What is Toxic?
This volume provides a timely and original examination of the concept of «toxic» that today seems to inform all areas of popular culture and society. Connoting many forms of negativity, denial or disillusion, «toxic» has become central to the experience of living in the twenty-first century.
Comprising twenty-nine original essays by experts in their fields, this collection offers something of a guide to how areas of toxicity often overlap and/or inform other ones. Topics as diverse as «fake news», environmental denialism, toxic nostalgia, deep fakes, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and cancel culture are covered. Studied texts include popular culture from the film Get Out (2018) to the Pussy Hat Movement, from social media «sadfishing» to governmental responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This companion unravels the often purposely entangled narratives that are used to fuel much cultural and political populism. It serves as an important intervention into the conversations occurring around extreme partisanship and divisive views on where we might be heading and how dystopian the future will really be.
Table Of Contents
- About the editor
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Table of Contents
- Introduction (Simon Bacon)
- Prologue: From Toxic Humanity to Ahumanity (Patricia MacCormack)
- Part I Foundations
- Bioshock, 2K Games (2007) (Carl Wilson)
- Chernobyl, Craig Mazin (2019) (Louis Bayman)
- Succession, Jesse Armstrong (2018–present) (Kyle Moody)
- Get Out, Jordan Peele (2017) (Natalie Wilson)
- The Coronavirus Act (2020), UK Government Communication (March 2020–present) (Franziska E. Kohlt)
- Halloween, David Gordon Green (2018) (Daniel Sheppard)
- Part II Sexuality and Gender
- Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh (2015) (Cynthia Jones)
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon (1997–2003) (Erin Giannini)
- Pussyhat Movement (2017–Present) (Paula Ashe)
- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna (2015–2019) (Callie Graham)
- Wayward Children Series, Seanan McGuire (2016–Present) (Ildikó Limpár)
- Part III Popular Culture
- Gelin Evi [Bride’s House], Cem Semercioglu (2015–2019) (Pembe Gözde Erdogan)
- ‘Toxic’, Britney Spears (2003) (Mateusz Świetlicki)
- Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Paul Feig (2016) (Cathleen Allyn Conway)
- Kabir Singh, Sandeep Reddy Vanga (2019) (Debaditya Mukhopadhyay)
- Star Wars Episodes VII–IX, Various (2015–2019) (Bethan Jones)
- Part IV Society
- Paradise Hills, Alice Waddington (2019) (Melody Blackmore)
- ‘Sadfishing’ (2019–Present) (Ken Monteith)
- Troll Hunting, Ginger Gorman (2019) (Jay Daniel Thompson)
- ‘The Denialist Playbook’, Sean Carroll (2020)(Madeline Muntersbjorn)
- ‘Title X Gag Rule’ (2019–Present) (Martyn Colebrook) (Deborah G. Christie)
- Part V Humanity
- The City & the City, China Miéville (2009) (Martyn Colebrook)
- Brimstone, Martin Koolhoven (2016) (Phil Fitzsimmons and Edie Lanphar)
- Martyrs, Pascal Laugier (2008) (Blake I. Collier)
- Parasite, Bong Joon Ho (2019) (Tom Ue and Alexander Wills)
- The Last Winter, Larry Fessenden (2006) (Rebecca Booth)
- Bird Box, Josh Malerman (2014) (Elana Gomel)
- Epilogue: Toxicity and Positivity (Helen Gavin)
- Notes on Contributors
- Series index
As always, a huge thank you to everyone that took part in this collection. For many reasons, it has been a torrid time during the production of this book and the fact that it has been completed is testament to the commitment and strength of all involved – so a huge well done to everyone.
Many thanks to the amazingly supportive online Horror and Gothic groups on Facebook (including the SCMS [Society of Cinema and Media Studies] Horror Studies Scholarly Interest Group; the Open Graves, Open Minds Project; Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies; the International Gothic Association; and Vampire Scholars) who always come up trumps when help, suggestions and contributors are needed – a true example of how social media can create a non-toxic environment and a network of support and encouragement. A big thank you to Laurel Plapp and the team at Peter Lang, who always help to make sure the finished book is the best it can possibly be. Most importantly, I want to thank my wife Kasia for her unending help, patience and support, without which none of this would be possible or worth doing. Also, our two not-so-little monsters, Seba and Majki, who always manage to provide some light relief and distraction no matter how stressful things get. And not forgetting the constant support (and sernik Magdi) of Mam i Tata Bronk.
