Toxic Femininity and Mormonism

When the concept of “toxic masculinity” first started gaining popularity, I saw various articles and social media posts saying essentially “Oh yeah? Well there’s toxic femininity too!!”

As if that were a rebuttal or response to the theory of toxic masculinity.

I think those folks completely missed the point. The theory of “toxic masculinity” isn’t that men are toxic and women are perfect angels. It’s that the gender-based training that males receive in our culture actually harms the men and boys themselves.

The corresponding female term seems unnecessary. Being systematically excluded from power and authority, and being trained from the cradle that it’s because you’re inherently inferior — it’s obvious that does a number on your head and can lead to toxic coping mechanisms.

At least I thought it was obvious. In case it’s not, I’d like to give some analysis of how the profound sexism of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can create a culture of toxic femininity.

As background, please note that the CoJCoL-dS is a hierarchical organization in which all members belong to groups or quorums, and almost all have roles (“callings”) in which they report to leaders above them in the hierarchy. “The Priesthood” is something given to males only (starting from age 12), and except in rare, localized circumstances, no one who holds the priesthood ever reports to someone who does not.

In a nutshell, women can have authority over children and other women, but they report to men at every level, whereas men only report to other men. Women are explicitly excluded from leadership roles over their whole ward/congregation, and particularly from any roles that involve money.

If the church is a big part of your life, then the leaders’ decisions can have a big impact on your life. Naturally this tension of being systematically excluded from making decisions that impact your life can lead to some pretty toxic coping mechanisms.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

To illustrate passive-aggressive behavoir, my go-to is the server who surreptitiously spits in the rude patron’s food because they don’t have the authority to throw the offender out of the restaurant (or even talk back to them).

For Mormon women, a coping strategy may start as “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” — and then take it to the next level of “heads I win, tails you lose”. I’ll illustrate what I mean with two examples:

Our first woman is the Relief Society President who has the keys to the church building and would like to use them in a way that is neither explicitly allowed nor explicitly forbidden. And let’s say she’s unfortunately in a ward where the Bishop is a petty tyrant who would say “no” — just for the pleasure of showing everyone who’s boss.

For our second example, let’s take a woman who is angry at someone else but has been trained by LDS culture that contention is bad, and that the person who causes the confrontation and/or is angry is the one who’s the problem.

In the first example, the woman just goes ahead and uses the keys as she likes without asking. There are two possible outcomes:

Heads I win: If the petty Bishop says nothing — either he didn’t notice or he didn’t want to risk a confrontation — then the RS president got what she wanted. She has expanded the range of what she’s allowed to do with the keys.

Tails you lose: If the Bishop confronts her, then he’s the one who caused a conflict. At this point she could “ask forgiveness” — say sorry and agree to ask first in similar situations in the future. But she doesn’t want to be held to that. She’d rather get back at him by reacting in surprise:

“I had no idea you’d get so worked up over such a little thing!”

Bonus points if the loser wasn’t initially angry or worked-up — but being accused of it made it so.

The second example works in a similar way. Our passive-aggressive lady takes revenge by making a biting remark that she knows her victim won’t like — but says it with a big smile and presents it as “teasing.”

“Heads I win” happens when the victim just takes it (and maybe cries privately later). “Tails you lose” naturally happens when the victim reacts in anger or obvious distress — and consequently needs to “lighten up! Get a sense of humor! It was just a joke!”

To clarify, teasing that’s sincerely meant as good fun (even for the person who’s the butt of the joke) does exist. And the fact that it exists gives cover to some people who adopt a regular strategy of mean-spirited “teasing” as a way of lashing out at people while maintaining a façade of being nothing but nice and sweet.

As bad as that is, it gets worse:

Boundary Problems

One of the CoJCoL-dS’s most toxic messages to women was summed up succinctly in Julie Beck’s 2007 conference talk “Mothers who Know”:

“children—not possessions, not position, not prestige—are our greatest jewels.”

When this talk was given, there was some outcry in social media about the fact that women were being taught not to take pride in their own accomplishments. But I think the flip side message is more insidious: that their children are the jewels that adorn their crown.

This matches my memories of what it was like in the church when I was growing up. Women didn’t get nearly as much respect and prestige from their own callings as they did from the accomplishments of their kids — particularly having lots of kids pass church-related milestones like missions and temple marriages.

As a result, LDS mothers can have difficulty with boundaries when it come to their kids’ decisions about their own lives.

