Men Overboard

Men Overboard

Why the right can never outgrow the masculinity crisis.

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The destruction of men in the West is the great story of the last 40 years,” declared conservative author and podcaster Ben Shapiro, during a recent appearance on Piers Morgan Uncensored. Shapiro was holding forth before a sympathetic audience, so he laid into the lead talking points of the cult of aggrieved maleness: resisting on pseudo-biological principles the notion that trans women are women, and decrying the sorry state of masculinity in mainstream discourse in the wake of the twin disasters of the sexual revolution and modern feminism. “The patriarchy was so clever that they somehow convinced women that sexual liberation was the most wonderful thing for women,” Shapiro said, “But as it turns out, it actually backfired and it ended up destroying men.”

This familiar lament rests on a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Shapiro and Morgan sternly agreed that there’s no real social foundation for the struggles and emotional dislocations of individuals (certainly if those individuals happened to be trans or feminist). Yet somehow the widespread social expectation of trans acceptance is a social scourge that threatens the foundations of patriarchal civilization. “I think that’s setting up a predicate for a broader ideological shift which is any problems you experience in your life are through no volition of your own or any action of your own,” Shapiro said, “You’re not responsible for your own actions. Society at large is responsible for your actions.”

Concealed within such laments is a telling concession: that as ideal-types of individualist success, men literally cannot afford to acknowledge forms of social value that exist outside themselves. This core tension perhaps explains what seems on the surface to be an unsustainable rhetoric of rudderless male victimization, one that seizes on feminists and trans people as antagonists—and alibis—of first resort. A totalized vision of heroic libertarian success ultimately must rest on an equally sweeping theory of individual failure. That’s the zero-sum logic of capitalist competition, and it courses through the otherwise incoherent and self-contradictory precepts of the new right-wing masculinism.

Any broader tour through contemporary speculation about why American men are demoralized reinforces this classic narrative of victimization: Men are hard-pressed to adapt to misguided and overzealous efforts to grant more social, economic, and political power to women. Many of these accounts are well-intentioned—which is why it’s all the more striking to note how regularly they land on the mores of gender equality as the explanation of first resort for male rage and despondency. In an interview with NPR, Richard Reeves, author of the 2022 book, Of Boys and Men, laid out this story of male displacement at the hands of higher-earning women: “In 1979, only 13 percent of women earned more than the average man” Reeves said. “Now, 40 percent of women earn more than the average man. Forty percent of U.S. households have a female breadwinner, quadruple the number a few decades ago. It’s very hard for our ideas of fatherhood, motherhood, masculinity, femininity, family life to adapt as quickly as the fundamental economics have changed.”

The same understanding of men as stubborn late-adapting members of the service and information economies occurs in debates over gun violence—a very male-coded social ill. One week after a 19-year-old American man murdered 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., The New York Times published an op-ed by comedian, author, and parent Michael Ian Black, titled “The Boys Are Not All Right.” Black explained that boys suffer great anxiety as a result of the rigidity of gender roles—particularly in contrast with the broader, more fluid terms of gender belonging on offer for girls. “The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America,” Black writes, “Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone”—while boys are generally left to try harder to be what they’ve traditionally been expected to be.

The accounts offered by Reeves and Black both highlight what’s seen as a critical tension: with women encroaching on traditionally male-driven spheres of self-assertion and economic power, men are increasingly at a loss to preserve an already embattled sense of gender identity. As Black writes, “It’s no longer enough to ‘be a man’—we no longer even know what that means.” This gets at a central unresolved dilemma in the conservative maleness debate, the basic adaptation gap at the root of all the others: women may have the freedom to be anything, but men have yet to address one of the most traditional threats to maleness under capitalism: how not to be a woman. And this is the core trouble with the identity of capital-M Men: It ultimately rests on the negation of female identity.

In the view of manhood as non-womanhood, men are required to establish their identity by being anti-woman. Men must vigilantly face down the amorphous and ever-growing threat of feminization—a specter haunting virtually every facet of contemporary American life. This is why masculinist thinkers so adamantly insist that the dominant strain of today’s gender discourse imperils maleness and exacerbates male grievance. But if a man’s gender identity is not such a static, zero-sum proposition, then the alleged crisis in masculinity starts to look quite different, and so do its solutions.

Instead of retrofitting the core dictates of masculinity to fit the times, maybe American boys can adopt a more gender-fluid basis for their identity, and finally relinquish the need to measure their behavior and cultural expectations against an ideal-type vision of what it means to be a capital-M Man. Unloosening the grip of such notions can at long last induce men to relinquish the typically doomed American male quest to live up to fictitious notions of masculinity. The social construction of the idealized Man as a “tough,” “independent,” bastion of strength and heroic self-assertion creates a host of damaging distortions in how men face real-life challenges.

