Toxic Masculinity and the Art of Misdirection

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My latest article troubles common perceptions of “toxic masculinity,” originally published at The Good Men Project

Peak Toxic Masculinity

I have previously proposed that we have reached “peak toxic masculinity,” a state in which things described as “toxic masculinity” have proliferated to such a degree that the term becomes almost meaningless. At best, any original analytical value of the term is dulled through repetition, and diluted by being applied to too many situations. At worst, the charge of toxic masculinity is used as a method of virtue signaling that enables the claimant to feel good about themselves without having to take the trouble of looking at the bigger picture, let alone whether they have any personal responsibility for the situation they have conveniently framed as someone else’s fault.

By questioning the use of the term, I do not wish to suggest that masculinity—in its infinite variety—should go unchallenged. Clearly, masculinity—like femininity—has many problematic aspects when understood in a restrictive and regulatory manner. Rather, I want to provoke some reflection about what is actually happening when so many of the world’s problems are blamed on toxic masculinity. The best and worst examples provided above—over-use and finger-pointing—suggest a laziness of thought and a lack of self-awareness. But there is something more proactive going on here, perhaps even conspiratorial.

Misdirection

Trump provides an almost daily source of activities that are denounced as toxic masculinity. At the time of writing, media commentators are responding to Trump’s airstrikes on Syria. One article, Donald Trump Is the Personification of Toxic Masculinity claims, “Never has President Trump seemed more macho to his people than when he punched Bashar al-Assad in the face with a slew of Tomahawk missiles.” Given the ever-present discussion of Trump and masculinity, this appears a reasonable analysis. However, shortly before the airstrike, Hillary Clinton stated that she would, “take out” Syrian government-controlled airfields if she had the opportunity. Is it still toxic masculinity if the order comes from Clinton? Does Clinton get a pass because she is a woman who in the same breath as advocating death strikes reminds the world that, “certainly, misogyny played a role” in her election loss?

The focus on Trump’s toxic masculinity is an act of misdirection. Whose interests are being served by finding ultimate fault in masculinity? You might think this is about attacking Clinton, but she too is just a pawn in this game. By deliberating over Trump’s toxic masculinity, the real culprit operates in plain sight: the military industrial complex. Defense contractors must be delighted that when people think of Tomahawk missiles they think of toxic masculinity and not of Raytheon, the company that produces the missiles.

Something similar happens if we look at the phenomenon of the alt-right, allegedly made up of radicalized and misogynist young men. Certainly, the alt-right appears to be the embodiment of toxic masculinity. However, note the recent article, Lipstick Fascism: On Lana Lokteff, the Women of the Alt-right, and the Feminization of Fascism. Is it toxic masculinity when it is a woman seeking to “make patriarchy great again”?

Again, whose interests are being served by finding ultimate fault in masculinity? Again, the real culprit operates in plain sight: white supremacy. The alt-right female celebrity featured in the article—Lana Lokteff—unintentionally reveals the pliable pre-occupation of critics with masculinity: she suggests a right-wing female speaker, “doesn’t want to dominate anyone physically” (the expectation of toxic masculinity) and can therefore get away with “a lot more verbally.” In short, you can be even more unpleasant if you manipulate progressive critics’ fixation with toxic masculinity.

A Higher Order Problem

I have troubled toxic masculinity with the role of women not because it is especially important, but because it is easily understood. There are numerous complex variables at work here. The connections between these variables cannot always be easily understood, which is why it is tempting to retreat into simple conclusions, even if they do not do full justice to the truth.

So it is true that Donald Trump and the alt-right display a range of pathological masculine traits. It is also true that pathological masculine traits are not necessarily magically transformed into something else when displayed by women: internalized misogyny can be real, albeit not always explaining why women act in ways that are detrimental to both themselves and other women. It is therefore both useful and necessary to analyze the role that masculinity plays in society.

However, masculinity is not the bottom line. The pathological masculinity discussed here is but an agent of a higher order problem: the pursuit of power at the individual, cultural and geo-political level. When everything is blamed on toxic masculinity, attention is taken away from the real end game. Allowing power to misdirect attention towards toxic masculinity as the ultimate bogey man has the unfortunate effect of turning progressive critics into useful idiots.