Masculinity Isn’t Toxic. Toxic Masculinity Is

March 9, 2018

I first started writing about toxic masculinity five years ago. I presented a research paper entitled, “Two Hours Without My Game Face: Inmates Discuss Prison Visitation and Toxic Masculinity” at the annual convention of the Pacific Sociological Association in lovely Reno, Nevada. The term was new and mostly academic. In the wake of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting, suddenly everyone is talking about toxic masculinity and that’s a good thing. Toxic masculinity is about the corrosive effects of the performance of a certain type of male role. It’s not about all men. But trying to explain that gender is a performance makes some people’s heads explode.

Just like the blowback from those who don’t understand the concepts of white privilege or implicit bias (Mike Pence, I’m looking at you), the howls from the right have been predictable. “Masculinity is not toxic!” “It’s open season on men!” “Toxic masculinity is a myth!” Blah, blah, blah. Fragile masculinity at work. I hope these snowflakey blokes don’t own AR-15’s.

The work on toxic masculinity comes out of the research on the experience of men in correctional facilities, most notably by Terry A. Kupers (and later, my own work). Kupers highlights the seven characteristics of toxic masculinity:

  • Extreme competition and greed
  • Insensitivity to others
  • Strong need to dominate and control others
  • Incapacity to nurture
  • Dread of dependency
  • Readiness to resort to violence
  • Stigmatization of women, gays, and men who exhibit feminine characteristics

These characteristics are common among men who are incarcerated. The predatory environment of prison encourages men to be on-guard and ready to fight 24-7. If you are not victimizing someone, you are more likely to be victimized by others. I noticed it among my interview subjects who would put on their emotional armor before reentering the prison population where they never let their guard down or unclenched their fists, even while they slept. It’s emotionally taxing but requires an emotionless willingness to be viscously violent at a moment’s notice.


These same characteristics are now being used to describe the hyper-masculinity of school shooters. No, their violence was not caused by violent video games, but their obsession with violent media, including video games, is a symptom of this obsession with carnage, devoid of empathy. There are a number of red flags for the boys and men who become mass shooters and all are represented by Kupers’ characteristics of toxic masculinity. Nobody has ever accused a man or boy who has shot up his workplace or school of being a “nurturing” individual.

Most boys learn some version of toxic masculinity the minute they are told not to cry “like a girl,” or throw “like a girl,” or do anything “like a girl.” The devaluing of all things feminine sets boys up on a path of increasingly alienating choices. We encourage girls to be more like boys because that is seen as a path to empowerment but it might also be a path to suppressing what females have to offer, only to have it erupt in the same wanton violence males commit. (When 50% of school shooters are female, will that be heralded as “equality”?)


Contrastingly, any boy who even starts to “act like a girl” is castigated as a sissy. “Don’t tell me about your feelings, tell me whose ass you want to kick.” “What? You want to be a ballet dancer? Quick! Buy this boy a gun!” Given the fact that women, on average, live seven years longer than men, maybe we should encourage our boys to act more like girls. I mean, if we love them.

Fortunately, there are other masculinities besides toxic masculinity. This includes peacemaking masculinity, integral masculinity, and queer masculinity. Boys don’t have to become cartoon characters of unfeeling macho men, solving problems with their fists. The easiest example is the difference between bourgeois masculinities (“Tennis, anyone?”) and working class ones. And not all working class masculinities are brutish thugs, screaming “Stella!” (Just think of Dan Conner on the sitcom Roseanne, returning to a TV near you.)


We men have a lot to learn from women who are more relational and less self-repressing. Women suffering from mental distress don’t go on killing sprees. Research shows that women tend to be better problem solvers, facilitating team resources as opposed to men who declare, “I got this!” and then walk off a cliff. Women listen while men are talking out of their asses. Michael Kimmel, in his vitally important book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, urges parents to, instead of raising young males as “just boys,” raise just boys; boys whose masculinity is defined by their concern for social justice.

