But What About the Men?

A response to the most recent Contrapoints video.

The Crisis of White Masculinity

There’s a joke among historians that masculinity is constantly in crisis. Indeed, this has certainly been true my entire adult life. This has been attributed during that time to changing gender roles, changing economic models, automation, the emergence of digital, gaming and lately it’s the fault of trans people. The crisis doesn’t change, and, on some underlying level, neither do the causes – it’s always caused by change and gains in power from people who aren’t men. When Hildegard of Bingen wrote about the crisis of masculinity in the twelveth century, she bemoaned that her time had become “womanish” (1178), effectively blaming shifting gender roles. Fortunately, in seeking to correct this, she chose not to lead by example.

While I wish to affirm that masculinity does have aspects that are valuable, there are many ways in which it works as an expression of power. These facets of masculinity resemble a much newer idea – whiteness, which it also interacts with. Whiteness (and race in general), was a necessary by-product of slavery and colonial expansion. If some people were marked from birth to be slaves, this necessitated the creation of distinct classes of people – those who could be subject to property confiscation and ceaseless violence and those who were authorised to inflict violence. If slaves were black, then their brutalisers must be something else, which could not be simply thought of as non-black. The enslavers were the ones doing the othering, so needed their own identity to other against. Thus whiteness was born.

Some aspects of masculinity also rely on a constant process of othering and a continual assertion of power. Any changing circumstance has the risk of reducing that assertion of power. However, change is inescapable. Therefore masculinity is constantly in crisis. Specifically, the supremacist aspects of masculinity are in crisis. A masculinity that is not seeking to dominate is much less fragile and much less toxic to the person who chooses to embody it.

Alienation and Right Wing Recruitment

The right wing has found fertile recruiting ground among young men who are hurt and alienated by the toxic masculinity that permeates our culture. Aimless young men, searching for meaning, have been radicalised. While this is largely the fault of social media corporations broadcasting far right recruiting points, the left has sometimes lacked an accessible and equally compelling counter-narrative.

An anonymous writer in The Washingtonian described how her thirteen year old son joined the alt-right. He had been into meme culture and had mentioned an edgy meme to a friend at school. A girl who overheard him reported him for sexual harassment. Unfortunately, the school chose an entirely punitive response to this. He was socially isolated, alienated and depressed. He found the alt-right online. They told him he was ok and hadn’t done anything wrong. They treated him as if his ideas were worthwhile and they offered him leadership opportunities. What de-radicalised him in the end was meeting them in person at a right wing rally, in which he also saw a counter-protesting man, who his mother praised as brave. (Anon 2019) Thus a positive model of masculinity, which included real-life action in the face of risk, was able to supplant months of indoctrination into the far right.

Masculinity is often defined through struggle. Liberalism does not offer this, but instead has only capitalist alienation. Fascism, by contrast, offers an avenue to be constantly heroic. (Eco 1995) The left offers a better world for everyone, but is less immediately clear on what the role of these young men would be. While it identifies toxic masculinity as problematic, there is sometimes a lack of a positive counter example. What does positive masculinity look like? Who are good roll models? Mass media keeps making stories about toxic men who become only more toxic, making compelling anti-heroes. Stories about redemption have fallen out of fashion, but these are what we seem to need. Star Trek: Discovery, for example, does offer these character arcs for Ash Taylor and Spock (Fuller, 2017-), but this also relies on them belonging to a pseudo-military as a means of finding fellowship and working for the greater good. Crucially, these characters struggle against themselves as a necessary part of their struggle on behalf of their comrades.

Positive Masculinity and the Left

The heroism of fascism is ultimately empty. It is not based on achievement or self-improvement, but rather on othering. One can be a hero not because one has accomplished anything, but because of accidents of birth. This is papers over alienation, but does not fill the void. De-radicalising those in the far right is therefore possible and necessary, but it requires the left to offer something fulfilling to cis white young men. This is tactical and must never replace the goal of liberation for all, but it cannot be neglected.

Some on the far left have been successful in recruiting disaffected young men, from those who are alienated and previously apolitical and also sometimes those who have previously been members of the far right. This is valuable, but without a means to de-alienation, the strategy is risky. Some of those recruits are not ideologically grounded. People who are attracted to what they perceive as extremism are often searching for a means to be heroic. Umberto Eco identifies heroism as a key feature of Ur-Fascism (1995). Those seeking a heroism as an end unto itself will tend to eventually (re)join the far right. Historical fascist figures, such as Mosley, have veered wildly from right to left before settling on the far right (Wikipedia 2019) as the more self-glorifying path. Leftist groups must be aware of these risks and take steps to counter them, by grounding new members ideologically and offering them positive ways to enact and embody inescapable aspects of their identities. It’s not enough to offer them membership and fellowship in an organisation. There needs to be included a path to self-improvement and some positive access to struggle against oneself instead of only against an other. Solidarity is key. Reading and discussion groups can help provide this grounding.

