Happy 2017, HU readers! Let us gather round and applaud the end of 2016, maybe even chin wag and glug gluwein over how one year can incorporate such a collision of horrors. Hey, we can even laugh about it – remember when we thought Bowie’s death in January would be the worst thing to happen all year?
Faux-celebrations aside, maybe it’s time to sombrely consider the events of the past year as not being an isolated horror, but ruptures whose consequences will only come clear with time. However, it is important to not passively refresh our browser tabs and witness that in full time, but maybe think of how to process them and understand them greater. While 2016 seems to be the rise of nationalism, isolationism, and a general refutation of the values belonging to that labelled ‘liberal democracy’, there are other elements that require attention. While Trump-Brexit-Duterte-Whoever can actually be understood more carefully within their local context, a truly global trend of ‘toxic masculinity’ seems to have risen up in all of them. Bubbling away for years (notably, its first genuine outburst was the Gamergate fiasco of 2014), it has come to affect our politics in ways incredibly unexpected. Strangely, the same political leaders who have rode the crest of that wave seem to match their more extreme supporters, instead of being a moderating representation of those sentiments. The first few months of this year have been dispiritingly full of news, and you can sense that the culture industry, like everyone else, has struggled to process it in real time and be able do what they usually do unimpeded.
However, when it comes to art, how can culture approach toxic masculinity and deal with it? How are men, especially white men, able to contribute to the resistance towards this new wave? Could culture, writing, art, hold a key to stave off the divisions that have been threatened and encouraged by the incoming politics? In this following piece, I am going to try to explore some of those questions by exploring a theoretical genre that could answer those questions but also highlight the broader systematic issues that can be credited with the current climate. I apologise for going on a bit.
For the last year or two, I have been thinking of strategies to overcome the fundamental contentions surrounding men’s contributing to feminism, particularly its discourse. I had found some readymade solutions in two very disparate pieces of art. They were also not very recent. In fact, they were both released over a decade ago (one not even being published in this millennium), and actually wouldn’t strike anyone as being similar. One was David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), a short story collection; the other being the 2004 album, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, by the rock duo Death From Above 1979. Despite their differences, however, both deploy a pioneering approach that shows a new way to contribute to feminist discourse for men that forgoes the usual toe-stubbing. That approach is the loud, destabilising critique of masculinity by men themselves. Their different works seek to lay on the morgue slab the exaggerated and bloated corpse of the masculine id and go at it with the scalpel for all to see.
Wallace’s Brief Interviews is a fabulously literal title. The eponymous interviews are the spine of the collection, and all feature the same title with the date and city that the interviews supposedly took place being the only way to distinguish between them. ‘Interview’, in fact, is a bit of a misnomer as the questions are never shown, only indicated by a large capital ‘Q’. They act more as interrupted monologues that reveal the thought processes of young modern men, that veer from comedy to chilling near-tragedy, again and again. The first interview, #14, features a man whose main complaint is how, when reaching the pinnacle of his orgasm, he will roar ‘Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!’. He makes the point that the outburst is not representative of his own opinions or even politics, but just a nonsense phrase that comes out of his mouth. As he elaborates on the inevitable humiliations this causes, a surprising target emerges as the focus of his ire – ‘the ones that say “I think I could love you anyway.”’
This is key to understanding toxic masculinity – human connection, or the urge to connect, is associated with ‘embarrassment’ and ‘being condescended to’. It is with this and many other examples of Wallace’s emotionally-isolated soliloquys that the hideous men are hideous in their want to ‘hide away’. They continuously try to move away from admitting a vulnerable self, as the only expression of emotion can be anger or an assertion of power. The particular role of #14’s assertion of power is how, within that same disavowal of an emotional self, is the need to eschew those who would ‘love [them] anyway’. This eschewing is an aggressive act, as it clouds the two participants in isolation, hurting each person’s feelings, yet it is the toxic male that has brought it about through their own actions. Control is key.
What is clear from reading Brief Interviews is that this is a continuous cycle that emerges in different ways, yet continually wears down the various protagonists. Eventually, by the final interview, the speaker seems to be either so far jaded that they are begging for redemption or are past the point of no return. #20 offers an overture to his pseudo-confession, with little preparation for the reader:
And yet I did not fall in love with her until she had related the story of the unbelievably horrifying incident in which she was brutally accosted and held captive and raped and very nearly killed.