This country is turning a corner. The #metoo movement will drive out our rapist president and his “bros before hos” alt-right henchmen. The antifeminist Proud Boys with their “We venerate the housewife” bullshit will cave in from their own toxicity. Patriarchy still has plenty of sexual harassers and school shooters to offer, but the more we can raise our boys to think and act like girls, the healthier everyone will be, especially the people who won’t be dead because they weren’t shot by some boy or man having an emotional meltdown because their dad once told them not to cry “like a girl.”


America is eating its young. Maybe it’s time to get the hell out.

February 15, 2018

As parent, my gut instinct is to get my family out of America as soon as possible. There are lots of places this doesn’t happen. This country is fundamentally broken. If we didn’t address American males’ obsession with gun violence and the “right” to own weapons of mass carnage after the Sandy Hook massacre, we never will. That 2012 Connecticut shooting left 20 six and seven-year olds dead. Is my three-year-old safe in daycare today, or will find out on the news that some boy or man exercised his 2nd Amendment right by blowing her and her little classmates heads off?

Yesterday’s carnage in Lakeland, Florida is just the latest. Seventeen dead. People are offering the “thoughts and prayers” (accomplishes nothing) and #GunReformNow is trending on Twitter (accomplishes nothing). Pundits and presidents talk about how the shooter was “deranged” (accomplishes nothing) and it will be open season on anyone with a mental health issue (accomplishes oppression, because people suffering from mental health issues are actually less violent than the general population.) It’s the same circle jerk that will dominate the news cycle until the next “big story.” Stormy Daniels? Trump’s tweet? Another shooting? Does anybody remember the Las Vegas shooting? 2017? Hello?

When my co-authored book about suburban delinquency and gun violence, Teenage Renegades, Suburban Outlaws, came out in 2001 we were (like now) picking up the pieces of young gun casualties. The book addressed the lessons learned from the cluster of school shootings at the turn of the century that peaked with the 1999 slaughter at Columbine (13 killed). I was honored to be a part of the national discussion about toxic masculinity, bullying, and the easy availability of high powered weapons. We licked our wounds and went to work and school shootings declined.

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 11.41.39 AM

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday dwarfed Columbine, something young males have been promising for 19 years. We’ve averaged about one of these events a week in 2018. (I wonder how bad next week’s shooting will be.) That this teenage shooter was linked to a white supremacist group also connects the body count to the elevated racist climate in Donald Trump’s alt-right America, where violent white males have become emboldened (God, I’m sick of using that word). But while we focus on the race of the shooter, we will miss the more important discussion about the gender of the shooter.

All these mass shootings are committed by males. There was a school shooting earlier this month in Los Angeles by a 12-year-girl but it was ruled unintentional. Except for the Brenda “I don’t like Mondays” Spencer case in 1979 (2 dead), girls don’t go on shooting sprees. I’ve written endlessly about the connection between masculinity and gun violence, including in this blog. Let me bring the message home.


The same toxic masculinity that allows a boy or man to take an AR-15 to school and vent his rage at the world on some “soft targets” is displayed by our elected officials who think they are defending something by allowing that boy or man access to an AR-15 in the first place. There is a reason that women (and female politicians) are at the front of the sensible gun law cause. Women don’t need AR-15’s to make their dicks hard. Women, and men not suffering from EPE (Extreme Penis Envy), want sensible gun laws to reduce (not eliminate) the regularity of this horror. When it was black children being shot in America’s cities, their solution was just to lock everyone up (for anything possible) and put them to work in the prison labor industry. When the juvenile shooter demographic flipped to white, well, they must be crazy and you can’t really do anything about that. Do not expect men to fix this gun problem. Do not. It will be women who get this done.  But they have a mountain of patriarchal bull to remove first.

I’m sick of the gun “debate.”

I’m sick of hearing about “deranged individuals.”

