Toxic Masculinity

Jun 28, 2018

TAA 0026 – C. Travis Webb, Seph Rodney, and Steven Fullwood discuss “toxic masculinity.” What do healthy models of masculinity look like, and is it possible to be manly without being misogynist?

[music] 
C.T. WEBB 00:18  Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening, and welcome to the American Age Podcast. Today, I’m talking to Steven and Seph again. Steven and Seph, how are you guys? 
S. FULLWOOD 00:26  Pretty good. How are you? 
S. RODNEY 00:27  I’m not bad. I’m kind of tired of traveling but I’m good. 
C.T. WEBB 00:32  You were just in Chicago, yes? 
S. RODNEY 00:34  Yes, indeed I was. Chicago, I have to say, it’s a beautiful city. It actually reminds me a bit of Manchester in the UK in that it’s a kind of city that, whoever designed it had foresight. They did a really good job in predicting how the city might grow. The avenues are wide, the way the city is laid out makes sense. Even though Chicago has horrible traffic, just walking through the city, I felt like, “Oh, this place actually kind of works in a way that I actually feel like New York does not in certain places.” So there’s that. 
C.T. WEBB 01:24  Okay. Yeah. I think it’s a beautiful city in the summer. I mean six months out of the year, it’s just not a place to be for anything less than emperor penguins and polar bears. 
S. FULLWOOD 01:42  I remember going to Chicago once and I was just laughing because we were in a car and it was so cold, and the heat was blasting, and we were rolling down the highway, and I said, “Why am I still so cold? I just laughed, just a maniacal laugh. I said, “I can’t understand why we’re so fucking cold.” 
S. RODNEY 01:58  It don’t make no damn sense, right? 
S. FULLWOOD 02:00  It just didn’t. Right. But apparently it did and it does. And I just couldn’t deal with it, so. 
S. RODNEY 02:06  There you are. 
C.T. WEBB 02:07  So Steven, today’s topic – well, and Seph – but today’s topic is toxic masculinity. And Steven, I know you had some thoughts or some questions to kind of frame the discussion, so you want to lead us into that? 
S. RODNEY 02:19  Sure, sure. Absolutely. So the other night, I was actually in Florida – I just got back today – and I was staying with some friends and I was thinking about the ways in which some males think, some men think and I was thinking about the situation with immigrant families and I was thinking about the way we’re being governed and I was also thinking about a couple friends of mine who are fairly straight ahead, “Men do this, women do this,” kind of thing at the expense of everything else. And then that’s when I sent you and Seph a text about everything is expendable to keep the mask in place when it comes to what I define as toxic masculinity, which, for me, is it’s sort of an antiquated way of looking at the ways in which gender roles are played out. The assumption of power, one person has power because he is masculine, he’s a male. And I’ve just seen this kind of thing happen in the political scene, but also with families and with friends, and I just go, “I’d really love to talk about it with two cis, heterosexual men and to see what you guys think about toxic masculinity, how you define it, how you reject it, maybe consider it.” I have a lot of things to say about it but just kind of want to get you guy thinking how does toxic masculinity– what is it to you guys? Does it exist to you guys? 
C.T. WEBB 03:49  Yeah. For sure. Seph, I’ll let you go. 