I think that it is best to not go into the details of this great story (and leave that for the curious reader), but the narrator becomes ever more vitriolic come the end of their story, surrounding admissions such as ‘I believed she could save me’ with ranting expletives. Its narrator reveals the broader purpose of Wallace’s stories: its hideous men are given an incredible capacity for articulation and self-analysis, but, through the desire to deny any vulnerability, are incapable of any genuine insight into their drives and wants. The signal is thoroughly buried under the noise, and their coprolalia and expletives suggest a deep dislocation of their purpose. Their anger is a howl of confusion, rejection, and dissatisfaction.
The feelings of confused desire, faux-stoicism, and inarticulacy, are given a sanguine, blunt music in You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. The output of Death From Above 1979 (hereon referred to as DFA1979) can be interpreted as being a vehicle for mock-misogyny to such an extent that the ‘mock-’ takes some time to be realised. One song in particular, their first single, could be seen as their most studied examination of toxic masculinity, in all its aggression and mixed emotions, the so-called ‘Romantic Rights’. Beginning with the low, thud-cum-screech of a bass guitar, the song explodes into a violent groove as lead singer Sebastien Grainger intones ‘Your romantic rights are all that you got’. The song continues in a leering way (‘come on, girls, I know what you want’) before becoming a forceful pleading/persuasion to enter married life (‘let’s do it, start a family’). The speaker emerges as an aggressive gaslighter that attempts to coerce a relationship (‘I know you love me, you don’t know what you like’), but also attempts to construct the same power posture as Wallace’s #14, the ability to eschew companionship in a callous manner (‘I don’t need you, I want you’). Yet this last line belies an attempt to clarify strength instead of performing it, hinting at its imagined possibility.
Yet, when you dig deeper, what is the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’? As nouns, they are interchangeable, yet ‘wanting something’ instead of ‘needing something’ is more a trope of consumerism than anything else. The song presents, thus, a bizarre attitude – the consumer purchase of a spouse, yet allied with an aggressive denial of any sentimentality or emotional bond. The only thing that seems to be assuaged is a sense of loneliness, yet even the speaker attempts to pin that on their prospective partner, who ‘was living alone unhappily’.
Let’s focus on this link between happiness, company, and consumerism. While the conjoining of unhappiness and solitude is not a novel thought, the vitriol in banishing any sense of being ‘alone’ is concerning. This is not a song lamenting a lack or loss of love, but the fever dreams of a person determined to banish unhappiness/solitude rather than having any interest in the person they would share a life with. They do not so much want to have a spouse, but simply someone else. Wanton consumerism is driven by a desire to overcome the existential threat of unhappiness and dissatisfaction inherent within daily life. Its side effects, however, are to never truly nix those doubts but delay them through purchasing quick distractions. Ultimately, these fleeting amusements become useless and require ever greater purchases as satisfaction becomes an ever harder state to attain. Its endpoint is an entropy of constant consuming with nary fulfilment. ‘Romantic Rights’ portrays stages before that endgame, where the avarice of consumerism perverts human company. The fact that the speaker is also exemplary of toxic masculinity is more than a coincidence. I would aver that what we recognise as toxic masculinity is more of an attitude, or unintended consequence, of consumerism than previously examined. Why not think of the online troll whose main aim is to ‘own’ (or ‘pwn’) their target through confusing, harassing, or humiliating tactics, and thus the most prevalent example of toxic masculinity today.
This desire for ‘ownership’ has become fuelled by aggression and the urge to set aside any sense of vulnerability. Neo-liberalism, which can be understood as the conversion of all aspects of life to better facilitate consumer culture, has now been seen and understood as an isolating agent, as social life and community will suffer as all is blindly geared towards total capitalism. The consuming solitude-disparaging speaker of ‘Romantic Rights’ is just as isolated as the object of their marital ‘affections’. The isolation and violent need for companionship is just as much an attempt to mask their vulnerability as the vitriolic meltdown of Wallace’s hideous men. However, how exactly are DFA1979 engaging in criticising these attitudes and not just sincerely expressing their id, engaging in mock-misogyny and not just plain old misogyny, can be unclear. The question about this type of strategy falls into a double bind between what Literature students may recognise as the Intentional Fallacy and the Affective Fallacy – judging a text by presuming what the author’s intentions were, and judging a text by how its reader responds to it. Essentially, how can this song’s irony and satire be distinguished from genuine (if unaware) sexism/misogyny of, say, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’?
Robert Christgau, revered critic of the Village Voice, saw You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine as a sexist dud, asking why it wouldn’t receive the same critique of its lyrics as the similar sentiments expressed in rap. However, Christgau’s critique ignores some of the less subtle signalling by the band, which is most prominent in the album’s extra-musical material. Particularly, the band’s striking cover art.