As parent, I’m thinking it might be time to get out while we still can. America is sinking under the weight of its own testosterone. Our male politicians, funded by the gun lobby, have gerrymandered political boundaries to such an extreme that there is no longer much hope of compromise. Districts are permanently Republican or Democratic and moderates are jumping ship. We’re in permeant deadlock with a president who only cares about his ratings and applause from his sub-moronic base. Welcome to Idiocracy. You can pick up your kid after school at the morgue.

On the bright side, the contentious Baby Boom generation is dying off. If the Millennials can put down their phones (and their guns) long enough, this country might survive to its tricentennial. Your “thoughts and prayers” make me sick, but your action plans have my full attention. In the meantime, I’m exploring my options.

“America when will we end the human war?” – Allen Ginsberg (1956).





It’s time to tax men: Shutting down gun violence

November 7, 2017

I’m so sick of this. I’m so sick of another mass shooting. I’m sick of the gut-wrenching stories of survivors. I’m sick of “thoughts and prayers.” I’m sick of writing another blog about it. I’m sick of doing interviews about it and saying the same damn thing every time. If America wasn’t sick of it after Sandy Hook, it never will be. But I’m sick of it. Feel free to call the shooters “deranged individuals” (if they are white) or “terrorists” (if they are not). But don’t talk to me unless you are willing to say what all these shooters are.


Boys and men. I’m not saying all boys are men are bad. Certainly the majority of boys and men aren’t opening fire on innocent people. And many men and boys are actively trying to stop the violence (including a few with guns!). This is about masculinity. The toxic masculinity that has been created in our culture that defines gun violence as an appropriate way for men in crisis to express their rage. Men in extreme crisis in Japan hang themselves. The same men in the United States use guns and many decide to take as many people with them as they check out. “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” American masculinity does not allow you to fall to your knees. Not when there is amble firepower available to guarantee a dramatic exit.


Male violence plagues us. The violence of Devin Kelley shooting five-year-olds in the head in a church in Sutherland, Texas or the violence of Harvey Weinstein’s low-grade war on women. It all has a cost. From coroners to lost work hours, every aspect of violence by boys and men sucks resources out of our society. What is the financial impact of having a family member killed? How about the emotional impact? The makers of pain killers and pain numb-ers might profit, but the rest of us are paying for it in tax-dollars, insurance premiums, and the erosion of the quality of life. What if the evening news reported on a great new work of art at the top of the hour instead of the daily body count? We are less human because we have normalized male violence.

One study in Minnesota found that gun violence in the state came in at a about $2.2 billion dollars in direct costs due to the 900 gun deaths that year. This doesn’t include indirect costs like lost property value and lost business. The famous 2015 Mother Jones study put the cost at $229 billion a year when you factor in the cost of prisons and lost wages. Each gun homicide costs the country $400,000 and we average about 32 gun murders a day.  Just as a point of comparison, the 2018 budget for Trump’s Department of Education is only $68.2 billion.


In the late 1990s, I began assigning June Stephenson’s book, Men Are Not Cost Effective: Male Crime in America to my criminology students at Portland State University. She forwards the case that, because of the high cost of mostly male crime on our society, it makes sense that all men pay a “sin” tax to cover the cost of policing, prosecuting, and incarcerating male criminals. When we look at the research on female violent crimes, it’s typically the case that women are brought in to criminal enterprises with their male counterparts (“I was just attracted to bad boys, I guess.”) or are responding violently to their male abusers (“Goodbye, Earl!”). Some of the men in my classes balked at the assertion, but the women generally thought it was a smashing idea. And there are more women than men in this country (because men keep killing each other off).

Maybe it’s time to revisit Stephenson’s “man tax.” If shooting kids in a kindergarten class or church at point blank range doesn’t wake men up to the toll of “going out like a man,” maybe grabbing their wallets will. America is prevented from being a more perfect union because of all the economic and emotional resources devoted to dealing with male violence. If we want to make America great, I say let’s hit ‘em where it hurts. Maybe then men will care about how they do maleness.


