It’s said that times of crisis and trouble are what reveal someone’s true character. That we are most authentically ourselves in the times when we are tested, our support is ripped away and we are forced to confront hardship in ways we never do otherwise. It is in those minutes that we see the truth of who we are.
The same can be said about what it means to be a man.
We are in a time of unprecedented adversity: we are facing a global pandemic that the world hasn’t seen since the dawn of the 20th century. People are in the streets protesting the horrific violence and abusive behavior of police departments around the country, particularly violence directed at people of color. Federal troops are starting to act like Gestapo, the President is threatening to throw the 2020 election into chaos, American citizens are being tear-gassed and beaten for exercising their First Amendment rights, and heavily armed mobs have been storming government buildings, demanding that state and local governments bend to their will.
These are the times that try men’s souls, the crucible that separates the dross from the iron. And in these times, we are forced to recognize an undeniable truth: that the tenets of toxic forms of masculinity are not just fragile, but paper thin. At a time that many men insisted would be their time to shine, we are seeing the mask slip. Underneath, we are seeing their honest faces, naked and raw. We see that the ideals of masculinity that so many men insist are the way, the truth and the light are a facade. When push comes to shove, the staunchest defenders of “true” or “real” manhood neither understand masculinity, nor live up to the ideals that they profess to live by.
This Would Be… A Good Death (For Someone Else)
Discussions of toxic forms of masculinity tends to invite arguments from people who want to derail the conversation. The most common argument, of course, is that toxic masculinity doesn’t exist. That what people describe as “toxic masculinity” is, actually, good and that objections to toxic masculinity come from angry feminists and their male quisling allies who are threatened by manly men doing manly things that they could never possibly live up to. This is often “proven” by tossing around buzzwords that opponents have heard but clearly don’t understand, trying to flood the zone with bizarre “logical” “gotcha” arguments that fall apart if you stare at them for even half a second. While the argument-by-gish-gallop approach appeals to people who mistake YouTube rants for actual structured reasoning, in practice its only purpose is to try to distract and derail the discussion.
This, incidentally, is a technique that folks try to use on pretty much any serious progressive discussion…
You should come off looking like you want to learn, but your real goals are to waste their time (they’ll hold court anyway) and to get them to admit embarrassing stuff or to confuse themselves in front of people. Always sound like you’re confused and trying to learn.
— James Lindsay, swings a big saber (@ConceptualJames) June 17, 2020
The second most common argument is to try to pull a tu quoque argument, demanding that people discuss “toxic femininity” as though it were an actual problem (SPOILER ALERT: it’s not) or as if its theoretical existence had actual bearing on the discussion. Again: this is another attempt to disrupt the argument and simply waste people’s time. It’s less an argument than an effort to frustrate people into being quiet, a dressed up heckler’s veto from people playing to their audience.
But the third most common argument is to insist that all discussions of toxic masculinity are a tacit argument that being a man is toxic, rather than a discussion of the behaviors, traits and beliefs about masculinity that are presented as positive or laudable but are, in fact, harmful to men individually and society as a whole.
It’s a discussion about how manhood is narrowly defined as dominance, anger and strength. It describes a vision of masculinity that sees emotional intelligence as weakness, that status is achieved through dominating others and that the capacity for violence and death are the ultimate markers of manhood. In fact, many of the toxic tropes around this narrow and exclusionary definition of masculinity revolve around death — both in seeking it out (through risky or aggressive behavior) and the willingness to inflict it upon others.
In fact, much of the celebration of emotionless “classical” manhood (especially from those who long for a mythical golden age of rugged individualists, bending the world to their will) focuses on the idea of dying and dying “well”. As YouTuber Maggie Mae Fish points out, movies like 300, Watchmen and Dawn of the Dead denigrate concepts like mercy or compassion and instead celebrate and lionize people who die “gloriously”, often in the name of defending or saving others.
This does, after all, fall squarely within the purported masculine ideal: men who are willing to sacrifice anything, do anything in order to ensure that their loved ones or community are safe and free from harm. And in fairness, it’s a noble idea: sacrificing oneself and enduring hardship in the name of bettering others.
However, simply looking around at people’s reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that this, frankly, isn’t true. Twitter user @DesignMom illustrated this concept perfectly: What so many proponents of these ideals want is the appearance of strength and endurance, the facade of being the protector of others. What they actually want is glory and dominance… and ideally without having to actually perform any sacrifice themselves.
