Some Thoughts on ‘Toxic Masculinity’

A guest post from four friends of the blog on the topic of (toxic) masculinity. Maria Tanyag is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. Twitter: @maria_tanyag. Ibrahim Bahati is Mastercard Foundation Graduate scholar at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. Twitter: @Bahabris. David Duriesmith is Development Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies, The University of Queensland. Twitter: @DavidDuriesmith. Marysia Zalewski is Professor of International Relations in the School of Law & Politics at Cardiff University, UK. Twitter: @ProfMarysiaZed. Each shared their thoughts and reflections on two questions – (i) How do you understand the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’? and (ii) What can ‘we’ do about [toxic] masculinity?


How do you understand the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’?

Maria

I have many reservations about the increasing use of ‘toxic masculinity’ (noted in 2018 as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries). As a ‘buzzword’ it simply depoliticises wider inequalities and individualises and de-contextualises what specifically constitutes the ‘toxic’ in/with/through masculinit(ies). And for me, it is no coincidence that toxic has attracted wider applications to some of its original uses in relation to health and the environment at precisely a time when we are observing the rise of extremist ideologies, reversals in women’s and human rights, and environmental degradation. If we work with the feminist idea of a ‘continuum of violence’ we might be able to articulate how toxicity occurs on multiple levels or scales, as well as how it has come to represent a multi-dimensional phenomenon. The term toxic might reveal how it is not just individuals that incite a range of bodily harms, but also to gradual depletions in health and the environment. All of these are linked to power structures and embodied in gendered ways.

In my research on women’s bodily autonomy in the Philippines, I find that in social media, concepts such as toxic relationships, toxic politics, toxic workplaces, and even toxic ‘national’ culture (as in ‘toxic Filipino culture’) are increasingly used. I find this notion that there are toxic aspects of culture that can go hand in hand with nationalist sentiments and representations of ‘Pinoy Pride’.[1] I myself have started using ‘toxic’ in making sense of polarised politics in the Philippines under Duterte. Toxic is a very appropriate word to describe how my body reacts to hearing him speak and upon seeing images of him particularly as he interacts with women. Consequently, part of self-care for me has been to ‘detoxify’ or unplug from watching local news from time to time, though I know friends who do the opposite. They ‘rant’ or vent through social media to ‘purge’ the toxins out of their system.

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Property Abolitionism: Race, Colony, Body, Land

For the final post in our symposium on Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar replies to her interlocutors. Brenna is Senior Lecturer in Law at SOAS, University of London. She is author of Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land and Racial Regimes of Ownership (DUP: 2018) and co-editor (with Jon Goldberg-Hiller) of Plastic Materialities: Politics, Legality and Metamorphosis in the Work of Catherine Malabou (DUP: 2015). She is currently completing Thinking Liberation: anti-racist feminist practice, a book on critical race feminisms with Rafeef Ziadah.


Thanks to all five contributors for these incredibly thoughtful interventions. It is a real gift to have such expansive and thorough responses to one’s work, and to have been given the opportunity to consider the questions they raise about the potential for some of the ideas in the book to travel into domains unexplored in the text. It is impossible to respond to each of the issues raised, but I have chosen 4 different themes to discuss which I think connect many of the articles.

One of the themes arising from the responses to the book is a question about the extent to which the concept, “racial regimes of ownership” is adequate to grasp the realities of colonialism outside of the sphere of British colonial and imperial rule.  To what extent has the co-emergence of racial subjectivities and capitalist property relations been a central part of the advent of colonial modernities beyond the settler colony?

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States and Stilettos

The last commentary in our forum on Parashar, Tickner and True (eds.) Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations from Shine Choi. Shine is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Massey University, where her work focuses on North Korea, visuality and aesthetics. She is also an Associate Editor for the International Feminist Journal of Politics and a co-editor of the Creative Interventions in Global Politics book series. Her recent publications include ‘Questioning the International: (Un)making Bosnian and Korean Conflicts, Cinematically’, (with Maria-Adriana Deiana) in Trans-Humanities Journal. The complete set of posts in this series is available here.


