John Wayne and “John Wayne”

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.

22 Comments

  1. I’m unclear on why Douthat’s program for re-introducing X notion about masculine identify would be any more difficult to achieve than yours for destroying traditional masculinity.

    Neither of you have explicitly presented mechanisms for how this would be achieved, nor the general outlines of what the campaign of cultural reform would look like. My suspicion is that, were you to present a handful of things that people and larger social institutions could do to affect the destruction of traditional masculinity, Douthat could turn around and just say, yea, let’s do that, but go another step and replace it with this other thing instead.

    The deeper disagreement seems to be over the merits of propagating a negative culture (don’t treat people like x, don’t act entitled to y, don’t try to impose norms of identity and behavior) vs. propagating a positive one (be like this, act like this, etc.)

  2. The kind of masculinity that kills won’t be reformed until guys are taught and shamed out of it by their parents, family, friends (and maybe most crucially) other guys. Other forms of hate became less prevalent because we decided to make it socially unacceptable, to make it so that if you said racist and anti-Semitic shit everyone around you would (rightly) treat you as if you were a leper. Saying shit like “no means yes and yes means anal” to normalize or minimize violence against women shouldn’t occasion a hearty chuckle, polite laughter, embarrassed silence but everone around him angrily confronting him about what an evil asshole he is. Until we make guys who do this or condone it/laugh at it social fucking pariahs, it won’t change, and it has to because women have lived with this for too long. We either decide this is important enough to stop that we’re willing to call out our own friends and family, or we should stop pretending in typical fake-liberal fashion that we actually give a shit about it.

  3. Re: “no means yes and yes means anal”

    This is your understanding of what ‘traditional masculinity’ is, is it?

    1. It’s my understanding of what traditional masculinity often gets up to when it’s stressed, drunk, or doesn’t get what it wants when it wants it.

  4. Though I think you have a solid thesis given the facts you assume, I don’t really think the world is as you describe it.

    I know it’s verboten to say “not all men,” but the mockery of that kind of observation is just a cheap rhetorical trick you have rightfully questioned in this very blog. You simply don’t see guys talking about “obsession with “T” (testosterone) as some sort of magical elixir, bizarre fixations on physiognomy” and the like unless you seek them out. This kind of stuff doesn’t show up on the radar of even the cheekiest men’s magazines. “Incels” are similarly extremely fringe; I dare you find one in real life without first seeking them out in their online hangouts. What you have is a tiny, weird, subculture brought into the public eye by a vicious act of violence.

    It’s a great boogeyman, but this obsession about phony science and resentment doesn’t really say much about what 99% of men think about “masculinity.” Raging against these men is easy, but it doesn’t really say much about the culture at large or the behavior of your average man.

    The truth is that courtship, dating and marriage continues apace. Men who aren’t getting laid are not mass killers waiting to happen. There is no epidemic of guys getting plastic surgery to fix their jaws and browlines. Rape has decreased dramatically like all violent crime in the US, even as reporting has increased.

    Far, far more men are piously, publicly nodding at the feminist hashtag activism in an attempt to get social justice cred, just like those TNC sycophants you wrote about a few days ago.

    There will always be an angry subset of people drawn to extremist explanations for their plight, some of whom will be violent. Using these PUAs, PUA-haters and other small bands of disturbed idiots to talk about modern masculinity is like interpreting the communiques of the Bader-Meinhof gang as a guide to how the Social Democrats will allocate the transport budget.

    1. This is a great comment. You’re articulating a lot of problems with the post-Isla Vista discourse far better than I have.

  5. The notion of “tradition” is the trap here. I think a better approach would be ideological masculinity or perhaps even ideology of gender, since “traditional masculinity” implies some sort of “traditional femininity” – something women didn’t get to define. Of course, none of these things actually exist. There are lots of “traditions” for being one thing or another. “Traditional” men (pre-post-modern) did of course make conscious choices about joining masculine traditions – like, for example, the Catholic priesthood or the U.S. Marines. Or fraternities, for that matter. All of which involved various rites of initiation and acceptance of dogmas and clearly defined roles.

    In any case, discussions of tradition are always ideological. So look at winners and losers and follow the money.

    As for the “destruction of traditional masculinity” I would suggest the empirical study of social and economic systems where women are treated decently and seeing what might be learned thereby. There are also policy choices that could be put into effect such as standards of policing and more open voter registration and extended voting hours – i.e., making it easier to working class women to vote.

