A few weeks ago on my birthday, after watching Godzilla with a friend, downing a few drinks and engaging in critique of the movie’s gender politics, discussion turned to the assumptions underlying, or inferred by, a number of terms. Specifically we discussed the terms “real men”, “toxic masculinity” and “hyper-masculinity” (all while my friend’s copy of “Demonic Males” slowly emerged from her handbag). First, I’ll briefly address the “Real Men Do/Don’t…” meme that’s recently been going around.
Don’t get me wrong, “buying girls” is shitty behaviour of a high order, and should be strongly campaigned against even if only because people are not objects to be bought or sold. View just technically, before suffering gets taken into consideration, this is a compelling justice concern.
My objection isn’t with this side of the equation at all, rather my problem comes from the part that ascribes the relevant agency to “real men”. What the fuck is a “real man”? (That’s a rhetorical question).
Others have made critiques on the basis of the inferences the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign makes about gender roles, and they are critiques that I generally agree with, however I’ll be addressing another problem.
It’s pretty obvious that most people using the term “real men” aren’t arguing that the concept of “men” is more than just a useful fiction in the philosophical sense, nor, obviously, are they arguing that men who buy girls don’t have existence. What they are implying, if not plainly stating, is that objectively “this (not buying girls) is an essential criteria for being a man”.
This is more or less true for all the other instances of the “real men” meme. You can perform a Google image search to find that other essential criteria of “Man” are argued to be the ability to grow their own scarves, to be able to shave with chainsaws, to abstain from quiche, and other such nonsense. Adelaide band The Beards, performs a line in pseudo-ironic, hipster sexism along much the same lines…
Because it’s original and edgy, because sexism hasn’t been around since… the dawn of history… (3:49)
You can see how this kind of terminology is a problem with only a little thought experimentation.
Say you have before you, an adult randomly selected from the population of people who have been arrested, charged and sentenced for buying one or more girls. Picture them in your mind. Is it conceivably possible that their sex is “male”? Is it conceivably possible that they self-identify, gender-wise, as a man?
If it’s even logically possible for the answer to these questions to be “yes” (and it’s pretty obvious that this is highly likely to be the case in the “real world”), then we have problems when it comes to the wording of the campaign in question. The statement “real men don’t buy girls” is in contradiction with the evidence presented by these scenarios; here you have men who buy girls.
Either we are in error about the offender’s gender and sex, or we are wrong in assigning certain characteristics to the class “Men”; i.e. either “real men” do on occasion, buy girls, beat wives, and so on and so forth, or they don’t, and the people who do these things are… who or what exactly? If they aren’t Men, then what are they?
More importantly, how do you decide, in a non-arbitrary manner, what constitutes an essential gender criteria, or do you instead, like some folk, avoid trying to objectively define other people’s gender all-together?
Speaking practically, this issue can be side-stepped if different rhetoric is chosen by the people designing these campaigns… “Men who buy girls should be policed more aggressively” or “children should not have to live with the threat of being bought by men”, for example.
The fact that all this mess can be side-stepped with so little effort on the part of campaigners, all without compromising on the message of the campaign, means that there’s really no excuse for getting it wrong.
Admittedly, not all men may find this language comforting, unequivocal as it is about the acts of particularly rotten men. But I’m not in the business of consolations. If you want that, I’m sure Alain de Botton probably has a bromide of one sort or another to sell you.
(Now if at this point, you’re complaining that this is all just an exercise in semantics, it’s possibly because you’re bigot, or at the very least, the kind of person who doesn’t like to consider the consequences of what they communicate to the world around them. Why you’d even be reading this post in the first place then, is a bit of a mystery.)
The problems associated with essentialism and gender don’t stop there though. Earlier, I mentioned the “Real Men Grow Their Own Scarves” iteration of the meme.
Taken only a little bit seriously, this is clearly ridiculous. Are you really going to suggest, that because someone cannot grow a beard sufficient to function as a scarf, that this, and this alone, disqualifies them from being a man?
No, you wouldn’t? Perhaps it’s just a harmless joke, right?
Allow me to extend this further with another small thought experiment.
You encounter someone who identifies as a trans-gendered male, who may or may not have been designated the sex of female at birth, and they are unable or unwilling to grow a beard sufficient, by your standards, to act as a scarf. Are you going to acknowledge and treat them as a man?
