It’s expensive to be a Man
I hope you haven’t seen the latest conservative conspiracy theory, both because it’s so ridiculous that it indicates a full divorce from reality and because I’m about to show it to you. In short, the theory goes that Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, Travis Kelce, is preordained to win the Super Bowl (either by the NFL or the CIA or somebody) so that the couple, at the height of their power, can help elect Joe Biden.
And it’s not just Vivek. Charlie Kirk and other far-right men are harping on it too. Their latest theory comes after months of hating that each time you watch a Kansas City Chiefs game the camera will pan to Taylor Swift at least twice. What’s clearly just an astute decision by the NFL to appeal to millions of young women and other Swift fans has somehow morphed into this outlandish conspiracy, fueled by the endless one-upping of hating women and concocting increasingly absurd ideas that are some of the guiding lights in the ecosystem of far-right male influencers.
Obviously Taylor Swift will be just fine, and her multiple Super Bowl winning all-but-certain Hall of Fame NFL boyfriend will be too. But a lot of the young men absorbing this toxic sludge that rots their brains and alienates them from women, and a whole lot of other people, will not be. What misogynistic and right-wing influencers demand of their followers, more and more, is a set of ideas that are repulsive to the majority of the population. In particular, as demonstrated by the demand that they hate Taylor Swift, these right-wing men are defining masculinity as a set of beliefs that make most women dislike you. There would seem to be something a little backwards in defining manhood as a set of criteria that is repugnant to women. But in their rabid backlash to feminism and women’s empowerment at work and in politics and more, that is exactly what the man-o-sphere tells their adherents to become.
None of this is exactly new. The backlash against feminism isn’t new, and men telling other men to pay a price to be sufficiently masculine certainly isn’t new. It’s been expensive to “be a man” for quite some time. I mean friendships and emotion and connection and happiness. It’s expensive to be a man’s man in this world. You pay the price by giving up a whole lot that might have been precious to you. I mean loneliness, being cut off from those around you as part of the cost of your manliness. I mean giving up relationships and important parts of yourself. As writer Jeremy Mohler recently laid out: “Over the past 30 years, the number of men who say they have at least six close friends dropped by half, to just 27 percent. Fifteen percent of men report having no close friends at all.” And while a host of right-wing men talking into podcast mics want us to believe that women are to blame, progressiveness is to blame, tofu is to blame, their latest conspiracy is to blame, we know the truth. Men know.
We know that we’re taught to be lone wolves, not always explicitly but by our peers as boys and by countless cultural forces. We’re implicitly told to not be too emotional, to not care too much, especially about other men. We’re even taught not to care too much about our passions, unless they fit into a constricted mold of money and masculinity. That is the price of admission into patriarchy, or one of the prices. Other men tell us in various ways to give up much of what makes us unique, to hop in the cookie cutter and then get other boys in line too. Therefore the price of admission is our self-hood, our individuality. We’re told to pay a price that includes renunciation of difference, renunciation of deviation from the norm. That’s just one of the countless reasons that patriarchy is inherently political, and why questions of masculinity are also questions of power and politics. Because social enforcement of conformity is also an enforcement of a larger status quo, even if the enforcers don’t always know that.
Some of the leaders of the misogynist movement do, of course, know exactly what they’re doing. These men know that in working to build up the ranks of men who are willing and eager to rigorously, and even violently, patrol the narrow boundaries of what is acceptable behavior for men, they are effectively supporting the conservative project. Put simply, their efforts to build their “traditional masculinity” brands are often simultaneously efforts to build the right.
In some places, some social circles, it’s somewhat easier to resist the extremes that far-right men are trying to push us into because being on the right itself is a no-go. But in other places and circles it’s hard to resist that push if the men around you are moving in that direction. Very few of us want to be the exception, to be the outlier. And in some places that means resisting the typical narrative of what it means to be a man is really tough. Out in the rural West I see a lot of men who might want to be different, might want to deviate from the norm, but the number of people they can look to, lean on, or band together with is limited. And it’s hard to do this alone. We’re social creatures, and being isolated is one of the hardest things we can ask of someone.
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But that’s why I believe, and hope, that these man-o-sphere influencers are also their own worst enemies. Or rather they are the worst enemy of this unappealing brand of masculinity they’re trying to sell. The more they push their hyper-masculine vision that requires increasing misogyny, increasing numbness, and increasing isolation the less desirable their vision becomes to a lot of us. It might be normal for some teenage boys to worship Andrew Tate, unfortunately, but it’s also normal to find a whole lot of guys making fun of that hollow bullshit now too. A whole lot of men are seeing through it, even as some boys are getting swept up. No one wants to be isolated, no one wants to be alone, to live a life where they feel alone even in a room full of people.
