150 years of Toxic Masculinity in the Arts

Angelica Jade Bastién, writing in the Atlantic, has an article, Hollywood has Ruined Method Acting. In it, she describes how some male Hollywood actors have undertaken extreme preparations for their roles. She notes women actors doing the same would be labelled high maintenance and have their careers suffer. Indeed, it’s considered risky for women to make any change to their appearance that does not increase how ‘conventionally’ attractive they are.

Two things strike me about this article. One is how these extreme methods to increase ‘art’ are often applied to films that hardly seem worth the effort. Jared Leto engaged in anti-social behaviour over a Batman spin-off. I know we’re at a high point of pop culture, etc, but summer Batman movies are not usually considered the kind of high art in which ones needs be a master of the craft. It’s a silly franchise with some very silly films and, lately, some extremely mediocre films.

Much like Leto’s latest film is a boring retread, so is this entire discourse. Undertaking hollowly desperate manoeuvres to reflect masculinity to a supposedly effeminate art is, alas, not forging new ground. I’m reminded of 19th Century composer Charles Ives’s horror of being considered anything other than hyper-masculine. Indeed, Ives, despite being a composer, viewed all of music with deep suspicion. When people asked him what he played, he would tell them ‘baseball’.

Ives learned music from his father and, like his father, played church organ. Somehow, this literal patriarchy was not enough for Ives, who sought desperately to distance himself from composers and listeners he felt to be beneath him. This, unsurprisingly, included women, men he felt were effeminate, and people of other races. None of these people performed masculinity as well as Ives, or so he asserted.

Ives imagined a delicate listener, unable to deal with the sheer virility of Ives’s chords. This imaginary audience member was named Rollo. Ives frequently mocked Rollo, demolishing this strawman at every opportunity. Rollo was responsible for Ives’s struggling music career for years, until a younger generation of composers discovered and championed Ives’s work

Composers such as Henry Cowell, who wrote Ives’s biography, and Lou Harrison, who edited Ives’s work for publication, pushed to get Ives’s work more well known. (Unlike Leto, Ives really was a master of his craft. His work was worth listening to.) Both of these younger composers worked closely with Ives on their project of getting his music out.

Cowell wrote approvingly of Ives’s attacks on Rollo, treating it as a family joke. His recounting is affectionate and warm. Of course it’s humorous to hate the inadequately masculine, he affirmed. He wrote the book before he got caught cruising and sent to prison. Ives and Cowell were on less good terms after Cowell went to San Quentin for homosexual acts. Harrison, too, was gay, although luckier than Cowell.

It was (and is) normal for people in the closet to laugh off jokes about themselves and participate in hatred against them. And these wasn’t much of a chance to be out of the closet at the time.

In addition to the inadequately masculine men, there were, of course, women who were not just listeners but composers. Ives’s assertions that some chords were masculine successfully gained traction. So that, in the early 20th Century, when Ruth Crawford Seeger received critical praise for her work, they wrote that she could ‘sling dissonances like a man’. Seeger understood this as praise and took it as such (and also had the support of Henry Cowell), but still stopped composing within a few years to work on folk music instead.

How much pain have people like Ives been able to cause people like Cowell, Harrison and Seeger, all for the sake of their insecurity? Were he alive now, instead of ‘Rollo’, Ives would certainly attack ‘PC Culture’ in his quest to make music great again. Ives and Leto both use toxic masculinity to boost their self esteem or their careers or both. Acting like a dickhead for publicity is nothing new. Toxic masculinity has always been, and remains, corrosive and succesful.