I’m a man, yes, I am
And I can’t help but love you so (Chicago, 1968)
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton famously quipped, “It’s the economy, stupid.” He was responding to George Bush’s “new taxes” and the effects they had on the economy. Clinton and the Democrats rightly saw it as a weak spot for Bush, and Clinton hammered away on the theme—successfully, as it turned out.
Since then, the expression has passed into common parlance. It has, in fact, become a snowclone—a cliché that can be filled in or modified by the user. For example, those in retail may say, “It’s the customer, stupid.” Or, in an Instagram post, the environmentalist Greta Thunberg is pictured crossing out the word economy and replacing it with “planet”: “It’s the planet, stupid.”
The problem right now? “It’s the masculinity, stupid.”
The global rise in right-wing populism has been part and parcel of a rise of masculinism. While right-wing populists often espouse nationalist rhetoric, anti-immigrant slogans, and anti-environmental sentiments, they are frequently spear-headed by hyper-masculine figures. The bare-chested Vladimir Putin has not been an advocate for women or LGBTQ people. Feminists are jailed and queer people are killed. Rodrigo Duterte has issued an entire list of misogynistic remarks. As Maria Tayang remarks, he “brazenly expresses violence against women and passes it off for humour.” And one hardly need note the misogyny of Donald J. Trump—except that we need to be reminded of it repeatedly. He has been accused of rape and sexual assault; he has publicly stated that he assaults women and grabs “them by the pussy”; he barges in on young women changing in lockers rooms; he undermines the fundamental human rights of gay, lesbian, and trans people. Anything that he does perceive as masculine is fair game for attack given his version of masculinity.
But here’s the thing. Three men in three countries espousing misogynist rhetoric is hardly the central issue. The problem is that they are not alone. They have millions of followers, millions of people who hear the rhetoric and either ignore it for the sake of right-wing political gains, or they actually agree with their rhetoric. They agree with, they clamor for, this version of toxic masculinity. And they clamor for the “protection” and “safety” of a strongman leader either because of perceived threats (e.g., economic downturn, cybercrime) or manufactured threats (e.g., immigrants, petty crime). As Ian Bremmer writes, they are the “tough-talking vigilante[s]” who “pay weak-minded liberals a lesson.”
Of course, it’s not just our political leaders. Hyper- and toxic masculinity pervade other aspects of life today. For example, the founder, leader, and CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, has demonstrated all the worst examples of toxic masculinity. According to John Mancini’s account, he fostered a masculine culture at his company, he turned a blind eye to blatant examples of discrimination and harassment, and he compelled female employees to participate in clearly inappropriate activities. And it wasn’t just the CEO; the attitude and practices pervaded the company. For example, an Uber board member made sexist comments in a company town hall about sexism. Meta-hyper-masculinity, I guess.
Google, too has demonstrated some of the worst aspects of masculinity and sexism. As Marie Hicks writes, the “brogrammer” behavior at Google was the product of “overfunded, highly entitled, mostly white and male startup founders [who] did things that were juvenile, out of line and just plain stupid.” All these things amounted to a heterosexual male privilege that defined the workplace. Women were there on men’s terms, and those terms were masculine.
These behaviors are not limited to Uber and Google. Far from it. As Hicks writes:
But even the tech giants foster an environment where heteronormativity and male privilege is so rampant that an engineer could feel comfortable writing and distributing a screed that effectively harassed all of his women co-workers en masse.
Well, this could take a while. Feminist Media Studies (2018) published a special issue dedicated to the question of online misogyny. The essays in the issue examine a variety of online forms of violence against women. Threats of violence, sexual harassment, cyberstalking, insults, doxxing, swatting, revenge porn, and so on.
Certainly, men are insulted and threatened and doxxed. But regardless of the target of the attack, they are generally carried out by men. And many times, they are specifically targeted at women in gender-specific attacks. Zoë Quinn has been—and continues to be—harassed in #GamerGate, which began as an attack on Quinn. Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian were also victims of attacks. More to the point, a number of women who reported on the gaming world were driven out.
But it’s not just the gaming world: Soraya Chemaly lists a dozen other prominent cases of online violence aimed at women, generally speaking, for either calling out masculine behaviors (rape culture, e.g.) or for participating in a “masculine” endeavor (writing Star Wars books, e.g.).