The word ‘toxic’ seems strangely common at the start of the twenty-first century. As an adjective, it is used to describe the negative side of a subject or category – toxic masculinity, toxic people, toxic relationships – and the list seems to be (unfortunately) continually growing. This is due in part to the increasing bipartisanship of politics across the globe, where the excesses of one side, often around a return to supposed ‘traditional’ values, are seen as a continuation and affirmation of systemic discrimination and labelled as toxic, and where these labels are themselves seen as exampling the toxicity of the opposing view, which further causes each side to double down on their original positions.1 In some respects, the definition of toxic would seem to be emptied of any meaning, drained by its very ubiquity. However, its widespread usage can equally be seen to point to its importance in capturing the essence of an age in which extremes appear to be the norm and the dichotomies of religious, political and cultural differences are polarised by populism and an increasing loss of faith in neoliberal globalism. Indeed, as this companion will argue, ‘toxic’ truly captures the Geist of the 2010s and 2020s, expressing the many forms of negativity, ←1 | 2→pollution and disillusion that typify the ongoing denial of ecological, environmental, ethnic, gender and sexual inequalities, state violence and even the notion of truth itself. In fact, to reflect this, the essays here purposely cover a wide range of topics, examples and perspectives to highlight how diverse and pervasive the idea of toxicity is – from computer games and novels to woollen hats, and from social media and television series to government language, to name but a few.2
The flourishing of toxicity in the twenty-first century was ushered in with much of Western culture preoccupied with conflict and the burgeoning war on terror. The Gulf War and other ongoing battles between Western colonial powers and regional religious extremists saw the new millennium begin with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, followed by similar, if smaller-scale, events in Europe and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The effects of this on the popular consciousness, which exacerbated already existing divides in many nations involved, have often been described in psychoanalytic terms, seeing Western culture itself as becoming centred around and characterised by trauma. Unsurprisingly, many books published around that time confirmed the idea of a culture simultaneously experiencing shock, grief, anger and anxiety (Bracken 2002; Cvetkovich 2003; Kaplan 2005) over events that were often depicted as the beginning of a new era rather than the inevitable result of ongoing colonial interference. The resulting environment was itself unhealthy in many ways, not least in its creation of an emotionally hyper-charged atmosphere of imminent terror where violence, and indeed death, could happen at any moment – an impression that was encouraged via various governments in the West and especially in America through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security with its sweeping powers to investigate, apprehend and interrogate those suspected of being terrorists. This was often further encouraged through excessive television and media coverage of any suspected terror events that occurred, giving the impression that such events were happening continually and on a scale that threatened the ←2 | 3→very fabric of Western society. In many ways, this environment of imminent terror provided the perfect impetus for a rise in nationalism and aggression towards those seen as outsiders, in particular those identified as coming from the Middle East – a situation exacerbated by the official attribution of violent attacks, with only those undertaken by non-whites on the white population of a country (mainly in Europe, Australasia and North America) being labelled as ‘terrorist attacks’.3
This new age of trauma itself then changed to incorporate the language of the more direct trauma experienced by Western troops sent to the Middle East and with little support or understanding when they returned home, so post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) equally became a way to describe a culture trying to come to terms with the violence enacted in its name (Hinton and Good 2015). In a conflict where there was never going to be a sense of victory, only the re-establishment of an uneasy peace, the soldiers returning could never unreservedly be greeted as heroes, only put to one side in the hope they might vanish back into the home population. Though even this was not an entirely safe option, and popular television series such as Homeland (Ganza and Gordon, 2011–20) expressed the fear over veterans being ‘turned’ by their experiences in the alien world of the Middle East – much of the language around ISIS, for instance, spoke of them as being a barbaric cult that groomed and brainwashed people, and who were not from the modern world but from the Middle Ages; US troops going there literally went to an otherworldly place that would inherently change them, even infect them in some way. In this way, the soldiers coming home brought something of the alien land with them, framing them as outsiders in their own home. Of note here is the use of psychoanalysis, which is very much grounded in the study of the individual, being applied to a wider group or culture. While individual identity can seem to be as complex and contradictory as a national one, unthinkingly equating the two can be problematic in fully understanding the complexities at play in both categories. In some ways, it is the disparities between categories such as ←3 | 4→national identity and individual experience that have produced and consolidated certain kinds of behaviours and practices which have gone on to create what has since been called ‘toxic’ – not least in the way that populist politics have made individual, and often disparate, experiences seem as though they are the result of one singular cause. Here the uniqueness of individual experience and the kinds of focused understanding and reparation it requires are purposely sublimated and ‘screened’4 by easy solutions.