S. FULLWOOD 03:53  Okay. All right. Great. Thank you. Because I actually do have quite a bit to say about this. But I want to start off with just a small anecdote. And it’s something that I mentioned, I may have mentioned to both you and Steven before, but I know I’ve had this conversation recently. And I’m blanking on who I had it with but I talked about what it was like to grow up in the kind of family I grew up in, that is in a very sort of straight ahead masculinist kind of Judeo-Christian sprinkled on top kind of sense of being a man that I got from my Jamaican parents. I was Jamaican, I was born there, but I grew up Jamaican in that way. And for people who are listening, if you know Jamaican folks, working-class, middle-class Jamaican folks, you know what I’m talking about. Very rigid social roles. But I was lucky in that when I was 16, 17, when I was in college, I met two men who were also in the elements program at Long Island University, Brooklyn campus, Lawrence Harding and Damien Harrington – Damien, who now goes by Mingus – who are still two of my closest friends and they’re both gay men. And I said to someone– oh, now I remember. Yeah. I had an interview with someone in upstate New York a couple weeks back and I said one of the things that I felt deeply, deeply lucky about was that, despite that kind of family environment, I learned to quote Mingus about my supple emotional needs by being around these men. They gave me permission to be softer, they gave me permission to be intellectual, they gave me permission not to perform for anyone, to recognize that what I was doing in some instances was performing for people, especially for my father. Because I had those formative relationships, specifically with gay men, I feel like I am blessed to not be unduly burdened. I’m still burdened by it, but not unduly burdened by this notion of masculinity that is about– I’m in control, I know what I’m doing, I will [inaudible] no argument. I am an alpha and this is my territory and you will not encroach on it or you will feel my wrath. All of that bullshit I don’t feel the need to perform. I generally don’t do it. I mean, of course, there are moments when I am angry and there are moments when I am territorial and I have moments when I am very [inaudible] declarative about my position, but I do it from a place of moral and intellectual conviction. Not from a place of, “This is what needs to be because I am a man,” and I am grateful for that. Travis? 
C.T. WEBB 07:27  Yeah. I don’t have nearly as good a story as that because I don’t– so Steven and I had talked a couple weeks ago about stories that we tell, stories about ourselves. And I mean I was certainly– I was physically pretty small as a kid. I mean at some point, I hit a growth spurt, but I was a small fry, smaller than most of the kids around me. And very much– 
S. RODNEY 08:01  As was I. 
C.T. WEBB 08:01  But very much had a dad– my dad was just kind of, “Get back in there and work it out sort of thing.” If things were sort of rough and tumble in the neighborhoods that I lived in, which they were sometimes – I mean it’s not like I grew up in a war zone or something like that – but I grew up in a fairly aggressive neighborhood or a few different aggressive neighborhoods until I was older until we moved into part of LA county when I was a little bit older. So I don’t know why I also don’t really feel the need, as Seph very articulately put it, I don’t feel the need to piss on the boundaries of my territory. And I mean that in sort of the display of pissing on things. The things that I do stand firm on are the things that, at least I think, I arrive at because of intellectual or moral conviction. Now, of course, undoubtedly, there are holes in that and there are times that I don’t react from that space. And I have to say that having two sons – and older one is 21 now – there were definitely times when my oldest was growing up that I felt a little bit of sort of that simian challenge and felt the impulse to respond in more aggressive ways like, “This is this way because I say it is.” And of course, sometimes that happened, but most of the time when it did happen or I would feel that impulse, it would be something I was aware of and something I could back off on or something I could kind of talk through. And so other than feeling like I need to do my best to provide for my family and be upstanding with my friends, right, there are a number of what I would call sort of virtuous male traits that I definitely try to embody and I try to own. And I think, to take it into a larger context, maybe broaden out the conversation, I think that we don’t have a lot of good stories about men right now. I think we have a lot of stories about men and part of what is happening in the country right now is you have a lot of men that are unmoored from positive stories of masculinity. 
S. RODNEY 10:44  Yeah. Which is why they’re flocking to stupid people like Jordan Peterson, right? 
C.T. WEBB 10:48  That’s right. So I don’t feel the reaction to Jordan Peterson– 
S. RODNEY 10:50  Okay. He’s not stupid. He’s not stupid but he’s– 
C.T. WEBB 10:53  Yeah. I don’t feel the Jordan Peterson– yeah. I don’t necessarily agree with a number of his positions, at least the ones that I’m aware of, but I take Jordan Peterson at his word that he is actually concerned with sort of the crisis of social cohesion right now. And maybe his approach isn’t right but I think he’s serious about what he’s doing. 