  6. 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.

    My first reaction to the John Wayne example was similar, but after thinking about it a bit I really wasn’t so sure that the simple fact that he is explicitly performing is really that important. He was performing an ideal of masculinity that the society around him thought men should perform.

    I doubt that you could even find an example of idealized masculinity that isn’t performative to some extent. Isn’t that the nature of any ideal? That we use it as a model for behavior that is, at least sometimes, contrary to our unconscious inclinations? Even those behaviors which become unconscious are learned by modeling our parents in childhood. In other words, part of how we become who we are is by performing the person we think we are supposed to be.

    But the problem is that any ideal of masculinity will by necessity include some characteristics that leave some men feeling inadequate. As long as the ultimate expression of masculinity is dominance, some of these men will seek to overcome their sense of inadequacy through the simplest form of dominance; violence against women and other men.

    The traditional norms espoused by Douthat are certainly preferable to PUA bullshit, but when they were the ideal men still hit women, men still felt sexual entitlement and men still attacked other men for deviations from this ideal (queer bashing was a thing after all).

    So I think the solution should be to have ideals that fail gracefully. When someone feels inadequate, we don’t want violence to be an emotionally appealing way to assert yourself. One step in this direction would be discipline on the part of all of us to not glorify dominance, particularly dominance achieved through violence. I don’t think shaming will work, because shame just damages the psyche of the shamed and makes a destructive reaction more likely. I do think refusing to tolerate behavior is important, it just has to be done in a way that isn’t meant to crush the person engaging in the behavior. Basically, we want to make sure that (1) feelings of inadequacy don’t lead to violence and (2) that people who feel inadequate are able to be healed rather than damaged further.

  7. Hey Fredrik,

    I just wanted to say I am really loving your writing lately. I have been following you ever since I read your piece on Syria in Jacobin.

    Thanks for putting this out there,

    Ben

  8. The thing is, the ideal of “traditional masculinity” may have been present in flickering ways in some lives, but what happens to people given authority inside of houses is not usually ideal.

    I’m old enough to have spent my childhood in the atmosphere of John Wayne masculinity (1950s, 1960s), and while no doubt there were people who consistently enacted the “good” masculine without having recourse to the tyrannical and self-serving masculine, I didn’t personally know any of them. The “good” traditional masculinity denied the full humanity of female people, openly and without guilt. And when female people objected to this, the “good” masculinity could turn punitive, as it still does, as you acutely wrote.

    You can see plenty of “good” traditional masculinity in any patriarchal culture. All is fine until some girl or woman wants something for herself, of her own– then the “good” masculinity feels justified in punishing her or, in extreme cases, killing her.

    I didn’t want to be “protected” then, don’t want to be “protected” now. I just want to be able to live a fully human, recognized life under my own power, in my own way. And I don’t want others to feel justified in punishing me for this. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it’s everything, and it’s still not quite in reach.

  9. One more thing– I review YA fiction and fiction for middle-grade readers. One thing I’ve noticed is that writers are picking up on a strain of thinking / feeling in our culture that very much relates to this. There is a story out there that keeps finding different (often supernatural) ways of being told, and it’s this: The traditional masculinity (powerful male father or lover, absolutely generous, not selfish, there to serve those in his charge) is envisioned, and along with it is envisioned the girl who can master it– who is so essentially wonderful that the powerful male will do her bidding– will be her agent. Once again, her agency is in the being of another, is not her own– but her sexuality (often not actualized in the stories) is a force so powerful that she is safe in putting herself in the hands of this powerful male figure, more than safe– she is as powerful as he is, as she directs him.
    This is, to my mind, a sign of how women sigh against the “traditional” feminist idea that women are simply human beings, no more magical or precious than others but also no less their own, no less entitled to respect and agency. That position has little magic in it. I certainly do not fault writers who create these stories– they are doing what writers ought to do: they are channeling the spirit, the zeitgeist, of their culture and creating forms in which we can see, mirrored, our desires.
    I would hope that we women would not be fooled in surrendering our own lives, workaday and challenging and frightening as they may be, in return for a mess of wishful thinking about our magical hoohaws, but hey– what’s easier?

  10. “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.”

    This strikes me as wrong in a couple of ways.

