Toxic masculinity. Nothing has divided public opinion quite like this topic in recent times.
It has launched people like Jordan Peterson into the stratosphere, while toppling others. But what is toxic masculinity? Well, it is a type of masculinity that colonises and subjugates. It is oppressive and dominates, like Shelley’s Ozymandias all must obey its cold command.
The recent Gillette ad, portraying men as inherently aggressive and boorish, really didn’t do much for the movement, in fact there was a considerable backlash against it because people felt it was a cynical attempt to cash in on a popular trend. And of course like everything else, other marketing giants have joined in.
Nike have added their two cents worth with their ad narrated by the greatest female tennis player of all time — Serena Williams.
The repetitive word ‘crazy’ throughout the ad refers to the utterances of toxic males who constantly suggest that a woman who wants to compete is ‘crazy, crazy, crazy’.
There is no doubt about it, women have had to fight to have their voice heard over the centuries and the heinous cases of Weinstein and Cosby, to mention a couple, have really brought male behaviour into public discourse.
And we must, as men, look at how we conduct ourselves and how we teach our children that certain behaviours are not acceptable.
And yet, there is something in all of this that I find myself having great difficulty with.
And as a father of three beautiful intelligent girls, I wonder are we giving them the right message, are we telling them that they should view themselves as victims of some sort of tyrannical patriarchy? And that the odds are stacked against them, so don’t even bother trying to compete.
Well, that is what Serena hinted at when she was penalised for receiving coaching during the US open.
She exploded on the umpire calling him a ‘thief’ and after he deducted a game from her for this outburst she said that; ‘do you know how many men do worse than this and because they are men it doesn’t happen to them?’
Personally I’ve never heard Roger Federer (the greatest male tennis player of all time) explode at an umpire like Williams did.
In fact, there was a video of Federer recently being denied access to the players room because he didn’t have his identity badge on him. Roger is by far the most recognisable face in tennis and how did he respond when no one was watching to this slight on his celebrity and status? He simply waited for his coach to arrive with his card. There was no; ‘do you know who I am?’ There was no toxic masculinity, he didn’t degrade the security man with facile pejoratives, he was simply gracious and dignified. Because that is the kind of man he is.
And what was Serena trying to say? That her ill behaviour is acceptable because some men behave badly too? What sort of message is that?
And the real shame and perhaps irony of it all was that her gender biased outburst about how she was the victim of patriarchy, because she was losing, took from her female opponent’s wonderful accomplishment of being the first Japanese tennis player to win a grand slam. But that was taken from her by Williams — the advocate of women’s rights.
Perhaps the saying is true; never meet your idols or certainly at the very least; never beat them.
If we analyse for a moment the Nike ad, a company that obviously really cares about women’s rights, I wonder about the lowly paid women in Taiwan and South Korea? Or in China? Or I wonder in the post-war landscape of Vietnam, where labour unions were banned, I wonder how Nike helped the young girls exploited into cheap labour to ‘dream crazier’.
But that was then, this is now and Nike have always defended their position by saying that they do not directly control the factories and therefore have no responsibility as to what kind of labour is employed.
Not exactly a mantra for corporate ethics. But anyhow, this point aside - if we examine the advert on its content we can see some of the dangers that are attached to such a linear narrative.
Maybe masculinity is not toxic. Maybe there are some men who have very disturbed views on women and their entitlement in the world and others that do not, and love and support women. And also maybe a cadre of women’s rights groups hold very disturbed views on men and some women who want men to be men. We want equality, so we have to name it.
There is a poem on the Leaving Cert course by the poetess Adreinne Rich called ‘Trying to talk with a man’. I wonder would a poem entitled ‘Trying to talk with a woman’ find the same platform in today’s world?
I think not! Men and women are different. We cannot escape that fundamental truth.
Men should be able to be men and women should be able to be women. It seems to me that we are getting close to pathologising chivalry and making women feel that if a man acts like a gentleman he is taking her power from her.
We are better than that. We should be able to celebrate our differences and uniqueness while also demanding that we have an equal shot at whatever pursuit we decide to engage in.
We should not view the issue as them versus us. Because there is no them and us, we are all one.