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.

TOXIC

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”?)

chill-out-sissy-boy-is-your-bra-strap-too-tight

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.)

51XMkfP4i+L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

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.”

Advertisements

My Conversation with Gloria Steinem

March 2, 2018

New York City is always filled with unexpected moments and celebrity sitings. This week my wife saw Robert DeNiro walking down MacDougal Street in the Village while was I was staring at my phone, texting a friend. My moment was when feminist godmother Gloria Steinmem walked into an event that I was scheduled to speak at on Tuesday and suddenly this woman, whose pictures I had pasted into PowerPoint slides and classroom handouts on feminist history, was standing in a room with me. There are few people, living or dead, who are more associated with the modern American feminist movement than Ms. Steinem.

Healing

We were in the Big Apple to help launch Michael Kimmel’s new book called Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into-And Out of-Violent Extremism. Kimmel is one of the leading scholars on the pitfalls and promises of masculinity. His 2008 bestseller, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, was required reading for my Social Theory students at Portland State. Healing From Hate follows the story of men who have left the hate movement and it recognizes that it wasn’t hate that brought them in but a deep pain associated with a crisis in their gendered expectations of how the world should be. The event was held at the downtown campus of Fordham University, which is part of Lincoln Center. There was wine and spanakopita, and Gloria Steinem.

I ran into the auditorium to tell Andrea who was in the house. “Go talk to her!” she said. “And get a picture.” It turns out she’s friend of Michael Kimmel’s and came to support him at his event. “Did you see Gloria Steinem is here?” he asked me. I just made some sounds that were not actual words and then, not wanting to wait until she was mobbed made a beeline to talk to her.

“Hi Gloria, I’m on the panel tonight and I just wanted to say hello.” I said something about being a feminist criminologist and I wasn’t nervous about speaking that night until I saw her arrive. She said something to the effect of “thank you for your service” and that we’re here to support each other and that I shouldn’t be nervous. I immediately relaxed and just noticed how, at almost 84, perfectly she had aged from the young firebrand infiltrating the Playboy club, to the founder of Ms. Magazine, to now, the elder states-person of American feminism. So I blathered on a bit about how I fell into feminist theory through my research on racist skinheads and now study the toxic masculinity in prisons. Then I thought, Holy shit, I’m talking to Gloria Steinem. I need to ask her a question.

“Okay, since this is rare opportunity for me. I have to ask you, what the hell is going on in this country. What’s your take on the whole Trump thing?” And then she laid this goddess wisdom at my feet.

“You know when a women is at most risk of being killed by her abuser is the moment she tries to escape him. When the battered wife tries to leave, that’s when he is his most violent. That’s where we are. We are finally escaping our abuser and he is violently attacking us. But we can do it. We can finally break free.”

Bam.

Gloria-Steinem-03

That said it all in one elegant but ugly analogy. When Trump was elected Steinem’s sister in the struggle, Angela Davis, called the shocking election the “last gasp of dying white male supremacy.” Trump and his bullies want to drag us back to before Gloria and the feminists upset the applecart. He says he is not a feminist but is the “greatest supporter” of women and even claimed to break the glass ceiling “for” women. The man does not know what feminism is and the past year of Trump policies have been a executive version of a drunk husband in his “wife beater” telling the Mrs. to get back in the kitchen. The Alt Right shock troops and their president excusing domestic abusers (“He’s a great guy!”) are all connected. Hell, Trump would have raced into that school shooting even without a gun. He’s THAT macho. America is great again! Now make me a sandwich.

So we talked a bit more about her hopefulness and I added that the kids in Florida are the indicator of where we are headed and that I had a theory about the fourth wave of feminism.

“Oh, I don’t buy any of that stuff about waves. It’s all just one wave,” said the Second Wave poster child.

“Okay, then I guess I shouldn’t tell you my theory.”

“No please, go ahead,” she said nicely, as if I could offer any insight on feminism to the woman who wrote the book.

I told her the next step was what our friend Michael Kimmel was doing, to encourage men to embrace feminism and see it as not only an act of social justice but a way to liberate themselves from the limitations of patriarchy.

“Men, have been doing that since the sixties,” she said, alluding to the men’s groups that pioneered consciousness raising but remained fairly isolated on college campuses and places where white men had the resources to “dialogue” in “rap sessions.” My campaign to expand that discussion to young and diverse men got a positive nod.

GS

“This generation of boys is really different,” I said, explaining how I often go to high schools to talk to classes about these issues. “I love to tell young men about how when I was their age  someone started telling us that ‘Real men don’t eat quiche,’ which I hated because I loved quiche. I tell them real men go to the store to buy tampons for the woman in their lives. Half of the teenage boys squirm and respond in horror but the other half say, ‘I already do that!'”

She laughed and told me about how her date that evening had written a piece in the early 70s about how different things would be if men could menstruate (which she rewrote for Ms. in 1978). I felt like I was carrying her torch. That we were parallel lines and it was cool as hell. We got a few pictures together, which I immediately uploaded to Facebook. Even though taking my wife to New York for a few days was an epic treat, that picture will go up on the mantle.

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 6.38.45 PM

The event itself was incredible. Michael discussed his book and how racist men don’t stop being racist because someone told them their racism was stupid. An excerpt from an upcoming film about the topic by documentarian Peter Hutchison was shown. I’m in it so I wasn’t sure how to react when my face appeared up on the big screen. And then an assembled panel of former racists, representing the organization Life After Hate, and researchers spoke. The two researchers were myself and Kathleen Blee, who has done some amazing work on women in organized racist movements, including the Ku Klux Klan. Gloria sat in the front row and every time I tried to bring the conversation back to gender I’d look at her as if to say, “You’re the reason I’m talking about this.”

I know things like this happen in New York all the time, but there can be magical moments when you connect with someone, human to human, who has inspired you. I’ll always hope I didn’t come off as an annoying fanboy and I’ll sit with the fantasy that maybe she was actually inspired by something I said that night in Manhattan.

gloria-steinem-magnet

SaveSaveSaveSave