It’s All Part of My Apocalypse Fantasy
The most obvious example of the facade of toxic masculinity can be found in the dreams of life after the apocalypse. These fantasies come in multiple flavors; the preppers who can’t wait for the moment when The Shit Hits The Fan and they can retreat to their fortified (and armed) bunkers or holdouts. The would-be freeholders and smallsteaders who dream of running farms or communities which, again, require a truly exhaustive surplus of guns and ammo. The Boogaloos, militias and accelerationists who hope for the breakdown of society so that they can forcibly reorder civilization to their preferences.
Of course, if you scratch at the surface of just about any of these fantasies, you find that they all begin and end at violence. Boogaloo Boys dream about shooting wars with the police, while accelerationists long for a race war that’s always around the corner but never seems to actually arrive. The rugged individualist prepper and the would-be freeholder all require enough firearms and ammunition so that they can “fight off the ravening hordes” and “protect their families/property”. Even the popular zombie apocalypses are predicated on violence; the “raiding hordes” and people of color are replaced with mindless zombies — and, of course, rival communities who must be wiped out in the name of “protecting what’s ours”.
Very little thought — and by which I mean almost none — is given to what would actually be required for surviving an apocalypse. A classic thread on Quora regarding “the best skills for surviving in a post-apocalyptic world” quickly devolves into arguments about which martial art is the deadliest and which long gun is superior. Virtually no discussion is given to skills such as weaving, sewing, tanning or cordwaining, especially since clothes wear out. First aid is deemed important, but far less credit is given to “being able to tell what water is safe to drink” or “how to plow fields”. Head-nods to hunting and gathering neglect being able to identify edible plants and berries or preserving food. Dreams of farming neglect to consider how to fertilize fields when petrochemical-based fertilizer is no longer available, or even what crops can be grown in that region with purely medieval technology.
But nobody likes to think about these factors. It’s hard to be Negan or Lord Humungous when you’re busy trying to not shit yourself to death because you drank out of the wrong water source and you can’t be sure what plants are safe to wipe your ass with.
Virtually every version of this fantasy ultimately comes down to people longing for the day that they’re able to dominate others through “righteous” violence. It’s a celebration of the belief that the rest of the world are sheep, the weak who artificially restrict the strong, the declaration of “You will all be sorry once I’m the Emperor of All Ice Cream.” Once civilization ends and the artificial, emasculating rules of “society” no longer hold them back, they will finally be able to rise to the top of the heap, where they were clearly intended to be. They will be celebrated for being the defenders of society, the ones who were Willing To Do What Was Needed.
Except… they aren’t. We don’t need to game out future apocalypses and engage in “were society to crumble, I would simply establish myself as a feudal lord who knows how to harness oxen” debates. All we have to do is look around right now.
It’s Not Submission but Admission
As I said: the toxic tropes of masculinity celebrate the idea of a man who will do anything in order to defend his home, his family or his community. But it’s somewhat telling how much “anything” distills down to “I get to shoot someone”, rather than actual, effective methods of protecting one’s family from harm. Most of the things that the paragons of masculinity are hoping to defend against are, in fact, vanishingly unlikely. The most common example cited as a reason for needing, say, lots and lots of guns, tends to be the dreaded home-invasion. These are often dressed up as a sexy, thrilling event that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie; armed strangers breaking into your home in order to rape and murder your family because reasons.
In reality, the odds of this happening are so slim that prospective home-owners would be more likely to buy winning PowerBall tickets. According to the FBI, in 2017, there were approximately 1,401,840 burglaries — down 37% from 2008. With a population of 325.1 million, that puts the odds of your ever being robbed at approximately 0.4%. Furthermore, the vast majority of burglaries take place at times when the home is empty, reducing the odds of a home invasion even further. Similarly, all forms of violent crime — including robbery, murder, assault and rape — are down significantly and have, in fact, dropped by more than 50% since the 1990s.
But those facts fly in the face of the fantasy of finding glory in a hail of cordite and bullets. Easier to want to want to believe that something will come along that will let them be the action hero they know they could be if only given a chance.
And in March of 2020, their fantasy finally came true. The world found itself facing an honest to god apocalypse. And as reports of shortages of food and supplies came rolling in, men were ready, convinced that The Shit Was (Finally) Hitting The Fan and society was due to collapse any time now. They were ready to do anything to protect their family (and, in the process, ensure their position on the top of the food chain in the new world order that was surely going to come about).