Living out-and-proud in a same-sex relationship, living as one’s preferred gender — or simply leaving the church for any reason — an LDS mom can perceive such life choices as decisions that are about her own success and about the jeweled crown she has spent her life constructing. And, as with the decisions made by the men above her in the church hierarchy, our Mormon mom doesn’t have the authority to override her kids’ decisions she doesn’t like. Her go-to in such situations is passive-aggressive manipulation.

One of the most classic examples of this is when LDS parents refuse to include their kids’ same-sex partners in family gatherings at their home. It’s passive because the parents can portray it as simply following the 2006 advice from Elder Oaks and having “standards” for their own home — yet it is also deeply, aggressively degrading to their kid’s partner and family.

Another similar passive-aggressive scenario often takes place between husband and wife. Since the man is the sole breadwinner in the ideal Mormon home, he has the final say over the financial decisions of the household. But the church arms the wife with a handy passive-aggressive counter-attack: She can withhold sex, and if her husband takes his own bodily matters into his own hands, she can convince him he’s a porn/sex addict who needs to go to the Bishop and start an endless shameful repentance cycle.

In some cases, passive-aggressive strategies start to become second-nature.

A few years ago someone recounted an anecdote regarding his LDS mother and his young daughter. The little girl liked gardening with her grandmother, but when Covid protocols were first introduced (before the vaccines), unnecessary in-person contact was discouraged. This man agreed to send his daughter over for a visit on the condition (made clear to all parties) that social distancing would be strictly observed. At the end of the visit, the little girl came home upset and confused because her grandmother had repeatedly moved into her space, and at one point tried to hug her.

My guess is that the Mormon grandma simply didn’t think her son had any business imposing restrictions on her visits with her grandchild — but instead of discussing it until a real agreement was reached (which might have meant a conflict and/or no visit/hug), she decided to get her way using the strategies described above.

After all, as long as you maintain plausible deniability and never waver in your refrain of “I didn’t think this little thing would upset you” and “How could I have known you’d take it like that?”, etc. — everything is always the other person’s fault.

So, yes, toxic femininity — like toxic masculinity — exists. I think we could all benefit from fewer and less toxic gender restrictions.

chanson

C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at @chanson@social.linux.pizza or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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5 Responses

  1. Donna Banta says:

    Great post, and love the illustration! The patriarchal hierarchy within Mormonism does encourage passive-aggression. I confess to being amused-even impressed-at times by how resourceful LDS women are at sneaking past the brethren’s myriad roadblocks. Of course, it also makes for a toxic environment.

    While I generally love family photos, whenever I see one of those family portraits in an LDS home-the kind with everyone color coordinated, retouched, and looking perfect I can’t help but cringe.

  2. chanson says:

    Thanks! I actually based the illustration on one of the two cherubs from the famous painting of two cherubs.

  3. Ryan says:

    Nice article Chanson. We met in th past in ZÜrich, and I read your book (back in the day in Utah). I know using the word “toxic” is a shortcut word, which can be useful. But for my own work (book to be published), I do address “toxic masculinity in one of my poems, and from my male experience I creatively came up wih the substitiute word for this: “foolhardy and misguided masculinity,” and address examples of healthy masculinity. We certainly do share polarity between the genders, and both the masculine and feminine in all of us. Best to you and your family.

  4. chanson says:

    Hi Ryan, great to hear from you again!

    You’re right that “toxic” is a loaded word here. In one place where I shared this on social media, I got a reply from someone who I think just read the title of the post and (ironically) thought I was writing this as a rebuttal to the ideal of “toxic masculinity”.

    I used this title because I wanted to explicitly tie this to the parallel studies about how gendered expectations do a lot of damage. But maybe the people who have done studies on the effects of “toxic masculinity” should have chosen a less loaded term themselves.

  5. Holly says:

    “children—not possessions, not position, not prestige—are our greatest jewels.”

    It’s been a while since I’ve listened to a devout Mormon woman give a talk, so I misread this statement from Julie Beck: I read it to say that children are not possessions, position, or prestige.

    But really, in Mormon belief and culture, children ARE possessions who confer position and prestige. A woman’s most prestigious position is mother, and you can’t be a mother without children. Furthermore, if you don’t possess your children for all eternity–if they aren’t sealed to you in the temple and/or don’t make it to the celestial kingdom, so that you lose them–your possession and prestige are diminished for eternity.

    Which is a thoroughly toxic message.

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