    1) The implication is that we’d be better off if we reacted to this kind of thing in the way we react to terrorism, that the post-terrorism mindset is justified and productive as a call to action. But as we’ve seen, the post-terrorism mindset is actually a pathology that leads to ruinous overreaction.

    2) Yes, the story of this single guy who went on a killing spree motivated by hatred of women is fading, but that’s because its sui generis. The problems of misogyny and rape and domestic abuse, at least as they manifest themselves in 99 percent of situations, are something different than the Santa Barbara killer. And efforts to stop misogyny and rape and domestic violence are not going to be forgotten. They’re constants that a lot of people are thankfully invested in.

    3) And these efforts are bearing fruit. Rape is down, not up. Domestic violence is taken much more seriously than it was even a couple decades ago. This doesn’t reduce the urgency of attacking the ills of which we’re speaking. But let’s not talk as if things are worse than ever and no one cares. That is true of some problems. It isn’t true of this problem.

    1. The point that many women have been making, ever since this incident, is precisely that it is not sui generis, but rather that Rodger is the extreme end of a continuum of behaviors and attitudes from men that affect them every day of their lives. If you haven’t already, read the Jezebel post about PUAHate linked to above. The fact that almost none of the men who post there will go on to acts of violence similar to those of Rodger does not change the fact that there is incredible misogyny and violence built into these attitudes, and these impact women in myriad ways.

    2. #1 is very astute. In fact, I’d say there’s a certain similarity in discursive slippage, if you compare those trying to repackage the murder of 4 men and 2 women as a conversation about misogyny, and those who tried to repackage 9/11 as a conversation about toppling Saddam Hussein.

      1. The “four men, only two women” argument is one of the weakest against the current received wisdom about the Rodger shootings. Whatever the sex of his casualties, the spree was – and he spelled this out in detail himself – the result of a worldview based on a ruthless battle of all against all for the possession and control of women. He did not calibrate the number of victims per sex to an apportionment of blame.

        That being said, the 9/11 comparison is apt for other reasons. Somehow, a guy on a site called PUAHate represents PUAs themselves, plus the spectrum of MRAs, who range for traditionalists to people with very specific (and very occasionally reasonable) issues with the family court system.

        As in 2001, outraged people demanded somebody “do something” and the media/bloggerati turned to the people who were already doing something in that general neighborhood. But those claiming to be already on the case had a pre-existing agenda. That’s why you see articles about Rodger referencing Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, trans issues and pornography. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you have is fourth-wave snark and hashtag activism, everything looks like a frat boy dudebro.

        1. Again, I agree with the gist of your comment. However, I am not seeing what makes pointing to the actual fatalities in this crime the “weakest argument against the received wisdom.” I am startled as to how quickly everyone is shrugging off the 4 minority male victims as immaterial.

          First of all, from what I understand, if you go back through Rodger’s entire corpus of online scribblings and self-recorded rants, he articulates hatred for a great many groups besides women. Minority men — especially asian men — are frequently mentioned.

          Secondly, the discursive preoccupation with the rant (which, in and of itself, killed no one) as opposed to the actual killing spree (which killed 6, or 7 if you include Rodger) reveals a disturbing lack of empathy for the real victims of this crime. Imagine a KKK fanatic recording himself ranting against the jews, and then proceeding to murder two people at a synagogue and 4 people at a black church. Now imagine that the entire online millennial commentariat proceeded to spend the next two weeks discussing this crime as purely an “antisemitic crime”, and basically never acknowledging that the majority of the victims fit a different profile. Imagine the clickbaity articles: “Let’s Call This Crime What It Was: Antisemitic Extremism.” This would be what I am calling “lack of empathy for the actual victims.” It surprises me that I have to put forward this analogy.

    3. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BPkMimVCAAA_kql.jpg:large

      I think the stats above are a problem that requires an urgent response. Whether you liken it to 9/11 or not, I don’t care. Whether it makes you feel more sanguine or not that it might be getting better, I don’t care. Whether some people sometimes feel bad about it, I don’t care. We have millions of women being battered by men every year, and a woman getting beaten by a man every 15 seconds. That seems like a massive human problem which should occasion shock and massive social outcry, discussion, and resolution to do something about it. I’m 47 years old, and I have not seen that level of massive social response to this problem, ever. The point of the post was to note the lack of that kind of response and to help start provoking it. I’d be glad to hear how you would like to provoke it if you don’t like his way, but I just hear standard-issue armchair tut-tutting about rhetoric and pride that our “efforts are bearing fruit.” That’s pretty weak sauce and won’t cut it, period.

