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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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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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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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

Right-Wing Populism, Anti-Genderism, And Real US Americans In The Age Of Trump

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Cindy is the author, most recently, of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power which was the subject of a symposium hosted by The Disorder of Things. 

The US satirical website The Onion recently ran a fake testimonial video featuring a remorseful Donald Trump supporter. The 2-minute clip is entitled ‘Trump Voter Feels Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages of Queer Feminist Theory’. The video features the character ‘Mike Bridger, Former Trump Supporter’, a middle-aged, working class, cishet white male from a small steel town in Pennsylvania. The balding Mike is shot in documentary talking-head style. Mike sits facing the camera, both so that his truthfulness can be evaluated by viewers and so that what US Americans will recognize as his iconic working-class garb is fully in view – dark tan zip-up jacket, olive-green button-down shirt open at the collar, white t-shirt visible underneath. Accompanied by slow music which sets a troubled, post-catastrophe tone, Mike tells his story.

‘I voted for Donald Trump,’ Mike tells us. ‘I voted for Trump because I thought he’d create a better America for everyone. But after reading 800 or so pages on queer feminist theory, I realize now just how much I’ve been duped.’

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‘You are fired!’ Towards the Hegemony of Neoliberal Hypermasculinity

This is the final post in a series of posts by several guest authors  for The Disorder Of Things symposium on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. In this post, Ali Bilgic responds to the previously published posts and makes some concluding remarks. The full series is collected here.


He is signing a document. Men standing behind him are all serious, looking over the shoulder of the one who he is performing the ceremony, a TV show par excellence. One of them passes the black folders; one after another, one signature after another. When he signs, his eyebrows rise a little, probably to see better. In this moment, it is possible to notice the blankness in his eyes that complements the expressionless face of the new Commander-in-Chief: there is no sign of affect in them, a staunch wall, like the one to be built on the border with Mexico, or the one in Palestine/Israel.

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, January 23, 2017.
Trump on Monday signed three orders on withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, freezing the hiring of federal workers and hitting foreign NGOs that help with abortion. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

One expects he would abruptly say ‘You are fired’; one wonders whether he has learned and practised this masculine emotionless performance during his years in the world of entertainment: in a reality show where young men and women wildly competed against each other to prove themselves to the neoliberal finance capitalism. Otherwise, they are fired, they vanish, do not exist anymore, neither for the audience nor for the market. This kind of decision requires rational thinking; in other words, a solid emptiness, a wall.

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Decoding Gender in Turkish Foreign Policy: How Ali Bilgic Gets it Right

This is the fifth and penultimate post in a series of posts by several guest authors  for The Disorder Of Things symposium on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. The full series is collected here.  Swati Parashar is a Senior Lecturer in the Peace and Development program, School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Monash University, Australia.


There is something fundamentally reassuring about reading a book on gendered hierarchies and foreign policy, at a time when we have just witnessed the inauguration of the Donald Trump Presidency in the United States of America. It is reassuring, because it tells us that the global gendered order of states is not going to be replaced anytime soon and gendered hierarchies will remain at the heart of all political contests, resistance and acts of solidarity. After all the biggest challenge to the Trump presidency is going to come from women’s groups who successfully organized the Global March on 21 January 2017.

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