CW: mentions of violence, sexual assault, and suicide.
Gentlemen, we really need to talk. I know it often seems like we on the left (especially us feminists) give you a hard time for being male. I’ll admit that there is some justification for that perception. I’ll admit that sometimes you are treated unfairly and you are not given the proper amount of respect and charity that you deserve. However, there is also a basis for criticizing some of the ways masculinity is performed, and I want to show you how using my own personal experience with a thing we feminists often call toxic masculinity.
Before I do, it’s worth noting the adjective “toxic” and what we mean by it. An adjective, as you all know, is a word denoting an attribute placed before a noun in order to modify it. This means that masculinity and toxic masculinity are not the same thing. Yes, they share masculinity in common, but red velvet cake and chocolate cake are significantly different in ways that matter even though they are still both cake. So when we talk about toxic masculinity, we are not saying that masculinity as a whole is toxic, though I will acknowledge that some feminists do think that and even though I can understand why they think that, I certainly do not agree with them.
In order to illustrate what I mean by toxic masculinity as opposed to mere masculinity it is helpful to use the example of mass shooters, who are overwhelmingly male. When discussing the perpetrators of these heinous acts, many people will focus on traits such as mental health. It is more intuitive to think that mental health would play a causal role, but that still does not explain why these shooters are almost always male. Mental health is arguably just as much of an issue for women (if not more so since we often experience more trauma) as it is for men, yet women just aren’t shooting up public spaces to nearly the same degree. If mental health were really the main causal factor, it would stand to reason that women would also be engaging in this behavior, but that is not what we see. So why the focus on mental health if our intuitions can be so easily challenged upon further inspection?
When I witnessed the videos taken by the students being shot at by the Parkland shooter, I was immediately brought back to the moment I witnessed a man brutally shoot a woman in cold blood–especially when I saw the blurred images of bloody corpses on the classroom floors. I later made the following observations:
- We can have an extremely averse reaction (assuming we haven’t already become too numb) to seeing the carnage of wounded/dead bodies.
- We quickly try to frame mass shooters as psychotic, crazy or deranged.
But why? There is a common contributing factor for both (1) and (2), but let’s focus on (2) for now. Why focus on mental status rather than on other traits shooters tend to share in common like being male? It’s the same reason we are averse to gore and other things that remind us of unpleasant realities like death; it is the same reason why racism, xenophobia, nationalism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. are part of our reality; it’s why this kid thought shooting up a school was something worth doing: abjection.
Abjection can be defined as “the state of being cast off”. In psychoanalysis and critical theory, it’s how people primarily define themselves by creating boundaries between themselves and “the other”.
One of the most influential writers on this concept was Julia Kristeva. In her work Powers of Horror, she describes abjection as a kind of horror one feels when one is confronted with the reality of living in a body, or a breakdown in the distinction between subject and object, of self and other.
In other words, the abject is that which is “not me”. When we mature, we experience things we once considered part of ourselves be rejected. They are abjected from our sense of self or self concept. According to Kristeva, abjection is the disturbance of identity, systems, and order.
Now consider (1). The sight of the bloodied corpses stirs a horror within by forcing us to confront our mortality. Many of us reject, or resist, the idea that our bodies will all become inanimate corpses that will decay to dust. Thus, the corpse is the abject.
Now consider (2). Rather than focusing on the gender of the shooter, we focus on his mental status. Of course, mental health can, and often does, play a contributing role, but it is far more complicated than that. So much so that mental health is not found to play a significant role, yet we latch onto it anyway as an explanation because it makes it easy for us to abject, to define ourselves by what we are not. We look at Nikolas Cruz and in dealing with our horror, we say “that boy is deranged, he is insane, he is pyschotic, he is mentally ill, he is not me”.
Abjection in this case gets us off of the hook. It gets us a get-out of-jail-free card from examining how unhealthy expressions of masculinity and the presence and accessibility of guns, i.e., our values, norms and social systems, were factors.
Toxic masculinity, as I like to define it, is an unhealthy performance of masculinity that results through the abjection of primarily one thing: the feminine. Of course, any kind of masculinity is going to contrast itself against femininity, but toxic masculinity takes it quite a bit further than that. For example, emotionality is often associated with the feminine (as opposed to rationality which is often associated with the masculine), but a healthy masculinity does give room to emotion and emotional expression while toxic masculinity represses it. There are other things about the feminine that toxic masculinity goes further out of its way to reject, but emotional repression is its most toxic part.
