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Gender toxicity’s dirty secrets

When I was waiting to get my first dose of the Sinopharm (Chinese) Covid-19 vaccine at the clinic in Maadi tasked with hosting vaccine distribution by the Egyptian Ministry of Health (a task the clinic must have regarded, judging from its neglected appearance and the unhappy crowd packed into its outdoor waiting area, as unwelcome–though the staff tried their best), an elderly Egyptian man engaged me in conversation, in English. He mentioned his relatives who live in the US (Columbus, Ohio, I think?), as Egyptians with such relatives always do when speaking to Americans. Trump’s poor response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, had lost Donald his relatives’ votes. This he regarded as unfortunate, because–and here he said something I never like to hear but absolutely loath hearing in reference to Donald Trump–“the world needs a strong man in charge.”

Mayara and a cute kitten at the clinic.

It’s not that I hate men, or masculine-presenting people, or strength, or leadership, or strong men or strong masculine-presenting people taking on leadership roles. What I hate is hearing Trump called “strong”, because guess what? He wasn’t. Instead he was emotionally and intellectually weak, but also cunning, wealthy, and unscrupulous; and he used his cunning, wealth, and lack of scruples to gain fame and political power, which he used as a megaphone to broadcast his impotent aggression in the form of tweets and theatrical political gestures, while attempting to enrich himself and his “good old boy(friend)s”.

Social justice warriors have a term for this: “toxic masculinity”. It’s the kind of term conservatives and many liberal men (and women) love to hate; they accuse it of being a vacuous means of attributing anything a man does that the speaker doesn’t like to the bogeyman of “sexism”. There is some truth to this accusation, in that people often say (and hear) “toxic masculinity” with only a vague sense of what it might mean; certainly for many years I was guilty of this.

Nevertheless, it is worth rescuing the term from its status as a cliche, for I can think of nothing more evocative than “toxic masculinity” to describe the way in which emotional insecurity latches onto symbols of male dominance in an endless, futile quest for reassurance: think of Trump’s Wall, his military parades, his waving of the Bible, and his tweets mythicizing such actions, all while being a hair’s breadth from being removed from office; this is just like Lamachus in Aristophanes’ Acharnians, shaking his crested helmet and rattling his spear to create a mask of aggression that will conceal his powerlessness actually to fight.

A common mistake (one that my dad, a lawyer with an MA in English Literature, seems to have made for decades) is to think that toxic masculinity is supposed to indicate some kind of corruption in men’s genes–the corruption responsible for the penis, perhaps, or for testosterone. This is to think of it as a matter of sex rather than of gender. I must defer to biologists on the question of under what circumstances penises or other male organs may become toxins. As a matter of gender, “toxic masculinity”–like any sort of masculinity–may be performed by any sort of body; a queen, lady governor, or lady president, too, can build walls, hold military parades, and wave religious books (remember Sarah Palin?).

Is there also “toxic femininity”? If one defines it analogously–the way in which emotional insecurity latches onto symbols of female dominance in an endless, futile quest for reassurance–and recognizes that female dominance has traditionally been expressed as passive aggression (so its symbols are, for example, a sexually irresistible appearance), then certainly toxic femininity exists. In a sense, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata speculatively constructs toxic femininity as the comic solution to toxic masculinity.

Why “toxic”? Like other toxic substances, toxic masculinity tends to toxify whatever it touches, for person X’s insecurity’s theatrical aggression inspires emulation on the part of those with the same insecurity (Trump generates QAnon); and it inspires fear–that is, insecurity–in the kind of people person X fears, inspiring retaliatory theatrical aggression (premature and overly animated calls to take drastic action to save the country from Trumpian fascism).

Toxic masculinity is often confused with dominance. But there is nothing inherently toxic or otherwise bad about dominance, so long as it is accompanied by enthusiastic submission (in which case we either call it leadership or good sex). Pericles was for most of his adult life very dominant and very well liked in Athens, and quite dominant and generally tolerated in much of the rest of the Greek world. (Barack Obama, inversely, was more dominant and better liked abroad than at home.) Dominance becomes toxic when it dominates those who are unwilling or less than eager to submit, in which case we call it rape, bad sex, or tyranny–all crimes of which Pericles was at some point accused. But toxic dominance need not (though of course it may) express itself theatrically, or as masculine.

While toxic masculinity does often compel submission or at least accommodation, its delusions of dominance far outstrip reality; and it is the large gap between delusion/illusion and reality that provides comedians with so much material (e.g. the giant “Baby Trump” balloon in the photo above).

The word “toxic” in “toxic masculinity” isn’t just a metaphor, for toxic masculinity generates myriad toxic substances in massive quantities: flashy assault weapons and their synthetic display cases, off-road vehicles, yachts, methane (excreted by the cows raised to provide properly “manly” hamburgers and steaks), plastic that isn’t recycled because “recycling is for commies and girls”. In the ancient world, toxic masculinity did far less lasting ecological damage simply because there were far fewer humans and only the simplest synthetic substances. But it managed to do plenty of ecological damage nevertheless: after all, humanity’s oldest surviving literary work, The Epic of Gilgamesh, tells of a king whose fear of death leads him to chop down a huge cedar forest.

Toxic femininity is hardly less toxic than toxic masculinity–just think of the ecological damage done by mining for precious gems, not to mention ladies’ hats made from hundreds of murdered birds.

Is there such a thing as “toxic queerness”? Absolutely! Queer people often feel EXTREMELY insecure, perhaps because so many people want to see them violently made no longer queer or else eliminated from society and punished, and try to compensate with various kinds of theatrical performances of strength: buying expensive things, acting hypersexually in public, hiring human rights lawyers, aggressively performing homophobia… All of these toxic gender expressions tend to amplify each other, creating positive feedback loops of increasing toxicity.

Aristophanes’ first two plays that are fully extant, Acharnians and Knights, both focus on the problem of toxic masculinity, and to a lesser extent other toxic gender expressions, and on the feedback loops that sustain and amplify them. If comedy could discover a means to break those loops, it would strike a great blow for social justice indeed…but can it?

Stay tuned.

[“Baby Trump” balloon image link; Capitol rioters image link]


Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

One thought on “Gender toxicity’s dirty secrets

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