Recognizing the Language of Toxic Masculinity

It’s been a bad couple of days here in Canada, and especially for anyone with a connection to Toronto. Acts of violence such as the van attack that killed ten people and injured many more are always difficult to process. In this heavily mediated world, there is a rush to find explanations, there is often misinformation, and there is rampant speculation. As the dust is settling, it is becoming more apparent that Alek Minassian identified with what is called the “incel” (‘involuntary celibate’) movement, which is essentially a community of men who validate and amplify their resentments at the fact that women don’t want to have sex with them. There has been some discussion about a Facebook post, which was the primary indicator of Minassian’s membership in this community and the role that membership played in his violent attack, and whether it was in fact real. It is increasingly the consensus that it is, but regardless, even if it wasn’t, it’s worth talking about this particular community and its role in enabling and encouraging acts of violence, both large and small scale.

This Twitter thread by journalist Arshy Mann outlines the research that he has been doing about various types of masculine internet subcultures, including incels, which he identifies as “the most virulently misogynistic” (which…in a race that includes Men’s Rights Activists and Pick Up Artists and others, is not an easy prize to win). As that thread notes, people paying attention to these spheres have been saying for a long time that these communities are ones that we should be very concerned about. They are the petri dishes in which the violence of toxic masculinity is being mixed and allowed to grow. As (terrible) luck would have it, two of the students in my Language, Gender, & Sexuality class this semester did research projects related to this theme – this set of tumblr posts by Vega Ewanovich, directly about incel language and culture, and another essay by Dorian about 4chan more generally. I told both students their work was very relevant even before the events in Toronto took place, and I’m saddened to have been proven so right. But given the timeliness, I want to highlight some linguistic/anthropological points that are raised by these two students that we can use to better interpret this form of misogyny and violence.