To see how, I want to focus now on myself and my own performance of toxic masculinity as a transgender woman. Growing up, I learned very quickly that the feminine was forbidden, that crying was a sign of weakness I better learn to stop doing and that in order to be respected, I had to project toughness. My friends today say that I am what’s called a “high femme”–an especially feminine person–who doesn’t have a masculine bone in her body. However, I was relatively successful (or at least successful enough to convince myself and others that I was more masculine and less feminine than I actually was) performing masculinity when I was younger. Of course, “successful” is a relative term.
My performance of masculinity made me an emotional zombie. The only kind of emotions I could express (“safely” or otherwise) were related to anger and aggression. This almost killed me. I became extremely depressed and anxious. I was socially isolated and I had a tenuous connection with reality. It was as if I were hopelessly alone in a world that wasn’t real.
As feminine as I was, I still engaged in toxic behaviors. I talked about other women in distasteful and disrespectful ways, I felt a sense of entitlement to other people’s time and energy, and I was resentful of other people’s apparent success and happiness. In other words, I was a bit of a dick.
This all affected me so negatively that I became very suicidal several times in my life–I just couldn’t take it anymore. One of these periods of my life occurred around the time I was in El Salvador serving a church mission. It happened in a very poor, rural town as the sun was setting. I was purchasing water from a vendor when I heard what sounded like the firecrackers the local kids played with, but this felt different. These noises were louder, and immediately after the first four cracks, I heard screaming and then I saw people running.
I turned around and visually witnessed the final two cracks of the fire-spit bullets directed at a young woman. The shooter was a young man who couldn’t be any older than I was (which was 20 years old at the time). I saw him, I saw her body lying in a pool of blood, and I froze. It was as if it wasn’t actually happening; that I was watching it as if it were a movie–an experience that was a magnification of my typical experience. I didn’t process it for a while, but once I started to, I began to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it made my struggle with anxiety and depression much more difficult.
I eventually got help for my PTSD and the experience barely affects me these days, though the Parkland shooting did take me back. I mention this experience because it is a demonstration of how toxic masculinity almost killed me both as a subject and as an object of said masculinity.
Since transitioning, I have embraced my femininity and have made a lot of progress in overcoming the damage that I suffered before, though I still have some work to do. Now, as a trans woman, rather than worrying about my own performance, I feel that I need to worry about the performance of (straight) men. For example, as a bisexual person, I am attracted to both men and women. I would like to date men, but I don’t because I don’t feel safe enough.
Of course, I could be overestimating the risks involved, but I know that because of abjection, straight men have an especially hard time with the notion of dating a trans woman. Yes, there are good straight men who are perfectly comfortable with dating a trans woman. However, what I and other trans women have to worry about is something called trans panic.
Because of toxic masculinity and its abjection of the feminine, straight men when confronted with the notion of being attracted to and/or dating a trans woman often fear the implications (e.g., they worry that it might mean that they are gay or that their friends will think they are gay), a disturbance in their identity, which leads them to feel horror manifested as shame and disgust. This shame and disgust, these “powers of horror”, are what get us beaten, raped and (often brutally) murdered.
I believe toxic masculinity definitely plays a significant role, especially when coupled with the prevalence and accessibility of guns, in many of these shootings. It leads many men and boys to engage in unhealthy, sometimes violent, behaviors resulting from the fact that they never learned productive, healthy ways to manage their emotions.
It is instructive to note that a lot of these shooters have a prior history of this kind of behavior. For example, there is evidence suggesting that Cruz was abusive to women, as is often the case with many of these perpetrators. Women are also especially more prone to being murdered by their partners, and are five times more likely to be murdered when their partner owns a gun.
However, I am optimistic that these toxically masculine men are becoming less common as men are now more than ever given permission to accept their feminine sides and accept that their performance of masculinity can permit emotionality. Don’t get me wrong, I do acknowledge that there are already plenty of examples of healthy masculinity out there, it’s just that I have reason to believe that their numbers can and are growing, and as a result, I think I can start to feel a bit safer.