Except it didn’t. As it turned out, society didn’t collapse. But in that moment, we saw that the idea that “a man will do anything, endure anything to keep his family safe” was, in fact, a fantasy. The world didn’t need men with guns standing a watch on the walls, ready to do furious violence against modern day Mongol raiders or BDSM-clad warboys, it needed toilet paper, sewing kits, and sourdough starter. Nobody was being asked to die (or better yet, kill) for their cause. They were being asked to wash their hands. To stay indoors. To wear masks. To sacrifice convenience and comfort for six weeks, maybe a few months, in order to break the back of the pandemic, to flatten the curve and save the world.
For men who would bravely declare how they would do anything or endure any hardship for their family or prove their masculine bonafides, this should be no challenge whatsoever. They were being called not to die, but to stay at home and watch Netflix.
And that’s where the people who invested the most in toxic ideas of manhood lost their goddamn monkey minds.
Wearing a mask is a sign of submission. I would rather die from the Wuhan Coronavirus, than EVER submit your you! COME AND GET ME! Jerk! #1stJuly #NationalDoctorsDay #COVID19 #remdesivir #coronavirus https://t.co/Fi1Llvnu2I
— Graham Ledger (@GrahamLedger) July 1, 2020
Wearing a mask was submission — and submission of course, is not manly. Better to die gasping for air than to submit like a bitch. And if that meant infecting your family… well, better to die than to knuckle under the relentless boot of science and medicine, even if it means prolonging the pandemic and killing hundreds of thousands of American citizens.
Better to rise up and take up arms to better resist the tyranny of being asked to — hang on, let me check my notes here — not go to Applebee’s.
And it’s that sudden shift in priorities that gives the game away. The desire to “protect one’s family” has nothing to do with actually protecting anyone. It wasn’t about protection, it was about domination, exhibiting power over someone else. After all, one of the surest ways to burnish your own manly credentials, rise up the social ladder and — in the process — ensure the security of your own man card is to take away someone else’s. And very little says “domination” like forcing somebody else to accede to your will through violence and the threat of violence.
It’s why so many of the “LIBERATE $CITY” protesters dressed in SpecOps cosplay and borderline useless tacti-cool gear; they want to give the impression of being capable of violence, to carry the threat in hopes that this alone will be enough to get others to do what they say.
This is also what makes the change from “I will do anything to protect my loved ones” to “WEARING A MASK IS SUBMISSION” so telling. Wearing a mask isn’t submission, it’s an admission… an admission that their stated goals are, in fact, bullshit. An admission that in times of unprecedented crisis, a legitimate potential end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario, their precious guns and promises of violence weren’t wanted or even needed. It’s an admission that what the world actually needed to be safe and to keep spinning were soft skills. “Womanly” skills. Sewing. Food preparation. Cleaning. Teaching. Entertaining and occupying children.
But accepting this would be to admit that the very core of so many masculine ideals were not just unnecessary but actively harmful. That the key to order and safety isn’t, in fact, domination and violence. And we can’t have that.
Small wonder, then, that the next target of their ire were people challenging the hegemony of the police.
Putting the “Fun” In “Defund the Police”
It’s no exaggeration that the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer David Chauvin set off a chain reaction that may well change America as we know it. Watching Floyd beg for his life as Chauvin knelt on his neck for eight minutes seems to have been a breaking point for the American population, the latest in a long string of men and women of color who suffered and died at the hands of the police. Black Lives Matter and anti-police protests sprung up across the country to protest the killing and as record numbers of people began to demand justice for Floyd, as well as justice for other victims of police violence.
As the protests continued, they began to change. Not only have the protesters been demanding justice for victims of police brutality, but they have begun demanding systematic reformation of policing in America — demanding that the police be defunded.
But just as wearing masks becomes an admission that violence isn’t the answer — an apocalypse where you can’t conveniently shoot the enemy in the head — defunding and reforming the police is an admission that policing in America has become far less about protecting and serving and far more about a culture of dominating and requiring submission from criminals (no matter how minor the offense) and civilians… particularly minorities. In fact, for years police departments and academies were hiring people like Dave Grossman to teach “killology” — to literally be ready to kill at a moment’s notice.
And no, I’m not making that word up. That is literally what Grossman calls it.
Grossman taught cops that they were perpetually under siege, soldiers in occupied territory, surrounded by blood thirsty enemies (who, coincidentally, were almost always people of color) who were ready to commit murder at the first available opportunity. That the world can be divided into “sheep” (civilians), “wolves” (criminals) and “sheepdogs” (cops), and that the sheepdogs are the only people who can stop the wolves. Of course, the analogy — which is already almost offensively over-simplified — falls apart if you look at it funny. After all, if a sheepdog kills a sheep, the way police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor, to pull a random example, then that’s a sheepdog that needs to get put down.
