Today James is talking about the controversial and often divisive topic of Toxic Masculinity. Will this be the episode that finally unlocks the Hate Mail achievement for our show?
Take our survey about your Ultimate Man at http://bit.ly/fundamentalman
Referenced and Recommended in this Episode:
Good Men Project
What's Good, Man?
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo
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Music by '86 Aerostar
James: Heads up: the following podcast contains adult language and deals with adult subjects. Keep this in mind as you listen. Today, we're talking about the controversial and often divisive topic of toxic masculinity. Will this be the episode that finally generates some hate mail? I guess we're about to find out! On with the show.
Grace: Hey folks, I'm Grace.
James: And I'm James. Welcome to Fundamental Shift: the podcast where we explore the major shakeups in our lives, their fault lines and aftershocks.
Grace: Thanks for listening. You're in for a real shift show.
James: So I'm going to ask you to try something with me. A little thought experiment. If you aren't throwing darts, driving, or operating heavy machinery, close your eyes for a moment and imagine the manliest man you can: someone who personifies and embodies masculinity to you.
This isn't a trick question and I'm not peeking at your thoughts, so be totally honest with yourself. I imagine many of us are picturing a celebrity, maybe an actor or a musician, or maybe a fictional character, but some of you are thinking of a family member, such as a parent or a spouse or partner. Try hold that image in your mind for a moment and consider why this person represents masculinity to you.
Is it their appearance, their voice, or mannerisms, maybe the characters they portray in TV or film? The type of music or art they create?
Okay, you can open your eyes now. Who were you picturing? Now, if you have a moment, pause the episode and go to our online survey at bit.ly/fundamentalman, where you can share some info with us about who you pictured. It's completely anonymous, and most of the questions are optional, but I'm really curious to hear about who people think of when they imagine the ultimate man. You can also find this link in the show notes for this episode. I look forward to checking out your responses and may end up sharing some of them on the show.
John Wayne: I never shot nobody I didn't have to.
Charleton Heston: I have only five words for you: from my cold, dead hands!
John Marley: She was innocent. She was the greatest piece of ass I ever had, and I've had them all over the world.
Kiefer Sutherland: The only reason you're still conscious is because I don't want to carry you.
Winona Ryder: Oh, come on. A lot of people drink, mineral water. It's come a long way.
Christian Slater: Yeah, but this is Ohio. I mean, if you don't have a brewski in your hand, you might as well be wearing a dress.
Bruce Willis: You guys aren't going to start sucking each other's dicks are you?
Chevy Chase: Hey, if any of you are looking for any last minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I'd like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people. And I want him brought right here with a big ribbon on his head. And I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no good, rotten, foreflushing, low life, snake looking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood sucking, dog kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat assed, bug-eyed, stiff legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey shit he is. Hallelujah, Holy shit. Where's the Tylenol?
James: Does art imitate life or is it the other way around? Maybe the answer is yes. If you run a Google search for movies about men, the results are dominated by stories of men who are portrayed as wielding strength, power, hubris. They're often sexist, often homophobic and transphobic, and often violent.
The Wolf of Wall Street. Fight Club, American Psycho, war movies, mob movies, westerns: these and similar stories feature leading men who often simultaneously embody the most admired and the most maligned attributes we might associate with masculinity. They perpetuate a narrative of manhood that would have us believe that in order to be successful, admired, loved, we must be confident, gregarious, ruthless, and take what we want by force.
But is that true? Is it true in the sense that it reflects and acknowledges something real about our culture's vision of manhood, that there are specific traits that, for better or worse, make a man more masculine? Is it true in the sense that a person's masculinity or proximity to maleness literally hinges on how closely they align with a sufficient number of these tenants of manhood?
Who's issuing these man cards?
I don't think it's the media. I think there is a dominant narrative about manhood that we see perpetuated in a large part of the media we consume, but let's not forget that for all the cowboys, conquerors, mob bosses, and hitmen, we've also had examples in men like John Lewis, Jim Henson, Patrick Stewart, Fred Rogers, LeVar Burton.
And for all the perpetuation of toxic masculinity we see, in recent years, we've seen a trend of various media shining a light on the toxicity and challenging it. For people around my age, we've seen things like Saved By The Bell torn to shreds in the viral web series, "Zack Morris Is Trash," and in the Peacock reboot, which at times seems like an apology for the original series.
We've seen similar commentary in the Karate Kid follow-up series, Cobra Kai. For earlier generations, Mad Men gave us seven seasons worth of toxic masculinity in lurid detail through the exploits of men who thought themselves heroes while the show's narrative highlighted inequality and discrimination and exposed these masculine giants as complex yet often self-absorbed and destructive figures.