The far right allows struggle in physical terms (bro, do you lift?), but their neglect of the intellect seems unfulfilling. We must be careful not to replicate this lack. The good news is that left groups ultimately offer more to alienated people. Anti-fascism allows physical heroism and real-life social bonds, but is also tied to an opportunity for intellectual improvement, solidarity, direction and leadership for all alienated people. The role of cis white men in these spaces should not be centralised, but also it should be clear that all comrades are welcome on an equal footing. Recruitment aimed at alienated cis white men, unfortunately, does require some extra work as they have been heavily indoctrinated against solidarity – it is up to white men to do this work.

Works Cited

Anonymous, 2019. What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right. The Washingtonian [Online] https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/05/05/what-happened-after-my-13-year-old-son-joined-the-alt-right/ [Accessed 5 September 2019]

Bingen, H to the prelates of Mainz. 1178. in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, vol. 1 tr. J.L Baird, R.K. Ehrmann (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994) [Online] http://www.ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/@texts2/1170_hildegard/05_hild-lets.htm [Accessed 5 September 2019 ]

Eco, U., 1995. Ur-fascism. The New York Review of Books, 42(11), pp.12-15. [Online] http://pegc.us/archive/Articles/eco_ur-fascism.pdf [Accessed 5 September 2019 ]

Fuller, B., (Executive Producer). 2017-. Star Trek: Discovery [Television Series] New York, USA: CBS All-Access.

Wikipedia contributors, 2019. Oswald Mosley. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. [Online] https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oswald_Mosley&oldid=913995576 [Accessed 5 Sep. 2019.]


What is masculinity actually meant to be though? I think we have done some good work (which must continue!,) to gain understanding of what it should NOT be… but what SHOULD it be? Any opinions? (preferably from men/masc people, non-men welcome too). Asking As A Men.


My answer for this necessarily rests primarily on my own lived experience,as I’ve done little reading about masculinity. However, my experience has been unusual and instructive.

Binary Oppositions

The problem with looking for positives about masculinity is that exists within a power structure designed to promote it and men and the expense of femininity and women. This makes the question immediately fraught and difficult. Furthermore, cis hetero patriarchy is prescriptive (as opposed to descriptive) and imposes a very simple model of masculinity and gender. In the most basic form of this model, masculinity and femininity are a binary opposition inherently tied to physical sex. Hélène Cixous writes that all binary oppositions map on to this binary opposition – good vs bad, sun vs moon and so forth. Power, strength and goodness map on to the male half. Evil and weakness map on to the female half. (1997)

Some more progressive notions of gender attempt to detoxify this model by decoupling sex and gender and expanding it from a binary opposition to a one dimensional spectrum. However, this expanded model still has a notion of binary opposition embedded within it – if something is closer to the masculine end of the spectrum, it’s further from the feminine end. Thus any positives about masculinity are inherently sexist, as they imply deficits of femininity. Some take this to mean that gender itself is toxic and should be abolished.

Where do we go from here?

Firstly, we can say that eliminating gender is not a good or reasonable goal. It’s not a coincidence that this goal has been weaponised against trans people as we are those who most conspicuously align ourselves with gender categories. This aside, gender is a human universal. The specific expression of gender vary widely by culture, but there are no cultures I know that have no concept of gender. People, cis and trans, seem to seek out gender expression and perform it. Most people like having gender. What they don’t like is oppression.

It does show that talking about cis people illuminates very little about gender – they don’t know much about it and their experience is too limited and inappropriately universalised to draw conclusions from. By looking at trans and gender nonconforming people, we can learn much more about what gender is and isn’t.

People do not transition with the goal of shifting within a power hierarchy. Some people experience dysphoria related to social aspects of gender. Both these things show that gender is extremely important to people and that it has meaning outside of power relationships. Given this, how do we talk about masculinity decoupled from that power relationship?

Gender is not a binary

Non-binary gender identities show that the one dimensional model is too simplistic. While it might be tempting to say that they’re simply between masculine and feminine poles, this does not seem to reflect their experience or presentation. Some people have a lot of gender – masculine and feminine, for example bearded ladies in frilly dresses. Some people seem to have much less gender, for example people who identify as agender. Instead of seeing masculine and feminine as opposite poles, one can see them as distinct but related concepts. A two dimensional graph with a masculine axis and a feminine axis would be a somewhat less inaccurate model.