We could start simple, perhaps a sales tax on dumb men things, like bullets, Call of Duty video games, and UFC pay-per-view matches. Then we can expand it to anyone with a Y chromosome. And the earlier the better. In the 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas that killed five and wounded ten (all female victims), the shooters were 11 and 13 years-old. As soon as a tween boy walks into a 7-11 to buy a Big Gulp, hit him in the nuts with the man tax.

Then, as boys and men start to get it and gun violence starts to decline, there can be subsequent reductions in the tax. Hey, nobody went postal this month, the tax on camouflage pajama pants is temporarily suspended! How else are we going get men to stop killing us? What politician that isn’t busy licking the NRA’s ass will be bold enough to propose this approach? I’m guessing it won’t be a man.

Other posts on this endless topic:

How to talk rationally about gun control (October 4, 2017)

Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children (September 21, 2016)

Another Day, Another Mass Shooting in America (October 2, 2015)

White Boys to Terrorist Men: Pointless Male Violence and Charleston (June 19, 2015)


How to talk rationally about gun control

October 5, 2017

The slaughter in Las Vegas on Sunday was the largest since the 300 slaughtered at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890 or the 250 slaughtered in the 1921 attacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma (or any of the other slaughters in which non-white Americans were the victims). The carnage has America in a brief moment of refection. Why does this keep happening and what are we going to do about it? The answer to the second question is probably nothing. If we couldn’t find the will to amend our gun laws after Sandy Hook in 2012 when Adam Lanza shot 20 small children to death, we never will. There will be many more shootings, some will be bigger Stephen Paddock’s death toll of 58 (so far), and we still won’t do anything.


The sad reality is that our congress is owned by the National Rifle Association. They pimp out mostly Republicans but a lot of Democrats as well. (Here in Oregon, both Republican Rep. Greg Walden and Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader have taken NRA donations.) The NRA is fiscally invested in widening the sale of all types of guns, as well as silencers and “bump stocks” that Paddock used to modify his assault rifles into automatic machine guns, greatly increasing his casualty rate. In 2015, the NRA supported the unbanning of armor-piercing bullets that have been used to kill police officers. And old white guys get angry at rap music.

We will see plenty of NRA puppets say it’s “too soon” to “politicize” the murder in Vegas. But there is another mass shooting just around the corner so it will always be too soon. So stop using that excuse. Stop using excuses period and do something.

I’ve written about the connection between men and gun violence. (It’s always men doing this. Always.) I want to talk about how to talk about gun control with two simple points.

The Second Amendment, like all rights, is negotiated.

The First Amendment is not absolute. Go into a crowded movie theater and shout “Fire!” or onto an airplane and say, “I have a bomb!” and then claim “free speech.” I dare you. Or try writing something libelous or post on your Facebook page that you are going to kill the President and try and hide behind the First Amendment. I dare you. Your goose will be cooked.


The Supreme Court is in charge of determining what is constitutionally protected and what is not. In Virginia v. Black, the high court, in 2003, ruled that burning a cross was protected speech, unless it could be proven that it was intended to intimidate others. Our rights are constantly negotiated. They aren’t absolute and they aren’t “sacred.” The U.S. Constitution is a living document, written by humans, that the humans of the judicial branch are constantly interpreting and defining.

Case in point; the Second Amendment. It states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” There is certainly a difference between “a well regulated militia,” and an angry 64-year-old real estate investor with 47 firearms in his possession, but let’s focus on the second part; the right to keep and bear arms. The Bill of Rights was written in way back in 1789. I used to tell my criminology students at Portland State that there were only two ways to interpret its second amendment.