  • First, the label. “Incel” is a term that was actually coined by a queer woman from Toronto in the ancient days of the internet (aka the mid 1990s). She had frustration and pain in her life about her loneliness, and she created a label in order to allow for the creation of a community of support around that. This is a powerful act – naming something can solidify a conglomerate of vague emotions, experiences, and practices into a comfortingly comprehensible thing. In ling anth terms we talk about this as ‘entextualization’, and it has a lot of power to enshrine and attach meanings to texts. This power is unclear though, as the story of this particular term shows – texts escape into the wild and it isn’t predictable how they will be picked up, used, and transformed by different speakers. The literal meaning of a term like “incel” can be either productively transformative (getting support and creating a network of understanding folks) or violently toxic (justifying and blaming others for one’s personal circumstances). Nothing in the language allows us to see how this will happen until it happens, but a detailed examination of the transformation of a term like this and its movement across contexts can tell us a lot about that particular brand of misogyny that is premised on male entitlement to women’s bodies.
  • The context in which this labeled identity develops is a meaningful one, and Dorian examined the broader world of 4chan based on the thematic idea of “no girls on the internet”. I found his framing to be fascinating because it allowed them to trace how contemporary examples of extreme toxicity (manifested in Minassian) are rooted in patterns that seem much more innocuous, like default masculinity. Basically, “no girls on the internet” refers to older text-based play where, because some users would create fake female identities in order to receive apparently “preferential treatment”, anyone identifying as a woman is probably lying (Ed: woooow layers to that concept, but I’ll let it go). Dorian offered an improved phrasing to say that, since there obviously are girls (or you know, women) on the internet, it’s actually more like everyone is “Assigned Male at Login”. 4chan, which does not require profiles, creates a heightened anonymity context, which further amplifies the dynamic of default masculinity. As we discussed in our class, “male only” spaces are often licensed as ones in which specific forms of masculinity are reinforced and transmitted linguistically (think “locker room talk”). 4chan becomes dominated by those users who not only see it as default/solely masculine, but also work to actively enact it as such, demanding that anyone who identifies as a woman “prove it” by posting a picture of her breasts. Anything this person says is to be responded to only in this manner – “Tits or GTFO” – until they either comply or leave. The process here is significant – there is a presumption of the default male online, which leads to the establishment of male-only online spaces, enacted in part through the routine sexual harassment of anyone who claims to be a woman, which then tap into common narratives of masculinity (including elements of sexual and social dominance, hostility to anything feminine, and lack of empathy/compassion), which are then used to situate and transform experiences of sexual/romantic rejection.
  • Vega’s post about the role of jargon in incel communities is a particularly useful one. Here, they discuss how we can see fractal recursivity at work in the classification of a fundamental divide between members of this community and outsiders (“normies”); this means that one category of experience (sexual rejection) is not only encoded as one part of a binary (rather than any kind of spectrum), it is also mapped on to binary distinctions in other aspects of character and life, so anything “normie” must be fundamentally wrong/incompatible with being “incel”. They further illustrate the role of authentication and the use of specific terms that work within this community of practice to socialize members into the expected attitudes, behaviours, and belief structures, specifically regarding hatred toward women and expectations about the possibility of love/relationships.
  • Dorian also spends some time discussing the implications of trans and non-binary gender identities in the 4chan environment, and it’s worth noting that all of this vile misogyny is premised on very strict adherence to the notion of binary, biologically stable sex and gender, as well as an apparently objective ‘attractiveness hierarchy’ of male and female traits. Dorian illustrates how the systematic denial and mockery of trans and nonbinary gender identities within these contexts is central to how “incels” and other 4chan users situate their experiences of gender and sexuality – non-binary identities destabilize their claims about “biological” foundations for sexual needs, as well as about the justifiability of violence, specifically against women who are failing to meet those needs.
  • The creation of the symbolic “God” of the incel movement in the person of a man who committed what was, until the last few days, the most obvious example of incel public violence is also significant. One point that I made in my comments to Vega about their work is that there is a tendency in the post to distinguish between the ‘real world’ and ‘the internet’, and I would push back against this, because the internet is a way in which real humans engage with other real humans using tools that shape the materiality of that interaction, but that don’t detach them from ‘reality’. And this is important. What we have here is a group of people who call themselves a movement. This means they aren’t forming a community to support each other, but rather to change the world. In these spaces, they socialize each other into how to behave, and they collectively construct their vision of an ideal world and ideal humans (men) within it. The creation of a hero is a powerful symbol to a movement, since of course it works to provide the exemplar of what community members should strive to be. Their hero – their unapologetically labeled ‘God’, chew on that – is someone who went on a public rampage and murdered people because of his anger at his “involuntary celibacy”. In this world, creating more of these instances is not just an unfortunate potential consequence, it’s the goal.

The online conversation over the last few days about this event has not been pretty. This is a compilation of some of the types of responses that are being posted as a result of news reports about Minassian’s apparent motivation for his rampage:


There is another project entirely involved in examining the ways in which a killer like this is construed as the victim deserving of sympathy, and how suggested solutions to the problem include “government provided sexual relief”, as though it’s a welfare service. On Twitter, I noted, in light of not only this event but any number of others, that toxic masculinity is the biggest threat to public safety in North America (I’ll concede the possibility of hyperbole and would be willing to entertain a few other contenders for the “biggest” label, but it’s easily in the top 3). Responses from people I’ve never talked to before included both mockery and questioning of my mental health and the claim that in fact, “intersectional feminism” was the biggest threat because of the degree of “cultural damage” that it does. This idea is also reflected above – “a guy can’t win”, this is the “male version” of #MeToo.

We desperately need to talk about toxic masculinity, and I think examining the linguistic and social practices of so-called incels and other “manosphere” webspaces are vital aspects of this conversation. We also need to consider the ways in which non-group members take stances and position themselves in relation to these stories – who is construed as the victim, what solutions are advocated, whose voices are amplified and given authority in relation to these questions. I love that anthropology classes are giving my students some of the tools they need to think through these issues, but I hate that they are so tragically relevant.


Student Guest Post: The Cat Kicks the Language Because it is Tired.

Shulist’s introduction: The following is a guest post by my student, Harry dal Bello, who was brave enough to work on constructing a language with me as an independent study project. The story behind this is that last year, after seeing the ConLanging documentary (which, as my review here noted, I loved), I was inspired to think about ways to use language creation in my teaching (and for fun, but I’ve had less time for fun lately).

