Discover more from Everything Is Horrible
There Isn't a Crisis of Masculinity
Masculinity is the crisis.
"I am convinced that men are in a crisis," Christine Emba declares in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. The essay was much-lauded even though (or because?) it covers familiar, even clichéd trend-piece ground. Feminism has destabilized male dominance. Young men are uncertain and lonely. They lack role models. Women say they want more feminine men but actually they want dominant manly men. Only conservative assholes like Jordan Peterson offer men real manly advice. Etc.
There's no question that patriarchy harms men as well as women. But does the constant evocation of a "crisis of masculinity" actually help men—and if it does, then which men, specifically, are we helping? Why are progressives faced with questions on manliness so intent on engaging in (very unmanly!) self-flagellation, rather than in, say, offering actual policy proposals? Why do we have to pretend that Jordan Peterson has answers to anything?
I think there's a two-part answer here.
First, the "crisis of masculinity" is central to our ideas of masculinity—or to put it another way, you can't have masculinity without crisis.
And second, despite the supposed victory of feminism, people (even progressives, even women) still think masculinity is cool and better than femininity. Which means people are fascinated with and want to associate themselves with masculine crisis.
Hello Oedipus My Old Friend
Emba's essay acknowledges that, historically, masculinity has virtually always been defined as in crisis. In 1958, she says, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was warning that, "the male role has plainly lost its clarity of outline." Before that, in 1920, she points to a Petersonian fitness magazine trying to make men more manly by getting them to square their shoulders. In 1835, Washington Irving was complaining that American families were sending young men abroad to grow "luxurious and effeminate in Europe."
Emba immediately dismisses this historical tour as irrelevant because, she says, today's problems with men "are real and well documented." But she's also documented a crisis of masculinity in the past. What if this is not in fact a trend? What if it is, instead, the default?
Gender theorist Eve Sedgwick makes the case in her classic 1990 work on masculine identity, Epistemology of the Closet. She argues:
many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth century Western culture as a whole are structured -- indeed fractured -- by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century.
That's a bit technical, but basically Sedgwick is saying that our ideas of maleness are built on a split in male identity. To be a man (at least since the 19th century) is to be constantly teetering on the verge of a nonmanly homosexuality or femininity.
Sedgwick is building here on Freud's idea of the Oedipal complex. For Freud, male identity is structured by the desire to kill the father and take his place. To be a man is to be a child, who fears and wants to be his father. It's also, though, to be a father who fears being usurped by his son. The core of male identity is the constant anxiety of not measuring up and/or of being supplanted.
Emba says that men now are experiencing "a widespread identity crisis—as if they didn't know how to be." But Sedgwick and Freud, writing decades and more decades ago, looked at the same crisis and argued that it was not a trend, but a core aspect of masculine identity. Men are split between the empowered (but frightened of not being empowered) self and a disempowered (but jealous of power) self. To be a man is to not "know how to be" since there is no one way of being, but two.
It's not feminism that has made men feel insecure, or uncertain how to be a man. It's patriarchy, which demands that men become the violent daddy-oppressors of themselves. It's not feminism which makes men feel weak and irrelevant. Again, that's patriarchy, which splits men into successful patriarchs and whiney failures—partially as an external matter of haves and have-nots, but also as an internal fracture, which demands men judge themselves by the unremitting standards of perfect mastery and empowerment.
Trend pieces like Emba's inevitably posit a past of unitary, comfortable masculine identity—even when, like Emba, they somewhat nervously recognize that no such past existed. On the contrary, masculinity requires and is built upon crisis and instability. Patriarchy is constructed from a manliness that is inadequate, jealous, bitter, fearful, and enraged.
Your Room Can Never Be Clean Enough
Like many progressive commentors, Emba believes that the left has harmed men by not taking their troubles seriously, and by not providing a blueprint for successful masculinity. She praises Jordan Peterson for at least empathizing with unsuccessful young men. "He's clearly on young men's side," Emba writes. "He validates his followers' struggles and confusion." By blaming feminists and setting up clear standards for manhood, Peterson is offering men clarity, identity, strength.
But if we acknowledge that masculinity was never a clear, untroubled identity in the first place, Peterson's advice starts to look less empathetic, and more like the same old ogre-father as ever preparing to devour his children.
Emba for example says that Peterson's call to "clean your room" is straightforward, obvious, and helpful.
Now, I am skeptical that cleaning your room is in fact good advice at all. Many successful people have messy rooms.
But even if it were true that cleaning your house is the first step towards happiness, fame, and fortune, it's worth looking at how Peterson actually phrases that advice. In his book, he never says, "Clean your room." What he says is, "Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world."