Consider the realm of health care. Despite the subsidies and benefits that the Affordable Care Act affords to Americans in need of health care, men are more likely than women to disapprove of the law, chiefly on the grounds that it jeopardizes core notions of self-reliance and independence at the heart of the American masculinist myth. Research has also demonstrated that perceptions of manhood negatively correlate to men’s reliance on preventive health care services. One 2011 study showed that men between the ages of 18 and 64 who don’t have either ongoing serious health issues or a spouse encouraging them to access health care will typically bypass it; they are more apt to lack a regular health provider or schedule an annual physical exam. These men embody masculine beliefs by going to work sick and pushing through pain, hewing to the myth that such risky behaviors are simply what real men are expected to do. This renders the performance of manliness a deadly form of masochism—one that sanctions senseless, self-imposed suffering for the sake of showing that it can be endured. Men need suffering to endure to prove they can endure suffering.

But this brand of heroism also must rely on some bedrock tropes of victimization. So in spite of their allegiance to such mock stoicism, grievance-minded men still rush to indict women as the ultimate cause of their woes. Even when they don’t directly blame their declining fortunes on women, they resort to the broader claim that their own beleaguered condition disproves the persistence of patriarchy. Hence alt-right para-intellectual Jordan Peterson, for example, dismissed the notion of a “male-dominated patriarchy” in a 2018 interview with British GQ: “In what sense is our society male-dominated? A huge proportion who are seriously disaffected are men. Most people in prison are men. Most people who are on the street are men. Most victims of violent crime are men. Most people who commit suicide are men. Most people who die in wars are men.”

Peterson’s misleading tour of the male misery index pointedly avoids addressing just what drives so many men to embrace violence—including violence against themselves. If you unpack Peterson’s glib reference to suicide rates, for example, you quickly discover that men are four times more likely than women to die by suicide while women are three times more likely to attempt suicide. This disparity tracks gender roles that respectively sanction violence as self-assertion and private suffering as the psychic price of caregiving. And the difference grow starker when you examine the means of suicide: Among the 48,152 American suicides logged in 2021, 26,328 involved self-inflicted gunshots; in that group, 22,936 of those incidents—roughly 87 percent—were male suicides. The data shows armed men are not only a threat to themselves but also a threat to society at large, as men are disproportionately perpetrators of violent crime. According to FBI data, 694,050 violent crimes were committed in 2021. Approximately 50 percent of the victims of violent crimes were men—yet men made up 76 percent of violent-crime offenders. (This data also shows that violent men disproportionately victimize women, another demographic trend that completely undercuts Peterson’s claim that men are disproportionately on the receiving end of violent crime and not typically perpetrators of it.)

Here again, the direct connection between rigid canons of masculine conduct and threats to the well-being of men is all too plain. With firearms representing such a disproportionate threat to men seeking to harm either one another or themselves, basic mandates of self-preservation would seem to mandate robust male support for reasonable curbs on gun ownership. Yet of course the opposite is true: According to Gallup, American men are roughly twice as likely as American women to own a gun (44 percent versus 22 percent), and 62 percent of women feel gun laws should be made stricter, in comparison with 51 percent of men. Polls also show that the gender divide on gun safety transcends political affiliation: Half of Republican women favor an assault weapons ban and only one-quarter of Republican men.

In a 2020 essay for The Gender Policy Report, Craig Rood writes that narratives of “protection” as a fundamental attribute of male identity contribute directly to gun violence. Rood cites a 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center finding that 67 percent of gun owners said “protection” was the reason for owning firearms; by contrast, a 1999 poll disclosed that just 26 percent of gun owners said they owned guns for that reason. “Men have been taught to assume the role of protector,” Rood writes, “and they have been taught that guns are the best means of ensuring protection against ‘them’: ‘bad’ people entering our homes, communities, or country.”

Even a cursory glimpse of America’s history demonstrates the problem with typecasting men as “protectors.” Enslaved Black males were not seen as “men,” since white supremacy and enslavement foreclosed their ability to protect their wives and children from rape and the auction block. Does this mean, in the reasoning of today’s masculinist right, that enslaved Black males were not men? In reality, both white and Black maleness remain steeped in the legacy of violent male impunity. As Frantz Fanon says in Black Skin, White Masks, “The disaster of the man of color lies in the fact that he was enslaved. The disaster and the inhumanity of the white man lie in the fact that somewhere he has killed man. And even today they subsist, to organize this dehumanization rationally.”

