Toxic Masculinity was first coined in the context of male-positivity in 1980s: Shepherd Bliss

Image courtesy Gillette, The Best Men Can Be Ad Campaign, 2019

The first use of the term toxic masculinity is credited to author and professor Shepherd Bliss.

Describing the first use of the now controversial term, Bryant Sculos, in a 2017 essay titled “Who’s Afraid of Toxic Masculinity?”, writes that Bliss first used the term in his doctoral dissertation, and that Bliss is also credited with coining the term “mythopoetic,” used to describe a men’s movement popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

In a 1987 article authored by Bliss himself titled “Revisioning Masculinity: A report on the growing men’s movement,” he describes mythopoetic as an alternative vision of what it means to be a man.” Bliss adds that “this approach looks to ancient mythology and fairytales, to Jungian and archetypal psychology, and to poets and teachers like Robert Bly and James Hillman.”

Placed within an historical context, the burgeoning men’s movement grew out of a combination of the strength of the women’s movement of the ‘70s and the changing workplace, where women moved into traditional male jobs and men were expected to contribute more at home and with child-rearing. This left men feeling somewhat confused about personal, societal and economic expectations placed upon them.

One of the most memorable practices of this period were men’s retreats where men only went off into nature and did secret stuff. I know this because my father went to one. He said he couldn’t tell me much about it, but that it involved talking sticks, fires, drums and somehow I envisioned nudity and chanting, though I am not sure about those details. I am positive, however, that he was very upset he was ever circumcised. None of this was in the least bit funny to him, and he did not welcome giggles from me.

Bliss described the encounters more like this: “In the Mendocino woods each year since 1982, nearly 100 men have gathered to spend a week together drumming, reciting poetry, learning aikido, playing volleyball, telling stories, making masks, listening to presentations by men like Robert Bly and psychologist James Hillman, and dancing a wild samba late into the night.”

In 2014, Bliss entered a discussion on Reddit writing, “I did use the term ‘toxic masculinity,’ among others, to differentiate forms of male behavior and being that are contrary to the male positive, pro-feminist, gay-affirmative positions that I support. This was a few decades ago when I was active in the men’s work. I also wrote and talked about ‘cooperative masculinity,’ which is nature-based.”

Bliss emphasized a discovery of the authentic self through spiritual searching and communing with nature and an exploration of emotions, from grief to ecstasy. The goal is to foster more male-positive behaviors, ultimately leading to men becoming better humans as well as happier in their own skin.

Specifically, Bliss recommended the following:
Nurturing the father-son connection by reconciling with or forgiving their own fathers as well as being there for the sons.

Cultivating male friendships to learn cooperation and to avoid competitive behaviors.

Attending more to their physical health as men do not live as long as women.

Improving male modes of intimacy, not in terms of sexual intimacy but in terms of working alongside one another in activities or projects.

Improving male modes of feeling through expression of emotions rather than repressing them.

Improving the male body, or the male body image, avoiding body shame and fostering pride, particularly by working with other men.

Bliss added that other “issues include male-female relationships, homophobia, domestic violence, and men and war.”

So while today, toxic masculinity seems to imply emotionless aggression; competition; sexism or outright misogyny; homophobia and other outdated attitudes, Bliss abandoned the term and focused on the positive. He ended his 1987 essay by saying, “The men’s movement also has the potential to impact our culture as a whole. If men were to place greater value on their relationships with other men, spend more time with children, have a better connection to nature, work with women for equality, and take better care of their bodies, society as a whole would almost certainly be transformed for the better.

“Men are changing today, too fast for some and not fast enough for others. Though confusing to many, ours is a time for revisioning masculinity and redefining what it means to be a man.”