This advice is, in my opinion, not helpful. Nor is it empathetic. On the contrary, it is advice that seems designed to torment men, to gaslight them, and to send them into a spiral of self- recrimination and despair. Because—and hopefully this is obvious—no one, ever, anywhere, has ever set their house in "perfect order." Humans aren't perfect beings; no one has all their shit together. Certainly not Jordan Peterson, who had a major mental health crisis linked to benzos addiction a few years back.
Peterson is not to blame for his mental health crisis—according to me. But according to Peterson, mental health crises are a moral character flaw. People of good character, after all, get their houses in perfect order. Peterson almost never empathizes with the weak, or the sad, or the less than perfect; on the contrary, his book includes multiple riffs where he boasts about his lack of empathy for (for example) a crying infant. What Peterson does instead is to tell men that their weakness is their own fault and that if they just perform dominance—by straightening their shoulders, by somehow becoming perfect through sheer force of will—then they will be the awesome patriarch who can look down on, and bully, others.
In this context, Peterson's ugly transphobia (not mentioned in Emba's article) is not some sort of unfortunate adjunct to his laudable concern for troubled men. Peterson has an extremely narrow view of acceptable masculinity (it must be "perfect") and he sees any expression that deviates from the norm as a disgusting, dangerous aberration to be crushed. He attacks trans people for the same reason he sneers at an acquaintance for having the "smell of the unemployable"; he hates what he sees as "weakness". And again, he defines as weak all those who fall short of perfection.
12 Rules for Life is not a guidebook for self-improvement. It's a guidebook for hating others, and then yourself—or for hating yourself in order to hate others. It doesn't address the crisis of masculinity; it instantiates it.
Progressives Swoon For Manly Bullshit
Peterson is a notorious hatemonger and a complete fool. Why then are progressives so credulous and laudatory when discussing his work? Why, for that matter, do progressives let conservatives frame the problem with men as a "crisis of masculinity" even as they acknowledge that masculinity has always been a crisis? Why on earth does Emba seem to think it's a good thing when a therapist says she uses Peterson's work to turn her clients into men? If I heard that a therapist were using Peterson to enforce gender norms, I would do everything in my power to discourage people of every gender from having anything to do with that therapist!
I think the reason Peterson, and all his ilk, seem appealing is because of a widespread cultural disdain for femininity, and a widespread elevation of masculinity. As gender theoriest Julia Serano says in her classic book Whipping Girl, femininity is stigmatized as being “weak, artificial, frivolous, demure, and passive”—while masculinity is the opposite of all those things. Peterson seems serious and admirable precisely because he’s embodying all those traditional stereotypes of masculinity, and because he’s dumping on traditional stereotypes of femininity.
Another way to look at this is by considering what Kate Manne calls "himpathy." Manne in her book Down Girl argues that we direct sympathy, or empathy, towards men. So, when a man is accused of sexual violence, the tendency is to talk about how those accusations will affect him, rather than to talk about how the violence affected the woman who was abused.
Himpathy has a strong effect on think pieces on masculinity, and on the reactions to them. While these think pieces often assert that the left doesn't care about men, the truth is that focusing on men, and men's problems, is widely validated on the left, as it is across the political spectrum. This is so much the case that even people like Peterson—who hates the left and hates women—are incessantly praised for their (poisonous) interest in men and masculinity. "Empathy", when directed at women, is often seen as overly sentimental, embarrassing, gushy, and of course, feminine (a synonym, we're told, for all things sentimental and gushy.) But empathy directed at men—that's what empathy is supposed to be. It's good and virtuous. It's manly.
Manne doesn't just argue that "himpathy" is directed towards men. She argues that it is directed towards powerful men. In other words, himpathy isn't just male-oriented; it's patriarchal. Himpathy doesn't, in general, flow towards male victims. It flows towards men who are perceived as fulfilling the stereotypes of men—strong, powerful, successful.
You can see that in Emba's essay. There are a couple of passing references to marginalized men—she mentions Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative aimed at men and boys of color, and one person she interviews says he has (presumably male) friends who are queer. But for the most part, the essay focuses on men in college, guys in frats, a NYU prof with a shaved head and big arms who claims women only want to date real men. ("I, a heterosexual women, cringed in recognition," Emba says.)
The focus is all on boosting the right kind of men into their rightful patriarchal inheritance. Little effort is spent on considering the plight of people who, for various reasons, might simply be unable to attain the "perfect" masculine identities that patriarchy demands of them. What happens to those men? If we're talking about crises, why are the people most at risk so often ignored?
Help Men, Or Keep Telling Them They're in Crisis?