S. FULLWOOD 11:16  Okay. Fair enough. 
S. RODNEY 11:19  So I was thinking– thank you both for kind of giving me a sensibility, an anecdotal sensibility about masculinity. So when I was growing up, for example, it occurred to me around 16 or 17 that everybody, every male, teachers, relatives, any random male had a right to sort of tell me to act a certain way, “Sit up straight. Don’t act like a pussy. You look like you’ve got a little sugar in your tank. Man up.” And I remember thinking that even my language was sort of being curved. I remember seeing a dog when I was a kid and I was like, “Oh, the dog is cute.” And my uncle goes, “Cute? Cute?” And I remember thinking, as a kid – I was maybe 6 or 7 – thinking, what was the infraction here? It’s a cute dog. Okay. Subjectively, but it made me– he was like, “No, no, girls say cute. You ain’t a sissy, are you?” And I remember thinking, “No, I’m not a sissy but I don’t know even know what that is.” It’s just something that wasn’t– so I was thinking about that sort of regulation and what I consider to be a sort of toxic masculinity, that I’m sure if my father had heard these men say this to me, he would have agreed with them and he would have confirmed that. Because he was also trying at home – the home boy training was similar to the training outside in the community. I wanted to know a little bit about your growing up because I know, Travis, you kind of touched on it, and I do agree with you – we don’t have a lot of great stories right now about men. At least not any transformative ones, so. 
C.T. WEBB 12:55  Yeah. So my mom, Seph and I joke about this all the time, my mom is tough as shit too. My mom is very much like, “Get up off your associated and get back in there,” kind of thing too, so. But that’s also my mom. So for me, I see resiliency and toughness as universal, desirable human traits. I don’t map that onto gender at all. At a base emotional level, I don’t do that. That’s not something I had to untrain. I am for that kind of resiliency across the board, and not in the, “You’re a pussy,” kind of way. That’s shaming, right. That’s not at all what I’m talking about. 
S. RODNEY 13:45  No, I completely get it. Yeah. Absolutely. 
C.T. WEBB 13:48  And it’s always– just to wrap up, you had brought up, obviously, there is some issues around that with homosexuality in the place that you grew up. To me, I always– and again, this is an emotional response, not a psychological– so I want to be clear that I didn’t arrive at this through some sort of intellectual parsing. But I just do not map where you want to put your dick like that has anything to do with masculinity. That has nothing to do with it for me. At a really gut-level, it just doesn’t register for me as– even though I understand that, clearly, it’s tightly [inaudible] with masculinity in the west [laughter]. It’s like, “What does it have to do with anything?” I just don’t get it. 
S. FULLWOOD 14:42  Go ahead, Steven. You’re going to say something. 
S. RODNEY 14:46  So what I was going to say was – earlier – I’m so glad you made that distinction, though, Travis, so glad you made that distinction, because I don’t think it is even about sexuality. I think it’s about power. I think it’s about being able to shape someone else’s world based on your assumptions of the way it should be or the way you think it should be. And it can be backed up by religion, it can be backed up by politics and all these other things, but I think the stakes are higher for people who are not heterosexual. That’s all I will say. Because everyone is performing something. Ru Paul said everything is drag, and I remember him saying that and I thought that was really funny because I was thinking, yeah, it just decentralizes this idea that there is one or two ways to be in the world. But, yeah, go ahead, Seph. I just wanted to say that. Thank you for that, Travis. 
S. FULLWOOD 15:34  Well, yeah. One of the things, too, that I’m pleasantly reminded of when I listen to Travis speak is – okay, and I can say this because we’re friends – slightly annoyed by too [laughter], is the way that he will couch things that he’s asserting with some caveats, with some provisos. He’ll say, “Clearly, this doesn’t always happen for me, blah, blah, blah,” and the thing is, what I like about that is it reminds me to do that. because I think what I did when I presented the story I did a few minutes ago, it made me sound like I just sort of burst out of these formative relationships with Lawrence and Mingus into this full-blown, fully-realized, “I can be anybody I want to be,” kind of thing. And of course, it was not like that. I struggled during my 20s and my 30s. I mean I’m 47 now and it’s literally in the last few years – and I think this has something to do with my professional growth as well – where I felt like, “I can actually say what I want to almost anyone in the world.” Almost. Not everyone but almost, right. Okay. So that’s the preface. But I want to also say vis-a-vis the kind of clarity that Travis has reminded me I need to have, that there was this moment when a mutual friend of ours, Farid Matuk – actually, he is the person who introduced Travis and I to each other – he and I were going somewhere, and this was back when I lived in California, in Long Beach, and Travis– rather Farid and I used to hang out. And we were going somewhere and I think he was driving and I was making fun of something he did, I was just lightly teasing him about it, and I was like, “Oh, yeah,” something along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, that was real manly.” And he said – this was the perfect response – he said, “Bitch, I don’t have to perform masculinity for you.” And I was like, “Yes! Yes! Exactly.” And the fact that he recognized that was deeply meaningful to me. I was like, “Yes, I need to be able to say that to people.” Football players in every single high school in the United States need to be empowered to be able to say that to their fellow players, their coaches, their parents, their principal, whoever. They need to be able to say, “Bitch, I don’t need to perform masculinity for you,” because they should not have to. 
