It’s the Internet age, so anything is possible, but still I wonder (and do so with increasing frequency): Is it at all possible that men are getting worse?
I didn’t leave anything off that question. I’m actually asking if we — men, especially white American ones — are just generally worse than we’ve ever been.
Because I can honestly tell you that right now, at this moment in 2017, the only embarrassing thing about being gay is the “preferring you guys” part. And I say that knowing how not manly it is to be embarrassed.
(Great, now I’m embarrassed by that. Do me a favor and assume I just punched a wall.)
Growing up pre-Internet was rough enough. After all, the “be a man” game is quite literally man’s oldest game. Like most childhoods spent being male, mine was laid out in an almost Nintendo-esque progression of increasing difficulty, multiplying enemies, tests of endurance, and steadily more threatening mini-bosses. And like most gay adolescences, mine was spent building up as much of a dude front as it required to get by unpunched.
For the most part it worked, though my facade proved fragile enough that it took but a single Morrissey album and a couple jars of Manic Panic to send the whole thing crumbling and set me straight — so to speak.
But I wasn’t the only one putting up a front. That’s, after all, what “being a man” actually means: adhering to a strictly determined set of postures, attitudes, dispositions, habits, and preferences in order to clearly, but not conspicuously, perform manhood. It’s a part that demands silence and improvisation, but what lines there are come quite naturally, and the motives feel sewn into your cells. For most men it’s the role of a lifetime.
“We’ve constructed an idea of masculinity in the United States that doesn’t give young boys a way to feel secure in their masculinity, so we make them go prove it all the time,” says Dr. Michael Kimmell in the documentary “The Mask You Live In,” an unsettling inquiry not so much into the nature of manhood as into the expectations of manhood foisted upon them from the get-go.
You can see this idea on display in the bloated bluster and swagger of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump (who make a frumpy analogue to the more aggressive pageantry of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Russia’s Vladimir Putin). We’ve never had an administration more likely to blast “Jock Jams” from the windows of the White House, or to go with the door open.
It seeps into public expectations of men through the craven (alleged) grossness of celebrities like Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, or the craven (actual) grossness of [word count/paper size won’t allow for full list of politicians]. Though gross dudes getting involved in politics is kind of the history of politics.
What’s new is the way we see the rite of asserting manhood unfold online.
The expectation for boys to become men by emerging dominant within a group doesn’t go away just because the group has grown impossibly vast. To be masculine online is to find ways of projecting alphaness and aggression for maximum coverage: This can be textual (a tweet), visual (a meme), or behavioral (trolling, ganging up).
But without the pheromonal exchange of “real life,” men online thrash around in a kind of sensory deprivation chamber, left to imagine their place in the pack, and often lacking imagination in the first place.
We see this in the chronically irritated mens-rights factions burping up through the Internet like so much undigested Little Caesar’s. We hear it from the trolls of #gamergate, and “masculinist” (groan) activists like #pizzagate delivery boy Mike Cernovich, who once opined in a now-deleted blog post titled “Misogyny Gets You Laid” that “enough women appreciate my aggressiveness that I do not hide when accused of misogyny. Instead, I answer the allegation straightforwardly: ‘Think what you want. But if you’re my girl, you’ll do what I say.’” (To be clear: Those bossy italics on the verbs? Those are his. Yes: Ew.)
And we hear it in the secret words commonly used in the treehouses of the alt-right: “beta” (a sub-alpha male — brutal!), “cuck” (a male “whose woman” finds satisfaction elsewhere — crushing!), “cuckservative” (a portmanteau that drags in your iffy political commitment — devastating!).
Indeed, those most vocally concerned with proving what it means to be a man tend to do so by broadcasting its absence rather than exemplifying its presence. It’s a bit of a boogeyman, manhood.
But perhaps that’s why the Internet has played such a big part in upgrading old-fashioned masculinity to its current “toxic” status. That troubled, tortured, needless, boring, horrible, lonely one man show of masculinity that any man knows by heart (and that many of us, at one time, could see our way out of) has become a much more public and literal performance online, with far stricter direction. Our timelines twist themselves ever more easily into our identities, and tighten us into what they say in the process. Masculinity consigned to words becomes more ideology than identity, and it wasn’t much of an identity to begin with.
This boiling culture of dude-grievance certainly has pre-Internet percolations — you could see its beginnings in the form of “nerd masculinity,” aptly observed by writer Oliver Lee Bateman as the primoridal ooze from which beacons of entitlement, from “Chasing Amy” to Milo Yiannopoulos, would eventually emerge.
But the Internet has flipped the script, made more of a show out of it, killed the intermissions. And the actors have been at it for so long, working so hard, it’s as though they’ve never seen beyond the stage. You kind of can’t blame them for wanting a trophy.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.