Also published here at Medium.
It’s not a “mental health” issue. It’s toxic masculinity.
Friday, May 18, 2018, another school shooting happened – this time in Santa Fe, Texas, just three months after the Parkland, FL massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The death toll at Santa Fe High School in Texas was 10, with 10 others wounded. One of the most compelling moments in the wake of this tragedy was, for me at least, a statement made by this student at the 1:13 mark that was captured during interview:
The interviewer asks Paige Curry, a student at Santa Fe High School, “Was there a part of you that was like, this isn’t real; this would not happen in my school?” Without hesitation, she replies, “no, there wasn’t.” When asked “why so?” Paige simply answers, “its been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too… so, I don’t know. I wasn’t surprised, I was just scared.”
I wasn’t surprised.
Let that sink in.
I find it unfathomable, and yet, unfortunately accurate that our children inhabit a world where, on any day, it’s a reasonable assumption that their schools could be occupied with someone carrying assault type weapons, with the intent to terrorize and massacre as many others as possible. It’s a daily reality. Our precious children go into these school buildings every day knowing that the lives of their classmates, teachers, friends (and odds are fair, maybe even their own lives) could be taken at any moment by guns.
Then, when it happens (again), we all know the drill. First comes the endless stream of shock accompanied by “thoughts and prayers” across social media. Then the “breaking” news updates, first or secondhand accounts, and interviews. Helicopter footage of frightened students filing one by one out of the building, maybe with hands in the air. We begin to hear of plans for vigils, protests, and ceremonies. Sooner rather than later, we expect the American President to issue a statement of comfort and solidarity for the horrified and grieving nation. Congress wrings their hands. Nothing changes.
Often, before the details of the deceased and wounded are released, we see a photograph of the perpetrator, along with his name, age, and a verifiable rap sheet of minor or major past offenses. Sometimes there’s a violent past with many red flags. Sometimes, there’s not. Sometimes we hear from those who know him. “He was a bit odd,” they might say. Or maybe, “he was really introverted. Kept to himself; didn’t have many friends.” And yet, sometimes we hear, “we never saw this coming; he was always such a nice kid; we never would’ve expected something like this from him.”
But the one constant remaining the same almost every time? The perp is a white male.
Nonetheless, pundits argue over possible motives. Then the debates begin – the type that tear families apart – between the NRA and the anti-NRA, the Second Amendment folks and the anti-gun folks. And regardless of how many ideas are thrown out suggesting reasonable gun control measures, it just seems that in this country, the Second Amendment is sacrosanct. And since Americans can’t seem to agree that one’s right to own a gun doesn’t trump the innocent life of a kid just going to school to try and get an education, we go the next route: assigning blame.
Blame gets placed on everything from the already stigmatized issue of “mental health,” to music and rap, to violent video games and electronic devices in general, to extremist conspiracy theories, and to poor parenting skills. And everything in between. The whole process of gun debate has sickeningly become a spectator sport. Blame is placed everywhere except on the obvious culprit: white males. However, it’s not just white males. Also playing heavily into the phenomenon of mass murder is our current culture of toxic masculinity. That, I believe, even more importantly than being born with a penis, is what’s to blame, even though almost all mass murderers happen to be men.
What is toxic masculinity?
Toxic masculinity refers to a set of widely accepted norms of stereotypical “masculine” behavior that have the unfortunate affect of harming society, and even men themselves. Words and phrases used to illustrate this concept would be what you’d expect – words like “dominance,” “aggression,” “homophobia” (feeling a sense of rage over seeing two men kissing in public, for example), needing to have “control,” feeling constantly under some presumed “pressure,” and having an insatiable need to prove one’s “manhood,” out of fear of emasculation. The worst thing for a “masculine” man to be is accused of anything remotely resembling femininity. Which is what misogyny is all about. It’s not about hating women – it’s about fearing them. I wrote a piece that explores the theme of misogyny more in depth, here.