      1. Rhetorically waving your hands around and demanding something must be done is useless. Claiming that whether the numbers are up or down doesn’t matter because they’re big willfully refuses to engage in the debate here. Freddie, Dreher and Douthat are all arguing over the causes of this particular incident and trying to figure out where it fits in the larger story of gendered violence. Part of that is seeing how those numbers change over time with changes in society. If the numbers are going down, then perhaps we are doing something right and should do more of it. If the numbers are going up, we may need to reverse course.

        Simply claiming extreme urgency and dismissing any response besides “shock and massive social outcry” as too weak leads to weak reasoning and possible unintended consequences. It was a similar style of argumentation that lead to not just the Iraq War, but the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity and the Red Scare.

  11. I was literally starting to type a response to this when a mass shooting at Seattle Pacific U came on my TV. I live in western Washington state and want to see how this plays out before I say anymore.

  12. How come the conversation after Isla Vista asserts ad infinitum that Rodger’s crime was first and foremost a crime of “misogynist violence” or “misogynist extremism” and never acknowledges that 4 of Rodger’s 6 victims were minority men? This is a discursive blind spot. It exhibits a peculiar lack of empathy.

  13. I don’t think this is a helpful way to look at it. I’m trying to think of ways to convey this without penning a long, rambling comment. How about, one should never delineate broad social categories and make sweeping social statements based on an action by a profoundly disturbed individual. I would think that goes without saying, but apparently it still needs to be said.

    Misogyny needs to be defeated. That statement stands on its own and all decent people subscribe to it. Invoking behavior on the extreme tail of the bell curve does not illuminate the problem nor tell us anything useful on how to proceed. What I’m reading in these two posts reminds me, sad to say, of 9/11 Trutherism. Bush and Cheney are awful people, the evidence for that statement is abundant. Truthers are frustrated, however, because not everybody can see what they see, so they very fervently wish to believe in a story that paints Bush and Cheney as so very, very evil that it’s beyond imagining. If they can just get everybody to see that Bush and Cheney arranged the controlled implosion of the Twin Towers…

    Good riddance to misogyny but, honestly, Elliot Rodger’s got nothing to do with it. Just today we’re learning more about Aaron Ybarra, who attempted a similar mass murder yesterday. Reportedly he was a pleasant, friendly, sociable guy. Hmm, that doesn’t fit with our loner profile. So what now, destroy friendliness and sociability in all its forms? He cited God on his Facebook page, what do we do with that? He also seems to have enjoyed CSI and Criminal Minds. That one fit in with one of my personal prejudices; I’ve long felt that shows of that type, with their hackneyed plots and extreme moralism, are really a form of violent pornography and as a society we’d be better off without them, but that’s just me. And so far nobody’s turned up any extreme anti-female sentiments in this guy’s history, though of course it’s still early.

    So how does Aaron Ybarra fit into the bigger scheme? That’s the problem with drawing conclusions about broad social problems from the most extreme behaviors.

    Death to misogyny. Did I mention that? But if your opening play to the people whose behavior you’d like to change is, “you’re all accomplices to mass murder,” you’re going to meet, uh, resistance. What you have to understand about “not all men” is that people who invoke it are trying to tell you something. They’re saying, “what I heard from you is that I’m an accomplice to mass murder and I don’t recognize that in myself.” Leave aside for the moment whether you think it’s a bad faith argument or he badly misunderstood you; that’s what he’s telling you. If you want to reach him you’re going to have to listen to that. And it doesn’t matter if he’s coming from a place of tremendous historical privilege. It doesn’t matter if he really should shut up and listen (really, he should). You are the one reaching out, so you’re simply also going to have to listen if you want to get anywhere.

    Forget Elliot Rodger. His parents reportedly tried to get through to him long before he even reached puberty, to no avail. He was beyond help. You aren’t trying to reach people who are batshit and beyond help, so somebody who is is not very instructive.

    I also found your use of “traditional masculinity” and what comprises it problematic but as you’ve addressed it at least in part I’ll leave it aside for now.

    Looks like I was long and rambling after all. Anyway, keep plugging away.

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