Lately I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about toxic masculinity and its destructive effects on individual men, and by extrapolation on society in general.
But what is it?
Ask that question in a crowded room and it’s likely the answers would swing from one end of the spectrum to another while sticking to a central theme that something is definitely wrong with males and male culture — but here’s an interesting offering from somebody named Tyler Zimmer, writing in Slate:
“This is the double standard at the heart of masculinity: Men are taught to regularly say and do things to women that they would never say or do to other men, that they would never want men to say or do to them. That is not due to some timeless ‘male libido’ driving their behavior. It’s because masculinity is founded on the myth that men alone are rights-bearing persons and women are subordinate, passive, second-class beings who either need the protection of or deserve to be subjected to men.”
Here Zimmer assumes an odd willingness and unearned authority to speak on behalf of all men, which may stray a tad bit onto the presumptuous side. More importantly, I think what he’s actually talking about is a thing called bad manners, which isn’t exactly a new discovery, and I’m not sure that any of it has anything intrinsically to do with masculinity.
And also, he’s just dead wrong. He’s not only wildly exaggerating the contemporary state of masculinity – which is admittedly in weird shape – but he’s also ignorant or assuming facts not necessarily in evidence when he wanders into foundational myths of manhood.
To begin with, it is quite likely that without toxic masculinity the human species would never have survived at all, given the conditions faced by human beings over 6 million years of evolution. It seems likely that aggressive maleness was probably essential to survival and while civilization has tamped the frequency and lethality with which it must be employed – I am living proof of its continuing relevance after having once fought a parolee on Angel Dust for almost eleven minutes in an apartment complex parking lot.
At any rate, here’s another gem found in a column written for USA today — a terrible newspaper that nevertheless reaches seven million people every day. In it, Alia E. Dastigir opines that: “The stereotypical sense of masculinity is at war with everything we know about what it means to be human.”
That’s quite a burden to place on half of the population, even if it actually made any sense.
Elsewhere, toxic masculinity is “defined by adherence to traditional male gender roles that restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express, including social expectations that men seek to be dominant (the ‘alpha male’) and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger.”
Still elsewhere we find that toxic masculinity is at the root of mass shootings, random murders, virtually every sex crime, and also that there are numerous support groups for those diagnosed – raising the question of who is doing the diagnosing — with toxic masculinity. On campus, there are enthralling courses such as “Rethink Masculinity”, where young men can enroll to “unlearn” their inherent gender toxicity.
I don’t pretend to know where any of this thinking eventually leads, but the sudden phenomenon of cultural neutering probably shouldn’t come as any big surprise. As it stands, males of almost every domesticated species are routinely emasculated by a culture apparently living in mortal fear of actual maleness wherever it may, dare I say it – raise its ugly head.
There are good reasons for all of this ball-whacking in the realm of animal husbandry: male dogs can be very difficult to handle, bulls aren’t something to joke around with, and a stud horse can be a nasty animal indeed. But what I see in the toxic masculinity discussion is really more of an attempt to castrate male humans by way of a procedure on their minds rather than their gonads.
Of course, historically, it was always the gonads. There is a reason the Ottoman’s such as Tamerlane and Suleyman had eunuchs guarding their harems.
There is also, generally, in the toxic masculinity literature, an attempt to correlate maleness with the inevitable abuse of women. And one would think, based on Zimmer’s piece above, that there is some foundational myth at work that almost requires men to suppress their fears and desires only to fulfill those barbarous impulses with violence against females.
But there is some ancient historical evidence to the contrary. Here is the Roman Senator and historian Tacitus, writing about the toxic masculinity of the Germans of his day:
It stands on record that armies already wavering and on the point of collapse have been rallied by the women, pleading heroically with their men, thrusting forward their bared bosoms, and making them realize the imminent prospect of enslavement – a fate which the Germans fear more desperately for their women than for themselves. Indeed, you can secure a surer hold on these nations if you compel them to include among a consignment of hostages some girls of noble family. More than this, they believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and a gift of prophecy; and so they do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies. In the reign of the emperor Vespasian we saw Veleda long honoured by many Germans as a divinity; and even earlier they showed a similar reverence for Aurinia and a number of others – a reverence untainted by servile flattery or any pretense of turning women into goddesses.
In other words, the unsophisticated, crude, and superstitious warriors who came out of the forests on the other side of the Rhine wearing animal skins and pantaloons weren’t necessarily club-wielding sexist pigs, and it appears to an educated and successful man of the time that in fact they saw women as valuable, inspiring, fully contributing human beings.
They did not, apparently, feel the same way about Roman Legions in the neighborhood.
Another interesting aspect of all this toxicity nonsense is that we frequently find it wrapped up in a blanket of condescension and maternal concern for the welfare of men: “Men suffer the most” we are told, or: masculinity is “Damaging to men” and “For this, men pay a steep price.”
I wonder what the overall balance sheet looks like for having a stiff upper lip rather than behaving erratically in a crisis, for rubbing some dirt on a raspberry instead of wailing, or for modeling one of the more important lines ever delivered in film: “There ain’t no crying in baseball.”
