October 2017

Line in the Sand: Toxic Masculinity

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Barry Kaufman

I’m here today because, in my failure to check my privilege, I have opted to debate Courtney on toxic masculinity, mansplaining and manspreading. After all, adding the prefix man- to things that annoy us appears to be the hot new trend these days, and I am nothing if not trendy (I believe my extensive collection of Crocs can attest to that).

Let me start by debunking the easy one: Manspreading. For those of you not up to date on the hippest complaints about my gender, I will explain that manspreading is the generally male act of sitting with the legs as far apart as the hip bone will allow. This obviously presents a problem on public transportation, sporting events and cafeteria lunches, where real estate is at a premium.

Women, or at least some women, think that men do this for the explicit purpose of encroaching on the space of others, to satisfy some deep-seated male urge to physically dominate those around us, to conquer new territory and spread our own personal empires. I’m here to tell you the answer is much more shallow-seated than that.

I have to get a little personal here, but I think we can all be grownups about this. The reason we sit like that is because of testicles. I’m not prepared to explain it further in a family publication. Suffice it to say, the good Lord left a bit of a design flaw in my gender when it comes to bench seating, and I would hope that women could be a little more sensitive about our plight.

Now onto mansplaining, which is a little harder to pin down. The general school of thought seems to be that mansplaining is an inherently male behavior to explain things in such a way that carries an implicit message that the explainee is an idiot.

In one manzample (which is, naturally, a male example), feminist author Rebecca Solnit was at a party discussing her new book on Eadweard Muybridge when some male chauvinist cut her off to ask if she was familiar with a different, and implicitly more important, book on Muybridge. Turned out he was referring to Solnit’s book, and doing so in the jerkiest way possible.

This is a great example of mansplaining for several reasons: First, it took place at the kind of dreadfully stuffy party attended by feminist authors at which everyone stands around discussing their books on obscure nineteenth-century British photographers. Second, it has a man being a jerkface and interrupting a woman so he can sound like an expert on something he knows little about.

With all due respect to any woman who has had to endure this, please know that you are not alone. Mansplaining makes up literally half the conversations some men have with each other. If it weren’t for naturally boorish guys speaking to one another as if they were experts on subjects they could very easily be wrong about, while simultaneously assuming the other person is a simpleton, every show on ESPN would be four people at a desk reading stats sheets out loud. Bars across the country would be silent, as men tried desperately to have a conversation that didn’t boil down to a pissing contest.

There is not a person out there who hasn’t been mansplained to, male or female. I’m not saying it isn’t obnoxious, and I deeply, sincerely apologize to women for having to endure it. But let’s call it what it is: being a giant jerkface. It cuts across genders, and it certainly isn’t something men do to keep women from talking. It’s something that some men do because it’s the only way they know to talk.

But that’s an important word there, some. Look, I’m not trying to put down feminism. There is absolutely a disparity in the world I inhabit and the world a woman inhabits. There are privileges that come with my gender that have historically held women back in a man’s world. If women need to speak a little louder to have their voices heard, it’s the responsibility of everyone to elevate the human race by shutting up for a second and listening.

But every time you paint my entire gender with the same wide brush, you lump someone like me in with the neck-bearded fedora-wearing men’s rights activists of the world. It’s a little hypocritical of me to speak from my position of privilege about fairness, certainly. But it does seem like the feminists are fighting disparity with disparity.

I get it. To those in power, attempts at equality always look like oppression. But when it suddenly becomes okay to make assumptions about me based on my gender, I find it hard to sympathize if someone is making assumptions about you based on your gender.

So, let’s quit with this man stuff and just call it what it is. Some guys are jerks. We know, and on behalf of the guys who really try not to be jerks, I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, they get on my nerves too. And I’m really sorry about the whole bus seat thing. Believe me, it hurts me more than it hurts you.


Courtney Hampson
Communication theorist and linguistic professor Deborah Tannen has long argued that men and women are biologically different and thus programmed to communicate in different ways. In the 1980s, she first introduced the concepts of report and rapport talk. Tannen argues that women use rapport talk, we seek to make an emotional connection with others, so we share personal information, work to find commonalities, and essentially build a rapport. On the flip side, she postulates that men use report talk. Meaning they state the facts, often to establish status and prove their knowledge, caring more about the facts than the person with whom they are sharing the information.

I’ve been teaching Tannen’s theory in my public communication class for 15 years. I have been disagreeing with Tannen for just as long. I don’t believe gender is the defining factor in personality and behavior. I know plenty of men capable of connecting with other people and building rapport. I also know lots of women (um, me) who would prefer to skip the small talk and chit chat and just get right to the point. I think it is our personality type, which is comprised of all kinds of factors (birth order, parents, upbringing, community, education, regionality, et al.) that defines how we act, not our gender.

Why am I giving you a lecture on communication? Well, blame it on Barry who wanted to discuss the topic of “toxic masculinity” this month. I hadn’t heard the term before he mentioned it; it isn’t in the dictionary or in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so I was stuck with Google and eventually Wikipedia, which defines toxic masculinity as follows: “The concept of toxic masculinity is used in the social sciences to describe traditional norms of behavior among men in contemporary American and European society that are associated with detrimental social and psychological effects. Such ‘toxic’ masculine norms include dominance, devaluation of women, extreme self-reliance, and the suppression of emotions. Conformity with certain traits viewed as traditionally male, such as misogyny, homophobia, and violence, can be considered ‘toxic’ due to harmful effects on others in society, while related traits, including self-reliance and the stifling of emotions, are correlated with harm to men themselves through psychological problems such as depression, increased stress, and substance abuse. Other traditionally masculine traits such as devotion to work, pride in excelling at sports, and providing for one’s family, are not considered to be toxic.”

So, I know what you are thinking. This sounds like our president and every conservative male news media mogul who has recently lost his job for harassing women. Right? Right! Ok, maybe I am the only one thinking that, but I am also thinking I know this guy. I’ve worked for him. I’ve dated him. I’ve been abused by him.

He’s the guy who sits in a meeting of mostly men and calls all of the women by the same first name, because in his opinion we are interchangeable. He is the boyfriend who calls you every 15 minutes at work, to make sure he knows where you are. He is the man who can’t stand in line at the grocery store without complaining about the wait in the express line (yeah, I am talking about you, dude, at Publix on Buckwalter Parkway at 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 17). He’s the guy making inappropriate innuendo, the guy cheating on your best friend. We all know this guy.

In defense of the good guys, there is a big difference between being “such a guy” and being a “toxic man.” “Such a guys” are endearing. They spend two days prepping for a college football tailgate, but wait until December 24 to begin their Christmas shopping. We tease them incessantly, but we love them for it, because they are “such a guy.”

Toxicity is different, but it isn’t a trait exclusive to men. Gender does not define toxicity. Women can be toxic too: condescending and catty, with personalities so overpowering you cringe. Some possess a business drive so intense they push people away in their desire for total domination. And, their self-centered nature prevents them from turning on their edit button and checking themselves.

Toxic men and toxic women have a different chromosomal make-up, but mentally their composition is the same. They lack confidence. And that’s something you can’t teach. Toxic people will always step on others to get ahead and always position themselves to be first, because in their minds, all that matters is winning.

Everyone is different. Toxic men and women are everywhere. They’re at your office, in your family, perhaps your circle of friends (maybe it is time to tighten the circle), and all over your social feeds. The only thing we can do is choose to be the opposite.

Be kind. Do the right thing.

Wag more. Bark less.

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