Masculinity – Healthy and Toxic: Our Society’s Challenge

After last week’s mass shootings, people have been busy pointing fingers, and “white supremacy” has become a point of contention. We’re even hearing that the far right is attempting to co-opt the term as a badge of honor, the way they did with the label, “deplorables.” But a thoughtful essay in the New York Times by Julie Bosman, Kate Taylor, and Tim Arango draws a different line to connect the dots: hatred toward women. And, I would argue that the underlying factor that connects misogynistic acts of violence and those fueled by racist or white supremacist rage lies in our society’s flawed conception of what it means to be a man. And that’s why blaming these acts on “mental illness” is not only a grave disservice to those who contend with actual mental health problems, but also fails to acknowledge the truth that violence is baked into our society as part of our constructs of gender and masculinity.

90 years ago, Alfred Adler wrote about “…the arch evil of our culture, the excessive pre-eminence of manliness.” His concept of  “masculine protest” is usually taught in introductory psychology courses as something that women “had” when they expressed their dissatisfaction with the ways women are treated in society. But Adler’s ideas about masculine protest also included the idea that men are influenced by our culture’s distorted values about what it means to be a man, and that many men who feel inadequate about themselves equate masculinity with power, domination, and control. And, like children, when their desire for power is frustrated, a few of them seek revenge.

And society reinforces this. “Pussy-grabbing,” chortling about “liberal tears,” “send them back,” “ Shoot them,” “invasion,” “ infestation,” and most of the other current memes that define our news cycles all include expressions of power, control, violence, and identity supremacy centered around a core of twisted masculinity. 

Even the term “toxic masculinity” has been twisted by those on the far right to mean that liberals hate everything about masculinity. Well, some do (I would cite the Australian sociologist R. W. Connell, whose book “Masculinities” cited the above quote from Adler). But in a larger sense, criticizing the toxic elements of our society’s image of masculinity means questioning many of our own core assumptions. It’s like the saying, “check your privilege.”

It’s no coincidence that people who want to get Trump’s goat use language like “baby,” “little boy,” and “loser” about him. And he takes the bait. As Ashley Parker from the Washington Post put it, “when you’re a counter-puncher, there’s never a good time NOT to go on the offensive.” Even when that’s an appearance intended to comfort victims of our most recent mass shooting tragedy, which instead devolves into bragging about the size of his crowds and insulting his critics.

And make no mistake, our ongoing stew about guns and the Second Amendment, stripped of its legalistic and “hatriotic” language, is a fight about masculinity. An AR-15 or an AK-47 is a great metaphor for masculinity, and most people instinctively get that.  (But so is a 98-story glass and steel ego-stroking shaft, that Chicago residents are forced to see wherever in the downtown area they happen to be.)

And don’t be fooled by the “NRA Women” memes and videos. Look at the images … they conjure up, more than anything else, a sort of “Playmate/softcore dominatrix” vibe. A strange and disturbing sort of sexuality permeates the female faces of the NRA, even when they are implying that their political opponents should be “taken out.” Even their most visible female face often appears in tight leather clothing.

This week’s news about Jeffrey Epstein also underscores the evil side of toxic masculinity. Epstein shared a grim characteristic with many mass shooters: he apparently found death the only way out of the corner into which his twisted masculine convictions about power, control, and self-aggrandizement had painted him. When they cannot get what they want, these men opt to “go out in a blaze of glory.”

As Dr. Bernard Shulman used to say, the desire for significance, when turned into a desire for power and superiority, can be stronger than the desire for physical survival.

“The arch evil of our culture, the excessive pre-eminence of manliness.” -Alfred Adler

“Happiness is a warm gun.” -John Lennon

CC BY-ND 4.0 Masculinity – Healthy and Toxic: Our Society’s Challenge by Fitzgerald Counseling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.