In a scene from the short-lived 1970s TV western “Nichols,” a man named Gulley shoots Hansen, his best friend. For years, the two had squabbled over vague insults and Gulley, hopped up on alcohol and egged on by cruel instigators, kills Hansen in a duel. Asked why he murdered his only friend, Gulley says, “I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t proved to him that I was still a man, and not some old fool.”
If only such noxious beliefs about what it means to be a man existed in fiction alone.
Literally and figuratively, toxic masculinity is killing us: Mass shootings. Domestic violence. Fatal fraternity hazing. Rape culture. Workplaces and schools turned into cesspools of sexual harassment and assault. This is not consigned to one race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic level. Feral masculinity affirms itself every day through violence and domination.
It is a detriment to social and political progress, our mental health, and physical safety. The deleterious result is a nation under siege by those compelled to affirm their power by any means necessary.
To these men, any sign of weakness is a kind of death. That’s why New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was ridiculed when a TV camera captured him crying after he fractured his ankle during a recent football game. On social media, Beckham was derided for getting emotional over a devastating injury that has likely ended his season.
It brought to mind something I observed a few years ago in a barbershop, when a father brought in his son for his first professional cut. As soon as the stylist’s electric clippers buzzed near an ear, the boy started crying — first with a few streaming tears, then a full-throated bawl. Instead of comforting and reassuring his son, the father jumped up and yelled, “Stop it. Stop acting like a baby! Be a man!”
No more than three, that child was already learning that male vulnerability is not acceptable.
Boys raised hard become blunt objects, and they will perceive everyone around them as something to be conquered. This is the culture that created — and protected — Harvey Weinstein for decades, and silenced the women who were harassed or assaulted by him. And far from Hollywood, such mindsets threaten us in our homes, on the streets, or the places where we work or learn. Women have been murdered for rejecting the sexual advances of strangers.
Physical violence is presented to men as a viable option to address any situation, and masculinity has been equated with guns capable of killing dozens within seconds. In 2010, Bushmaster Firearms began a print ad campaign featuring a photo of one of its semiautomatic rifles alongside the slogan, “CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED.” Two years later, that same rifle was used to murder 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
In an interview about Weinstein, actress Emma Thompson referred to what she called a “crisis in extreme masculinity.” Such attitudes are not only generally accepted, but personified by “the most powerful man in the world, at the moment,” she said.
That would be President Trump, for whom any kind of weakness is tantamount to a cardinal sin against nature. To build his own spurious strength, he emasculates the men around him, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. During his campaign, he dismissed Senator John McCain’s military service (something Trump dodged five times) by claiming heroism belonged to those “who weren’t captured.” He mocked Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer’s “fake tears,” after the Senate minority leader became emotional in January while discussing Trump’s travel ban that targeted majority Muslim countries.
Trump’s idea of masculinity is a cudgel. His bloated off-the-cuff bluster, which sounds like outtakes from John Wayne and “Dirty Harry” movies, puts the world in peril.
We live under the shadow of a cocked and clenched fist. When terrible things happen to women, men often evoke their daughters as a reason for concern. Perhaps they would do better to pay more attention to their sons, fathers, brothers — and their own toxic behavior — as a starting point for breaking a cycle of male violence that threatens to consume us all.