Maybe, instead of babbling about the trendy crisis of masculinity, it might behoove us to actually do something to help the men who are most at risk.
Emba mentions in passing that Black boys often don't have strong male role models. She doesn't mention that that's in large part because Black men and boys are incarcerated at terrifying rates. One out of every six Black men who should be between 25 and 54 have "disappeared from daily life" because of incarceration or premature death. A recent survey found that some 50% of Black men had been arrested at least once by the time they were 30. One reason fewer men than women go to college today is because men (especially Black and POC men) are captured by a prison system which never lets them go.
Another "crisis of masculinity" talking point is that men are lonely, not having sex, and more likely than women to live at home. This is often framed as a sign that men have fewer social skills. But it also might simply be because of fairly standard gendered assumptions under patriarchy. Or as I said in an earlier post:
Why are men more likely to live at home than women? ...the answer seems fairly obvious. We still live in a culture where it’s more standard for older men to date younger women than vice versa. That means women are more likely than men to be dating older partners who have their own living space. If you have an older partner, you can go to their place to have sex, or you can even move in with them.
Loneliness is discussed incessantly, but a discrepancy almost entirely ignored in masculinity discussions is workplace injury. Between 2003 and 2020, around 4000-5000 men died each year from workplace injuries; only around 350-400 women a year died. Men are encouraged to take dangerous jobs; women are often actively discouraged from taking them, sometimes by outright sexism. It seems likely that the absence of women in these jobs also reduces pressure on bosses and owners to maintain high standards of workplace safety. Men here are actually dying—but they're dying in line with stereotypes of masculinity so it's not seen as a crisis. it's supposed to be fine.
Similarly, crisis of masculinity rhetoric has little to say about the terrifying assault on the rights of trans men, or about the way disabled men are threatened by the ongoing Covid crisis, or about how targeting immigrants affects (mostly male) farm workers. The whole conversation is centered on sad, mostly white, mostly affluent guys supposedly in their parents' basement—people who should be in charge of society, but for some reason aren't. The people who don't fit the mode of masculine rulers in the first place—well, there's only so much himpathy to go around.
Progressives Have Solutions. But Men Often Want Hate.
Progressives have solutions to a lot of these real, life-threatening problems facing men. Decarceration, the end of money bond, and putting resources into social services rather than into policing would reduce the burden of imprisonment on Black men. UBI, more affordable housing, and reducing the cost of schooling would make it easier for lower income men to get their own living spaces. Unionization and more regulation could reduce workplace injury. Trans men, gay men, disabled men, and really all men would benefit from recognizing that there's no one "perfect" way to be a man.
Again, progressives write about these issues with some frequency. But many men gravitate to Peterson instead. And that leads some progressives to insist that other progressives just don't get it. "What critics miss is that if there were nothing valid at the core of these constructs, they wouldn’t command this sort of popularity," Emba insists.
But would Emba say the same thing about white supremacy? After all, white supremacy is quite popular. Donald Trump got enough votes to win the presidency running on a fairly explicit platform of racism and Christian hegemony. Tucker Carlson's fascist power hour on Fox got millions and millions of viewers. Should we conclude that there must be something valid at the core of fascism?
Of course not. People like fascism not because it's true, but because (a) our society is friendly to fascism and the precepts therefore seem familiar and right, and because (b) if you're white, or have a place in traditional hierarchies, fascism offers you psychological and material benefits.
In the same mode, Jordan Peterson appeals to young men not because he's empathetic (he is not) or because what he says is true (it is nonsense). He appeals to them because "be tough, be perfect, and have contempt for the weak and feminine" is a message that resonates with lots of pop culture narratives and assures young men that they can gain status and power by the simple expedient of hating people less masculine than they are.
I'm not saying you have to hate or mock Peterson fans. I am saying that the existence of Peterson fans is not a sign that Peterson speaks for true, real masculinity. Nor is it a cue to subtly, or not so subtly, adopt right wing frames when speaking about gender. Reiterating that masculinity should be unitary, strong, and forceful just heightens the crisis at the core of masculinity—that crisis being that no man can live up to an ideal of manhood defined by perfect strength and remorseless perfection.
You don't help men by telling them that they need to be strong, or clean, or perfect, or that women won't date them if they're not manly enough. You help men by working towards policies that actually help men—and by remembering that there are lots of different ways of being a man. Men can have messy rooms. They can be nurses. They can wear dresses. They can date other men. They can live with their parents.
When we write think piece after think piece on the crisis of masculinity, are we helping to solve the crisis of masculinity? Maybe instead we're just reinforcing the idea that masculinity is a crisis—an idea that has over many years, harmed many people of every gender.
Everything Is Horrible is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.