"Speak softly and carry a big stick": the political implications of toxic masculinity

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As a contributor to the right-wing online magazine The Federalist so quaintly and condescendingly put it several years ago, feminists have recently fallen “in love with the term ‘toxic masculinity.'” Of course, what this author meant by toxic masculinity was an emotional stunting of men caused largely by American society’s obsession with, what she called, “promoting the welfare of women” (ha!). While that hypothesized causation is preposterous, the overarching phenomenon it addresses is an issue of urgent public importance, arguably now more than ever.

The gist of my point here is simple: traditional “masculinity” as we know it is profoundly damaging to society, specifically as it permeates up through U.S. government and influences the office of the President.

To clarify — I am henceforth defining “toxic masculinity” as the societal pressure on men to dominate women (and each other), suppress their emotions and use violence to get what they want. The stigma around male openness about emotions and mental health has proven to have a direct connection to astronomically higher rates of suicide and homicidal behavior in men than in women. Men are less likely to seek assistance in any task and less willing to compromise. These characteristics are socialized into the psyches of men since birth. The link between toxic masculinity and the fear of the feminine is profoundly interwoven; as boys are told to “be a man,” they consequently buy into our society’s cavernous gender dichotomy that leaves no room for an intermingling of gendered attributes within an individual or within greater social organizations. The U.S. government, a traditionally (white) male-dominated entity, is an example of this forced hyper-masculinization, with the president as the figurehead, the nation’s father, the proverbial king of the western world.

Gender expert Stephen J. Ducat comes right out and states the problem as it is: “male anxiety has come to shape political discourse and behavior.” From the hyper-aggressive rhetoric of President George Bush after 9/11, to Republican candidate Donald Trump making a frat-boy allusion to his penis size during a presidential debate last month, the decisions made by American men in high places are, purposefully or not, affected by their self-perceptions of masculinity. As men make up less than half of the population (fewer still are those who operate under norms of hegemonic masculinity), making political calls in an attempt to adhere to our culture’s postmodern criteria for “manhood” is undeniably questionable (though not often questioned). Contrary to the ideas of those who believe that masculinity is a fixed concept that has persisted throughout the ages — from Hercules to Hulk Hogan — American ideals of hyper-masculinity are actually fairly new. So not only are our nation’s leaders making important decisions (like how to deal with ISIS, for example) under incredibly masculinized pretenses, they’re making them on terms that will probably be completely different in 20 years (see: the rise of the softboy).

A study conducted in 2015 by researchers at Stanford and the University of Washington found that men are more likely to exaggerate their “masculine” traits when they feel that their manhood is threatened (e.g. Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”). Male subjects were asked to squeeze a grip strength device as hard as they could. They were then presented with randomly generated false feedback that placed them somewhere along a “male” or “female” distribution curve. Then, they were presented with a series of questions regarding gendered attributes such as height, sexual performance and “handiness with tools” — whatever that means. The threatened (“female” strength) group, they exaggerated their height by an average of .78 inches, their number of relationships by 3.12 and their aggressiveness and athleticism almost 1 Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI) scale point higher than the control group.

While the everyday implications of this study might have the average person reminiscing about their college boyfriend’s scrawny roommate bragging over a protein-loaded breakfast and all the girls he’d purportedly slept with, its political ramifications are far more grave. The study cites previous findings that men with “baby faces” are more likely to be hostile and aggressive, and here’s the kicker — more likely to receive military awards. Yes, the violent pushback of non-masculine men against their socially-fabricated status as lesser is actually rewarded by the U.S. military. Looking even more broadly at the decisions of the president and of other important officials, a domestic attack like 9/11 was basically the biggest strike at a president’s leadership there could be, and, just as the study indicated, it generated an earth-shatteringly violent overcompensation on the part of good ol’ Dubya (see: the War on Terror). The implications of toxic masculinity have lethal consequences across the globe in addition to the tolls they take on the well-beings of individual men (and women).

The incessant criticism of Hillary Clinton exemplifies the double-standard toxic masculinity creates for women in leadership. The United States has never seen a woman in the Oval Office, but in a country that elevates the masculine, it would be assumed “masculine” traits would be advantageous in seeking public office. The opposite couldn’t be more true for HRC in this race. Most notably, in the comparison between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, she is held to an idiotic double-standard that makes me all the more impressed with her resoluteness — and likelihood to be our nation’s next president. I’m a Bernie supporter myself, but I can still acknowledge the fact that some of my hesitations about Hillary are subconsciously very gendered.

One gendered disparity between Bernie and Hillary is how the public receives each candidate raising their voice during rallies or debates. Bernie is touted by his supporters to be a “cool grandpa” who’s passionate about his cause — all things that are surely true. Hillary, on the other hand, is criticized for being acidic, “hissy” and overbearing. As author Jay Newton-Small put it, “It’s very hard for a woman to telegraph passion. When Bernie yells, it shows his dedication to the cause. When [Hillary] yells, it’s interpreted in a very different way: She’s yelling at you.” For Bernie, unkempt is cool. His wispy white hair flies every which way, spit spraying the podium as he calls for a political revolution. Now imagine Hillary doing any of those things, or what would happen if Hillary spoke in public without elegant-but-reserved jewelry and professionally-done hair and makeup. She is under such a spotlight for her appearance that Googling “Hil(l)ary Clinton goes without makeup” yields 3 million more results than “Hillary Clinton Iran.” Not kidding. The masculinity of the presidency is so codified into our national psyche that we poke superficial fun at one of the most qualified people to run for office in American history. We can’t acknowledge that the former Secretary of State may, in fact, have more relevant leadership qualifications than her ability to choose the right pantsuit for the occasion (seriously, why were we ever talking about this?).

Much of the male pushback against the prospect of Clinton in the White House is due to anxiety that the most masculine office in the world will be threatened by a woman (and, God forbid, by traits like compassion, flexibility and patience). The president is supposed to be unyielding, stony and strong. The “cowboy diplomacy” embodied by people like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld (“Speak softly and carry a big stick” was emblazoned on a plaque in his Pentagon office) is a crystal-clear example of how the masculine ideals instilled in men in childhood dig their claws in deep — boys are taught not to cry, not to ask for help and to solve their problems with aggression. When you look at the way the U.S. conducts its foreign policy, especially under “hyper-masculine” leaders like Bush, the situation is frighteningly similar. And, if the University of Washington study holds any water, the long-term effects of this governmental masculinity do not bode well for the American people, nor for our enemies.

Overcompensation for threats to “masculinity” is a major reason for U.S. violence, from mass shooters to lethal military initiatives. Hegemonic masculinity as we know it isn’t salvageable. Destroying this violent, misogynistic ideology and raising children to value diplomacy more than dominance is the only way to change our country’s legacy of violence and entitlement in the social and political spheres alike.