  1. The Historical Interpretation: When the founding fathers wrote the amendment, they were thinking of the arms that were available to people in 1789. This would be pistols, flint lock rifles, muskets, canons, and maybe those bombs where you light the fuse and chuck them at people. And the founding fathers wrote the Constitution for white male property owners. (Jeez, women weren’t allowed to even vote until 1920.) So the the Second Amendment says white men can own muskets and that’s it.
  2. The Libertarian Interpretation: The Constitution applies to ALL Americans, including children, the mentally ill, convicted felons in prison, and, yes, even women. And the Second Amendment applies to ALL arms, including machine guns, flame throwers, nuclear missiles, and weaponized anthrax. So the Second Amendment says psychotic American serial killers have the right to own intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Obviously, the reality has been negotiated to be somewhere in between those two interpretations. Automatic assault weapons were banned in 1994 under the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act. In February, President Trump signed a law to make is easier for mentally ill people to purchase guns. SCOTUS didn’t even recognize an individual right to possess a weapon until 2008 (District of Columbia v. Heller). It’s a constantly evolving landscape of what the Second Amendment actually protects and prohibits. It’s never been static. So why think it’s set in stone now? It’s set in pudding.

It’s all about reducing harm

I love it when the the gun control debate pops up, the trolls say, “Well, if you outlaw guns, people will still kill each other. With guns! And knives!” Look, you can kill a person by pushing them off a cliff. Nobody wants a law banning cliffs. This about reducing harm. After a horrible 1996 mass murder in Australia, the country passed real gun control and both murders and suicides dropped dramatically. Obviously, there are still murders and suicides in Australia, but there are significantly fewer victims. So don’t give me this, “if you outlaw guns there will still be murder” crap.


Conservatives are stuck in this binary thinking. Either a gun law eliminates all gun crime or it’s pointless. Look, we just want to reduce the body count. We’ll never eliminate it. Gun-related homicides dropped 59% in Australia after they changed the gun regulations.  If your loved one was one of the people who would have been killed in the 41% of murders that didn’t happen, you’d think that the gun law was the best fucking thing to happen since sliced kiwi. Here, the NRA-check cashers in congress don’t care about the 93 Americans that are killed by guns every single day. Sure, they’ll send their “thoughts and prayers,” which is the polite way of saying they’re sending smoke up your ass.

Laws save lives. The seatbelt law has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Not everybody wears one, but the tally of 33,000 people killed in crashes each year would be vastly greater without the law. A gun law that clamps down on internet gun sales, or limits ammunition sales, or makes it harder for wife-beaters to buy handguns won’t stop crime, but there will be fewer casualties. If that means someone you love won’t get shot, I bet you’d think that law was worth pissing off the NRA and their deep pockets.

We don’t want to take your guns away

The hysterical right love to play this old song that somehow liberals want to take their guns away. “Out of my cold dead hands,” they bleat. Plenty of liberals and/Democrats have guns. They want to protect their families and go hunting, and shoot trap (whatever that is). I’ve shot plenty of guns. I used to keep a shot-up gun range target in my office, hoping to intimidate any grade-grubbing undergrads. Some of my shooting has been pretty high-powered. I did a weapons training course with the FBI in 2005 and scored this hot pic of me squeezing off a few rounds from an MP5. I don’t own a gun (as far as you know) but I have fired two Glocks from each hand, Matrix-style. Definitely not like the movies. I respect guns. I want to keep these things away from lunatics.


The majority of Americans want stricter gun control laws. According to the most recent Gallup poll on the topic taken last October (you know a new one is coming any minute), 55% of Americans want stricter gun laws and only 10% want less strict laws. You’d never know that this week as congress is expected to loosen access to gun silencers. What Americans want is some reasonable legislation that keeps the Second Amendment somewhere between white property owners with muskets and convicted felons with nukes. Something that might drop the body count by any meaningful percentage.


Gun nuts often say that gun laws only serve to punish law abiding gun owners because of the actions of a few criminals. It’s worth pointing out that most murderers aren’t actually criminals until they choose to commit murder. Stephen Paddock, 64, had no criminal record until he smashed out the windows in his suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel and unloaded hundreds of rounds into a crowd of concert-goers, in the greatest act of single shooter mass violence in our lifetime.