Therefore, masculinity is not the absence of femininity (or vice versa). But if it is not this and it is not (just) a power relationship, what is it? Looking for a universal answer immediately runs into the stumbling block of extremely divergent cultural encodings, which also vary over time. The current dominant mode of masculinity in the west posits masculinity as inherent authentic, unadorned and related to labour. But one only needs to look at portraits of French kings to see that the very opposite was once true. In those portraits, fills, leggings and leisure were signifiers of masculinity.


We’ve previously rejected embodiment as the basis of masculinity as this would seem to exclude trans and gender non-conforming people. But one of the examples I chose contained embodiment in terms of a beard. To pick apart this further – the decoupling of gender and sex is a relatively recent development, which has lead to extremely unhelpful educational aids like the ‘genderbread person’. (Gonzáles, Prell, Schwartz n.d.) (Killermann 2015) Treating sex and gender as entirely distinct is widely understood to be a form of allyship with trans people, but the problem is that it tends to lead to discussion of trans genitals. Rather than fall into this trap while trying to deconstruct it, I’ll just quote a trans woman on twitter who posted “sex is just gender with a doctor’s note.” (Anon n.d.)

While trans people certainly know a lot more about gender than cis people, the systems were created by and for cis people, so some talk about cis embodiment may be necessary. Which is to say that masculinity is not cock and balls, but is related to them.

In penetrative sex, a person with a penis enters triumphant, but exits deflated. A certain amount of identity seems to surround one’s cock, but one has almost no control over it.

Cis hetero masculinity is a struggle towards inevitable defeat.


A defining notion of masculinity in my culture is struggle. One struggles against oneself, against society and against other men for social rank. This last one is generally toxic, but the others need not be. Furthermore, defeat is inevitable. One is never fully in control of anything, least of all oneself. Where masculinity becomes toxic or good I think may partially lie in how it copes with both defeat and victory.

One can have grace and humility or one can have terrified bravado. Good masculinity seeks self-improvement. (Recall that we’ve taken away the binary opposition and presences in masculinity are not absences in femininity.) Toxic masculinity seems to stem from fear of being unworthy. This leads to futile attempts to suppress parts of oneself and to inflate one’s perceived rank through unearned means, such as systemic power relationships.

Embedding masculinity within struggle tends to be compelling to people seeking direction. While I find this satisfying, it’s possible I’ve overly universalised my own experience. Masculinity has been a struggle for me, in that I’m not cis. It’s been a long challenge to be able to claim this space. I therefore believe that this was a worthwhile thing to do. Not just because it was hard, but because I felt compelled to do it. The result is that I’m a happier, kinder and more productive member of society. Therefore, from my own experience, I feel there must be something positive here. I fought for this, so it must be worth having.

The rise of fascism

Alas, the spectre of binary opposition always looms over discussions of gender, making them potentially harmful towards women and feminine people, however, it’s important to continue to have these discussions, while simultaneously rejecting the notion of prescriptive binary. If there are no positive discussions of masculinity, there will be only negative ones. There are a lot of young men searching for meaning and we can’t leave the conversation to Jordan Peterson.

Masculinity itself is morally neutral, but easy to weaponise. It’s important to speak about the positive factors and potential within masculinity without a binary opposition and without denigrating femininity. Genders are socially constructed, but, unlike other constructions, like, say, money, we can’t point at a time before they existed. Indeed, efforts to get rid of gender have not been emancipatory, but have been attacks on people with less gender privilege. With this in mind, discussing theoretical and practical aspects of masculinity in a public way is a necessity. It’s trite to say that young men need role models, but it’s nevertheless true. If we try to tell them that masculinity is shameful, this is a disservice to both young men and trans men.

Narratives about anti-heroes are extremely popular right now. These characters are made sympathetic in the telling, to make them compelling characters. Unfortunately, some take this to mean they should also be role models. If examples of toxic masculinity are ubiquitous and positive masculinity is taboo on the left, we are at a dangerous disadvantage.

Works Cited

Anon. (n.d.) I tried to find this but couldn’t.

Cixous, H. (1997). Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays. DOI:10.1007/978-1-349-25621-1_8

Gonzáles, C; Prell, V; Schwartz, J. (n.d.) The genderbread person. [Referenced by https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/the-genderbread-person/ ] [Accessed 3 September 2019]

Killermann, S. (2015). The genderbread person v3. It’s pronounced metrosexual. [Web] https://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/ [Accessed 3 December 2019] This content is plagiarised, but the original is not easily available.

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.