S. RODNEY 18:25  They should not have to. But in lieu of that, I often wonder what do you have? Because femininity is the other side of it where I think there are so many different ways possibly that we could be and have masculine qualities that are destructive, aren’t self-destructive. 
S. RODNEY 18:45  Right. Sorry, Steven, I interrupted you, but I’m just desperate to say I think part of what happened with the culture around – and I think it’s right to call it the culture – the culture around date rape is about performing masculinity for other men. It’s not even about the woman. It’s not even about her. It’s about, “Oh, what do my fellows think if I–” this whole thing of basketball players going to hotel rooms with groupies or with prostitutes they hire and, “Let my boys hit that,” what the fuck? Where does that come from? 
S. RODNEY 19:17  What else with that? 
S. FULLWOOD 19:20  [crosstalk] toxic masculinity. 
S. RODNEY 19:21  What would be there in lieu of that? Because if we’re hating the women or we’re hating femininity or we are disgusted by it, except for when we want it to be something we can consume, what’s there? What could be there in place of toxic masculinity? Because we have, in forces for centuries, a certain kind of male personality. We love him, we want him to go out in the world and conquer everything. 
C.T. WEBB 19:51  So I suspect that what we’re calling toxic masculinity, or sort of the hyper-performance of stereotypical male traits, I suspect that it has always been an outlier and that most men throughout time have sort of scuttled around, muddling about with whatever social identities that they are supposed to have or not have. And I think you see that in the history of comedy, I think you see that in the history of– it reminds me of– so in Hesiod’s Works and Days, it’s one of the first books ever written, right, it’s about how people have to scurry when an eagle swoops up out of the sky. Now, the eagle is Zeus, right, nominally, in the poem, but it’s really not – it’s the king, right. And so this, it’s always been a minority. I would suggest that it’s always been a minority of men and women, right, that perform in such an exaggerated manner and that– I’m not convinced that most men are actually not more like what we’re talking about. I’ve seen it in my dad for sure. [crosstalk]. 
S. FULLWOOD 21:14  I love it when you talk about your dad. You should always talk about your dad every single episode because he sounds like somebody I would really like. I apologize. I just wanted to say this, though, so for me, it’s the performance of the people [inaudible] and maybe those hyper-masculine people and the types– but then there are the people who cosign through silence. So I do think that there are a majority of people who do that, and so I’d love for you to kind of think about that but also kind of come back, I think, with your Travis way of coming back at people [laughter]. I’ve noticed that way. 
S. FULLWOOD 21:52  Yeah. I know that way. That’s where he hits you with the big ole heavy books. Yes, he’s like, “Right here. Wait, wait, I got you [laughter].” 
C.T. WEBB 22:02  See, now you’ve both completely [inaudible] whatever response I could possibly make [laughter]. 
S. RODNEY 22:10  No, but you know what I want to say? Actually, I want to push back on what Travis has said to, and I’m following-up on Steven’s point. So you have people cosigning through this silence, right, and you have people cosigning through sort of their verbal encouragement, right, Twitter being a great example of that, right, the kind of dumpster fire that certain memes become. But also, I want to say that I think certain kinds of masculinity become institutionalized by things like organized sports. So right there, right, the only reason that agent orange was able to get away with saying, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, grab them by the pussy. It’s only locker room talk,” it’s because we have some sense that what goes on in football locker rooms, in basketball locker rooms, and hockey locker rooms, blah, blah, blah, locker rooms, locker rooms, locker rooms actually is not far from that. So there’s a way in which I think that kind of masculinity, the hyper-masculinity you’re talking about, Travis, does get institutionalized and I think that’s how it kind of spreads. And yeah, I think there are lots of men who are really uncomfortable with constantly having to prove themselves to each other. It’s exhausting being– you all got to know that– I mean I think it’s maybe slightly– and I’d like to hear what you have to say about this, Steven, whether it’s slightly different being around gay men, because one of the things that I found as a straight man being around gay men is it actually turns down the volume of that. I don’t constantly feel gay men, at least, constantly pushing up on me and saying, “Are you man enough? Are you man enough to actually be in this space with me?” At least I don’t get that from gay men. 