How do we stop the next mass murder? The answer is complex, but a slack legal system that allows an individual to assemble an arsenal of high power weapons, that have nothing to do with home protection or hunting, has to be addressed. It’s time to, again, revisit what the scope of the Second Amendment means and what we can do as a nation to reduce the body count in this war against Americans, NRA be damned.

Support: Everytown for Gun Safety

“You’re gonna need a shotgun” Raising a daughter in a rape culture

September 7, 2017


I was speaking at a civil rights conference in Michigan this week and over lunch I was having a conversation with a jovial guy who worked in law enforcement. Since it’s always a unifying topic, we began chatting about our children. I showed him a cute pic of Cozy milking a cow at the Oregon State Fair. “You’re gonna need a shotgun,” he said.

I wish it was the first time I’d heard that line. Even before Cozy was born, when friends, family, or strangers heard we were having a girl, the calls for “better get a shotgun” came from men of all ages.

I understand that these men are trying to be cute, but it always injects two thoughts into my head; 1) I don’t want a gun, and 2) thanks for reminding me that boys and men will try to rape my daughter.


I mean, isn’t that what that line means? If Cozy is hanging out with a boy that she likes, it’s her time, her body, her choice. Right? It’s only if said boy crosses some boundary into nonconsensual douche-baggery that hero dad is supposed to rush in with his 12-gauge Remington to rescue his damsel in distress by threatening to blow this kid’s head clean off. “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

I’m not buying it.

What patriarchal vision has a father guarding his daughter’s window, weapon loaded, to make sure sex-crazed boys don’t rob her of her precious virginity? Cozy can arm herself with the wisdom to surround herself with the type of boys who can use the front door. I’m trying not to think too much about her inevitable transition into a sexual being, but my hope is she will own it responsibly without the anxiety of a father who wants her locked in a chastity belt, or who is lying in wait, with a Winchester across his lap.


The cute line about shotguns is more an acknowledgement of the rape culture we must raise our daughters in. I can trust that Cozy will make good choices with the boys (and/or girls) in her life and know how to shut down any unwanted advances (and accept the wanted ones). We will load her up with lines from TLC (“I don’t want no scrub.”) and bell hooks (“There can be no love without justice, asshole.”) But the harsh reality is that there will probably be boys and men than blast right though those defenses.

Breakdown_of_Locations_Where_Sexual_Assault 122016

Self-report studies have found that one in four women in America will be raped in their lifetime, many numerous times. The numbers are even more bleak for the more broadly defined “sexual assault.” He may not force his penis into her, but “just” grabbing her breasts may be enough to demonstrate who is boss. The same research shows that only 22% of rapes are committed by strangers, the majority are men known to the victim. This might happen in a dormitory, on a date, at a family gathering, or all of the above. It could be a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or thinks-he’s-a-boyfriend, or all of the above. There is no place that girls and women are safe from the potential of unwanted sexual contact; not home, not work, not school. So I know this, and it kills me that Cozy will know this, too.

We’ve tried raise a generation of girls who can defend themselves. We’ve given them guns, pepper spray, German Shepherds, and rape whistles. We’ve taught them how to walk in groups, cover their drinks in bars, and trust their guts about guys who give off rapey vibes. But we haven’t done a very good job teaching boys and men not to rape. When their presidents and faux-medieval TV heroes do it, you can understand why they might think they are entitled to women and girls’ bodies. According to a 1998 study by the National Institute of Justice, 1 in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. A recent University of North Dakota survey found that 1 in 3 college males would rape a female if they knew that would not face any consequences. Boys will be boys, right?


If there’s any good news it’s that the rates of rape and sexual assault have been falling (along with the violent crime rate in general). Rape victims coming out of the shadows and sharing their stories have surely been a part of that decline. Every man has at least one woman in his life who has experienced this horror. Maybe boys need to hear these stories as well, from their mothers, sisters, teachers, doctors, neighbors. It makes all that Game of Thrones rape a bit less entertaining. I do know the decline in what is still an epidemic of sexual violence has nothing with dads chasing aspiring rapists off with shotguns.

