day off’.

I wasn’t particularly surprised at this response from Haskell, considering it was only recently that he referred to his pregnant wife as a ‘huge sea cow’ on Instagram.

He later apologised and deleted the ‘Have a day off’ message, but then went on to give an interview in which he centred himself as a victim of that imaginary term, ‘toxic femininity’.

‘They are talking about my toxic masculinity and then they hit you with a toxic femininity’, he said in his interview with Telegraph Sport, and while I have the utmost sympathy for a person who has been on the receiving end of malicious communications, I think he has confused the abusive and toxic messages sent to him by women, with some kind of female alternative to toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is, broadly the concept that some people’s ideas of manliness and masculinity can perpetuate a culture of things like aggression, dominance, homophobia and rape culture. 

It is a by-product of patriarchal systems that can damage every single one of us, men included.

It does not mean that all masculine traits are toxic, but that some are and should be recognised as such.

Yes, Haskell is a victim. A victim of abusive messages, death threats and insults about his unborn daughter, which are obviously horrific, and no person should be subjected to such abuse.

But is what he is describing a result of ‘toxic femininity’, or is it just abuse that he has re-labelled in an attempt to undermine the legitimate label of toxic masculinity?

Some prominent men in the public eye are increasingly using the term ‘toxic masculinity’ as a springboard to invent the concept of ‘toxic femininity’ – as if every negative male trait needs some sort of female equivalent in order to point the finger instead of taking a long, hard look in the mirror.

Similarly – in light of the Will Smith slap at the Oscars in March – TV host Bill Maher also used the term ‘toxic femininity’ with little consideration as to its actual meaning.

When it comes to systems of oppression, the scales are tipped in one direction

For context, Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock after he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair. She has alopecia and had shaved her head as a result of her condition.

Commenting on the incident, Bill Maher said, ‘Alopecia is not leukaemia. I blame toxic femininity’.

It’s quite a reach to blame a woman for the behaviour of her husband, let alone categorise one man slapping another man as being somehow related to a toxic trait of femininity, rather than the real culprit – toxic masculinity.

What could be more demonstrative of a toxic masculine trait than a man who felt the need to resort to slapping someone on a public, global stage in the name of defending his wife’s honour. 

How did Jada get the blame for this in Maher’s eyes? How did femininity as a whole become the culprit?

Because people like Maher will twist language into a format that suits their agenda and find false equivalents for existing terms, rather than accept the need for the original term’s existence.

It’s not the only example of words getting twisted or repurposed.

Take ‘woke’, as another example. An adjective meaning, ‘alert to racial prejudice and discrimination’, which has since been warped into an insult by right-wing commentators bringing themselves to the verge of a heart attack while ranting about Meghan Markle, trans folk or vegans.

‘Feminist’ gets changed to ‘Feminazi’, which shows not only a gross underplaying of the actions of Nazis, but an intentional misinterpretation of the desires of feminists.

Every year when Pride comes around, certain Twitter users can’t help but demand answers as to why there is no straight pride equivalent. 

Every International Women’s Day, there are countless calls from very angry internet men asking, ‘When is International Men’s Day?’

(It’s 19 November, but that isn’t the point.)

When it comes to systems of oppression, the scales are tipped in one direction.

Terms like ‘feminism’, ‘woke’ and ‘Pride’ exist because we live in a society that was designed to put women, people of colour and those in the LGBTQIA+ community at a disadvantage.

We don’t need ‘straight Pride’ or Men’s Rights Activism because being straight or male does not put you at a disadvantage. They are false equivalents, cheapening the very real and important issues facing men and women alike.

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It’s the lowest form of whataboutery – the practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter accusation or raising a different issue.

Yes, women are flawed, women are human beings and women can display toxic traits. But is toxic femininity really a concept that needs to be addressed?

If we lived in a matriarchy, then maybe men like Haskell and Maher would have a point, but until then, the phrase ‘toxic femininity’ is as useful as a Straight Pride parade.

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