Enter Harry. Harry has, from the first day of my introduction to linguistic anthropology class, had a passion for the topic, and in September, will be entering a graduate program at my own alma mater, the University of Western Ontario. Given that MacEwan has no courses in linguistics proper beyond the first year level, Harry lamented that he hadn’t had a chance to learn more about grammatical description and other key elements. And here was my guinea pig – an opportunity to use the ConLang creation process as a way to teach a lot about language in a relatively short period of time and a fun way. 

On the whole, it turns out it worked fairly well. We definitely had fun. We formed an informal “ConLang club”, and a few interested students joined us, and met weekly so that I could give a very quick lesson about different linguistic concepts – how do nouns work, what is agreement, what is case, whoa holy crap verbs, etc. Harry’s reflections on his first experience with ConLanging and learning about language in general are below. 

Language is hard. This is something I don’t think that people think about enough, just how complex this thing we call language is. We take it for granted every day that we are able to communicate with each other. There is an uncountable number of different systems at play when we use language. I just finished spending the last 4 months trying to make one from scratch and have acquired a whole new appreciation of just how complex language can really be. So when Shulist (the linguistic one) gave me the opportunity to look back on this project and write a post about it I jumped at the chance. I thought I’d take the time to give you some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way so hopefully you can avoid some of the pitfalls that caught me if you ever give it a try.  So without further ado I present: Tips for making a language from someone who’d never done it before.

  1. Know a language other than English (at least know someone who does)

Let’s take a quick detour to talk about the most commonly used word in the English language: “the”. How do you define “the”? Well the Miriam Webster dictionary does it in 507 words and only uses “the” 24 times to do it. Why so long? Because “the” does a lot in English: It’s a determiner we use for almost everything and yet it still finds time to be an adverb. “Harry”, I can see you asking, “what does this have to do with learning another language, let alone making one?” Well there are a lot of things a language has to do, and English make things like “the” and word order do a lot of it. This is great for us, but makes using English to make examples difficult. Learning a new language is hard, if it wasn’t we would all be polyglots, but I’m not saying you need to go out and become fluent in Portuguese. Even my tenuous grasp of Spanish grammar was invaluable when it came to understanding things like conjugating verbs and nouns.

  1. Get yourself some IPA (the alphabet not the beer)

Do you have a favourite sound? Mine is probably either / n / or / ʃ / . Now if you just sounded those out in your head as you read them then you can probably skip this section but for the rest of us: let’s chat about IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet was an invaluable invention to linguists everywhere, a universal set of glyphs that corresponded to every possible human mouth sound. A way to bypass cumbersome Latin alphabet transcription. There is only one problem: It’s not very user friendly.

This is something I can’t stress enough: if you have no experience with IPA you are going to have a hard time making a language that sounds like anything other than English, a problem you are going to have anyways. While you are at it start to play with sounds, see if you can make some of the strange ones (read: any missing from English) by arranging your mouth in the right shape. This aspect of language making is probably the one that will get you the most weird looks, I know I got some when I spent a 3 hour flight trying to untangle the difference between / ɳ / and / ɲ /. Don’t worry about it though, because a good grasp of what symbol sounds like what and why will save you a ton of time down the line.

  1. How does your cat sit? (use example sentences)

When I started my language I had no idea what I wanted it to sound like, let alone what it’s structure would be, but I quickly started to fill out long list of parts you need to make a functional languge. How big is this list? I’m still not sure, but It certainly isn’t all written somewhere for you to read. This is where Example Sentences come in to play. Starting with short, simple ones, come up with a list of phrases that you would like to be able to say in your language. From there take a crack at translating them. Uh oh, you can’t translate this sentence because you forgot about pluralization? Well guess what, now you can add pluralization to that list of things to do. Using this method of trial and error I was able to find what I had finished and what I was missing in a way that is easy to visualize.