I mean. If we’re gonna follow that analogy to its conclusion.
Again: the idea of protecting society serves as a fig-leaf, a handy excuse for dominating others through violence and the threat of violence. And yet that same mentality is on display when police — called to perform welfare checks — shoot and kill people who are suicidal or in the middle of a mental health crisis. Or, for that matter, creates a system that makes it possible for people to weaponize the police as a tool of violence against people they don’t like, whether SWAT-ing video game streamers or threatening bird watchers in Central Park.
But as with the steps needed to protect one’s family from COVID, calls to defund the police are treated as an existential threat to society. That to defund the police would be to remove the only thing standing between civilization and the rampaging hordes — that post-apocalyptic fantasy again. But even without including examples of law-enforcement reform like Camden, NJ, defunding the police doesn’t mean removing law-enforcement entirely. It means a shift in priorities and tactics — hiring social workers to handle wellness checks and mental health calls, effective treatment for drug addiction, programs to address homelessness and poverty. In sort, stepping away from the deterrence through fear and domination tactics of the police and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later philosophy to the same softer skills that are necessary for breaking the back of the pandemic.
But to do so would, again, give lie to the idea that the only thing between the world and chaos are men with guns. That those who insist that they’re trying to protect themselves are, in fact, simply looking for an excuse to force their will on others… facts on the ground be damned.
But remember what we said about the glory of a “good” death? Especially in the name of protecting and serving others?
Yeah, about that…
The Disposable Man…
One of the more ironic discussions that inevitably comes up when we discuss toxic masculinity is the concept of the “disposable” man. This argument — featured prominently in the proto-MRA text The Myth of Male Power — focuses on the supposed ease with which we accept the deaths of men, through war, through high-risk jobs and through disease and suicide. The irony runs thick, as the very same people who will argue that men have become disposable are often the same ones who glorify the “good death”, who denigrate men who seek mental health care, admit needing help and, y’know, promote the very same policies that lead to the deaths of men of color at the hands of the police.
It’s somewhat disingenuous to insist that men are disposable or expendable on the one hand while also ignoring the fact that it’s men who take away the resources that would prevent those deaths and glorifying others. The line between celebrating heroes who die in the line of duty — including first responders like firefighters and paramedics and everyday citizens who seek to help, like the Cajun Navy — and expecting them to die as a matter of course is painfully thin. We lionize those who make the ultimate sacrifice, but we rarely stop to ask what we could do to make it so that sacrifice isn’t necessary in the first place. But it’s the grand tradition of toxic masculinity to celebrate death… so long as someone else is doing the dying. After all, to paraphrase Laurie Penny by way of Kieron Gillen:
The patriarchy hurts everyone. And patriarchy isn’t rule by men. It’s rule by fathers. Most men will never be the fathers. They’re just sons, and sons gets sacrificed to keep the old man in port and cigars.
Over the course of the COVID crisis, we’ve seen that line between “hero” and “sacrifice” expand to include not just soldiers and first responders but doctors, teachers, janitors, shopkeepers and cashiers. Now “giving one’s life in the line of duty” doesn’t refer to dying during a time of war or sacrificing your life to save others, it means “serving people who’re too selfish to think about the safety of others”.
I like that this conveniently ignores the people working in those shops. If you want a completely mask-free hour, you can have one without staff, and where you stock and disinfect the shelves and machines yourself. Otherwise, wear a damn mask. https://t.co/e26rCSGQMZ
— Hannah Smethurst (@HannahSmeth1) July 29, 2020
Death and glory… except for who does the dying and who gets the glory. Or, in this case, sacrificing one’s life so that someone else gets to go shopping at Trader Joe’s without having to make the sacrifice of wearing a piece of cloth over their face. Or forcing employees to return to unsafe working conditions because the economy apparently demands blood sacrifice. It means teachers and students being forced back to school without any precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, while suspending anyone who mentions this on social media. And it means fighting against reforms that would introduce accountability to the police, change a culture that teaches cops to see everyone as the enemy and encourages killing at the slightest provocation.
Protecting others is noble. The desire to do anything and everything to protect your family, loved ones and community is something we should all aspire to. But protection isn’t only about death — whether causing death or succumbing to it… and neither is being a man. We live in a culture that still sees people dying in order to be “real” men.
It’s time for a change… so that we live to be men instead.