Sean X. Ahern
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The Fragile Gender: Masculinity’s Crisis

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I don’t want to write about Return of Kings–the vile website ran by human pitstain “Roosh V” (aka Daryush Valizadeh) that readsPoop like a Johnathan Swift pamphlet sans the social commentary. Many have already taken time out of their hectic lives to condemn the website’s recent “call to arms” to fight for the legalization of rape. The work has already been done to expose Roosh V for the monster (or troll) he is. Jezebel says to ignore his website, The Guardian has a piece by Linda West highlighting why karma is being a beautiful, fabulous, bitch to him right now. There is no need to go further into decrying this sonofabitch.

But then my brain turns into a smartass.

“Hey Sean,” my brain nonchalantly goes, “do you think there is a historical precedent for Roosh V and his followers?”

“Don’t drag me into this, brain.”

“But your comprehensive exams are right around the corner. This would make a great exercise in writing about masculinity since the Industrial Rev–”

“Get F**ked”

“But you gotta write about it, Sean, you know you want to [a beat passes] You wouldn’t want me to turn on those memories from middle school at 2 am would you?”

“You know brain, you are one sick mother.”

“Love youuuuuuuuuuuu”

(I don’t know why my brain sounds like Charles, our editor, but he has a point.)

You are now about the witness the power of reading too much.

***

It is not worth it to just rail against Roosh V, Return of Kings or any of the vile rhetoric that is associated with any sort of “men’s rights” group in writing on a blog. It is a good start, but pushing more traffic to their site or just mentioning their names in a post is going to just advertise their existence. If there is a way to engage the audience of Return of Kings it is through everyday discussions with your family and friends…and calling that asshole out in class wearing the trilby. Probably.

Discussion with these sorts of people on why it is problematic to engage in rhetoric that, for instance, involves violence against women is your best bet. If they call you a “fag” or a “raging liberal” for asking to stop calling women “slutty” or “whores” for not sleeping with them, then yes, by all means bludgeon them to death walk away. They are most likely not worth your time anyway, but conversations on why these men think this way is the best way to engage them.

Guys like Roosh V and his acolytes are a symptom of a larger issue in our day–the crisis of masculinity.

Crises, really, since there have been, oh about three? Four, probably six since the beginning of the 20th century? What Return of Kings (and other blogs ranging from Drudge Report to Barstool Sports) accumulate to is the post-nasal drip that comes from seasonal changes in technology, access to education,and civil rights. It is a backlash that has taken place time and time again, sadly, as gender roles become unstable, as people of color gain notoriety in cultural outlets that range from government offices to sports, and as labor shifts from erecting buildings with back breaking-labor to inhabiting the cubicles inside them. With each shift in society comes a recoil. We see it in “family value” politicians and the emergence of the evangelical right as a voting bloc. There is a fear of change, a fear of the unknown. When Roosh V or El Prez or any of their underlings goes off on “The Pussification of America” it is their way of candidly protesting change in an effort to protect their own fragile masculinity.

It is nothing new.

In Manliness & Civilization author Gail Bederman engages ideas that surround, well, manliness and civilization.  The book Tarzanengages in how white males used the myth of civilization to bolster their own manhood decades after the American Civil War, as increased immigration and movement of former slaves threatens their way of life. Racism, as always, is the catalyst of this crisis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and Bederman sees gender as a historical, ideological process, and that manhood is a combination of the body, identity and authority.

For example, the fear of newly emancipated African American men having sexual relations with white women led to an increase in lynchings–a way for white men to display their civility in contrast to the “beastly urges” of black men. Crazy, I know, but at the end of the 19th century the control of one’s sexual passions was a marker of upstanding civility and manhood. To lynch black men for real (or imagined) transgressions meant protecting the status quo during a time of shifting social boundaries. By regulating their own sexuality, the sexuality of black men and the women who purportedly loved them, manhood at the turn of the 20th century regulated freedom and perpetuated racial stereotypes in the sickest of ways, and men saw these acts of violence as a marker of their civilization.

(Of course, this “discourse” of civilization and white manhood would be later used by Ida B. Wells to denounce the practice murdering black men, but for a time it was a way for white men to quell their internalized fears of black men and their own standing as the “pinnacle” of civilization.)

SandowWhite men have been scared of their own place in the western world for some time now,but outright violence towards minorities is not the only place we see it. John F. Kasson has engaged how the spectacle of manliness in vaudeville shaped what masculinity meant for men leaving the Victorian period. The fear of being softer than Oscar Wilde led to the celebrity rise of bodybuilder Sandow and escape artist Harry Houdini.  The male body, the male white body, became a spectacle for escapes and rippling muscles.  We see the rise of Christian manhood and its bodybuilding, with Sandow as both a curiosity and fantasy. We see the emergence of the Boy Scouts and their pseudo militant Christianity. Houdini escapes the impossible, and lets audience members believe they can do the same in the domestic. Tarzan tames the jungle as a lost colonial boy. Kasson’s analysis connects whiteness to civility, to empire and to popular mass consumption. To be a strong man was to be able to tame the women in your life and wow her with your contained, civil sexuality while also working to tame the wilds of “the darker continents.”

Later still, in the post World War II baby-boom and expansion of suburbia, men worked in white collar jobs while their sons watched Davy Crockett tame “the wild frontier.” James Bond fought post-colonial, Cold War menaces between slapping women (and sleeping with them). The WWF, Rambo, Top Gun and a slew of other male fictions pushed us through the 1980s in an effort to heal men emasculated by the Vietnam War and the recession that followed. Each and every one of these cultural texts (and so many more!) speak to the fragility of men and the sense of manhood that is always in flux.

It speaks to Roosh V and his “satire,” if he wants to call his violence against women that, or an ill attempt at playing devil’s advocate for free speech, I don’t care. His work is a part of a larger timeline of fear. Fear of change, fear of multiculturalism, and fear of the white man losing centrality in shaping the world. His ilk–be it on his site or /r/RedPill or that guy wearing the “meninist” shirt and  Libertarian ideologies in your Philosophy 101 course–will either wise up or die off. It might take a generation to do so, but hopefully they will.

What needs to change immediately is the idea that women are either the enemy or the person that needs to be saved from the ravages of people of color. Fear of a black planet is not just a great Public Enemy album but a nightmare of white, straight and male losing a seat at the table. The violent rhetoric needs to stop, and we (collectively) need to stop consuming popular texts that ask us to become the perfect man at the expense of everyone else.

 

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