So here’s how that conversation is going to go next time:

“You’re daughter’s very cute. You’re gonna need a shotgun”


“Because she’s going to have boys all over her.”

“What if she wants boys all over her?”

“What if she doesn’t?”

“So, you’re saying she’ll have guys harassing her and trying to rape her.”

“It happens.”

“And she won’t be able to take care of it herself?”

“She might not be. I’m just saying you might need that gun.”

“How about you teach your boy not to rape her and we spend that gun money on something else?”


Postscript: A friend pointed out that also coded in this is that only pretty/skinny/cute girls are targets of rape, as if rape was an act of sexual attraction. All types of girls and women are rape. It’s about power, not sex.

Sometimes you really need a moment.

June 12, 2016


Since I started writing this blog, I’ve been pretty good at least one piece each week. I kind of got overwhelmed last week. First, my last piece on rape culture cosmically intersected with the revelations of the sentencing of Stanford rapists Brock Turner and his pathetic parents.  I also had a truckload of work reviewing research proposals for the National Institute of Justice for a big meeting in our nation’s capital. Now I’m in Washington DC just glued to the news from Orlando. Sometimes you just don’t get much of a chance to collect your thoughts (especially when you waste valuable life time arguing with people on Facebook).

I’ve written about how gay pride events have helped me move away from my own homophobia. I’ve also written about how being a media “expert” on mass violence is a double edge sword. I had planned on finally giving an update on Cozy’s gender evolution as she approaches 22 months old. A chance to move from the macro back towards my domestic micro.

But right now in my hotel room in Arlington. I was going to go to the gay pride parade in DC. I probably should. I’m sure it will be a somber emotional event as we remember the 50 dancing souls that were exterminated this morning by a madman (again, a man). I think I’m just going to close my eyes and imagine a world without hate that I so desperately want to deliver to my child. No prayers or thoughts, just a quiet dedication to make it so.

Photo on 6-12-16 at 4.20 PM

A Zombie Ate My Baby! Social anxiety and the Walking Dead

March 28, 2016

As we all get ready for next week’s season finale of The Walking Dead it is understandable that our collective thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve loved the zombie genre ever since I saw the low-budget 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. It was at a midnight movie in Stone Mountain when I was 13 and I didn’t sleep all night. But as a parent, my consumption of zombie media has changed a bit. After the last Walking Dead episode I had a flash of stepping into the nursery and seeing a ravenous walker chomping on my daughter. Cozy had a look on her face that just said, “Daddy help me.” The horror. And if you know anything about the undead then you know by that point it’s just too late.

Let me point out before I go any further that there is no such thing as a zombie. Sure there are some people wacked out on bath salts or haunting 80s dance nights that might seem like they are zombies. And of course there are kids who “die” on the operating table and their parents convince them they went to heaven and should write a book that might technically be zombies for a moment. But other than some meth head that thinks your arm is a corndog, there are no zombies. So don’t waste a second worrying about World War Z.


But the question remains; What is up with zombie-mania? And is there a feminist take on it? We’ve got movies, TV shows, video-games and comic books. You can buy zombie toys, costumes, t-shirts and even doorstops. We’ve gone zombie crazy! Are we hoping for the zombie apocalypse as a preferable alternative to a Trump presidency? Or is it perhaps an excuse to unleash our inner Rick Grimes and kill at will? What’s the appeal?

Not surprisingly a “sociology of zombies,” has been around for awhile. I would recommend Todd Platt’s “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture” (2013) for a recent overview. Usually, the explanation is rooted in some type of social anxiety, whether it was the Cold War and the fear of a nuclear apocalypse or now, in a post-9/11 world, it is a fear of the collapse of western society. We play out these “What If?” scenarios and imagine how we would respond when the shit hits the fan for real. Would we recreate a new authoritarian hierarchy, form a collectivist team response, or just devolve into every man for himself? (Women and children don’t usually fit anywhere in that last one, at least not in a good way.)