Ultimately, the fascist-misogynist vision isn’t sustainable. Some masculinity influencers go to jail, like Tate, but on a broader societal scale these men are creating a vision that’s impossible to attain, or maintain. And while some boys will self-flagellate and buy into these perverse domineering “role models,” others will burn out and move away from these deeply unhealthy aspirations. Some will fizzle because they’re tired of being lonely. Some will want more meaningful friendships, and others will want better relationships with partners or family. Some men will simply want to feel better about themselves. I think of the body dysmorphia that men experience, that I’ve experienced, which goes quietly undiscussed because you can’t be weak and speak up on that. We’re told to fit into a rigid, tiny, painful box, and that’s we fundamentally not a man or not enough of one if we can’t quite stick within its walls.
The political vision of the misogynist movement is more and more limited and more and more limiting as well. To be acceptable in this strange crowd you gotta believe getting vaccinated is unmanly, you gotta believe Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce are nefarious plants to elect Joe Biden, you gotta believe all sorts of foods and activities will make you too feminine, but that a man can ever be a woman. And so on and so forth. This set of beliefs, always paired with the need for dominant and potentially violent manhood, contributes to more and more men viewing unhealthy, dangerous masculinity and fascist beliefs as core parts of their identity. And this wave of young men is shifting right in their political beliefs. But while we can’t deny the danger of this shift, and the danger of men being taught to hate women, as evidenced by the link between domestic violence and mass shootings, there is a real possibility that this sharp edge of patriarchy can only go so far. These misogyny influencers have done and will do serious damage, but sharpen the patriarchy too much and it gets brittle and fragile. Sharpen it too much, as these men are doing, and you begin to lose people. You begin to demand too much and men start to drop off.
That’s where we come in. That’s where healthy visions of masculinity or just healthy and decent values can enter the picture. I think we’re about to see a generation of men who got burnt out on fascist masculinity and desperately want answers. I know that for men like me even the less toxic, although still harmful, vision I learned as a kid drove me away. So I can only imagine what will happen for this younger generation. Unfortunately, some will resort to violence, some will hurt women and other people and some will join the fascist movement. But I believe that plenty will reject it. Some because they don’t want to hurt others and some because they’re tired of hurting themselves. And I hope other men who have been working to get free will be waiting for these men with open arms.
Even though it can feel harder to break out than it does to conform, even though it can be harder to resist the constant drumbeat telling you to be more of a man, more of a manly man, more masculine, the rewards are huge. In rejecting the narrow lane we’ve been told to stick to, in breaking out of that small box, the whole spectrum of human emotion and human relationship can become available to us. Our own individuality and freedom become accessible again. It’s not easy; it takes work. It often takes therapy. It takes looking at our patterns of behavior, at what we think is owed to us, and how we interact with others. It takes big steps like sorting through how we view women, and smaller steps like how much we clean the bathroom.
In my opinion, getting free from the masculinity that’s been imposed upon us, or that we’ve embraced, is a long, long process that touches on almost every level of our self-hood. And it’s not just men out here in rural Western small towns that need to do a lot of this work. It’s men in Brooklyn and LA and Portland too. It’s me, and if you’re a guy reading this it’s probably you. A lot of the stuff we’ve been taught is insidious, but the freedom that starts to come almost at once from doing some unlearning, and starting to learn something new, makes it worth it.
As the folks at Left Catholic recently discussed, we don’t have to do this work from a place of moral righteousness or superiority, and probably shouldn’t. In other words I’m not trying to learn better ways to be a man so that I can be a good person, I’m trying to do this stuff to be happy and free and so that I can actually be myself. Jeremy’s recent piece has a great bit where he writes:
“I like how trans domestic violence researcher Lee Shevek (who has a great Twitter feed called Butch Anarchy) puts it: Men need to see loneliness “as a struggle they share in common with women and queer people—a point of solidarity—rather than trying to differentiate themselves by articulating their feelings as more special or profound.”
A point of solidarity, where I know my freedom is tied up with yours. When men work to dismantle patriarchy we get more liberty and individuality, we become less restricted by a set of ideas and social norms that have held us back for too long. And it becomes easier for others to get free. Women and non-binary and queer folks get to be freer too. They get to have better and more fulfilling lives. Everyone wins when systems of oppression and domination come tumbling down. My freedom is bound together with yours, and in knowing that we get to be together on the road to a world where that freedom grows. So I hope to walk that road together with you. - Josh
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