While I can list endless examples of individuals who have been harmed by these online practices, Debbie Ging and Eugenia Siapera remind us that online harassment is
“the product of systemic misogyny and sexism in the wider culture, combined with the technological affordances of various platforms and their attendant (sub)cultures, which have served to augment, amplify, and polarise contemporary gender politics in an ongoing war of attrition.”
A number of recent articles have noted the connection between anti-environmentalism and misogyny. While I agree in principle, I would rephrase it as a connection between anti-environmentalism and masculinity. Plato, Plotinus, and Paracelsus all conceptualized nature as female, but it was Francis Bacon—the father of the scientific method—who sets it out quite clearly in text: nature is both feminine and as something to be exploited.
The connection does not mean that men cannot be environmentalists. It does not even mean that those who identify as masculine cannot understand the value, worth, and importance of the environment. The connection suggests that a particular kind of masculinity embraces the continued exploitation of Nature, and rejects the caretaker role of environmentalism.
Indeed, environmentalism is often represented as a feminine kind of work. Popular media construct environmentalism as nurturing the planet, as caring for non-human beings, of thinking about and planning for future generations of children. And in our current Western notions of gender, those acts are coded as feminine. Or, perhaps more significantly, they are coded as non-masculine.
And so Greta Thunberg and other environmentalists face misogynistic attacks. Such a version of masculinity will get us all killed.
Sexual Assault & Rape
The evidence is overwhelming. Sexual assault and rape and the surrounding system of normalization of these facts have been condensed into the shorthand of “rape culture.” WAVAW (Rape Crisis Centre) offers a collection of definitions of rape culture, but rape culture includes male aggression, sexualization of women, sexualization of violence, and the normalization of assault against women.
For example, in 2014 Shannon Ridgway posted an article listing 25 examples of rape culture. They include a fraternity chant that posits women as sexual objects who can be touched without consent; lyrics from popular songs that blur the lines between consent and rape; a system that calls assault victims “career destroyers” of successful athletes; the normalization and justifications for street harassment; the telling and defending of rape jokes. These, all of these, come from a place of masculine privilege. And the perceived loss of that privilege. (snark) After all, it’s just not safe to tell a joke, anymore, or talk to a female colleague (/snark).
As I noted above, we can talk about particular incidents of sexual assault, but rape culture is a systemic problem. Gerald Walton notes that neither sexual assault nor rape is a problem of or for women—they are problems of and for men. They are caused by men; men can stop them. They are caused by a particular definition of masculinity and a particular set of behaviors, and men can change those. Or not accept them. We can talk about particular cases of men who do not accept toxic masculinity, but it remains a systemic problem—and one that needs to be addressed systemically and systematically.
As Jeremy Posadas argues, the very source and cause of rape culture is toxic masculinity. And that’s what needs to be addressed.
I’ve written about gun violence here before. Very few people do not recognize the connection between gun violence and masculinity. The list of shooters and mass shooters in the US in 2019 is entirely male, and entirely masculine. These men who hoard weapons, who threaten violence, and who carry out violence fear a loss of a “traditional” model of masculinity. And it is the “traditional” masculinity that feels most threatened by cultural and social changes.
But, of course, that masculinity is also intertwined with race. Those men who pull the triggers also feel threatened by racial and ethnic changes in society. They fear a loss of whiteness, they fear the loss of majority, and they fear the loss of supremacy. Masculinity is defined—as most things are—by what it is not. “Real men” are not women, not feminine; “real men” are not the racialized Other; “real men” will fight to keep it that way.
The common denominator here is masculinity. The way that we have constructed masculinity in the US (though that model is spreading throughout the world as a norm) is toxic. The traditionalists, those who want to go back to the “good old days,” claim that men, that masculine men, made the world what it is today. They argue that they conquered territory, that they brought “civilization” and democracy, that they brought enormous wealth to the US and the West. All of these things, however, occurred at enormous cost to Others, to those who were not like them.
The westward expansion in the US cost indigenous lives, it cost African and Asian lives, and it cost animal lives. All of them were consumed in the name of masculinity and virility and superiority. This version of masculinity has also cost those who were not seen as masculine—women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals. They all, each and every one (some more, some less), paid a price under this model of masculinity. It should be no surprise that the strongman dictators have been the worst perpetrators. It should be no surprise that they ARE currently the worst examples: Putin, Duterte, Trump. But they are really a symptom of the problem. They are the beneficiaries of a problem.
What’s the problem? It’s the masculinity, stupid.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of a book on feminist science fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.