 

Choi Shoe

In the Afterward essay to Revisiting Gendered States, Christine Sylvester suggests feminists focus on people’s experiences of the state, and as an aside, also asks us to take off our stilettos. Taking the state as an agent or structure in our studies impedes feminist objectives; it is too snug with power even if we critique it. Fashion choice is telling.

This is now the second time, in the last month, that a feminist IR reading has nudged me, as a parenthetical in a larger argument, to reconsider my fashion choice in wearing heels. And now that I think about it, I recall at least two other conversations with academics (one was a fellow IR theory friend, the other a colleague in anthropology who has now retired) where they confide how they would personally never wear heels because their colleagues would never take them seriously if they did. I had assumed their colleagues in reference were men but now I am not so sure.

These shared assumptions about heels – and stilettos perhaps being an extreme, and as a result, an easy type of heels to dismiss – in these conversations/readings are curious. They got me wondering why serious thinking, and more importantly, serious feminist politics cannot be done wearing heels. This is not the lesson we are learning from drag queens about stilettos, and I cannot help but wonder why it takes drag queens to teach us that serious affective embodied thinking and doing do happen in most ridiculous of heels, full makeup and by ‘eccentric’ looking people. Why do we have all these social, cultural gendered ideas around what serious work/wear look like?

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States of Intersection: Beyond womenandchildren

The next commentary on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series is here).


Although it can no longer be claimed with any credibility that gender is at the fringes of International Relations as a discipline, consistently excellent and adequately nuanced analyses of the gendered nature of IR and its touchstone – the state – are still few and far between. In a field otherwise saturated by liberal feminism focused largely on the West (the US, the UK and Western Europe to be precise), Swati Parashar, J Ann Tickner and Jacqui True’s Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations provides a refreshing change. Bookended by an incisive forward by Spike Peterson and a compelling, almost poetic afterward by Christine Sylvester are eleven ‘substantive’, and uniformly thought-provoking chapters. In less than 200 pages the contributions to Revisiting Gendered States manage to traverse the whole spectrum of issues sacralized by IR: state formation, borders and bordering practices, terrorism, security, identity and belonging.

The text reopens the discussion the seminal Gendering States: Feminist (Re)visions of International Relations Theory published in 1992 and edited by Spike Peterson, initiated. Gendered States has the same point of departure – an examination, and concomitant critique of the centrality of the masculine, patriarchal state in IR but it does so in a distinctly 21st century context. The state is no longer a blackhole or a rarefied rational actor, but rather a set of complex and often confused practices: an effect, symptom and perpetrator of globalisation, securitisation, and nationalism. The chapters are truly global in scope, drawing on case studies from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East, Indonesia and Australia. The contributions are not merely empirically heterodox, they are also theoretically pluralist, drawing variously on queer theory, assemblage theory, affect theory and postcolonialism alongside more mainstream IR theory. Continue reading

Gendered States: What We *Really* Talk About When We Talk About the State

The first of three critical commentaries on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series, including an introduction and posts from chapter authors Christine Agius, David Duriesmith and Katherine Brown, is here). This intervention comes from Megan MacKenzie, who is Professor of Gender and War at the University of Sydney. Megan’s research spans feminist theory, international security and transitional justice, and her latest publications explore (myths about) women in combat roles and masculinity nostalgia.


We talk about the state a lot within the field of International Relations. In fact, as a student of international relations I was taught that the state was the most important actor; everything below the state level was to be studied in other disciplines like sociology, anthropology, or development studies. But what are we really talking about when we talk about the state? It’s probably useful to state upfront- in a sort of full-feminist-disclosure-style- that I’m an unusual person to review a book focused on the state. I’ve always been suspicious and apprehensive about studying the state. I can trace the root of this apprehension back to my PhD training. I can still vividly remember taking an International Political Economy course from the formidable and amazing Professor Suzanne Soederberg. At some point during the first week I made an intervention into the class discussion, and used the word ‘state.’ Professor Soederberg stopped me and said, ‘what do you mean by the state?’ I was flummoxed. ‘Well, the state…you know…um, the institution…’ I’m sure I trailed off in embarrassment. Professor Soederberg then asked the rest of the class for a definition and got equally vague, yet more confident responses that included terms like ‘sovereignty,’ ‘borders,’ and ‘power.’ I can still remember her total exasperation as she drew a black box on the white board and explained that the state is not some singular “thing” that we can just lazily refer to and hope no one asks us what we mean. We were all busted.

