Of all the ill-informed explanations for why Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine, perhaps the most absurd is that he is afflicted with “toxic masculinity”. And yet, there are multiple commentators and think piece writers saying exactly that: the Russian President is so insecure about his sense of manly virility that he had to start a war to prove himself.
You can see where they got the idea. Putin is clearly invested in portraying himself as a literal strongman. He’s posed shirtless, riding horses and doing judo on camera; there have been photo shoots with tigers and bears. He’s spent years building an image of strength and daring, both as a person and as a leader. (Meanwhile his new nemesis Zelensky became an overnight heartthrob when Twitter discovered that he appeared on the Ukrainian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing in a hot pink suit.)
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But using the very Western, very modern framework of identity politics to discuss deep-rooted geopolitical tensions is shockingly irresponsible. The Right often condemns such behaviour, accusing the Left of being decadent or frivolous. And they’ve got a point.
Identity politics have become hegemonic; any news story that can be viewed through their lens seems instantly worthier of our attention. A debate about whether a legal decision or a politician’s speech has racist or sexist implications will generally get more traction than whether it contributes to income inequality or environmental degradation. And so its vocabulary has been trotted out to convince people that they need to take the conflict in Ukraine seriously — more seriously, for whatever reason, than the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan or the 3 million people displaced by conflict in Yemen (which only makes headlines when Angelina Jolie gets involved). Accusing Putin of “toxic masculinity” reels in people who support women’s and queer rights, which have been truncated in Russia, in the same way that the hashtag #ukraineisgeorgefloyd reels in those whose primary concern is racial justice.
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That’s not to say that the concept of “toxic masculinity” is empty. It emerged from feminism as a shorthand for the idea that certain masculine traits once heralded as beneficial — chivalry, strength, competitiveness — could be potentially oppressive, especially when they metastasise into violent behaviour against women and other vulnerable communities. And it can be useful in critiquing what we look for in a national leader — a role that has typically been filled by men. Force and self-assuredness have previously been seen as desirable; asking whether they are “toxic” allows us to see how these qualities can shade toward authoritarianism. It can also help us see that qualities once associated with weakness — eagerness to compromise and maintain peace — are in many ways beneficial.
The focus on identity politics more broadly has also highlighted previously under-examined aspects of authoritarianism, like the fact that it is often disproportionately harmful to women and the LGBT community. When a state turns repressive toward gay rights or reproductive rights — either through restricting access to abortion or by forced sterilisation — it can indicate a dangerous turn. Authoritarian governments often try to control rigid gender roles and demonise “deviant” sexual behaviours.
Still, a focus on identity politics can crowd out other criticisms. And it can also be used to shut down criticisms completely. It is tempting to see a government that ostensibly protects women and other marginalised communities as ethically “good”. But it’s common for governments that have faced accusations of corruption or wrongdoing to fight back with symbolic gestures toward these communities.
The Right-wing Colombian administration, headed by President Iván Duque, has faced a year of street protests for its economic reforms and police brutality. It recently decriminalised abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy: a huge victory for women’s rights groups. Sarah Schulman has documented the way Israel has used its progressive queer rights policies to shore up its international reputation after it was damaged by its treatment of Palestinians — an act she calls “pinkwashing”.
And Israel, she points out, is hardly the only nation to use identity politics to cloak its less progressive reforms. The United States celebrated gay marriage while conducting drone warfare in Yemen; it called the appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg a feminist triumph while passing legislation removing social welfare programmes for mothers and children.
Part of the problem is that toxic masculinity is squishy language, used to describe everything from war crimes to taking up too much space on the subway. There have been several high-profile cases where a corrupt or otherwise objectionable politician has been attacked for exhibiting toxic masculinity — while his other, arguably worse decisions went unpunished or unacknowledged. The debate over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court mostly turned on one accusation of sexual wrongdoing decades ago against one woman; but it was his “toxic masculinity” that led many to believe he was not fit for the powerful position he now holds, whether or not he was guilty. This line of argument overtook any other objections one might have about him occupying a seat on the highest court in the land: his participation in the George W. Bush administration’s torture programme, for example.
A similar problem arose with New York state governor Andrew Cuomo, who ultimately had to step down because of allegations of unwanted touching. He maintains that even if his behaviour was inappropriate at times, it was never criminal — further proof of his toxic masculinity, some feminists would argue. But in all of this his role in the New York’s unnecessarily catastrophic pandemic is ignored. Obviously sexual assault and the violation of interpersonal boundaries doesn’t reflect well on a person’s character, but Cuomo was terrible for all the New Yorkers who voted him in, not just the women who worked for him.
But clearly the US is not ready to confront its Covid failures — the confused messaging, the crumbling public health system, the lack of compensation for job loss, the massive fraud that was committed via its Paycheck Protection Program. These things led to unnecessary suffering and death. Similarly, it’s worth wondering whether, had Kavanaugh not been accused of sexual assault, his other transgressions would’ve gone unconfronted. There would have had to be a widespread conversation about the torture and unjust imprisonment of those designated enemies during the war on terror. But the media, the justice system, and politicians of both parties supported these ethical transgressions. And we still can’t seem to close our Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.
And now that Cuomo is trying to stage a comeback, based on the image of a reformed man (reformed for his misogyny, not for his pandemic policies), we should pay attention to the way “toxic masculinity” can be a gift to the men accused of it, because it downplays their other crimes. As useful as the accusation of “toxic masculinity” can be as a political weapon, it can also have a nasty rebound effect.
Critics often suggest that identity politics have created brain rot in the West. Lionel Shriver wrote in The Spectator that Putin felt free to invade Ukraine because we’ve gone soft: “Decolonisations, contextualisations, gender-neutralisations … — it’s all a load of onanistic, diversionary crap, and the West having shoved its head up its backside is one reason that Putin feels free to do whatever he likes. We’re not scary, because we’ve made ourselves ridiculous.” Ben Shapiro made a similar accusation on Twitter, blaming Russia’s invasion on “The West” being obsessed with “exploding the gender binary”.
But they, too, are trapped in this conversation about identity politics, even if in an adversarial mode. They can’t stop referring everything, even serious geopolitical matters, back to a battle about pronouns and racial discrimination.
Of course, they’re right to point out that our conversation about Ukraine is blinkered. Like the culture war, this war is framed as a battle between good and evil, and this simplification allows us to ignore the fact that it has roots in centuries-old discussions of territory and autonomy. It’s about the meaning of nationhood, which is not always straightforward.
If we faced that, we’d also be forced face our own hypocrisy, as nations that feel free to violate airspace whenever it suits us. If we weren’t distracting ourselves with condemning the insecurities of one dictator, we might consider that our democratic countries, too, have let economic concerns drive international policy. We have invaded sovereign nations. We have killed civilians.
Or perhaps we’d find another easy answer, to help us ignore awkward questions.