The cover article in this month’s edition of Harper’s, “Manhood in the Age of #MeToo,” stimulated more than a little interest when I got it out of the mailbox. In it, Barrett Swanson attends an Evryman retreat to test whether or not there is a masculine cure for toxic masculinity.
The article presents moments from the men’s movement from Robert Bly’s Iron John to the present, and does its best to reckon with the American Psychological Association’s decree that “traditional masculinity” was toxic, and that it should be treated as such by counselors. Swanson’s article invites the conclusion that an Evryman weekend resembles a visit to the tenth circle of hell. But it offers one insightful assessment of gender studies: “Keen ironists will note that when biological factors such as testosterone are pegged as the locus of toxic masculinity, the argument relies on the same sort of essentialism that gets invoked by chauvinists who claim that women are biologically determined to be more emotional or diffident.”
Studies of masculinity and femininity beget all sorts of questions about whether male and female behaviors are innate, learned, or both. The larger issue for me involves this: why associate toxicity with masculinity? Aggression and stoicism have a rightful place in the pantheon of human activities; so do nurturing and open emotion. Too much of any of those can seem toxic.
What would happen if we tried to separate evaluations of a person’s actions from that person’s gender? People are people, right? Can we accurately judge a person’s accomplishments (or mistakes) by using gender as context rather than explanation?