Some critics have sought to overcome the deep-seated distempers of male identity by proposing a dramatic upgrade in gender expectations for men, advancing a model of masculinity both strong and sensitive, assertive and collaborative, dominant and yielding. But this vision largely remains a pipe dream, since the ideals of male identity are so deeply anchored in binary opposition to female ones: If the ideal man is strong, the ideal woman is docile. Where the ideal man is aggressive, the ideal woman demurs.

The limitations of this prescriptive brand of male reform are, ironically enough, much like Peterson’s litany of male grievance: long on rhetoric, short on actual lived experience. To take just one example, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang confidently proposed an end-run around blocked male pathology when published his own “The Boys Are Not Alright” op-ed for The Washington Post in 2022. “We must stop defining masculinity as necessarily toxic and start promoting positive masculinity,” Yang writes. “Strong, healthy, fulfilled men are more likely to treat women well.” Well, sure; strong, healthy, fulfilled people are probably going to treat their partners well.

Had Yang ended his corrective at “we must stop defining masculinity,” he would have come closer to the point. Instead, of engaging with the core question of whether masculinity is necessarily toxic, Yang ends up endorsing a vision of “positive” masculinity that occupies the same level of idealized abstraction that traditional masculinity does. What does “strong” mean in this context—and who are the gatekeepers who define just what virtues make up “positive masculinity”?

Like many such pronouncements, Yang’s argument supposes that male identity is effectively served up at a cultural condiment bar. Wounded and hostile men can simply order up different core elements of their identities, now that the undifferentiated forces of gender affiliation are granting permission for them to cry, to go to therapy, and have feelings.

In lieu of adopting Yang’s model of masculinity as a glorified college elective, many young men gravitate toward Shapiro and Peterson’s masculinist politics of all-purpose cultural affront. The high-profile community of online “incels” (short for “involuntary celibate”) take the grievance litany to its logical extreme, and hold women to blame for all of their struggles and failures. They are thus hermetically insulated from ever having to acknowledge that their sexism might correlate with their sexless lives, so they blame women for being alternately prudish and promiscuous. In her 2018 New Yorker essay “The Rage of the Incels,” Jia Tolentino cites one poster to an Incel message board insisting, “Women are the ultimate cause of our suffering,” while noting that this sentiment can double as a license to kill: “Incels dream of beheading the sluts who wear short shorts but don’t want to be groped by strangers.”

The vast range of harms sanctioned by the unyielding logic of masculinity as a defining cultural force should prompt some serious reckoning with how and why male expression takes on such militant and eliminationist contours. Perhaps instead of waging across-the-board culture wars against gay, female, and trans identity, we could disarm some of the raging energy of unreconciled maleness with a reinvented masculinity that transcends its longtime binary rejection of putative femininity. This original sin of masculinist identity all too readily translates into the violent repudiation of women—including trans women.

It’s admittedly hard to envision such a thing in a culture-war discourse so heavily invested in the idea of imperiled maleness, but a good place to start might be a frank acknowledgment of how much of this peril is self-imposed among gender-anxious men. Indeed, pace Reeves and Yang, boys and men in America are not all right—not because women are outearning them or outperforming them in some mythic sphere of gender fluidity. No, American boys and men are suffering because an American culture that outlines how to perform manliness following a solitary, stoic script of violent self-assertion is ruinous. If men relieve themselves from shackles of masochism and chauvinism anchored in this gendered ideology, they might learn that the most crucial role we could play in society is to free ourselves from this fundamentally unrewarding and self-harming image of ourselves. We can start by envisioning the crisis of masculinity as less a gendered one—inherently antagonistic to the economic and social empowerment of women—and more as a fundamental malady of capitalist economic competition and the libertarian American culture that underwrites it.

After all, if men view themselves as the cornerstone of American culture and success, wouldn’t that mean American society has a vested interest in cooperation instead of reinforcing the predatory logic of financial competition? If men are genuinely vital to the rearing of children, we should also affirm that role by lessening the financial burdens and economic anxieties that come with the “protective” role of breadwinner, and opening up full access to basic supports such as health care and family leave. If we put our collective money where our rhetoric of gender equity is, we can help ensure men will have material incentives to spend time at home with children.

The challenge to all current partisans in today’s gender conflicts is to grasp how much gender fluidity shapes all our identities. Once this basic truth sinks in at a deeper level, men might at last be ready to meet the challenge posed long ago by Simone de Beauvoir: to understand women not as the opposite sex but as the neighboring one. If men can move past the hoary and delusive notion that being like a women is an existential threat to their own gender identity, they can embrace the corollary truth that the liberation of women, and gay and nonbinary people, is part and parcel of the liberation of men from the many unacknowledged ravages of their own gender identity.

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