On every DFA1979 album there is an image of the two band members’ heads back-to-back, their noses replaced by elephant trunks. The stylised, black/white vector would portray the members as an impenetrable icon, the trunks in particular suggestive of a phallus and connotative of strength. Elephant anatomy has something of a track record in being symbolic of male libidity, from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk (1979) to Tame Impala’s 2012 single ‘Elephant’ (‘well he feels like an elephant/shaking his big great trunk for the hell of it). However, DFA1979’s trunks are not raised but lowered and wrinkled, resembling less an image of power but a flaccid penis. It emphasises the fact they are dickheads.
This undermining of male sexuality is apparent also in the video for ‘Romantic Rights’. In front of a ‘70’s Vegas-esque light wall, the bassist Jesse Keeler changes between wearing an all-white suit and a gold-sequined jacket, both of which are suggestive of the 1970’s (an era now synonymous with tawdry sexism), while drummer/singer Sebastien Grainger wears a t-shirt bearing a photograph of a woman’s breasts covered with gaffer tape ‘x’s. The video ends with the light wall quickly displaying two images that are clearly recognisable despite their heavy pixilation. The first seems to be a fluid shooting out, an ejaculation most likely, that is soon followed by the blast of an atomic bomb. The imagery could not be more clear in its juxtaposition.
Perhaps, even, the band’s critique of masculinity comes with the origin of their sound alone. As indicated by the video, there are only two members of a band – a drummer and a bassist. That is not so much an atypical band but a typical rhythm section. While there may be the occasional use of a synthesiser, the band’s conception was based upon ways to challenge the hegemony, or even the necessity, of the guitar in the typical rock band.
The guitar, and the guitarist, have become symbolic of male ego-stroking. Not only does one have to point out the phallic properties of the instrument, or how its players in rock music often lower it to just before their crouches and grind against it during performance, or the fact that the strumming hand mimics the motions of masturbation (to acknowledge a few) to see this reputation, but it has also been perpetuated by how the guitarists themselves are stereotyped and storied as womanizers. This boy’s club/cult surrounding the instrument has been challenged greatly since its nadir in the ‘70’s, notably by the knuckle-dragging simplicity or dispassion of punk/new wave guitarists, but DFA1979’s decision to completely replace the instrument with the bass becomes an absurd, exaggerated parody of the guitar’s (and, by extension, rock music’s) phallocentrism. Comparing them each visually, the bass is more phallic with its longer ‘neck’, but it also has less sonic variance and potential for melody. The bass guitar is typically the background to the song, an often smooth yet lumbering element that is often ignored yet drives the song subconsciously. But, to centralise it in a song and attempt to overcome its melodic shortcomings, the main recourse is to play angular, loud grooves and riffs. Throughout You’re a Woman, the typical bass guitar sound is barely present, and instead the id of the rock song is blown up and made to overcompensate for what it lacks through pure aggression, becoming an aggressive display of isolationism. In ways, DFA1979’s work may be the most all-encompassing and accomplished concept album ever made.
So, if these are just two examples of mock-misogyny, how relevant can they be to the current culture? While these works seem united in a commitment to making transgressive art that is a fusion of savage social critique with experimentation through form, they are much older. Not only that, but for their contemporary moment, the toxic masculinity they studied was far more subdued. It may well have been acknowledged and studied in academia and theory, but the typical antics of online trolls and their regular floods of vitriol would have been unimaginable in 1999 and 2004 respectively. Thus, how useful are these – should we see them as shining lights that instruct us towards how to approach the Now, or else useful experiments that may inform us about our moment?
