It should concern us all that the more these people use the phrase “toxic masculinity” as a fact, the more it gets cemented into the general consciousness. One will not be able to think about “masculinity” without remembering it is “toxic,” and we have largely reached that point.
This is an extremely troubling turn, and people of good will should resist it. Masculinity is a male quality. Machismo is its ugly, toxic twin. Describe any potential date to the average woman as strong, masculine, and in control, and she will not be turned off in the least. Masculinity is a desirable virtue to most women. But this obvious fact does not keep magazines such as The Atlantic from regularly slapping masculinity in the face.
The Atlantic’s January/February cover story is just the latest installation in its long attack on manhood, which is as annoying as a dripping faucet. The magazine has a whole cache of such articles over the last decade.
The Atlantic’s Masculinity Track Record
In June 2013, The Atlantic gave its readers an article on “The Discovery of What It Means to be a Man.” A hopeful title, but it goes nuts in the subtitle: “What I learned about the so-called ‘masculinity crisis’ as I transitioned from female to male.” How fortunate for male readers. A woman who believes she’s a male has special insights on how to be a man.
In June 2018, The Atlantic discussed the trouble of agreeing about what manhood actually is. No one in the discussion, however, was a legitimate fan of manhood. One expert noted, “Lots of men feel like they want to be on the right side of history here, but when they’re asking, ‘What can I do to be a good man?’ what they’re asking for is a recipe that will give them immunity from critique.”
Get it? To be on the “right side of history,” men have to be something other than what they are. Men and women will do well to accept that good men never apologize for being good men, and history doesn’t have a “right” side. It just is.
That same month, The Atlantic also warned that “Today’s Masculinity Is Stifling.” Of all the ways it could have addressed the topic, The Atlantic enlisted a male pretending to be a female giving advice to real dudes and the women who love them. But this article took a special turn, illustrated with this image of an adolescent boy considering whether wearing a dress might be right for him.
It’s largely a celebratory article on the author’s son deciding to wear, as she describes it, a “gray cotton sundress covered in doe-eyed unicorns with rainbow manes” to school. The Atlantic would like us to know that masculinity would be so much better and less stifling if people saw her son’s behavior as totally normal.
Mom, the problem is not masculinity. It’s you trying to make the world bend to your boy’s ill-advised whims. Beyond the ridiculousness of her boy wanting to wear a dress to school, she doesn’t seem to have any concerns that his print choice is so ridiculously stereotypical that few actual girls would choose it. If “Saturday Night Live” ever included a gender dysphoric male child in a skit, he would be draped in that exact dress.
2019 was a big year for man-bashing, and The Atlantic didn’t miss a moment of it. We had the infamous Gillette commercial, which blew up in the company’s face like Wile E. Coyote. The American Psychological Association (APA) condemned natural manhood as a psychological illness, explaining, “[T]raditional masculinity … is, on the whole, harmful,” a serious problem to be solved for everyone’s safety.
The organization was not shy nor measured in its condemnation of one whole half of humanity. And don’t miss the implication, ladies. You’re just too ignorant to realize that desiring traditionally masculine men will hurt you. You would be hard pressed to find a better example of arrogant patriarchy.
In January 2019, The Atlantic lauded this troubling statement from the APA. The following month, it gave readers an article with the hopeful title, “The Problem with a Fight Against Toxic Masculinity.” Perhaps it was finally going to offer a differing opinion on the matter. No such luck.
The article approvingly noted how the left has condemned traditional — thus toxic — masculinity for, get this, “rape, murder, mass shootings, gang violence, online trolling, climate change, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump.” The Atlantic actually said this, but forgot to roll in increasing traffic gridlock, urban sprawl, rising prescription medicine prices, and delayed airline flights. Goodness.
In April of last year, The Atlantic published a laudatory article on a silly new book about boyhood, one that tells us all too predictably that the main problem with boyhood today is boyhood itself.
‘What It Means to Be a Man’
Now this month’s Atlantic cover story promises to tell us: “What It Means to Be a Man.”
If by this point, you harbor suspicions about The Atlantic’s ability to deliver anything useful for regular folks on this important question, you will quickly be proven right. The entire article includes essentially no recommendation of anything both uniquely masculine and positive.
Other than the virtue of not being crude, a sexual predator, or an emotional closed casket, nothing in this article touches on anything that most women clearly recognize as manly and are looking for in a potential mate: a step-up guy of strength, leadership, handsomeness, valor, protection, or able to take control of a situation when problems arise. The word “gentleman” is nowhere to be found, nor any reference to its qualities.