The word ‘toxic’ emerged in the late seventeenth century from the Latin toxicum, meaning poison, and the Greek toxikon, translated as ‘arrow poison’ (toxon meaning ‘bow/arrow’). Poisonous very much describes how it has been largely used: toxic waste, toxic fluids and toxic gases are just a few examples. It was not until the 1980s that it was used to describe an aspect of masculinity as, with the rise of feminism and the seeming disempowerment of men, male-centred self-help groups identified certain aspects of masculine behaviours enforced by society that were deemed harmful and negative, such as violence, competitiveness, independence and the suppression of emotions (Salter 2019). It was later that the term was picked up by academics in the social sciences to begin describing how traditional male attributes had toxic, or poisonous, effects not only on masculinity but on all aspects of gender politics and wider society. This has possibly been seen most demonstrably in the #MeToo movement, which has done much to uncover the ubiquity of male sexual misconduct, revealing it to not be just a ‘few bad apples’ but far more systemic in its occurrence and acceptance. The toxic environments in certain industries – such as entertainment, film and music – have been brought into sharp focus and, while there has been some success in redressing the imbalances of the almost inherently exploitative nature of the industries themselves, it is far from establishing the kinds of equality needed.
The move from noun to adjective begins to describe the changing nature of toxicity and its importance in describing culture in the twenty-first century. In being attributed to aspects of masculinity, toxic does not just describe the negative side of certain behaviours, but also their contagious nature and how this lets the behaviours spread and infect all areas of contact, such as ←4 | 5→relationships, parenting, the workplace, society and beyond. Much of this (what we might call) ‘rhizomatic toxicity’ equally informs the environment around ethnicity and racism, which, not unlike the #MeToo movement, has been brought into clearer view with Black Lives Matter, which rose to prominence after the death of George Floyd as he was taken into police custody in Minneapolis in 2020 – the movement itself started in 2013 after the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, later acquitted of murder. As with #MeToo, much has been done to highlight certain fields of high public visibility, such as sports, where racial abuse has heretofore been largely accepted or ignored. While there have been some gains, the systemic nature of racism in government-funded bodies such as the police force still goes unchecked, not coherently and consistently investigated and, where necessary, prosecuted. Here again the idea of a toxic environment created through systemic racism and/or sexism is often deflected by applying the ‘bad apple’ idea; yet the ubiquity and frequency of occurrences suggest that if it is not the system itself that is at fault, then such toxic events are amazingly contagious, infecting the ‘body’ of said establishment without any restraint.
In this sense, it is not surprising that the rise in the usage of toxic is mirrored by a similar ubiquity of ideas around contagion and disease with recent global and regional pandemics such as the SARS outbreak in 2003, the swine flu (H1N1 virus) outbreak in 2009–10, the Ebola outbreak in 2014–16 and, of course, the current COVID-19 pandemic, which have all, in part, been associated with the toxic atmosphere of twenty-first-century life – continued over-exploitation of planetary resources, urban overcrowding, global travel and crushing poverty in many areas of the world (though in a curious inversion, the effects of the coronavirus on global and local travel has often had positive effects on the environment). This will be discussed further, but the contagious nature of toxicity is worth keeping in mind throughout this collection, not just in the way that environments created around toxic masculinity, for instance, encourage those that enter them to copy such behaviours as being normal in some way. Those who are ‘infected’ then carry the behaviours into other environments. Of equal note is that toxic behaviour can then create an opposite though equally toxic reaction, not unlike when antibodies stop attacking the disease and attack the body itself. In this sense, extreme feminism, which is not necessarily opposite to toxic masculinity but is often seen as antithetical ←5 | 6→to it, arguably also discriminates against non-binary gender positions. This does not solve the issues caused by toxic masculinity, but rather exacerbates the overall toxicity of the environment itself.
The term ‘toxic’ is often used to describe aspects of people, groups and actions that do not comply to the tenets of neoliberal globalism, such as gender and minority equality and universal ethnic inclusion. Yet it is often the turn towards what is seen as the failure of those endeavours that has seen a rise of xenophobia, homophobia, racism and national isolationism, which has subsequently caused a rise in the usage of ‘toxic’ within media and academic discourse. This reactionary turn has seen something of a backwards-looking moment, looking to what is labelled as traditionalism and a ‘time before’ and constituting what might be termed ‘toxic nostalgia’, a nostalgia that accentuates and often promotes ideological viewpoints that are excessively heteronormative, patriarchal and nationalistic – such toxic nostalgia can be seen to have energised the populist movements behind Brexit and Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign (my emphasis). By its very nature, of course, nostalgia is an idealised vision of the past, often to justify the mores of the present day. Here, though, history is recreated or certain aspects of it are exaggerated to influence future actions and decisions. Toxic nostalgia at best promotes delusion, but it can be used to manipulate and mislead those less likely to question the motivations of others who employ it in their vision of ‘what the people want’.
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Softcover)
- Publication date
- 2022 (June)
- Toxic cultures: minority discourse gender and equality Toxic Cultures Simon Bacon toxic
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. X, 336 pp., 39 fig. col., 4 fig. b/w.