S. FULLWOOD 23:56  Well, no, what I get from it is– because we’ll start with the performance and we’re also talking about the hyper-masculinization of gay culture in every sense of, “Men do this.” So the hyper-masculinity part of it is not simply just pushing up on people. It’s also the repression of an actual emotional life. I think that– 
S. RODNEY 24:18  Thank you. So can you just put a little flesh on that? Tell me what that looks like? 
S. FULLWOOD 24:24  Well, what it looks like, so this is kind of like my dating life. And actually, [inaudible] myself in it as well and being able to tell a particular kind of truth and not just being like, “Well, I’m interested in this person because I’m horny and I’m bored and lonely,” as opposed to really be interested in someone’s emotional life and be willing and open enough to share mine. So is that enough flesh? Because Travis hasn’t answered us yet, so we need to– 
C.T. WEBB 24:51  Yeah. No, I’m actually just listening. I’m not jumping in because I worry a little bit that I see– I don’t really feel what Seph is describing when I interact with most of my cis male friend. I don’t really feel like my masculinity is regularly tested or sort of sonarred to see kind of where it’s located. Most of my interactions with my– and maybe this is because I’ve cultivated friendships like that and weeded out people that are not like that. So I’m not saying that, somehow, my experience is representative of all male experience. But I played little league baseball up until high school, and I don’t know, I don’t really remember a lot of, “Oh, I could knock that pussy out of the park,” talk. I mean I’m not saying that never happened but I’m saying that sometimes I worry, right – and I think you both know this concern – I worry that our narratives around these kind of hot-button issue distort the severity of them. Not that the things we’re talking about aren’t real, not that we didn’t just have the election that we had, and not that I distrust statistics that show examples or instances of misogyny and discrimination are up. I believe all that stuff, right, I absolutely do. But my experience of human beings in most interactions that I have are much more temperate and much more sort of trying to figure out where to go to get in line to buy something and who’s next in line. We were just at the zoo and the line was super messy, it was kind of unclear where you got into line, but everyone was just sort of checking with each other, like, “Oh, were you next? Oh, go ahead,” kind of thing. I didn’t really feel like this sort of war of all against all to– and so I worry sometimes that, as cultural critics, which we all are, and I take that charge seriously, I worry that we are painting the world with the brush of other people who have extreme positions that we reject. 
S. RODNEY 27:29  So Steven, let me please respond to that. Because again, I love, Travis, that you– 
C.T. WEBB 27:35  Again, that was irritating [laughter]. 
S. RODNEY 27:37  No, no, no, no. No, no, no. I love that you [inaudible] because you’re absolutely right about this. There are two things that I need to say. one is that I was– in making the case that I was making, I was flashing on my particular experience in high school, and my high school was weird. It was a Christian school, it was very, very small. I just think it was weird. And I think you’re right, I think mostly what I’m going on is I remember the worst experiences, right, I remember the ones– I’m flashing on the ones where men were constantly sort of pushing up on me and testing me. And that happened partly because I also – and this is part of my experience as well – working in retail, cutthroat retail at Hugo Boss and then at Armani, those are environments in which it’s very sort of sharp elbows. So you’re absolutely right. It’s very true that, in certain environments, that we just kind of try to find a happy medium so that we can get along. It is not all warfare – you’re absolutely right about that. I tend to talk about these things, thinking about the worst-case scenarios. And I think part of it, too, is the weekend I’ve had. I just got published, this piece I wrote [inaudible] on the show at the Addison Gallery of American Art called Gun Country. So I’ve been thinking about how that exhibition dredges up a lot of these issues that are related to masculinity with power, white [inaudible] ideology, patriarchy, right. Because all of that is in the gun, right. So you’re right, you’re absolutely right. I think that there are narratives that bypass all of that, that actually, one of them is– a good narrative about men, one of them is actually Friday Night Lights about football. I mean it’s just a gorgeous narrative, gorgeous, and it makes the point that– and this is the great thing about Friday Night Lights. It makes the point that you can have a father figure like a coach who, actually, his primary objective and the thing that he’s actually really good at is nurturing boys, nurturing them, bringing out the best in them, providing an environment in which they can blossom. That’s an amazing narrative. So you’re right, Travis, you’re absolutely right. It does happen. 
