On occasion, my friends decide I don’t have enough rage in my life. This is why they’ll do helpful things like send me links to stories arguing that toxic masculinity doesn’t actually exist.
In this case, it was a piece by Mark Tapson – originally written for Acculturated and reprinted in The National Review – that argues that rescue efforts during the flooding of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey proves there’s no such thing as toxic masculinity.
How? Well because we have an example of men rescuing people. Ispo facto squid pro crow, checkmate liberals, etc.
The article itself is… badly argued. Tapson either misses the point so widely that he doesn’t even manage to be wrong or is being disingenuous to the point of absurdity. But, if we do assume best intentions, do the heroic acts of police, first responders and volunteers in Houston prove the non-existence of toxic masculinity? What do we mean when we talk about toxic masculinity, rape culture and those other boogeymen that Tapson rails against?
Let’s dig in a little, shall we?
On The Front Lines on The War Against Manliness
The premise of Tapson’s article is simple: here are some men doing heroic things, therefore the things that the effete celebrities, feminists, liberals, and celebrity feminist liberals who haunt Tapson’s work (more on this later) are wrong.
No, really. That’s basically it. Everything that follows consists of links to photos and news stories of various rescue efforts – some from first responders like the Houston Fire Department, others from volunteers like the Cajun Navy. And with each paragraph comes a snarky comment about the slights men are given for existing.
Case in point:
Then there’s this gem.
And no rant about the unfairness of being a man would be complete without the invocation of the unfairness of “male privilege”:
The rest of the article is mostly quoting people saying “yay for toxic males being around”. If you’re like me, and I know I am, then you’re probably scratching your head at what, exactly, any of this is supposed to prove. Tapson’s logic is less “A + B Therefore C” and more “Penguins don’t melt into cheese, therefore Socrates is mortal.”
This becomes less of a logical disproving of the existence of the concept of toxic masculinity, and more Tapson throwing around buzzwords regardless of relevance. The idea of “mansplaining” is assuming that a woman knows less about a topic than a man does, despite her knowing it as well or better.
“Manspreading” is taking up unnecessary space on benches and public transit by sitting with your legs so wide that you’re giving your balls a good airing out. “Male privilege” is, as I’ve written about before, the societal benefits that come solely from being male. How any of this is even tangentially relevant to disaster relief efforts in Houston is a mystery.
It’s like watching a budgie trying to string sentences together. It may have heard the individual words over and over again, but it has no idea what they mean or how to use them. Tapson, clearly, has heard the phrase “toxic masculinity” before. But his article demonstrates that there can really be only one response:
The irony, of course, in that trying to prove that toxic masculinity doesn’t exist, Tapson provides so many examples of it over the course of his writing – both in this article and elsewhere. So, rather than focusing on non-sequiturs, let’s take a look at what toxic masculinity actually is.
Toxic Masculinity is The (Artificially) Restrictive Nature of Manhood
When many people hear the phrase “toxic masculinity”, they make the mistake of assuming that someone is declaring that “being a man” is inherently bad. The knee-jerk assumption that masculinity is under attack, however, misses the actual point.
“Toxic masculinity” is a term from social sciences that describes norms of accepted behaviors among men that are portrayed as good and natural but are, in reality, physically, socially and psychologically damaging. The toxicity doesn’t come from being male or masculine. It doesn’t describe all or even most masculine-coded behaviors or ideals. Excelling at sports, for example, isn’t considered to be part of toxic masculinity. Neither is being ambitious, or having a drive to succeed. The desire to improve yourself and achieve more is, rightfully, lauded as a good thing.
Masculinity becomes toxic when specific standards of behavior are encouraged and enforced despite being damaging. Dominance, violence, unchecked sexual aggression, self-reliance to the point of absurdity and the devaluation of anything seen as being “feminine” are all points where masculinity goes from being positive to toxic. It’s the mandating of the limited scope of what men are allowed to be, if they’re to be considered “real men”.
Manhood, in this ideal, isn’t inherent but performative. Identifying as male isn’t enough to be a man. If you don’t perform these specific actions, or model these behaviors, you’re not a “real” man.
And it is literally a performance. In his column “Do We Really Want Men To Be More Vulnerable?“, Tapson argues that it’s ok if you’re a little emotional. In private. Where nobody can see it. But being openly emotional or in touch with your emotions is a weakness; it reduces your capability to be a “pillar of strength”, so clamp down on that shit.
In reality, however, that inability to show or process emotion causes intense damage to men. By making feeling or expressing emotions like stress, pain or despair “unmanly”, we rob ourselves of the ability to engage with those emotions and blunt their effects on us. Worse, by insisting that emotional displays are only for when we’re in private, we isolate ourselves. We don’t recognize that what we’re feeling is wrong, that we can get help.
When public figures (or “cultural elites”, to quote Tapson) like Wil Wheaton or Prince Harry come forward about struggling with depression, men realize that they aren’t alone. When David Beckham talks openly about having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Colin Farrell talks about self-medicating his depression through alcohol, and Zayn Malick or Captain fucking America opens up about his anxiety disorder, it destigmatizes the issue and helps men recognize that they can get help.
