10 Jul 2018

Boys Will Be Boys: Clementine Ford on toxic masculinity

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 10 July 2018

Australian writer and feminist thinker Clementine Ford's new book Boys Will Be Boys looks at toxic masculinity, and explains it's not a condemnation of men, but of society.

She says it's time to demand more of men and boys, but people often misunderstand the concept of toxic masculinity.

It is, she says, elements of expected masculine behaviour that's "excused and dismissed" as harmless but which is in fact toxic.

Toxic masculinity hurts men

depressed man

Photo: 123RF

She says men are harmed by this toxic masculinity.

Clementine Ford

Clementine Ford Photo: supplied

"One of the most obvious examples of toxic masculinity is the suggestion that men should somehow be restrained in expressing their emotions," she says.

"Men are shamed for expressing emotions, men are shamed for displaying what we code as feminine behaviours and made to feel less than a man somehow.

"We know that there are drastically high levels of poor mental health in men, and obviously high rates of suicide.

"[Feminist author] bell hooks talks about this … she writes 'the first act of violence the patriarchy demands of males is not violence against women, instead patriarchy demands of all males that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self esteem'.

"We need to address the links that are made there between those feelings of poor mental health and the inability that men have to express themselves because of expectations of stoicism and masculinity that we place on men to be restrictive."

She gave the example of a Shannon Noll concert in Western Australia recently when an audience member threw a full can at the singer.

"Terrible behaviour, and I think that that again is an aspect of this childish - it's not violence in terms of you going up and punching someone on the street - but sort of childish, violent animosity towards people."

But the singer then went into a violent, expletive-laden rant at the can thrower.

"Instead of responding in a sort of practical kind of way, like using the power of saying to the security guard to get him out of there, instead he launched a tirade against him and he offered someone in the crowd $100 to 'belt that bloke'.

"He said 'I'll f--- your missus and I'll f--- your mum. And I think that that's a really interesting example again of this idea of toxic masculinity.

"It's seen as normal, and it's not really questioned that deeply, that in order to hurt a man you would insult the women around him.

"It's the idea that somehow women become peripheral to men and can be used as a means of exerting power and dominance."

About the book: 'It's actually that these are normal humans'

A photo of a boy with a paper cut out family holding hands

Photo: mizina/123RF

She says the book covers a broad range of subjects within the broader topic, including chapters on male and female responsibility and pop culture.

"Then there's some much harder chapters about rape culture … one of the things you'd be familiar with is the Auckland 'roastbusters', about how boys and men sometimes work together to perpetrate harm against women and how we really need to put a magnifying glass to that and ask what is happening.

"The heart of the book is not that boys and men are bad, and it's not that boys and men are evil outliers that exist on the fringes of society, it's actually that these are all normal humans."

Rape culture: 'We should expect more of men than that'

no caption

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

She says one of the main arguments against the idea that there is such a thing as rape culture is rooted in the very thing of which it accuses feminists.

"One of the accusations … is 'oh, you just think all men are rapists'.

"No, the very act of saying that men can hold themselves to a better standard than that, that men can resist a short skirt or a drunk woman … is saying 'I do not believe all men are like this'.

Protesters at the rally against rape culture at Parliament in Wellington.

 Protesters at a rally against rape culture at Parliament in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"Let's think about victim blaming: so, the idea that a woman is somehow complicit in a sexual assault that she may have been subjected to because of what she was wearing, or she was walking home late at night.

"The argument that states 'she should have known better, she shouldn't have gone home with him, she should have been wearing different clothes, that is the argument that says all men are just rapists waiting for an opportunity and I find that offensive."

'Incels' and guns: 'This is what leads to violence'

Alek Minassian being arrested.

Alek Minassian being arrested. Photo: A screengrab from BBC

She says almost every mass murder using a gun in the United States has involved men, most of whom are white, "and most of whom have a thread between them that can be traced back to violence initially being expressed towards women".

She says Elliot Rodger who killed six people in Isla Vista, California in 2014, and Alek Minassian who drove a white van into pedestrians, killing 10 people in Toronto, Canada this year, both called themselves 'incels'.

"It's this idea somehow that masculinity is also connected to sexuality and a real man is a man who goes out and has a lot of sex with women and commands women sexually and if you somehow fail to be able to access that level of sexuality you've failed as a man."

She says after Rodger's attack there was a lot of commentary about how women should have "just gone out with him."

"It's a completely mixed message because we're told to say no to men if we want to avoid sexual violence or predatory behaviour, but then we're told on the other hand that we should say yes because 'you don't want him to go out and kill people do you?' That's just ridiculous."

'It's not about hating men, it's about hating the society'

She has a response for the argument that men are marginalised too.

"People will turn around and say things like 'I grew up poor, where's my white privilege, where's my male privilege', okay, yes, there are lots of things that can marginalise you in the world.

"The thing is men are not marginalised by being men, men are not denied power in the world structurally because of their gender, and that's the difference."

She says the idea that feminists are just man haters is insulting.

"That's a way for them to avoid having to look more deeply at the problem. It's an easy way out, it's lazy.

"A lot of work goes into exploring these issues and I've written hundreds of thousands of words over the years, and to have that work dismissed as 'well, you're just a man hater' I think just shows that the person that's making that argument is just lazy and scared."

The reality is that most feminists are deeply invested in the care and love of men, many have male partners, she says.

"Many of us are mothers to sons, as I am, and are invested in raising strong, healthy, socially minded individuals that do what they can to minimise harm to other people and that don't continue these cycles of expectations that are actually really harmful.

"It's not about hating men, it's about hating the society that we live in and wanting things to be better."

Changing for the better: 'We just need to show the political and social will'

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Photo: 123rf

She says the book is a love letter, hoping for things to be better.

"I think sometimes people make the mistake of saying 'well, this is all part of human behaviour, and so therefore it's immutable and therefore that we have to accept that it's part of reality and 'evil monsters do evil things'.

"They're not evil monsters, they're people who do these things, and we can change behaviour."

She says humans are actually much more malleable than that as a species.

"We changed smoking laws, and at each stage of that legislation people railed against it and said "you will never be able to change this, I don't want to have my cigarettes taken away from me, people love to go to the pub and have a cigarette, blah blah blah.

"So it is possible to change and challenge people's perceptions of their own behaviour, we just need to show the political and social will to do that."

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