I appreciate the many responses to my piece on traditional masculinity. The hate mail was interesting, in the way that hate mail is always interesting. A few emails and many, many comments that I refused to unleash from the filter were illustrative, and not just in their many creative spellings of the word “faggot.” They were so angry, and so defensive about a conception of masculinity that they represent as straightforwardly superior. There’s an awful lot of sensitivity about an ideal that includes the rejection of sensitivity. Which again suggests my point that part of the anger of these men comes from their inability to truly believe in their own performance of masculinity. What they mean to be a display of their strength is a display of their weakness. More than anything, it’s again a very important reminder: this is what it’s like to be a woman who writes on the internet, all the time. I’ve learned to value these responses because they give me a tiny inkling of what women with opinions face online every day.
I do wish that some of the people responding to me had been less concerned with my choice of the term “traditional masculinity” and more concerned with the deeper point of the impossibility of achieving idealized masculinity, and how that contributes to this destructive rage, but I’ve learned that when many people respond to your piece in the same way, it’s your own fault.
Ross Douthat’s response to me raised a point that many have, and he and they are right. Douthat writes, “Wayne himself, of course, was just as self-consciously performative in his way as any contemporary pick-up artist guru: He didn’t have a blog, but he was an actor with a stage name …” True. I picked a bad example of someone to represent as a symbol of uncomplicated manhood. I was glib and as a result said something stupid. John Wayne’s was a performative masculinity. Douthat continues,
From De Boer’s description of what “traditional masculinity” entails, you would think that the archetypal movies of Wayne’s genre celebrated mass murder and sexual entitlement, or throbbed with palpable misogyny, or made true manliness look like a matter of imposing your will at gunpoint and then reaping your reward in bedpost notches. But watch some famous Westerns from the pre-Peckinpah era: Do you regularly see characters bedding a steady stream of willing women while shooting their way to fame and fortune? Surely not as often as you see men, in the style of the lead characters in “High Noon” and “Shane,” reluctantly shouldering a burden of violence and paying a heavy moral price;
I take this to being the real nut of Douthat’s complaint: the traditional man is not actually the villain, here, but something that came after him… and, crucially for Douthat’s position, after the culture wars. Which is accurate and fair. I would defend myself simply: we aren’t in the pre-Peckinpah era, and the John Waye era led to the Peckinpah era, led to the era where people mistake Tony Soprano for a hero. Douthat would likely ascribed this slouching into sexual aggression and violence to the culture wars and 60s-era rejection of conservative mores; I would likely chalk it up to the deprivations of capitalism and the way in which traditional mores were actually a cover for the violent sexual entitlement of people in power. But either way: we’re here.
Perhaps the vision of masculinity I described as traditional masculinity is really just “traditional masculinity.” But the men who create this culture of neo-traditionalist masculinity think they’re endorsing traditional masculinity. They see themselves as part of a lineage of masculine ideals, which is threatened by women and “political correctness” and feminism and every other conservative punching bag. Yes, John Wayne’s masculinity was itself performative. But he is emulated by men who believe in “John Wayne,” rather than John Wane. And while Douthat might be right in thinking that it’s unfair to judge traditional masculinity based on those who distort it while trying to achieve it, the fact is that they do distort it. Which I would argue is inevitable. Maybe traditional masculinity is preferable to “traditional masculinity,” but we have every reason to assume men will end up with the latter rather than the former.
And this is a permanent problem for traditionalists: there is no guarantee that the pursuit of a traditional ideal actually gets you to that ideal, and in fact the pursuit itself is likely to lead to a outsized, exaggerated grotesque. It’s like people who try to believe in prehistoric religions in the contemporary world, the back-to-paganism movements that have popped up in the last several decades. They inevitably exaggerate the aspects of these practices that they see as the most primitive or wild, and in so doing end up not much like the traditional ideals at all.
The fetid swamp that produced Elliot Rodger includes endorsements of scientifically invalid “alpha male” theory, obsession with “T” (testosterone) as some sort of magical elixir, bizarre fixations on physiognomy…. Douthat is perfectly free to point out that these things have little to do with actual traditional masculinity. He is free to lament this corruption of the masculine ideal. I mean, in some ways I lament it too, though we will always disagree about the virtues of that real, traditional masculinity. But what frustrates me is that Douthat, on this issue and others, fails to convincingly argue that the conservative social mores he prefers could actually have been preserved into contemporary times, or could possibly be brought back into a beneficial form given our economy and our culture. If Douthat is frustrated by the left’s tendency to fail to see the negative consequences of the social evolutions that we ourselves have pushed, I’m frustrated by the failure of traditionalists and social conservatives to see the lines that extend from their preferences to where we are today. Maybe John Wayne shouldn’t have led to Scarface. But that’s what happened.
In any event: we are tasked with the enormous responsibility of trying to fix a virus within a substantial portion of men. It’s true that very few turn to a spree of misogynist violence in the way that Rodger did. But many, many more will act violently out of the conviction that this makes them manly or valuable, will commit acts of sexual coercion or rape or assault against women because they think they’re entitled to, will speak or act homophobically because they think that’s what men do…. And here’s where I have to be unfair to Douthat. Because whatever our disagreements, he is taking this challenge seriously. What makes it so much harder to confront these problems is that so, so few conservatives do. They instead spend so much time undermining and mocking and resisting and dismissing these problems as problems at all. If conservatives have some other, more conservative model for opposing this sick, destructive culture of idealized masculinity, then please, get out there and express it, instead of concern trolling and minimizing and distracting.
I wrote my piece in the immediate aftermath of six people being killed thanks to this revanchist masculinity movement and its effect on a broken person. Some people asked why I had to be so extreme– why destroy traditional masculinity, why not reform it, why use that kind of rhetorical violence? I am trying to match the stakes of what we’re fighting against here. I’ll say again: if this was the kind of thing our society chose to call terrorism, we would devote all of our resources to fighting it. Instead, the relentless push of the news cycle means the story is already fading away. Women have been telling us for years: they are forced to live in an environment of ubiquitous threat, threat of physical and sexual violence. And we got to the present through the past. So I am searching for a way forward against a current conception of masculinity that seems thoroughly corrupted and unfixable. If anyone has practical suggestions that we can implement to start to fix this terrible problem, I’m all ears, whether you call yourself conservative, liberal, radical, reactionary, or other. But we have to start fixing this and we have to start fixing it now, or more people are going to die. Because misogyny kills.