One of my right-wing pals told me yesterday that we don’t need illegal immigrants. And I said, “Who is gonna pick your food?” His response was that there was a time in America when most Americans worked on farms. I said, “Yeah, maybe 1816. In 2016 kids don’t even know what a fucking tomato looks like.” Face it, most of what we eat is processed. After your Kroger gets looted, next on the menu is your family pet. We would not do well in an apocalyptic setting where the food delivery app on your phone stops working.

So maybe the zombie thing is a reflection of our fear that society could collapse at any moment and we would be tested on our social survival skills. It seems like we are perpetually on the verge of the big flame out. Would you just blow your brains out or “man up” to fight the undead? Ah, there is a little clue to another explanation.


I was in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and my little brother was a sweet kid who had a touch of the developmental disability. He loved video games and taught me how to play Halo (which I found infinitely boring). His big fantasy was a zombie apocalypse so he could kill thousands of zombies. He would go into great detail of how he would shoot them, behead them, and set them on fire. It became clear that the zombies were stand-ins for all the people in his life who he wanted to dispatch with a sharp blade or a shotgun blast. He had a whole list of people he dreamed about killing.

In war movies, we don’t kill human beings. They are nips, gerrys, gooks, and hajis. In Westerns it’s savages. Science fiction body counts are aliens and robots. And in zombie shows, films, and games it is the undead. Each one a less-human than human enemy that we have permission to kill. For its time it is the act of dehumanization that allows us to vent our violent bloodlust against those who threaten our world somehow. Indians and Muslims and Zombies, the infected. Much was written about how the westerns of the 1960s used Native Americans as stand-ins for African Americans who threatened whites living on the urban frontier. Guns and blades allow us to re-establish the white male order over the chaos of the “diseased” other. And if we can bring a few women and people of color (and Michonne) along, all the better.


If you watch The Walking Dead, you know (and probably love) the character Daryl Dixon, played perfectly by Boondog Saint Norman Reedus. I’ll admit I have a man crush in Daryl and would give anything if my hair could be that greasy (without my under-carriage being equally rank). And here’s why. Daryl is the iconic strong silent type and on a steel horse he rides. He’s best on his own. He doesn’t talk about his feelings or much of anything. He squints and kills in a primal way. He is Clint Eastwood in the the first 20 minutes of High Plains Drifter (1973). He is everything that is right about a film or show set in an apocalypse. He is also everything that is wrong with masculinity in our culture. (And Norman Reedus is absolutely nothing like this fictional character.)

In the real world, men don’t need to kill, abandon the group (Oh, there goes Daryl again.) and keep their emotions buried deep behind their “I don’t give a fuck about you” (sultry) eyes. I love Daryl because he is who I was told I was supposed to be when I was a boy. I used to practice squinting like Clint Eastwood when I was a kid. I tried to be silent and menacing. It sucked (or I sucked at it). That way is pain and loneliness. Feminism gave me permission to be a human instead of a cartoon character male. I don’t want to ride into the sunset. I want to hang out with my friends and family. No slaughter necessary.

The same right-wing friend asked me what I would do if some guy called my wife a “cunt.” I told him I’d tell the guy that vaginas are awesome and probably let my wife take it from there. He (and a very confused female friend) were horrified. How could I not immediately respond with violence? What would Daryl do?

I will continue to be a zombie fan. I live for the post-episode discussions of The Walking Dead on reddit. TWD fans are brilliant and clever and can find humor in deep meaning in the handle of Carl’s gun. (Oh, Carl.) I just wonder how much of the appeal is based on the push to use of violence against those who would challenge the existing order. Maybe I should be rooting for the walkers. Just don’t eat my baby!