Hopefully Gone, Hopefully Forgotten: Toxic Masculinity, A Eulogy?
Comedian Lil Duval has a big problem. Cultivating a masculine facade requires great energy, necessitating that he spends many toilsome hours pumping iron and mixing proteins shakes. Occasionally, Duval pauses his workout routine to admire his muscular physique. With such a demanding schedule, Duval has very little time to contemplate the unthinkable: what if his tenuously constructed masculinity were to be compromised?
Nonetheless, the horrifying prospect occupies his every thought. To ease his distraction, Duval sought to identify threats to his manhood; thus, this past July on live radio he mused that he might kill a transgender woman if she failed to disclose her gender identity before sex.
That’s right: murder.
Duval was unequivocally expressing transphobia under the thin guise of the right to “personal preference.” This rhetoric is often employed to justify the rejection of anything other than normative paradigms of gender and sexuality. Of course, one’s preferred association with heterosexual or dichotomously gendered people isn’t to be denied — that is, unless one’s “preference” does not denigrate, insult, or threaten non-binary people. Duval’s sentiments represent our society’s internalization of gender and sexual binaries and the earnest, albeit callous, attempts of hegemonic males to maintain the status quo.
An insidious force prompted Duval’s transphobic remarks: toxic masculinity, or male gender performance characterized by misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, emotional suppression, and other psychological and social ills.
Toxic masculinity is ubiquitous, present in “locker-room talk” frequently exchanged among brawny jocks, and even in the seemingly benign way Pa tells Ma to fix him dinner after a long day of work. It is important to note, though, that the expression of toxic masculinity is not limited to men who embody the patriarchal, “macho” trope. Although the principal actors of toxic masculinity personify this characterization, any male-identifying person may engage in the construction of a socially deleterious masculinity.
Though at the forefront of issues of gender inequality, toxic masculinity is not a novel concept. It first moored itself to American society aboard a scurvy-ridden conquista galleon in the sixteenth century. A motley crew of hegemonic males, sea-weary sailors and belligerent soldiers alike, sought to assert themselves over native peoples, imposing dichotomized gender and sexual paradigms on them.
If the current state of the Americas is any testament to the success of the Spanish conquistadors, we can conclude that colonization achieved its nefarious objective: instilling Western cultural norms in New World subjects. Spanish missionaries’ holy endeavors to reform a “barbaric” and “uncivilized” people meant proselytizing and punishing those whose behavior deviated from European social expectations. For instance, Spanish colonial chroniclers like Hernando de Alarcón and Pedro de Castañeda wrote of the grandes sométicos (great sodomites) they encountered on expeditions throughout the Americas: Zuni androgynous men, Timucu hermaphrodites, and Nahua and Zapotec same-sex relations were diligently recorded in travel diaries sent to the Crown to justify Spanish encomienda and massacre.
While the specter of foreign imperialism has (for the most part) long departed the Americas, Western efforts to reconcile the incongruence of European norms with the conventions of indigenous sexual and social behavior remain a lasting vestige of colonialism. What French trappers and Spanish colonists typified as berdache (sexual and gender identities incompatible with Western praxis), Catholicism and binary models of gender and sexuality erased into obscurity. In the post-colonial Americas, two-spirit, third gender, and other indigenous non-normative sexual and gender identities no longer exist with the same prevalence and tolerance as in pre-colonial times.
Though the Zapotec muxe third gender identity has made a resurgence despite the pressures of Mexican heteronormativity and machista culture, muxe visibility is not to be mistaken for progress in the Americas. Today, femicide, the deliberate murder of women because of their sex, occurs in Mexico at a rate 15 times greater than the world average. And paradoxically, even muxes hold reactionary social beliefs, themselves ardent transphobes. The root cause of this regression is toxic masculinity, for the foundation upon which femicide and transphobia rest is male hegemony and the devaluation of women and non-normative sexual and gender identities.
Mass media is no exception when it comes to the permeation of toxic masculinity — from radio to live television, its presence is deeply ingrained. For instance, take Bill O’Reilly saying that women are unfit for the presidency, a suggestion he made on his now-defunct talk show, The O’Reilly Factor: “There’s gotta be some downside to having a woman president, right? Something! Something that may not fit with that office.” O’Reilly unleashed this sexist statement in February of 2014, long before alleged victims of sexual harassment by O’Reilly himself came forward in April of 2017. One might argue that comments like O’Reilly’s are anachronism today, but that would be wrong. The character attack on women in modern America is unceasing, evident in President Trump’s trivializing of the Women’s March as the gathering of “nasty women” who “didn’t vote.”
Recently, the victimization of transgender people captured national attention after the President announced a trans military ban. This is yet another law in a series of regulations meant to marginalize and disenfranchise the trans community. According to statistics provided by the US Office for Victims of Crime, a striking 50 percent of transgender people have experienced sexual violence. Moreover, studies by the The Williams Institute report an “exceptionally high” prevalence of suicide attempts among trans people: 46 percent of trans men and 42 percent of trans women attempt suicide at least once in their lifetimes. Just this year, 20 transgender people were killed as a result of their gender identity, reports GLAAD.
I ask this of men unswayed by trans killings, sexism, and femicide, or perhaps too busy admiring their biceps’ nuanced array of sinews, tendons, and veins: why practice a masculinity of archaic origins that adversely affects those around you? I believe that the reimagination of the normative male identity is overdue. The continued enactment of male gender performance no longer justifies or requires the degradation of women and nonbinary people, the incessant heteronormative affirmation of man’s heterosexuality, and the suppression of man’s emotions.
There is no equivalence between the maintenance of a stoic, “manly” facade, and the life of a trans person, or a woman’s access to equal opportunities and pay, or the free expression of non-binary people. A man’s sexual anatomy or socially constructed beliefs about gender should not bestow him superiority, or relegate minorities to a subordinate role.
Transgender men and women are constantly subjected to discriminatory practices in their schools, places of work, and homes. Society often dictates that trans people assume diminutive and uncharacteristic models of themselves, like actors in a compulsory rendition of social expectations. Meanwhile, the “macho” man’s masculinity monopolizes space with ease, and expresses an apparent disregard for all that excludes and devalues female discourse. He manspreads, he mansplains, and he man-everythings.
So, men, surrender your protein powder and Nike tube socks. It’s time to defend your marginalized compatriots.