Actually, most of IR as a discipline is busted when it comes to lazily using the term ‘state.’ From that moment on, there have been dozens of times I wished I had Professor Soederberg’s words recorded so I could play them at conferences, in other classes, and when reading articles. The state is consistently referred to as a given, or defined with such minimal attention or effort that it offers not much more than my answer back in my International Political Economy unit: ‘well, the state…you know.’ Years later, I still don’t know how most people are using the term ‘the state’ and often I don’t think they do either.

Rather than wade through the many, many definitions of the state, it is more useful to ask, ‘what do we talk about when we talk about the state?’

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To Be Or Not To Be? Islamic State as a Proto-State

The fourth contribution to our forum on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations, this time from Katherine Brown. Katherine is Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies and Head of the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, where her work focuses on the gendering of religious resistance and politics. Recent publications address social media and terrorism and the securitisation of human rights. The full series of posts is available here.


 

The so-called Islamic State (hence forth Daesh) offered a new world order to believers, one in which states were abolished, the pious ruled, and Allah’s will prevailed. The group offered adherents ‘Gold, God and Glory’, and in exchange members would help realise the group’s vision through extreme levels of violence and banditry. Alongside this was an everyday, mundane and tedious mode of governance, covering tax inspections, trading standards, fishing permits, Quran reading competitions, and fairgrounds. This dichotomy puzzled security analysts who struggled to classify the group. Daesh was both more and less than a terrorist group, or an insurgency, or a guerrilla movement. For IR scholars, if it wasn’t any of these then a new possibility opened up – were we witnessing the birth of a new state? It was therefore a perfect case study for the revisiting of Gendered States.

Daesh was set a series of tests by academics and others to determine its ‘right’ to call itself a state. Did it have autonomy, capacity, legitimacy to govern, was it a ‘bordered power container’, could it redistribute resources, did it have a monopoly on the use of force? Longobardo asks this question about whether or ISIS could be seen as a sate in international law, and Belanger-McMurdo also addresses whether it can achieve political domination. The problem is that it had all and none of these. As Nexon notes, there is a tendency to conflate the Weberian ideal-typical definition of the modern state with the concept of ‘state’ and secondarily, a tendency to read the literature exclusively with an eye toward asking when, if, and how particular polities crossed some imaginary threshold into ‘state-ness.’ The tests seemed ‘unfair’ in so far as setting a high bar for a state emerging as ‘fully functioning’; it was like expecting a PhD candidate to pass their viva just by having been accepted onto the programme. Continue reading

Promoting Ally Politics in the Liberal State during the Age of Paleo-Masculinism

The third in our series on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (edited by Swati Parashar, J. Ann Tickner and Jacqui True). In this first set of posts, contributors to the volume recap their contributions. Today, it is the turn of David Duriesmith. David is a UQ Fellow at the University of Queensland, where his research focuses on masculinities, peacebuilding and new wars. His latest article is ‘Hybrid Warriors and the Formation of New War Masculinities: A Case Study of Indonesian Foreign Fighters’, in Stability. The full series on Revisiting Gendered States may be viewed here.


 

Feminist activism often appears to bump up against the desire to appeal powerful masculine actors to use their privilege for good. These appeals are unavoidable for those who want to achieve concrete and immediate change due to the power that patriarchy affords masculine actors on the basis of gender. The success of these appeals in the international arena create uncomfortable alliances between feminist activists on one hand and state actors on the other, the latter of whom are increasingly keen to position themselves as feminists on the international stage.

My contribution to Revisiting Gendered States came out of my discomfort at some of the successes in getting state actors to adopt the language of feminism and gender equality. In particular, I was provoked by the emergence of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy and the rise of state leaders positioning themselves as feminist ‘agents of change’ through initiatives like #HeForShe.

These developments seem seductive, in that they utilise state power for feminist goals, while reinforcing the legitimacy of these state actors as protectors of the oppressed. However, the adoption of the label ‘feminist’ does not require that states are substantially remade, nor that they change the masculinist nature of their institutions, but instead seems to occasionally result in the cynical use of gender programming to legitimise other forms of violence that they themselves inflict. Continue reading