How can that be? Of course, it’s found in the profound irony that many feminists resist being feminine and don’t care much for men being men. The double irony of radical feminism is it assumes women are best when they behave like men and that good men should act like women. The Atlantic fails to appreciate that feminism calls women to act in the same toxic ways for which it condemns men: unapologetically sexually aggressive, career-climbing, infertile, non-nurturing, emotional rocks who never cry in public.
What’s most egregious is the article highlights the worst of the worst male behavior — I can’t even relay the author’s examples here because they’re so vile, things 99.6 percent of men would readily condemn — and presents it as the male norm. It’s a contemptible approach to this subject. To attract the reader’s attention, the title page promises the article will explain, “Why boys crack up at rape ‘jokes,’ think having a girlfriend is ‘gay,’ and still can’t cry” and thus, “why we need to give them new and better models of masculinity,” as if it’s a common and uncontested fact.
Imagine a journalist taking this approach with any other group of people: young, black males as generally violent drug dealers and womanizers, their female peers as “welfare queens,” women as weaklings pining to be rescued by Prince Charming, gays as mongers for anonymous sex in public bathrooms, and Asians as academic over-achievers, slaves to constant parental pressure to never shame the family. Are these characterizations true for parts of each of these populations? Of course. But to define the group by any of these extremes is despicable. But Peggy Orenstein and The Atlantic do it proudly.
Orenstein Confesses Masculinity Isn’t Toxic
Curiously, and seemingly unawares, Orenstein refutes her overall thesis quite often throughout the story. Yes, the article is about bad, lost young men and how we need to guide them into greater sensitivity and gentleness. But in her more than 100 interviews with young men aged 16-21 of “all races and ethnicities” — really? Every ethnicity? — she confesses:
Nearly every guy I interviewed held relatively egalitarian views about girls, at least in their role in the public sphere. They considered their female classmates to be smart and competent, entitled to their place on the athletic field and in school leadership, deserving of their admission to college and of professional opportunities. They all had female friends; most had gay male friends as well.
This is her gateway into how bad things are in boyland. Very curious indeed. The items highlighted in the article’s teaser subtitle — laughing at rape jokes, having a girlfriend is “gay” — were stories of singular incidents, relayed second-hand. None of the boys she interviewed had actually done or said such things. She doesn’t indicate that any of them had said anything so disturbing during their interviews.
She laments that we are not allowing boys to be able to feel and process their emotions, demanding they keep them stoically walled off. She found that “girlfriends, mothers, and in some cases sisters were the most common confidants of the boys I met.” A good thing? Not at all. She condemns this fact for “teaching boys that women are responsible for emotional labor, for processing men’s emotional lives,” and she says it with all apparent seriousness. Boys can’t win for losing with this woman.
Real Masculinity Doesn’t Match the Media Narrative
Regarding male sexuality: Yes, Orenstein shows how these young men are hungry and interested in hooking up with female peers and will do so in the most forward and non-intimate of ways. Total opportunists. But she completely misses the same behavior in girls.
Nate, one of the interview subjects, is a major player in the article. According to his experience, “[I]f a girl wanted to hook up with you … and if you said yes, it was on.” The girl was the initiator. You waited for her green light, and the guy responded to her lead. He tells the story of a girl he did not know who came and sat on his lap at a party. She is the one who led him by the hand to a back bedroom. When she grew bored with his sexual naiveté, which he willingly confessed, she just walked out. Kinda stereotypically guy-like.
Nate adds, “[T]he stereotype is that guys go into gory detail, but it’s the other way around.” Yes, guys feel the pressure to join the “race for experience” sexually, but not necessarily for bragging rights. Many do so because of the girl’s advanced experience; they don’t want to be clueless. Nate explained it’s likely the girl the boy does hook-up with, “she’ll have hit it with, like, five guys already. Then she’s going to know how to do things” you don’t. Many girls today complain the boys are too sexually reticent for their tastes.
Even though the author bemoans the vast frontier of so-called toxic masculinity, the actual stories she gained by all her interviews indicate young men are not all misogynist lunkheads. For every story she tells of disgusting locker room talk about sexual conquests by one boy, another boy has told him to knock it off.
As I was reading the story, I imagined the author sitting at her computer, frustrated that her actual findings did not support her thesis and afraid her editor would be disappointed. Regardless, she dutifully stuck to the masculinity-is-inherently-bad party line over and against her actual findings.
Orenstein might have considered straying from her ideology and perhaps appreciated the complex nuances of this topic rather than working with only black and white extremes. She would have done well to talk to experts who actually believe masculinity is virtuous and worth teaching to boys. In light of #believewomen, she could have asked strong, confident women what qualities they seek in a mate. That is a very real, practical test of what manhood should be, as it does nothing less than determine whether humanity will continue.
But she wouldn’t have liked those answers either.