I think the media we might point toward is promoting and perpetuating a culture of toxic manhood is only part of the picture, as again, it is also a reflection of the culture in which it is created. And although there's a bit of a feedback loop between the culture and the things that feed and influence the collective consciousness, the media we consume is ultimately created and heavily promoted because powerful and influential people believe it will be profitable. These violent and misogynistic films, TV shows, books, magazines, and other things are ultimately byproducts of capitalism. And as the collective consciousness has drifted in recent years, more toward awareness and correction of what we are beginning to see as societal ills, as we have seen manifested in movements like Me Too, Time's Up, and Black Lives Matter, media and marketing has begun to change as well. And as a result, we have seen the feedback loop of the universe begin to bend more toward justice.
All this aside though, Patriarchy is nothing new. Misogyny is nothing new. Toxic ideas and manifestations of masculinity have existed for thousands of years. The ancient religion in which I grew up, and others like it, were literally built on the idea of a furious male-presenting deity who was easily angered and highly destructive, who sanctioned genocide and called a murderous womanizing king a man after his own heart. Ancient Greco-Roman norms were built on hierarchies in which dominant men could do pretty much whatever they pleased with women, children, slaves, and men who were seen as "softer." Sexual relations between men in these societies were accepted, but it's not as progressive as it sounds. If you were a bottom, you'd be shamed for having assumed the role of a woman. There was no such stigma for the tops. This narrative of the in-charge, always confident, omnipotent man has been woven into the fabric of our societies from the beginning of recorded history. And on this point, we must remind ourselves where our history comes from, that the narratives we are handed from prior generations are not merely a recounting of the past, but they were crafted primarily by those in charge, by those who conquered and won wars and used force to manifest their vision of the world.
The main point of this introductory episode is to set the stage; to establish what toxic masculinity is as a concept and why it matters, so we can begin that process of shifting our thinking about the way our society is structured and how our own consciousness has been shaped; to look deeply into why we are the way we are so we can understand the ways in which we either benefit or suffer as a result of foundational, systemic societal values; and open up dialogue as we work to uproot misogynistic and hetero patriarchal programming within ourselves and use our agency to create a better world for ourselves and future generations.
Ijeoma Oluo writes, in her book, “ Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America”: I am the mother of two boys. Two beautiful young men who were born as beautiful babies full of endless possibility. It was shocking to watch how quickly the patriarchy came to claim my sweet little boys. They weren't even in preschool before I had to battle a world that wanted to take everything that was soft and kind and generous about them and turn those traits into hardness, cruelty, and dominance. I watched my older son, who had the most brilliant smile I've ever seen, struggle under the weight of being repeatedly told by society that his loving, open nature was a weakness.”
As I read this, I knew immediately the sort of influences Oluo was talking about. At a very early age, those of us who were born with a penis are categorized and taught how to be "male." We're expected to play rough, and have highly marketed toys that we play with: trucks, guns, military inspired action figures, male superheroes. We are taught to have thick skin, that we must be tough in order to be successful and to save our society from destruction. Our maleness is tied to strength, dominance, and aggression, and the superhero and military marketing ties all this up with a moral bow, so that those of us who maybe don't quite fit into the macho stereotype not only feel inadequate, but also that we are shirking some sort of moral responsibility to society. And it starts early.
Oluo writes that men, often white men, “are missing something vital—an intrinsic sense of self that is not tied to how much power or success they can hold over others—and that hole is eating away at them.” She goes on to say, “I can only imagine how desolately lonely it must feel to only be able to relate to other human beings through conquer and competition. The love, admiration, belonging, and fulfillment they have been promised will never come —it cannot exist for you when your success is tied to the subjugation of those around you.” This message is driven home when boys and young men are trained to be dominant forces on the sports field, in academics, in the workplace, in the home. Although I was fortunate to grow up in a home that was more egalitarian in its practice and with a sensitive and loving father, I could not escape being exposed to this sort of programming at school, in church and at work. And although I have done what I can to resist the more toxic effects of this indoctrination in my own life, I've seen it manifest to great and often terrifying effect in the lives of friends and family members.
“I do not believe that these white men are born wanting to dominate,” Oluo continues. “I do not believe they are born unable to feel empathy for people who are not them. I do not believe they are born without any intrinsic sense of value. If I did, this would be a very different book. I believe that we are all perpetrators and victims of one of the most evil and insidious social constructs in Western history: white male supremacy.”
Oluo's words ring so true to me as a white man. I have known people, white boys who began with good hearts, who fell prey to the dominant narrative of white male supremacy described here by the author, who became angry and hateful as a result. I have wished I could reach inside them and pull out that kid who was once sensitive and kind, but I know it isn't possible.
Writing as a black woman and as a parent, Oluo sees the solution as more than just black liberation. She believes, as I do, that liberation is and should be for everyone. That none of us is free until all of us are free.
