January 21, 2019

Imagine the following scenario. It is decided that there are aspects of female behaviour that are deeply troubling.  Indeed they are so troubling that a phrase enters the language, first on the campuses and then across wider society: ‘Toxic femininity’. It’s an ugly phrase to be sure, but even those who recognise that also recognise that it would be unwise to deny its existence. Eventually a new generation begins to take the existence of ‘toxic femininity’ for granted.

Then, over a few days in January, a number of things happen. The American Psychological Association issues new guidelines to all of its practitioners. These guidelines are the basis for how to deal with women and girls who they encounter in their professional capacities. The new guidance tells its members that there are certain harmful aspects of femininity that need to be challenged, suppressed or removed. These include very basic feminine traits which some women have in abundance, and others do not have at all. Traits such as caring, cooperation and motherliness. Despite the fact that these are probably ineradicable, they are ones which the APA has nevertheless identified as being in need of expunged from the female of the species.

Then, a few days later, a company which makes feminine hygiene products starts a new advertising campaign. It is aimed at those who use its products – but its message seems strangely hostile to its target audience. Indeed, it appears to largely show them at their absolute worst. For example, there is a segment near the opening that highlights the phenomenon of women who will use their sexuality to manipulate people and get their own way, or who will go to any lengths to get pregnant. It’s behaviour that is surely not emblematic of women as a whole, and yet that is what the advert would appear to be saying. What would women feel about this? Would there not be a degree of anger as well as confusion?

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All this is merely to reverse recent events. The APA recently released guidelines for how its members should specifically deal with men and boys. An article explaining the rationale claimed that 40 years of research showed that “traditional masculinity – marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression, is undermining men’s well-being”.  To tackle these “traditional” aspects of masculinity, the APA had produced some new guidelines in order to help people in practice “recognise this problem for boys and men”.

In its guidelines, the APA defined traditional masculinity as “a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence”.

The APA gave very little idea of how this rewiring might work even on its own terms. For instance, if competitiveness is indeed an especially male trait – as the APA suggests – then when is such competitiveness toxic and harmful, and when is it useful? Might a male athlete be allowed to use their competitive instincts on the race-track? If so, how can he be helped to ensure that off the track he is as docile as possible?

Might a man facing inoperable cancer with stoicism be helped out of this harmful position so as to be less stoical? If ‘adventure’ and ‘risk’ are indeed male traits then when and where should men be encouraged to drop them? Should a male explorer be encouraged to be less adventurous, a male firefighter be trained to take fewer risks? Ought male soldiers be encouraged to less connected to ‘violence’ and be more keen to show weakness? If so when? By what mechanism should male soldiers be reprogrammed to use their useful traits and skills when society badly needs them but have them squeezed out when society deems them problematic?

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For its part, Gillette chose to launch its new advertising campaign not with the statement ‘The best a man can get’ (as used to be the strapline) but rather something along the lines of ‘The best that men can be’. Yet what it focused on was every negative male trait from young boys fighting to bullying and the problem of unwarranted male attention towards women. As though these are traits specific to men, and which all men are at risk of falling victim to.

In short, Gillette chose to show men at their worst and then suggest that by using Gillette – with its new ethical and moral code – we could all make ourselves better.

The APA guidance and the furious Gillette fallout illustrate a number of things. In the case of Gillette, it’s the skill of marketing campaigns which get everyone to talk about a product (even negatively) for some days and thereby increase brand recognition. Perhaps we should all begin to recognise this as the corporate advertising equivalent of trolling.

But there has also been fallout because these stories also point to one of the biggest culture wars of our era – the usefulness or otherwise of certain masculine traits. Few people would deny that the traits the APA lists as especially male (adventure, risk, violence) can be exercised negatively. Somebody being violent against someone they think is looking at them in the street is an example of a negative application of the violence trait. On the other hand, from the rugby pitch to a war zone, there are plenty of occasions where violence can be harnessed to the good of everybody.

Turn it around and you can only come to the same conclusion. Characteristics more often listed as feminine (which doesn’t mean they characterise all women, but that they exist disproportionately across the mean in women) include empathy and sensitivity. Both of these characteristics can – like violence and adventurousness – be used for the good.  They can also (though this is less often said) have less favourable effects.

As Yale’s Paul Bloom in his Against Empathy: the case for rational compassion has shown, empathy can have enormously negative consequences. The idea that these characteristics are enough in and of themselves (and the more the better) can blind people to the fact that sometimes taking a difficult decision requires steel-heartedness. For example, it may be more compassionate to give money to an alcoholic than to stonewall him. But which is the better course of action?

If the APA and Gillette were merely stressing the importance of the worst aspects of people being reined then that would be one thing (though the question of why a vast multinational corporation should be among those doing the lecturing would still linger). But the impression being projected is something else. It is not that certain masculine traits can – like all traits – be taken to extremes and go bad. It is that the traits themselves are wrong and that the people who hold them must as a result either re-programme themselves or be reprogrammed by others.

Specifically it is a pitch to feminise men. Which is as bizarre as an organised campaign to make women more masculine. For sure, it is the sort of thing that a post-modern cultural-studies professor might find interesting. But for many men – especially young men trying to find their way in the world – it is a message that is flooring in a world that is already complex enough to navigate.