In terms of culture, we have never had it so good. Diversity is becoming a gradually ever more successful project, but let’s focus on the gender divide for this article. Women have been more prominent than ever and are able to express far more autonomy than previous figureheads of the past. There have been greater strides made towards not just representation, but also the pay gap (for example, Scarlet Johansson is the second highest paid actor in The Avengers franchise). There has also been the development and growth of a multimedia genre we can understand as the ‘female friendship’ story, which is possibly best seen in the acclaimed and bestselling novels of Elena Ferrante, but has also been sprinkled throughout popular culture to an extent that the interactions of Sex and the City seem stereotyped and disingenuous in comparison. Also, most notably, women’s creativity is being recognised across the board, one example, being that Beyoncé’s albums have become high art events that invite near-academic study yet still gain massive, vaunting public approval. To reiterate, we have never had it so good since maybe the ‘70’s, the ‘60’s, or even Weimar…
Yet, sadly, the political conversation that culture can’t help but be tied to has been, well, ‘lagging’. Harassment, ire, and outrage are the de rigeur modes of conversation online (and online is where most conversation has moved to). Simply put, Twitter is a cesspit, Facebook a breeding ground of either mundanity or inanity, and there are very few alternatives. This is, perhaps, normal – complaining about the general conversation is as old as democracy itself. What has happened instead is the fierce polarisation of everyone. As I was writing this feature, a certain coinage, ‘Alternative Facts’, was born and rightly mocked, even though it may be the most acute and pithy analysis of this surreal moment. Following on from ideas of Shuja Haider it is now the norm for when statements and opinions are given, whether in traditional or social media, to find out the provenance of the same – who said it, who are they, where are they coming from, and who do they work for, etc. While this is a normal, sensible way to make sense of the immense noise of the internet, this provenance-seeking has come to replace any genuine engagement with the quote itself. Already, this more investigative approach has become perverted and is nothing more than an engagement with surfaces fuelled by factionalism. ‘Alternative Facts’ is seemingly the endpoint, where this strident side-taking has infiltrated what we call objective reality and how we view it.
this superficial, faction-fuelled engagement, the analysis – even the
acknowledgement – of nuance nears becoming obsolete. Such that, as with the
reading of logical and argumentative machinations in an opinion, the subtleties
of art and media will be ignored and judged on their provenance-as-surface.
This has already happened to an extent. Lionel Shriver, in a speech acknowledging these issues, had recalled certain reactions she witnessed to her 2013 novel Big Brother. The novel looked empathetically at the life of a morbidly obese character, inspired by the recent death of Shriver’s own brother. However, while signing books or responding to emails, she found that, instead of reading her book, people seemed to guess what side Shriver was in some Fat vs. Skinny argument:
I started to notice a pattern. Most of the people buying the book in the signing queue were thin. Especially in the US, fat is now one of those issues where you either have to be one of us, or you’re the enemy. I verified this when I had a long email correspondence with a “Healthy at Any Size” activist, who was incensed by the novel, which she hadn’t even read. Which she refused to read. No amount of explaining that the novel was on her side, that it was a book that was terribly pained by the way heavy people are treated and how unfairly they are judged, could overcome the scrawny author’s photo on the flap.
While Shriver goes on to mistakenly (in my opinion) criticise what she calls ‘political correctness’ (an usage that confuses the current trend of diversity advocacy with a much-maligned ‘90’s movement of white Americans that honestly believed in editing Shakespeare to expunge any offense its language could cause), the example shows already how cultural products are being consumed with the same hyper-factionalism as politics. And, indeed, culture’s political ties can never really be ignored. Yet how can we recognise truth (i.e., a shared reality that transcends personal conviction) in this way?
Coming back to the works I looked at earlier, or even mock-misogyny as a concept in general, how would these fit in now? Would their impact be greater, lesser, or become clarion calls for a new way of seeing?
If the works’ satirical content was recognised straight away, DFA1979 could be recognised as not just an unsympathetic rebuke to the concept of masculinity, but even a project to dehumanise an entire gender: “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine”. With Wallace, however, the isolated form of the brief interviews, situated in blank spaces indicated merely by date and city, where the men are faceless, nameless, and left to rage alone to undisclosed questions, could be seen as an invitation to isolate and ostracise those same men and their repellent thought processes.
Yet, this would ignore the broader challenge of these works. With Wallace, the viewing the hideous men as abominations would be a mistake. In a radio interview given during the book’s release, he admitted how he shared much with those same men. Now, while Wallace was no saint, his broader point was to show that the raging ids on display are far, far more common than realised, but they are often dormant, subconscious, and unarticulated, being accidentally formed through unexpected consequences of modern society. The internet has become a testament to his hypothesis. The book is then, bizarrely, almost a psychological study of the state of being male in the contemporary world. It examines the male experience so as to examine how the awareness and anxiety of being ‘dominant’ drives its protagonists towards a double-bind of wishing to overcome their feelings of isolation but not become vulnerable by admitting to those same feelings. Left alone to interrogate themselves, the walls close in and they snarl like cornered dogs. Wallace fundamentally does not want to shame the speakers for their shortcomings, but present and probe where we can empathise with that which is hideous yet still undeniably human. In ways, the stories are about redemptions that the reader can only grant, as they are the only outside element to the men’s desperate monologues.