But when manhood is defined as extreme self-reliance and the ability to go it alone… we die. Literally.
Similarly, strength, is seen as a positive masculine trait. However, it becomes toxic when strength is only as good as how it counts towards pain and death – either enduring it or causing it. This is why violence and the readiness to perform it – one of the easiest ways to assert one’s manhood – is righteous and good.
That violence and aggression gets embedded into the culture; it’s part of how we end up with football players being lauded despite committing sexual assault on women, yet watch people lose their shit over someone protesting the murder of black people by simply not standing for the national anthem. So to does the lionization of risk and danger.
In fact, a willingness to destroy your body – to ignore all warning signs that you’re doing permanent damage to yourself – is considered to be the highest mark of “manliness”. Part of why, for example, it has taken so long to acknowledge the damage that football has done to its players is because we would celebrate the injuries. Sports networks used to revel in the worst hits that somebody could take. To acknowledge the damage, to not “play through it” despite the fact it could leave you crippled or in chronic pain was to just not be a real man.
Death is especially ever-present in toxic masculinity. If your sacrifice doesn’t risk life and limb, then it doesn’t “count.” While – Tapson’s argument to the contrary – nobody is criticizing the heroism of those who’re pulling victims from the storm to safety, their efforts aren’t the only way to sacrifice or help others. It’s notable, for example, that Tapson’s idea of sacrifice or heroism doesn’t include, say, the Houston-area mosques opening themselves up to house and protect refugees from the storm. There is no love to be given to Jorge Agundis and his co-workers who – despite being trapped by the floods – worked around the clock to feed the victims who’ve been displaced from their homes.
But of course, the point of all of this is that being a “real” man means that you will be handsome and virile. Perform the obeisance of “manliness” and be rewarded with sex.
Being anything less than manly in the right way however, makes you effete and under suspicion.
Being “Non-Manly” Is Shameful.
As one woman tweeted in response to the photo of Hudeck:
“It’s not that women aren’t brave. They are. But this is just what men do.”
The underlying message is simple: “yes, women can be brave. But their form of bravery isn’t the same.” This is an ongoing theme among toxic forms of masculinity: to perform manliness in any way other than this narrow window is to be feminine. Anything that is feminine is worth less. It is ok for women to be feminine, but for men to not conform to masculine ideals is shameful. Any behavior that doesn’t prioritize manly behavior is suspect, at best. It’s unsurprising, for example, that Tapson likes to complain about “cultural elites” and “academics” in his columns. It’s short-hand for “effeminate”, a sign that their opinion isn’t to be trusted.
Anti-intellectualism, after all, is part and parcel of toxic masculinity. Intellectual ideals are secondary to physical pursuits and academic or intellectual pursuits aren’t as real or meaningful as physical labor. Someone who prefers science, for example, is simply not going to be as “manly” as a construction worker or soldier. They’re too out of touch, too isolated, not dealing with the “real world”.
Those “cultural elites” are portrayed as gender traitors, encouraging non-conformity and gender non-compliance. They are the ones who encourage this deviancy in their criticisms of manhood that they clearly don’t understand. Their concern for the negative outcomes of behavior is seen as doing an injury to males and maleness. In positing that maybe some masculine-encoded behaviors are damaging – to men and to society – they’re actively damaging boys by making them less manly. The fear of pursuing something unmanly runs so deep that some men are literally afraid to take baths or indulge in basic skin care.
Of course, this is threat is one-sided. It’s ok for a girl to be a tomboy growing up, because being a boy is something to admire, but “a boy flouncing around in a Scarlet O’Hara dress” is to be corrected. But first, it must be mocked, because their enjoyment of something so feminizing as “wearing a dress” is shameful and they have to be punished.
Even in non-“traditionally” masculine spaces, men who don’t conform to a certain machismo are figures of mockery – even as the cultural norms are enforced. Part of the humor of Revenge of the Nerds or The Big Bang Theory is watching these patently un-manly men try to be masculine and reap the rewards of manly behavior. Isn’t it funny when Howard keeps hitting on women or Raj gets drunk and becomes incalculably sexist? How cute is it when Lewis and Booger and their pals violate women’s privacy, ignore tricky issues like “consent” and in some cases, commit acts of sexual assault and rape?
But even as we are expected to laugh along with them, it’s with a knowing aside: aren’t they absurd? Isn’t it adorable to watch them ape their betters? The ever-present joke is very simple: they’re committing the same acts of sexual assault that “real” men like the jocks commit, but the nerds can’t pull it off. Since they don’t have the strength to force sex or the capacity for alcohol to incapacitate their victim, they have to innovate. They have to find ways around their weaknesses and reach their goal. Which, again, is frequently sexual assault.
But it’s significant how these stories end. Even in this day and age, a time when geeks and nerds are in social ascendence, non-manly characters in pop-culture are ultimately rewarded when they come into compliance with “real” manly values. Most often, this is through sex; either by having sex or having it offered as a trophy. Beat the jocks by being a better jock and get a traditional beauty for your efforts. Now go forth and pussify no more.