Cat sits /sɨh ɵoɳ wol/
Cat eats rat /loh ɵoɳ wol ɲɨlɵoɳ/
The cat eats the rat because it is tasty /loh ɵoɳ wol  ɲɨlɵoɳ ɵolɨlan/

Above are a few of my example sentences with English on the left and / ʃɨðʎom / (read something like sh-ith-yom) on the right. Note how I keep as many words the same between sentences as I can. This is so I can avoid having to make to many words up while I am still playing with the grammar. It would suck to come up with a whole collection of plural nouns just to later decide that you don’t need them. This way I can focus on just filling out what I need to make a fully functioning grammar. This is actually the biggest perk of example sentences. They let you slowly put together your  language in a modular way, so that even if you don’t have verb conjugation sorted out (like I don’t) you can still see how it works in a practical situation.

  1. Verbs do things. LOTS of things. (and this makes them hard)

In the over 4 months I worked on this project I found again and again that verbs only made things harder. Verbs were about as complex as nouns but three fold. Think back to your last English grammar lesson: what were the parts of a sentence? Well you had verbs and nouns, nouns were things and verbs were what those things did. Simple right? Well not so much unfortunately. English teachers have been lying to us for YEARS now telling us that “verbs are action words” when they are so much more than that. If a noun is a thing then a verb is what you know about that thing, what it does, what it’s like, how it feels, all kinds of stuff. These are just the beginning as well. Verbs can (and often do) encode all kinds of other information such as tense, gender, number, aspect, mood (don’t get me started on modality), voice, and any number of other grammatical categories.  Add adverbs to the mix and things get even worse. In fact a lot of things we call adverbs are just stuff that didn’t fit in another category. So enough doom and gloom about verbs then, whats my advice about them? Well unfortunately I don’t have much except: worry about it later. I haven’t even made a verb system for my language yet. Don’t get bogged down trying to perfect your verbs until after you sort your nouns out. If you are working with example sentences like I recommended then just make some placeholder and don’t worry about conjugating. This is exactly what I did, and you can see it in my above examples If you look close enough. You can always leave verbs to another day.

Student Guest Post: Play Ball, But Stay on Your Own Team!: Language and Gender Differences in Athletics

Editor: This is a guest post by Ash, a student from Dr. Shulist’s Language, Gender, and Sexuality class, on the many ways that the idea of binary gender affects the world of sports. Ash is a science major who was taking this course mainly for fun, and we love this example of how to use anthropological tools to think through topics that surround us literally constantly. 

The gender binary has been, throughout history, rigorously upheld in the field of athletics. Presently, we still have strict divisions between men’s and women’s leagues, and more often there are now recurring issues with transgender athletes being put into either category regardless of their gender under the guise of a fear of unfair advantage (Gleaves & Lehrbach 2016) . In ancient times, women were excluded from participating in large events and athletic activity altogether, but more modern times are where the league division by gender has emerged. The only “co-ed” teams appear in non-serious, recreation-type leagues. Even non-contact sports such as curling have leagues divided by binary gender within the upper ranks. In the latest winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the long standing statistic of more male athletes to female athletes persisted, despite female athletes in teams such as the USA obtaining more medals than their male counterparts. Even when discussing gender in athletics and critiquing its use of binary here, it is nearly impossible to avoid separating men’s from women’s athletics.

This brings us to the obvious question of: Why? Why are sports inherently viewed and treated as more male dominated and suited? Likely it is the common association of physical strength with masculinity, whereas we have seen in class what “feminine power” is portrayed as on Google images. This fractal recursivity whereby masculinity is strong and femininity is inherently weak, among other negative traits, contributes to this. There is also related and specific language difference used when describing each group’s athletics and athletes in disappointing trends over the years, and this language surrounding athletics continues to uphold the gender differential within the community. Examples of this include women’s sports as being marked, whereas men’s categories are left unmarked (ex: “hockey” implies men’s hockey but “women’s hockey” must be denoted as such), and occasionally the female leagues are not called “women’s” leagues but rather, unfortunately, “ladies” (ex: Wimbledon Ladies Singles). Men’s leagues and teams, in my experience, are not called “gentlemen’s”. Even the athletes themselves are often marked as female, including at times when it’s not entirely relevant or necessary (ex: woman golfer).