DFA1979’s music is also less a critique of men but an examination of how men consciously and unconsciously see themselves as playing a role. They have been taught only to own and consume, and the critique is directed at the isolating nature of putting on a front of strength. In their songs, the fast playing and howled lyrics are signifiers of anguish, frustration and confusion than any performance of power. They are fundamentally dissatisfied with their heteronormative lifestyle, yet know nothing outside its directives to ‘consume’, ‘own’, ‘dominate’. Thus, the album’s title is not so much a dehumanisation of the male gender, but an acknowledgement of the mechanised, un-articulated and emotionally-dumb men who know only to adhere to these three tenets and their derivatives. Like Wallace’s hideous men, their anger is the mask or acceptable cloak to distract from the emergence or feelings of vulnerability. Yet this furious purging does not contain the absolving qualities of a confession, but an outburst that is to be repeated again and again until the cycle can be broken. In both, men are focused upon and shown to really know nothing more than what they are expected to be. And what is that, when approaching the opposite sex? Well, if John Berger described the female condition as being forever-conscious of how you are consumed, then the male condition is to be always-aware that you must consume.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a popular TED Talk, spoke of how women are inoculated to follow certain societal expectations, notably to ‘aspire to marriage’, and fundamentally to not ‘threaten the man’. And, indeed, when looking at what men are taught, in relief of Adichie’s statements, it’s found that they are taught to aspire towards ambition alone and, if I could view ‘marriage’ as the sharing of a life with someone else, to not consider other people in the pursuits of this ambition. And this ambition is never tempered or challenged, as would be healthy, but is blindly encouraged. Relentlessly, ‘own’, ‘possess’, ‘control’ reverberate in the heads of men as they are prepared for society without any genuine attempts to cultivate how ambition need not desert the ethical consideration of other people. When these alpha-instincts are challenged, the male wholly-raised in this isolating way of thought responds with such baffled vitriol as not only their philosophy of living (which has endlessly been affirmed through the values of a consumerist culture) has been refuted and shown to be a sham, but the reserves of compassion and genuine self-awareness that have been called upon are found to be lacking. Thus, the atavistic recursion to being ‘dominant’ arises, and is compatible with the fury of a devoted monk being confronted with a pagan decrying God. This is both contemptible – obviously – as well as inspiring of pity. Like soldiers returning from a warzone to the suburbs, a former-fighting dog being taught to be a pet, or the brainwashed victim of a cult returning to their old home, they have been dragged from one worldview to a separate reality. They are, as perverse as this may sound, the privileged victims of an oppressive system. Not all are innocent, of course, as any quick surveying will differentiate the conscious and articulate from the unthinking and inarticulate. However, in our art (and, by extension, our politics) how smart is it to deride, mock, and callously dehumanise the dumb?
The mistake is to villainise, to render as flatly bad and beyond-stupid, those who are misled and inculcated into perpetrating a violent system. There is currently a great confusion, a glut of dis- and mis-information, and the urge is to be blunt and to generalise so as to cut through the bullshit. Yet, this can be compatible to the recursion towards aggression of toxic masculinity. Instead, the key is to wield nuance and apply it or simply see it in others, as well as anyone else we may recognise as Other. When someone appears to be the product of a system, it is key to not view them as a proxy of that system. In addressing and challenging these faults in the latter way, we strip the subject we are speaking to of agency and accidentally encourage them to be passive in their ways. After all, when systems are so far-reaching, it can be easy to just play along as you were before. If there is to be great change, it is to encourage truly self-aware and independent thought. The goal is not to wholly disparage (in this scenario, at least) ‘men’, but the expectations or ‘system’ of masculinity and hold those same systems accountable.
In art, then, the key is to do the same. Mock-misogyny, as a mode, a genre, a whatever, is useful in how it can point out the flaws in a system or worldview, and how that can manifest in individuals. Yet, maybe the most radical element would be how it challenges and refines the capacities of a reader’s ability to practice nuance amid a sea of ironies and repulsive noise. The examples of mock-misogyny I have focused on are, thus, transgressive, but transgressive in the best way – through possessing a subtlety cloaked in bombast, they present the abject horror of human existence and earnestly search for its redemption.
Concerning its relation to feminism, I believe that men need feminism as much as women do. If the ambitions of feminism could be drawn as (a) the study of how women are victimised by a system, and (b) developing strategies to undermine and eventually overthrow that same system, then it is only just for men to earnestly study how they are the victimisers of a system and join in overthrowing it. I take pains to acknowledge that I am not calling for men to rush in and attempt to become leading lights of the feminist movement, but instead develop a discourse that can be symbiotic to it. Through both, the isolation of an oppressive system can be overcome and a sense of community formed, and that same communal impulse will assuage the painful isolation and factionalism that has become so prevalent now.