If your answer is “no”, you’re a transphobe. Congratulations.
Of course, being precisely this kind of asshole to transgendered folk isn’t the worst kind of bigotry they are subjected to, and somewhat less so is naively enjoying Internet memes about “real men” and beards. However, you’d be hard pressed to find an instance of harsher forms of transphobia that aren’t also based on gender essentialism, whether that essentialism takes the form of tropes about “real men” or “real women”, or not.
By using the language and logic of gender essentialism, the “Real Men don’t buy girls” campaign feeds into transphobia. Indirectly, perhaps, but almost inevitably once the logic and language of essentialism takes a hold of the way we talk about gender.
This brings us back to the matter of “toxic” and “ultra” masculinity.
Given events like the recent Isla Vista shootings, back to the less-recent serial killings of the Hillside Stranglers, or the all-too-familiar skews in statistics like those for domestic violence, and all the chest-beating, pigeon-strutting, violence-signalling, late-night-posturing bullshit that goes along with it, it’s hard not to view the terms “toxic masculinity” and “ultra-masculinity” as pointing to substantive cultural phenomena. And without entirely discounting the role of the biological, I don’t have any great problem in acknowledging that these phenomena exist as cultural phenomena, and that they, as cultural phenomena, present obviously serious social problems.
However, both of these terms do more than just point to the phenomena they are primarily intended to. They carry other inferences, and baggage, in much the way “real men” conveys more than anti-child-exploitation campaigners may intend.
The concept of toxicity is one where something specific, at a certain level or concentration, becomes harmful – what then, about masculinity, is specifically the part that becomes toxic?
Similarly, “ultra-masculinity” implies the ability to measure a quality, or qualities of masculinity, such that their exaggeration can be noticed above and beyond “normal” levels. What exactly are these qualities, and what makes them a part of masculinity, such that masculinity in general, necessarily infers them? Or put more succinctly, why are these qualities essential to masculinity?
“Toxic” and “ultra” masculinity don’t come out and say it, quite as much as does “real men”, but gender essentialism is implied by the choice of words.
If you’re not a person who has a problem with gender essentialism, the problems posed by its logic, or the consequences of its ideological offshoots, then you’re obviously not going to have a problem with these terms. Again, one wonders why such a person would even be reading this.
And I guess that in addition to this, if you’re also feminist, that having these words in your lexicon still isn’t going to be an issue. In this matter at least, you perhaps count yourself as being ideologically in the company of the likes of Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer. It’s not my place to tell you who or with what ideas you must affiliate, but I can make observations.
I’m not asserting that the phenomena that “toxic” and “ultra” masculinity point to entail gender essentialism, but rather that through baggage and inference, the language does. If you’re the kind of person who seeks to avoid gender essentialism (i.e. not a “TERF”), while criticising misogynistic culture, then I think you’d possibly be the kind of person who’d want to keep the concepts, but ditch the language.
Examples of how the rhetoric of “toxic masculinity” could contribute to transphobia don’t immediately come to mind, but the logic would seem to leave it open to such a possibility. The idea of “ultra masculinity” on the other hand, through the simple idea of men being able to be more objectively belonging to the class “Men” than others, present obvious exclusionary potential I don’t even want to speculate about.
(It shouldn’t need pointing out that the logic in all of this sets a precedent for/necessarily implies essentialism along the lines of “toxic” and “ultra” femininity, and “real women”, with all the potential for re-enforcement of archaic gender roles and trans-misogyny that comes with it).
Stated outright, “toxic” and “ultra” masculinity, like “real men”, despite what people’s intentions may be, are still rooted to varying extents in patriarchal language*. How much of a problem you take this to be is up to you, but for my part, I’m not ambivalent about it.
As of yet, I don’t really have a handle on any neologisms that could act as substitutes for “toxic” or “ultra” masculinity that wouldn’t also generate a good deal of fruitless confusion. I’m stuck with expending extra words each time I want to talk about “harmful interpretations of masculinity” or “patriarchal culture” or “misogynistic ideations” or “rape culture”.
Usually this entails just being clear, at length, about the matter at hand, but the loss of useful-if-problematic terminology isn’t something to be overlooked either; conversations can get bogged down or driven into rhetorical side-alleys without specific technical language. The word-smithing continues.
* Patriarchies, and patriarchal cultures, being essentialist themselves.