“We need to do more than just break free of the oppression of white men,” she writes. “We also have to imagine a white manhood that is not based in the oppression of others. We have to value the empathy, kindness, and cooperation that white men, as human beings, are capable of. We have to define strength and leadership in ways that don't reinforce abusive patriarchy and white supremacy. We have to be honest about what white male supremacy has cost not only women, nonbinary people, and people of color—but also white men.”
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America” by Ijeoma Oluo was published on May 5, 2020 and is available wherever books are sold.
Minneapolis area hip-hop artist and poet Kyle Tran Myhre, also known by his stage name Guante, is using his art to challenge toxic manifestations of masculinity. He started a podcast in 2019 called What’s Good, Man? with co- host Tony the Scribe, and I recommend it to all of our listeners as one way to continue to expand our consciousness and uproot toxicity in our lives.
Guante has graciously allowed us to feature one of his spoken word pieces on Fundamental Shift. Here it is now: 10 Responses to the Phrase “Man Up.”
Guante: 10 responses to the phrase "Man Up"
One: Fuck you.
Two: So, if you want to question my masculinity, right? Like a school yard circle of curses, like a sword fight with light saber erections, save your breath because you know, contrary to what you may believe, not every problem can be solved by "growing a pair."
You cannot arm wrestle your way out of depression. The CEO of the company that just laid you off does not care how much you bench. And I promise there is no light beer in the universe full bodied enough to make you love yourself.
Three: Man Up, oh, that's that new superhero, right? Like mild-mannered supplement salesmen Mark Manstrong says the magic words, "MAN UP" and then transforms into the Five O'clock Shadow, the massively muscled, deep voiced, leather-duster-wearing super man who defends the world from, I don't know, feelings.
Four: Of course, why fight to remove our chains when we can simply compare their lengths? Why step outside the box, when the box has these bad-ass flame decals on it? We men are cigarettes: dangerous and poisonous.
Five: Have you noticed how nobody ever says "Woman Up?" They might like imply it, but it's not like a thing people go around saying? I think that's because women and the women's movement figured out a long time ago, that being directly, explicitly ordered around by commercials, magazines, music, and media is dehumanizing.
When will men figure that out?
Six: the phrase Man Up suggests that competence and perseverance, both good things, are also uniquely masculine; that women, not to mention gender non-conforming people, not to mention any man who doesn't, you know, eat steak and drive a big truck and have lots of sex with women; are nothing. More than anything, though, it suggests that to be yourself, whether you whatever, wear skinny jeans or rock a little eyeliner or drink some other brand of light beer or write poetry will cost you.
Seven: and how many boys have to kill themselves before this country acknowledges the problem? How many women have to be assaulted? How many trans people have to be murdered?
We teach boys how to wear the skin of a man, but we also teach them how to raise that skin like a flag and draw blood for it.
Eight: Boy babies get blue socks and girl babies get pink socks. Right? What about orange? What about purple? What about green? What about cerulean? Tie dye? Black? Buffalo plaid? Rainbow?
Nine: I want to be free to express myself. "Man up." I want to have meaningful emotional relationships with my brothers. "Man up." I want to be weak sometimes. "Man up." I want to be strong in a way that isn't about physical power or dominance. "Man up." I want to talk to my father about something other than sports. "Man up." I want to be who I am. "Man up."
James: We use many resources for the show. If you'd like to look into toxic masculinity and the ways we can shift the way we think about manhood and male-ness, check out the Good Men Project at GoodMenProject.com. They have articles, discussion threads, and other resources for anyone looking to confront and dismantle toxic masculinity in areas like politics, gender and sexuality, relationships, family life, ethics, and more.
Also check out the podcast, What’s Good, Man? With Guante and Tony the Scribe at guante.info/podcast or on your favorite podcast app.
I also highly recommend “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America” by Ijeoma Oluo. It’s available in hardcover, e-book and audiobook wherever books are sold. I found the ebook and audio format through my local library using the Libby app, which is available for iOS and Android. Oh, and be sure to fill out our survey about your Ultimate Man at bit.ly/fundamentalman. We'll post all this info in the show notes for easy reference.
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Grace: Now that you've heard from us, we want to hear from you. Facebook us on the Fundamental Shift Podcast page. Watch our media reviews on the Fundamental Shift YouTube channel.
James: Tweet us @funshiftpod. Instagram us @fun.shift.pod. Find us on the web where you can also comment on our blog at funshiftpod.com.
Grace: Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave us a voicemail or text us at (704) 665-7473.
James: Tune in next time when I talk with my friend and justice advocate Darren Calhoun as we continue the conversation on toxic masculinity and how to dismantle and confront it.
Grace: And until then, remember folks: shift happens.