As we turn to your current project, let me ask a question that is the title of one of your videos. What is toxic masculinity and what should we as a society being doing to reign in this particular noxious set of attitudes? Why might educational videos represent one appropriate response to this problem?
Toxic masculinity is an important term but it’s often mischaracterized or at least misunderstood in conversation, especially outside of academic settings. The video you’re referring to is my attempt to clarify the meaning of the term and hopefully spark more constructive conversations.
As I said in my video on the topic, Toxic masculinity refers to a particular set of harmful actions and cultural practices. It’s marked by things like emotional detachment and hyper-competitiveness. It’s connected to the sexual objectification of women, as well as other predatory sexual behaviors, and it’s also linked very closely with aggression, intimidation, and violence.
It’s important to note that “toxic masculinity” is not a condemnation of men or manhood in general. There is nothing toxic about being a man, but some men act in toxic ways. In other words, toxic masculinity is not something that men are, but rather it’s something that some men do. Which means that, we as men, can choose not to participate in that toxic behavior and instead choose other more empathetic, cooperative, compassionate forms of manhood.
In terms of why educational videos like mine are useful, the hope is that they can help get us on the same page. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to have these difficult conversations when critical words are terms are so widely misunderstood or misrepresented.
Let me ask another blunt and straight forward question. Why should we care what kinds of representation of masculinity run through popular culture? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with actual male behavior in everyday life rather than the masculinity of wizards and stormtroopers?
I believe we should be concerned with both. The truth is that personal expressions of masculinity and media representations of manhood are not separate and distinct; they’re deeply interconnected. Media and culture have a cyclical relationship; media influences culture and, conversely, culture influences media. Obviously that doesn’t mean we’re all mindlessly mimicking what we see on television, but one thing media is very good at doing is shaping our worldview. One of my favorite feminist theorists, bell hooks, connects the dots succinctly, she says: "Popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it's where the learning is happening.” She’s right. Our cultural ideas about what it means to be a man are heavily influenced by entertainment. Of course schools, families, and religious and political institutions all play important roles, but for better or worse mass media has become one of the primary areas where our cultural ideals of manhood are shaped and reaffirmed. This is why I believe it’s critical for us to interrogate what those Stormtroopers and Wizards are teaching us about masculinity.
All media has embedded messages and values whether producers and filmmakers intend to include them or not. When it comes to myths about manhood, some of the most common ideas we see infused in entertainment often pass under the radar because they reflect current cultural norms. These include myths like: men are naturally aggressive and violent; men who express vulnerability are weak; manhood is earned through physical competition and conquest; men’s sexist behavior is biologically driven. These messages are limiting and harmful for a whole host of reasons, not least of which because they reinforce the false notion that toxic behaviors, practices, and attitudes are normal, natural, and even inevitable for men. The reality, of course, is that men are capable of transformation. This is why we need media that models alternative formulations of masculinity in which men are shown openly communicating their feelings and vulnerabilities, practicing de-escalation tactics, and embracing empathetic responses to conflicts and challenges.
Media changes us -- sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It has incredible power to alter our perceptions, shape our worldview, and transform our identities. Media can trap us in old ways of thinking or open up exciting new social possibilities. My long-form video essays are focused on challenging media that does the former and elevating media that does the latter.
Today, the phrase -- men’s movement -- has often been co-opted into a misogynistic backlash against “political correctness” in general and feminism in particular, making it harder to speak as a male ally of feminism. How would you characterize the perspective you bring to these videos? What works provide you with the intellectual framework you draw upon in this work?
As I mentioned above, my work is very much influenced by feminist writers like bell hooks. Back in 1984, hooks boldly advocated for a feminism that included men. Her second book “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” includes this passage which has stuck with me and provided a framework for my own work on masculinity. She notes, "Men are not exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it." Her point about how the social system of patriarchy both privileges men while simultaneously harming us by robbing us of our humanity is a foundational one for my Pop Culture Detective Agency project. Hooks expands on this perspective in her excellent book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. That book is, incidentally, the first thing I always recommend to guys who are just beginning their journey into what feminism means for men. I find it both critical and inspiring that hooks calls for men to be held accountable while still remaining deeply compassionate to our struggles as men.
Another important influence for me has been the work of Sociologist Allan G. Johnson who wrote a book called Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. I’ve found his insights about how social systems and individuals are interconnected (neither exists without the other) to be particularly helpful in my research and criticism. R.W. Connell’s academic writings on Masculinities is also very useful for my work. She argues that there are many types and formulations of masculinity, all of which exist within a hierarchy of “masculinities.”
As you eluded to in your question, my perspective is fundamentally different from those who call themselves “Men’s Rights Activists” or MRAs. There are now hundreds of men with shockingly popular YouTube channels and social media followings who proport to care about men’s issues. Unfortunately most of them are indeed coming from a decidedly reactionary place which oozes hatred for feminism and is steeped in a palpable resentment of women. These guys are openly advocating for a return to the hypermasculine male supremacist values of decades past. They’re upset that our culture is slowly evolving in terms of gender and they’re determined to resist this social progress. The dark irony is that many of the things MRAs point to as being problems for men in our society, (suicide rates, combat deaths, life expectancy, etc.) are not a result of feminism or “discrimination against men” but are instead a byproduct of the social system of patriarchy. Instead of working to find real solutions to these issues (which would require a measure of self-criticism and self-transformation) MRAs are hell-bent on blaming feminism in particular and women in general. In many ways my video essays are a direct response to the popularity of the poisonous MRA prospective. My hope is that by compassionately addressing the emotional harm men and boys face as a result of patriarchal pressures in our culture, I can reach some of the guys who are hurting and perhaps keep some from joining reactionary movements.