The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday August 19th

Column: Toxic masculinity and political amateurs

“You don’t fight when you feel really powerful, you fight when you feel like your power is being threatened," said sociologist Michael Kimmel.

Following the recent student body president elections, the Editorial Board expressed its general distaste for how things went down. What was not explicitly mentioned, however, was the role of toxic masculinity which has asserted itself in Student Government and all major political arenas. 

In the 24 hours leading up to the election, Jack Noble was disqualified, and Tarik Woods was accused of inappropriate conduct towards a female colleague. While I can’t affirmatively say that the backlash toward the Ashton Martin campaign following the ruling of Noble’s trial holds its roots in male hurt feelings, I cannot help but wonder if the charges brought against his campaign would have been perceived as being egregious if they were filed by a male candidate. 

As far as Woods’ actions, however, I will assert that the actions themselves and the subsequent response were a prime example of toxic male behavior in political spaces. 

In the apology released by Tarik following the statement by his female colleague, he started, as many men in this situation do, by saying all of the wonderful things he had done for her. Shortly thereafter he did that thing that we as men often do, where we apologize without really apologizing.

“I am upset that this happened and believe strongly that my aggressive leadership type may have played a role in Speaker Shriver’s state …”

Suggestion — you could’ve literally just apologized? There is no need for the posturing and re-centering of attention onto yourself and your platform. In other words, don’t use the harm that you caused to a woman to plug for yourself, writ large. 

If it’s any consolation though, Woods is neither the only nor the worst example of this behavior. Recently, we have seen a presidential administration awash in hyper-masculine fallout, highlighted by Trump’s declaration of a state of emergency and State of the Union. 

During the State of the Union, we saw a historic display of women wearing white on the Democratic side, and a staggering amount of men who are white among Republicans, indicative of the trend that female Republican representatives in the GOP are fleeting. 

More recently, Trump has declared a state of emergency to bypass Congress in obtaining funding for his border wall — the first to utilize a SOE for military funding since Bush after 9/11, and one of few that directly contradicts a congressional refusal. 

This move is aggressive. It’s the abduction of power when it was democratically declined to him. It’s an example of a fragile man lashing out aggressively, not because he has a firm grasp on power, but rather because it was denied to him. 

Again, in an instance of unnecessary “aggression.” Whether rooted in leadership style or decision-making, both examples demonstrate not strength, but an unpunished posturing perpetuated by the lack of proactive whistle-blowing. 

What I want to emphasize most is that these instances are neither isolated nor unique to politics, and they align with Thomas Page McBee’s commentary on masculinity in his recent book "Amateur."

As a transgender man, McBee’s work in "Amateur" is “a kind of personal insurance, a way to track and shape my own becoming in a culture where so many men are poisonous." Essentially, it’s an exploration of the construction of his own masculinity throughout his transition, and how he found his place in the larger societal masculine culture. 

Nell Irvin Painter’s "The History of White People," featured in "Amateur," says that, “White Western men have been insecure about achieving — or losing — masculinity, twinning that loss and gain with violence, throughout all of history,” suggesting that perhaps it is not masculinity itself, but rather the threat to its legitimacy and power, which produces such harmful outcomes. 

McBee also discusses the concept of a “man box, which is a literal box, drawn three-dimensionally, used by sociologists and activists in classroom exercises. Boys are asked to determine what does and does not belong in the “man box,” and they say things like, “Do not cry openly or express emotion. Do not express weakness or fear. Demonstrate power and control. Do not be 'like a woman.' Do not be 'like a gay man.'" 

McBee then offers that this box is neither limited to young boys nor restricted to finite physical spaces; it can manifest in offices, bars and as we’ve seen, it can take the shape of political institutions as well. 

Most impactful for me is McBee’s inclusion of the research of Sarah DiMuccio, a Ph.D. student at NYU, which compared the Danish idea of masculinity with the American one. She found that in Denmark, subjects said that “being a man” meant not being a boy. American men said that “to be a man” was to not be a woman. 

NYU applied psychology professor Niobe Way’s response to this agreed with McBee's statement, “You’re only being a man by not being a woman. That’s basing someone’s humanness on someone else’s dehumanization.”  

All of this is not to say that things associated with masculinity — swinging axes and playing sports and exercising strong leadership —  are intrinsically bad themselves. However, if the preservation of one’s masculinity, through whatever means and modes of expression, are predicated upon the dehumanization of others, perhaps your brand of masculinity is inherently toxic. 

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