This relates to our class lecture on men and masculinities where we discussed athletics and associated spaces (such as locker rooms and “man caves”) as creating sites of toxic, male-only culture. These hyper-masculine spaces simultaneously prohibit women’s presence yet demand that they exist in the periphery simultaneously for sexual experiences and heterosexual indexing (Kiesling 2005). In the male-only spheres, misogyny is able to flourish as masculinity can reach an un-compromised and un-rivalled peak. An example of this is Donald Trump’s infamous “locker room banter” comment whereby he insinuates that conversations about sexual harassment and misogyny are appropriate in male-only spaces such as gendered locker rooms. This “old boys club” mentality contributes to the underlying parts of rape culture that are pervasive in society but often less detectable and thus more likely to be ignored or dismissed, as, for example, just “locker room banter”. Even when changing clothes in preparation for the sport at hand, the binary precedent is already being set.

More specific examples of language upholding toxic gender binaries can be seen abundantly in the hockey community. Only the men’s leagues (as with most professional sports) are considered popular and profitable. The highest league in the sport, the NHL, is not specifically men-only yet a single female athlete has only ever played one game. Furthermore, within the broader hockey community, it is a culture of high masculinity with that same pushing of all femininity, women included, into the periphery. Specifically, female players and fans alike are required to understand the vast lingo and jargon associated within the hockey community and culture, yet they are not permitted to use or access it themselves. Furthermore, there is a very limited and particular pool from which male players may choose to form romantic relationships, and that group does not overlap with their female hockey playing counterparts. It is also assumed and reinforced that male hockey players are not homosexual, despite movements such as the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign. There are explicitly drawn lines between the two binary genders within hockey culture, and each has very obvious and laid out roles and rules. When sports are so heavily divided by gender, these rigid systems within are able to emerge, and language further enables it to do so.

Language upholding this rigidity also extends to the differences among interviews between male and female athletes. Many female athletes have taken issue with being asked questions that they felt were extremely inappropriate given the contexts. For example, being asked about their “ultimate date”, why they aren’t smiling, which male athletes they “like”, and general comments and questions about their attire. Generally it is reported that male athletes are not asked questions of these unrelated natures. The hashtag #CoverTheAthlete made a point of imploring journalists to ask consistent types of questions regardless of the gender of athlete they were interviewing⁹.  A video in support of the #CoverTheAthlete movement highlighted the baffling inappropriateness in the difference in the line of questioning between athletes genders by having multiple journalists ask some of the most outlandish but actual questions that have been asked of professional female athletes to their male counterparts.

Sexism in sports is nothing new, but I used this opportunity to explore the ways in which language and league divisions within athletics perpetuates it. It is commonly assumed that athletics require division by gender at all due to perceived differences in strength and skill whereby women are understood as the lesser, despite several sports, leagues, and statistics debunking this¹¹. From the initial gender division, we see right away that this causes negative implications for transgender athletes. From there we see how highly segregated leagues can create hyper-masculine spaces resulting in unbalanced sports cultures including justifiable “locker room banter” and exclusionary attitudes and expectations. Lastly, and even more language focused, we examined the differences in interview questions between male and female athletes wherein the women were asked remarkably inappropriate and unrelated questions compared to the men: When the lines of questioning were reversed as seen in the #CoverTheAthlete video, the male athletes were less than impressed. Unfortunately, athletics and surrounding culture embodies many more categories and examples of sexism and gender differences than what was mentioned here, such as outstanding differences in pay. It remains a highly divided area and progress within it is slow. It is hard to say what the next 100 years of professional sports will look like: Will gender divisions between leagues be demolished? Will transgender athletes not be a controversial issue of feigned unfairness? Will the #CoverTheAthlete campaign and similar movements lessen the amount of absurd questions that female athletes receive from journalists? Will sports stop being a site of hyper-masculinity due to gender division causing rampantly created and perpetuated sexism?

The ball is in our court.



  1. Gleaves, John, & Lehrbach, Tim. “Beyond Fairness: the Ethics of Inclusion for Transgender and Intersex Athletes”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 43:2, 311-326. 2016.
  2. Kiesling, Scott Fabius. “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-Creating cultural discourses of masculinity.” Language in Society, vol. 34, no. 05, Dec. 2005.