Toxic masculinity is also that thing that accounts for “gunsplaining,” i.e., arguing – to the point of bullying or harassment – over definitions, semantics, and technical details of weapons (including semiautomatic weapons) and interpretations of the Second Amendment. One doesn’t have to be a man to engage in behavior like gunsplaining, either. Plenty of women take part as well. These folks become masters of this diversion tactic, and they love to use gunsplaining as a means to silence “liberals,” “leftists,” or other people who call for reasonable gun control measures.
Sort of like the pretentious brand of beer snobs – not beer lovers, but beer snobs (there’s a difference) – who believe drinking anything less than micros is beneath their dignity, Second Amendment enthusiasts condescend with a familiar fervor. They look down upon anyone who dares to speak on sensible gun control if they are not completely knowledgeable about guns, gun attachments, ammunition, and external ballistics. Basically their argument is that you are not qualified to have an opinion about guns if you display even the slightest hint of inferior knowledge. Which ultimately is a very effective way of avoiding questions about why civilians have their hands on these military weapons in the first place. Gunsplaining is nothing more than a condescending ploy aimed at stopping productive discussion dead in its tracks.
In the wake of all these military-style assaults on unsuspecting concert goers and innocent school kids, Second Amendment enthusiasts have only hunkered down harder. They’ve managed to somehow turn their love of guns (which they are fond of correcting to “love of protecting their home and family”) into a sort of extremist religious cult, or like some misguided form of ammosexual fetishism.
So how does toxic masculinity play a role in all this? Because of American cultural standards, and how men are expected to react to everything, from perceived threats to perceived victimization. Men are raised to believe they must be the sole protector of their families, and many believe they need a gun to do so. Even if raised in a more gender neutral environment, we have a culture and society that is absolutely permeated with messages, images, photos, symbols, and more, that continue to perpetuate a very one-sided, very distorted view of what it means to be masculine, which in no uncertain terms glorifies aggression over softness. Fighters over romantics. Hyper-masculine superheroes over soft-spoken, tender guys. Certainly, there are men who possess both, but it’s the “machismo” that gets amplified.
Harper’s Bazaar, published this piece by Jennifer Wright which astutely points out:
Rejection of all things feminine isn’t born into boys. We teach them to reject traits traditionally associated with femininity, like gentleness, empathy and sensitivity. And we teach them to do so early. We teach it every time we tell them to toughen up when they’re hurt. We teach it when we tell them that big boys don’t cry. We teach it when we tell them that girl stuff is never for them. We seemingly teach it to them through kicking their asses until they’re ashamed of ever having liked something “girly.”
How do we begin to change this? Wright states simply: “The easiest approach would probably be to stop saying that anything associated with women is shitty and beneath men. Stop treating the pleasures marketed to women as such.”
We also change it one person at a time. We do this by raising our boys with the notion that being soft and compassionate is not only acceptable, but it’s expected. We teach them to embrace and be proud of femininity, the same way we high-five our girls for being tomboys, or for being “strong.” And we begin to amplify the voices of women, of trans women – especially black trans women. We amplify the voices of trans men, queer folks, and gender nonconforming people – anyone, really, who bucks the status quo, toxic masculine stereotype that conjures images like Fred Flintstone, or even the Beast, from Beauty and the Beast (I know we all fell for that tender side, but he was a kidnapper who held a young girl captive against her will. Enough said.)
We change toxic masculinity by increasing the visibility of, and giving the spotlight and glory over to the trans non-binary folks, especially the ones who may have been assigned male at birth but identify as “they/them,” or a third gender altogether. Those who have the unwavering ability to rock the hell out of some lipstick and heels like Jacob Tobia, Jeffrey Marsh, and of course, my own trans non-binary, almost-teen, Charlie, who inspired me to take up writing and advocacy for marginalized groups.
People may not think of it this way, but there’s actually nothing braver in this hyper-masculine culture of ours than to be a queer, non binary person sporting a penis, facial hair, and a gorgeous dress. I’d challenge any toxic masculine, stereotypical, pumped-up, ammosexual male to go out in public like that – and be taken seriously – for one week. Or even one day. That, my friends, takes some real balls.