If you glance over the ever-growing list of men accused, you will see that there is no particular pattern, other than they are men, and that for whatever reason they felt entitled to treat women — and some men, usually younger, more vulnerable, men — in an unspeakable fashion.
“For whatever reason, they felt entitled.” That is the crux of it, isn’t it? In the past couple of weeks, there has been a lot of talk about “toxic masculinity,” but what exactly is it and what does it have to do with this tsunami of new reports of criminal, sexually deviant behavior on the part of men?
Twenty years ago, a movie called “In the Company of Men” engaged this same topic in a provocative and deeply unsettling way. The plot involved two men who work in an anonymous corporate setting who conspire to seduce — and then dump — the most vulnerable girl they can find just for sport, and if that sounds bad, unless you have seen the movie you have no idea how evil and appalling the attitudes and behavior of the men really are. So, why make it? Why watch it? Because the movie had something important to say not only about toxic masculinity, but about how corporate culture dehumanizes men, who in turn dehumanize women as just one more means of “keeping score” in their lives.
Needless to say, the film was not a blockbuster. A lot of people hated it, including some critics. I think a lot of the anger resulted from LaBute revealing a dynamic that a lot of women might suspect, and that a lot of men would prefer not to confront: that the objectification of women is not only deeply ingrained in our culture, but very often suffused with a frightening and casual hostility.
I was sickened by the behavior of the characters in the movie, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I also felt implicated, not only for those occasions when I have objectified women myself, but for those other occasions when some other man, perhaps even a friend, said or did something not just sexist, but outright misogynistic, and I either remained silent or tried to change the subject rather than challenging those ideas, no matter how grotesque.
So, how can we get a handle on this “toxic masculinity”? Consider for a moment how male sexuality is celebrated, while female sexuality is shamed. Promiscuous young men get a pass — or even a pat on the back — for having sex indiscriminately with as many female partners as possible, but if a young woman is sexually active with more than one or two partners, she becomes a “slut.”
If a young girl enjoys activities associated as male — rough and tumble horseplay, participation in sports, camping, and so on, she may be labeled as a “tomboy,” a harmless tag that it is assumed she will one day outgrow. Note that there is no parallel for this with young boys. If a boy enjoys any kind of play deemed as “female,” he will be discouraged and stigmatized as a “sissy” or a “pussy.”
The term “pussy” is very commonly used as a pejorative term to suggest weakness in males. A boy or man who is too sensitive or does not exhibit appropriately masculine behavior risks being called “a pussy,” a label that is about as damning as it gets in a culture of toxic masculinity.
If a boy or man in a relationship is not “wearing the pants” in the relationship — meaning that he is not in control of every facet and every decision or in any way cedes power to the female — he is “pussy-whipped.”
If a boy does not excel in sports, he will be accused of “throwing like a girl” or “running like a girl.”
In all of these cases, values are defined in rigidly masculine terms: strength is defined as male, and weakness is defined as female. Masculinity is prized, femininity ridiculed. Is it any wonder that young boys who are discouraged from crying or from showing any hint of vulnerability or sensitivity grow up to be emotionally stunted males who have no idea how to communicate or how to empathize with another human being, especially a female human being?
There is just no way to grow up in such a culture without being deeply affected by it. This is certainly not an excuse or a pass for those men who have been accused of these crimes, but we are kidding ourselves if we believe for a moment that it starts and stops with celebrities, and that their sense of entitlement springs entirely from their fame rather from a climate of toxic masculinity.
Candidate Donald Trump famously bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” as a perk of his entitlement, and he was elected President of the United States. Let’s hope that the days of looking the other way are over for good.