Even in these spaces – spaces where men have been punished for not conforming to toxic masculine ideals – anything “feminine” is still suspect. Even in the cargo-cult performative masculinity of trash talk in gaming is predicated on being more macho than everyone else. You have to puff up your chest and make as much noise as possible because otherwise people might mistake you for the bitch.
Toxic Masculinity, Fragility and the Curse of the Snowflake
The over-the-top performance of manliness is a critical part of toxic masculinity because nobody is as sensitive as an “alpha” male. The need to perform dominance displays is crucial because toxic masculine circles are inherently hierarchical. Because being dominant and in charge is so central to being a man, men are put in a position where they are always under assault. There is never a moment where they don’t feel like they can relax. Literally everything about them – from the beer they drink to their chapstick – has to reinforce their manliness or else they have to hand in their man card.
Even Tapson falls victim to this. His complaint is literally that men aren’t getting praised enough and this is a horrifying crime. ACTUAL QUOTE TIME:
It is this aspect of manhood for which men are never given credit by those deconstructionists in the culture and in academia who view masculinity as an obstacle to their agenda. Misandrist activists and intellectuals never acknowledge that there are positive aspects to masculine strength or that women want traditionally masculine men.
Jeez man, triggered much? Wouldn’t someone so traditionally masculine not be upset about some criticism? Criticism that they don’t even feel is real or valid? You would think that someone who is that tough, that rough and ready wouldn’t concern himself with the opinions of those effete “cultural elites”.
But then again, that would be the point. The people who are the first to proclaim themselves the alphas, the “real” men are also the most sensitive to criticism. Toxic forms of masculinity are so fragile that anything can shatter it – ranging from one’s wife making more money to braiding their daughter’s hair. The stress of maintaining that façade is so intense that the slightest prick causes intense stress and emotional pain.
It would almost be funny if there weren’t real pain involved here. But even as tempting as it is to laugh and point at people busy corn-cobbing themselves, that inherent fragility is also what makes it so dangerous. When someone feels their manhood is being threatened, they want to reaffirm it in any way possible. And so they lash out. This is how you end up with “alpha males” who will, say, arrest and prosecute a woman for laughing at him. Or they might try to pick a fight with someone who disrespected them by shaking their head at them. Or, for that matter, the endless parade of violence perpetuated on women for turning them down.
These norms and standards cause so much pain… and not just to others. It is honestly heartbreaking to watch people wrestle with themselves to live up to a standard that nobody can maintain. The need to police themselves and others becomes so intense that people torture themselves, denying their own identity.
We Don’t Need Another Hero
As I said: literally no one is criticizing those who came to save the day in the wake of Harvey. From the bravery of the first-responders to the Dunkirk-like citizens’ flotilla, watching everyday people hear and respond to the call of duty is inspiring and amazing.
But that heroism comes with a cost. We focus on the heroics and the bravery of our first responders who risk life and limb. However, we also lionize that risk to the point that we treat their deaths as par for the course. There comes a point where heroism crosses the line to needless sacrifice. A willingness to risk one’s life should be balanced with the need to do so. The dramatic rescues are amazing and inspiring. But we don’t have the same reverence for making sure that we don’t need our heroes to die.
We laude men who “play through the pain”, but give no thoughts to the cost. A sacrifice in the line of duty is admirable, but how many more lives could our heroes save were they still alive? How many people needed rescuing because of a system that means they couldn’t afford to leave?
Who is more heroic, the hero or the person who makes sure that the hero isn’t needed in the first place?
And the thing is: heroism is only part of what we need. A willingness to die can be admirable but we also need a willingness to live. A willingness to care. Pulling people from the flood is great but there’s still more that we need. There are acts of heroism and compassion from men that go unnoticed and unremarked because they don’t fit into the narrative of what a “real” man is. The hero pulling people from the roofs of flooded houses is important. But so is the person who’s feeding them. So are the people tending to their wounds. So are the people who will be coming in after the floodwaters recede.
And so, too, are the men, fathers and sons, who are going to have to work themselves to the bone just to survive afterwards.
That’s part of what makes toxic masculinity so damaging: it ignores and diminishes anyone who doesn’t fit that narrow range of “man”. The only measure of worth is pain; who causes it and who endures it. We worship the hero but we ignore the caregiver. We praise the person who rescues the endangered, but not the ones who give to the needy. We admire soldiers, but spare few thoughts for the people who make sure that those soldiers don’t need to go to war.
We have no regard for the ones who bring brains and heart instead of muscle and swagger. This means there’s no room for the compassion and heart of a Newt Scamander. There’s no room for the everyday heroism of a father raising his daughters.
If you want to disprove toxic masculinity, then the key isn’t to rail against critics. It’s not to whine about not being praised for existing. It’s to quit pretending that we don’t damage men in the name of being men.
Being a man should be something to be proud of. But if you want positive forms of masculinity, quit rooting for pain and death. Lionize heart. Praise compassion and caring. Have the courage to let go of a broken and damaging system. Accept and embrace the many, many ways you can be masculine.
That’s how you be a real man. No toxicity required.