Anyone who spends any significant amount of time online and who has an interest in masculinity will be all too familiar with two phrases that seem omnipresent on social media: “toxic masculinity” and “masculinity so fragile.” These phrases are intended to highlight how a particular form of masculinity results in various pathologies that range from bathroom wipes designed specifically for men, to the amount of space taken up by men on public transport, right through to the very foundations of Islamist terrorism.
There is a certain value to such hashtag criticism. It is true that there is something to be said about the fragile nature of the male ego when it has to buy butt wipes with “for men” written on the packet. It is true that highlighting “manspreading” can be a useful way to start a conversation about male privilege (even if it may say more about a combination of tight hips and muscly thighs). It is true that terrorism is based in part on the glorification of violence found within certain perceptions of masculinity. But these truths must be complemented with a word of caution; in fact, several words of caution.
In her famous book (by academic standards) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler states that, “subversive performances always run the risk of becoming deadening clichés through their repetition and, most importantly, through their repetition within commodity culture where ‘subversion’ carries a market value.” What does this mean for “toxic masculinity” and “masculinity so fragile”?
The use of hashtag criticism can be seen as one such subversive performance. The act of pointing to Donald Trump or Isis and proclaiming “toxic masculinity” is an opportunity for people to express their countercultural opinions (given that such toxicity appears globally prevalent), and also to signal to those reading their feeds that they deserve some kind of cultural capital for identifying such toxicity in the public domain (or at the very least agreeing when someone else has done so). In regard to the “market value” of this subversion, we need look no further than the various brands who have jumped on the bandwagon of “new” and “gentler” forms of masculinity. Sincere, perhaps. But maybe those brands just see another market segment to capitalize upon.
And the repetition. If there is some value in the criticism of “toxic masculinity” (which there undoubtedly is), it would be prudent to use it sparingly. Once we reach peak toxic masculinity, where it feels as if all references to anything vaguely masculine in a traditional sense is labeled as toxic, we are deep into the realm of the deadening cliché. In short, when pretty much everything is toxic masculinity, paradoxically nothing is toxic masculinity.
But there is something more troubling going on here. Implicit in denouncing something as toxic masculinity is the assumption that the toxicity is someone else’s fault, and a complete blindness to the fact that the denouncer may well be complicit to some degree in that toxicity. Let’s take an uncontroversial example of a recent article, The Bourne Masculinity: Matt Damon’s hyper-aggressive, emotionally fragile “good guy with a gun.” This article begins by righty lamenting that “the saga of Jason Bourne, traumatized hero as emblem of unapologetic white-male violence, turns 14 with a new film.” Sure, this seems like a good example of toxic masculinity and many a social media post suggested so. But let us not forget, people love Jason Bourne, both women and men. If every person who has enjoyed watching such films was forced to stop posting about toxic masculinity, social media would be a much quieter place.
The fact is we are all responsible for toxic masculinity to some degree or other. Either we have been responsible for acts of toxicity ourselves, or we have celebrated them in others. And this is not particularly a male problem: women are just as prone to celebrate such toxicity, and that celebration may indeed be one of its driving forces in men. The point here is not to deny toxic masculinity, but again to question the effectiveness of this mantra-like criticism if people are going to gloss over their own minor roles in its creation.
Stage 3 Criticisms
In The Five Stages of Masculinity, Stage 3 is all about critical responses to masculinity. The kind of hashtag criticism discussed above is archetypal Stage 3 thinking: at once valuable in highlighting what can go wrong with masculinity, yet limited in providing suggestions about how to make it right. There is an assumption in Stage 3 thinking that by deconstructing a problem you in some way automatically construct an alternative, but this is simply not true. Solutions, alternatives and positive change require deep proactive work.
In the end, all the important players in this Stage 3 criticism of toxic masculinity are not fully present in the debate. First, the people denouncing toxic masculinity are not fully present because they fail to acknowledge their own role in its creation. Second, the people they are denouncing are not fully present because they are being hit over the head like a hammer with the charge of toxic masculinity, which is hardly conducive to engaging with the process of positive change.
It is hard to believe that a relentlessly negative discussion about masculinity will result in positive change. So those who retreat into the accusation of toxic masculinity might want to think about which outcome they are most interested in: the opportunity to denounce people on social media, or the opportunity to take some of the lessons learned from identifying manifestations of toxic masculinity and attempting to build with others a more sustainable future.
Joseph Gelfer is a researcher of men and masculinities. His books include Masculinities in a Global Era (Springer Science+Business Media, 2014) and Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy (Routledge, 2009). For more information visit: www.masculinityresearch.com
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