Toxic masculinity can be heroic, and here are the women that prove it

In Greek mythology, Antigone displayed all the traits we now freely criticise

Slavoj Zizek
Monday 11 February 2019 11:57 GMT
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When I try to explain to students what “free associations” mean in the psychoanalytic treatment, I regularly refer to the well-known saying: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”

When a psychoanalyst asks a patient to “freely associate”, i.e. to suspend control of the conscious ego and say all that comes to mind, does that psychoanalyst not demand almost the exact opposite?

The patient must throw out the baby (the ego) and keep only the bath water of free associations. The idea is, of course, that this “dirty water” will bring out the hidden truth of the sane and healthy ego itself. Don’t forget that the dirt in the water comes from the baby, not from outside!

Does the same not hold also for many fake ecologists? They are obsessed by healthy “sustainable” dwellings in clean green habitat, ignoring the dirty water that freely floats in the polluted surroundings. If one wants to deal with pollution in a serious way, the first thing to do is to focus on the dirty surroundings and to analyze how our isolated “sustainable” habitats merely export the pollution to their environs.

Perhaps, we should adopt the opposite approach, along the lines of what they are doing in Japan: concentrate as much pollution and population in big cities, so that they function as dirty babies in (relatively) clean water.

Another example: the sheer number of paedophiliac crimes that took place in the Catholic church all around the world, from Ireland and Pennsylvania to Australia. These are crimes committed by members of an institution which propagates itself as the moral compass of our society, and they compel us to reject the easy idea that the Church could simply throw out the bad priests and keep the good.

There is an “institutional unconscious”; an obscene, disavowed underside that sustains the public institution. It is not simply for the sake of conformity that the church has tried to hush up its pedophilia scandals; rather, in defending itself, the church is defending its innermost obscene secret.

Perhaps the clearest example was provided by the recent debate on toxic masculinity. In the response to the recent Gillette ad about making men less violent, and better, we often heard the idea that the ad was not directed against men, just against the toxic excess of masculinity. In short, the ad just signalled that we have to throw out the dirty bath water of brutal masculinity.

But there are problems here. Let’s take a closer look at the list (proposed by the American Psychological Association) of features supposed to characterise “toxic masculinity”: suppressing emotions and masking distress; unwillingness to seek help; propensity to take risks even if this involves the danger of harming ourselves. I don’t see what is so specifically “masculine” about this list.

Does this not fit much more a simple act of courage in a difficult situation where, to do the right thing, one has to suppress emotions, where one cannot rely on any help but take the risk and act, even if this means exposing oneself to harm?

I know many women – as a matter of fact, more women than men – who, in difficult predicaments, have not succumbed to the pressure of their environment and instead set about acting in just this way. To take the example from Greek mythology: when Antigone decided to bury Polynices, did she not commit exactly an act which fits the basic features of “toxic masculinity”?

She definitely suppressed her emotions and masked her distress, she was unwilling to seek help, she took a risk which involved great danger of harm to herself. In our age of politically correct conformism, such a stance poses a danger.

We find traces of this classical feminine figure of courage in today’s popular culture, notably in two TV series, Homeland and The Killing.

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The heroine of Homeland is Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer with bipolar disorder involved in fighting terrorism. Her strict sense of justice compels her to violate many rules and get in conflicts with her superiors which even endanger her life. It’s similar with inspector Sarah Lund, the heroine of the superb Danish series The Killing, another borderline character who reacts violently to the hypocrisy of the establishment and ends up being totally excommunicated. God give us as many of these toxically-masculine women as possible in real life!

There is an delicious old Soviet joke from the “Radio Yerevan” genre: a listener asks “Is it true that Rabinovitch won a new car on lottery?”, and the radio answers: “In principle yes, it’s true, only it wasn’t a new car but an old bicycle, and he didn’t win it but it was stolen from him.”

Does exactly the same not hold for toxic masculinity?

Let’s ask Radio Yerevan: “Is masculinity really toxic?” We can guess the answer: “In principle yes, it’s true, only this toxic content is not specifically masculine at all, plus it stands for what is often the only reasonable and courageous way to act.”

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