S. FULLWOOD 30:16  No, absolutely. And so I agree with you, Seph, about agreeing with Travis. What I’d like Travis to do and also, what I think I’d like to do more of, is to hold space for other realities. When I come out and when I was thinking about toxic masculinity, it’s just both a lovely weekend and a horrible weekend for news. And so watching certain kinds of men come on television and talk and talk and lie and skirt the truth, and then there’s this sort of– what I’ve been thinking a lot, it’s about betrayal, betrayal of one’s own constituency as a politician, betrayal of your own feelings just as a person, and I’ve been thinking about the elements of that. What causes that? So the men, as I mentioned, in my neighborhood, of course there were men who didn’t do that that I knew, of course there were boys that were different and didn’t follow the aggressive, “Got to fight, pussy, pussy, pussy,” kind of thing. Absolutely, those men were there and there needs to be a space to be held for them because I appreciate the multi-narrative strategy in which I think we’re trying to talk about some of these issues. So thank you for that note. I will definitely keep it because it’s something you’ve brought up more than a few times in terms of that. But I definitely just want to make sure that we acknowledge a certain kind of toxic masculinity that’s not even discussed, that’s like the sky – it’s there until weather comes. And then when bad weather comes, then we’re talking about it. But overall, we just see it as the sky, we just see it as normalized. 
C.T. WEBB 31:42  Yeah. I think it’s fair. And I also think my experience is clearly– I have a fairly resilient bubble surrounding me, right. I’m hetero and white and male, so that’s going to allow me to interact more graciously with people or not feel encroached upon, right. Because my sort of baseline identity isn’t trying to be colonized. It is the colonized space, right. So there’s a kind of comfort that I can have in that, which would clearly not be Seph’s experience, clearly wouldn’t be your experience. So obviously, there would be more instances of that. And the only thing I’d want to add to that is specifically something that Seph brought up, which I– and we should maybe do a podcast on it. I literally think one of the best things we could do in America is totally abolish same-grade education. I think putting 14 to 18-year-olds together in concentrated measures through high school is a catastrophe for development. It doesn’t at all reflect human interaction. You’re constantly interacting with people of all ages. And then we have this weird sort of fetishizing of high school and that kind of period of adolescence. If I could just change in one suite, one aspect of American education and culture, it would be this cordoning off of age groups in that way. Because I know Seph’s experience was awful and terrible in high school. And honestly, most people that I love had terrible experiences in high school because it kind of forces you to recalibrate and adjust to other people’s misery. 
S. RODNEY 33:35  Wow. No, that’s right. Absolutely. On a later podcast, I’d love to talk to you about the colonized space that you occupy, this resilient bubble you’re talking about. We should definitely talk about that. 
S. FULLWOOD 33:47  Yes, yes. 
C.T. WEBB 33:47  All right. White space on the next podcast. 
S. RODNEY 33:50  Definitely [laughter]. Definitely [inaudible] on that. So I think we should, on that note, if I may be so bold as to say, let’s end the podcast here. I think it’s a hopeful one and I think it’s a well-rounded one. And I thank you, Steven, for bringing this to our attention and to public’s attention. This is at the heart of who we are and we always need to be talking about it. And frankly, I’m just glad that I have the job that I have where I actually get to talk to men and women who are willing and able to grapple with this. 
S. FULLWOOD 34:31  Oh, nice. Yeah. Fantastic. 
C.T. WEBB 34:33  Seph and Steven, thanks very much. 
S. RODNEY 34:35  Thank you very much, Travis. Thank you, Seph. You guys have a wonderful day. 
C.T. WEBB 34:39  Yeah. You too. 
  [music] 

References

First referenced at 19:51

Hesiod – Works and Days

Hesiod describes himself as a Boeotian shepherd who heard the Muses call upon him to sing about the gods. His exact dates are unknown, but he has often been considered a younger contemporary of Homer.

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