Yesterday, while the news was full of Stephen Paddock’s shooting rampage in Las Vegas, I picked up a copy of the 2017 Boots Christmas catalogue. I’d hoped for some brief immersion in premature festive schmaltz. Instead I got the usual reminder that gender is everywhere.
The back cover featured an advert for Christian Dior’s “Sauvage”, a fragrance for men who consider themselves “wild at heart”. And who better to promote such untamed masculinity than Johnny Depp, the actor whose manly lack of restraint is exemplified in accusations of assault made by ex-partner Amber Heard?
One can of course argue that this is just an unfortunate coincidence. Dior chose Depp for the campaign in 2015, before Heard’s accusations were made public. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely they’d have found themselves in the embarrassing situation of having a potential wife-beater fronting a campaign for “J’adore” or “Dolce Vita”.
Fragrances for men have masculine names, which is handy since masculinity is associated with aggression. When “being bad” is what makes you a real man for the purposes of a photoshoot, why should we be surprised when the same applies in real life?
Which brings us back to the latest instalment of white men and their killing sprees. There are many who will be eager blame the actions of Stephen Paddock on lax gun control, racist entitlement and masculinity. I’m inclined to agree with them. So far this year there have been over 270 mass shootings in the US. White men have committed more mass shootings than any other group.
That these shooters are male is not insignificant. The only thing I’d question is whether we should be worrying about the toxicity levels of their masculinity.
“Toxic masculinity” is a phrase we hear a lot in relation to male violence. It implies there is a non-toxic, healthy alternative. It creates a distinction between the wild man posturing of a perfume advert and the wildness of a fist in the face, suggesting there is no necessary connection between the two.
That the problem might just be masculinity, plain and simple, is not something we’re eager to countenance. While we might be prepared to apply a little structural analysis to the situation – yes, there is something about men and the way they are conditioned that leads us to this place – we’re unwilling to draw any final conclusions. Masculinity doesn’t kill people; it’s those mysterious toxins that are to blame.
When good people cling on to a value system that is killing others by the million, they do so by insisting what we have isn’t the true, pure version. Real nationalism is about pride, not hate; real capitalism doesn’t withhold, but delivers opportunities; real patriarchal religion sees women as different, but equal. It might not look that way, but something’s got lost in translation. Don’t mistake the poor imitation for the thing in itself, even if the former’s all you’re ever going to get.
And so, too, with gender. Rather than admit that the poor imitation is all that there is – that there’s nothing behind it, no hidden, non-hierarchical, playful spectrum – we kid ourselves that there’s something worth saving. We rename our inner sense of self our “gender identity”. We’re afraid that without these boxes in which to retreat, we’d lose all individuality.
But strip away the so-called toxic aspects of masculinity: the aggression, the violence, the hate, the guns, and what are you left with? Strength, endurance, a woody-scented perfume, a liking for the colour blue? Certainly nothing that need be associated with manhood or maleness. These are simply individual qualities. The only reason to code them as “masculine” is to preserve a social hierarchy that ought to be destroyed.
There’s a brilliant Gloria Steinem quotation doing the rounds on Twitter in response to the Las Vegas massacre. It highlights not just the inconsistencies in attitudes towards firearms and reproductive rights, but the way in which behaviour is managed through the prism of gender:
“I want any young men who buys a gun to be treated like young women who seek an abortion. Think about it: a mandatory 48-hours waiting period, written permission from a parent or a judge, a note from a doctor proving that he understands what he is about to do, time spent watching a video on individual and mass murders, travelling hundreds of miles at his own expense to the nearest gun shop, and walking through protestors holding photos of loved ones killed by guns, protestors who call him a murderer.”
In response to this, one tweeter argued that the Second Amendment exists to prevent the government from having a monopoly on violence: “Women and feminine men don’t get this point”. I don’t think the tweeter meant this as a condemnation of masculine values, but as such it works perfectly. People who “don’t get” why we all need to own guns are precisely the kind of people we ought to be raising right now.
What would be so terrible about a world in which boys were treated no differently to girls from the day they were born? In which there are no pink/blue codifications to hide behind? In which a man’s anger and aggression were considered every bit as aberrant and unnatural as a woman’s?
The problem we’re facing isn’t toxic masculinity; it’s that masculinity is toxic. It’s time we questioned even its most subtle manifestations.
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