The suggestion by many of the druids of cultural change is that the price is toxicity, and that it is eating away at our culture like rust on a steel bridge.
On my first deployment overseas with the Marine Corps there were females on the warship. This meant that when we were topside, PT-ing on the flight deck, we were prohibited from singing our normal cadences because they were apparently too warrior-like and would upset the fairer sex. Nevermind that we were sailing into a combat zone — cussing and UDT shorts were prohibited.
And yet one of the greater secrets the Navy keeps is the sheer number of female sailors who become pregnant on warships during a deployment and are subsequently sent home from foreign ports. In 2017 nearly 2800 of 34,000 female sailors became pregnant on naval shipping. Based on those numbers it would seem that all of that prohibited toxic masculinity, exuded by able seamen and Marines worldwide, still has some appeal — just don’t sing any dirty cadences while you’re screwing your shipmate down in aft-steering.
One of the reasons I love reading the ancients is that they are full of toxic masculinity of the very best kind. Heroism, warrior behavior, hard lessons learned while defending outdated notions like code, honor, responsibility to family and tribe. Which is why the story of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus always tickles my fancy.
It amuses and informs because, firstly, it reveals that Caesar was a commander of his troops who paid attention to detail and loved everything about toxic masculinity. The very fact that he knew of Pullo and Vorenus and recalls their story – granted, to enhance his own legend – is still important and remarkable. And anyway it is not hard for me to believe that he was loved by his legions with the same passion that James “Chaos” Mattis is today loved by his Marines – who are essentially modern legionnaires on the tippy end of the American spear.
Many of us may be somewhat familiar with the story of Pullo and Vorenus from HBO’s acclaimed mini-series Rome. In modern television they are invested with rich detail and back-stories – all invented for dramatic purposes, but what we actually know of them is very little beyond what Caesar mentions in his marvelous history The Conquest of Gaul. He writes lovingly of the toxic masculinity of Titus Pullo, and maybe we can stipulate that it really is a monument in time:
In the legion were two very brave centurions named Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, both of them nearly qualified for the first grade. They were always disputing which was the better soldier, and every year the competition for promotion set them quarrelling. When the fighting at the entrenchment was at its height, Pullo cried: ‘Why hesitate, Vorenus? What better opportunity do you want to prove your courage? Today shall decide between us.’ With these words he advanced outside the fortification and rushed into the thickest place he could see in the enemy’s line. This brought Vorenus too over the rampart, hastening after his rival for fear of what everyone would think if he lagged behind.
Pullo stopped a short way from the Gauls, hurled his spear and transfixed one of them who was running forward from the ranks. The man fainted from the wound, and his comrades covered him with their shields, at the same time showering missiles upon Pullo and preventing him from advancing further. His shield was pierced by a javelin, which stuck in his sword-belt; and as the blow knocked his scabbard out of place, he could not get his hand quickly to his sword when he tried to draw it, and was surrounded by the enemy while unable to defend himself.
His rival Vorenus ran up to rescue him in his distress, and all the Gauls immediately left Pullo, who they thought had been mortally wounded by the javelin, and turned upon Vorenus. Vorenus drew his sword and fighting hand to hand killed one of his assailants and drove the rest back a little; but pressing on too eagerly he stumbled down a steep slope and fell. It was now his turn to be surrounded, but Pullo came to his aid; both of them escaped unhurt and after killing a number of the enemy returned to camp covered with glory. Thus Fortune played with them in their struggle for preeminence: bitter rivals though they were, each helped and saved the other, so that it could not be decided which was the more deserving of the prize of valour.
Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, Book V, The Second Rebellion
Reading this passage also reminded me of another selfless act of toxic-masculinity, committed by US Army soldiers Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon. Like Pullo and Vorenus, they too rushed forward to help their comrades in peril.
Said Michael Durant, US Army Chief Warrant Officer, who likely survived only because of their actions:
“They didn’t seem alarmed by the situation that we were in. It was just focused on the task, doing what they needed to do to improve our situation, and get through it, get us rescued. Whatever it is they needed to do.”
There is little doubt than some men wield their masculine traits in ungentlemanly ways. These are men without code, without honor, and without manners. And they are very often, at the bottom of all that, cowards.
But there exists another kind of masculinity that is important for us to preserve. The kind that fights, fixes things, builds things, studies things, protects, earns, teaches, loves, and works diligently to know itself and to seek self-improvement.
My former colleague and good friend David Hedges, once a Centurion behind the shield and now a screenwriter in Hollywood, coined an excellent phrase. He called it “Bringing home the zebra.” The gist of it is that when faced with difficulties, men must lean on something within themselves and solve the problem. Fight it or fix it, just bring home the zebra because others are counting on it and a determined lion is a formidable thing.
Because men should be able to bring home some meat. And afterward they should be able to feast and tell the story of the hunt, or to read aloud from Beowulf and resurrect relevant lessons from the text of a 1200 year-old campfire story. And maybe, just maybe, young boys should be able to join the Boy Scouts without any little girls around to wreck it.