Toxic! Masculinity! In! Space!
Remember When Billionaires Built Libraries, Museums, Colleges?
by Hank Trout
Last week, I chatted at length with my dear friend and former English professor at WVU, the brilliant Dr. Judith Gold Stitzel. Among other things, we talked about the current “space race” involving the billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. We both expressed our disgust at the shameless, egotistical waste of hundreds of millions of dollars just so two spoiled, filthy rich boys-clubbers can gaze down on us peasants and gloat. As we talked, it hit me—this space race is an example of toxic masculinity on steroids.
George Carlin once said that war is little more than two men facing off and waving their dicks at each other. Branson and Bezos are doing the same thing in space.
The concept of toxic masculinity refers to certain cultural norms in Western society that a “real man” must live up to, even though they are harmful to society and to men themselves. Traditional traits associated with “being a man”—socially and sexually dominant, physically aggressive, “masters” of their domain, stoic, independent, assertive, emotionally insensitive—can and do lead to bullying, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia evidenced by violence, including sexual assault and domestic violence. Boys are socialized in patriarchal societies that emphasize power, and disregard consequences or responsibility, in ways that normalize violence, excusing it with “boys will be boys.”
And shameless billionaires will be shameless billionaires.
Remember when billionaires used their fortunes to build public institutions like libraries, colleges, museums, and concert halls? Now, I’m sure that the Carnegies and Mellons and Heinzes were no saints, and certainly Branson, Bezos, et al., have made substantial charitable contributions to various organizations—but for me, that doesn’t excuse their wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on what amounts to nothing more than a private pissing contest in space. Their purported sense of civic responsibility seems to be a pretty damn shallow cover for their macho posturing.
Although we’ve always lived with toxic masculinity, in the last five years or so it has run rampant, informing almost every aspect of American culture. It’s there in religion, with evangelicals having “cancelled” the loving peaceful Christ and replacing him with a hyper-masculine AK-47-wielding Rambo Jesus. It has seized control of one political party that has abandoned all of its traditional principles in favor of hero-worshipping a crass, vulgar, dishonest, racist, sexually promiscuous, violent, homophobic, misogynistic, ill-educated, dumb-as-a-stump creep—in their eyes, the epitome of masculinity. His very public vulgar toxicity—what other candidate has ever discussed the size of his penis in a presidential debate?—has given the imprimatur to other vulgarians to act out. The events of January 6 at the U.S. Capitol attest to that.
We long-term survivors remember well how toxic masculinity shaped the initial response to AIDS in the 1980s, when the prevailing public attitude seemed to be, “Let the faggots die.” We remember the huge spike in anti-gay bashings and homicides that occurred in the early years of the pandemic.
We remember also how women in the HIV community have been mistreated from the beginning of the pandemic. We remember that it took several years for the CDC to revise its definition of AIDS to include women. Women were routinely blocked from clinical trials of HIV medication because “women don’t get AIDS.” As Sarah Schulman [A&U, August 2021] points out in Let the Record Show, one reason for that exclusion of women was rooted in the 1960s disaster with thalidomide, a medication for morning sickness that caused thousands of children to be born without limbs; the pharmaceutical companies feared liability if something similar happened with the new HIV drugs. But as she also points out, the primary reason for the exclusion was simple neglect. “[A]t the time, science did not think about women.” Due to the work of ACT UP, conditions have improved somewhat; but still, there are parts of the world where women account for the majority of people living with HIV.
I wish I could offer a solution, an antidote to the toxic masculinity in society, but I can’t. I do know, however, that the one weak spot that all these toxically masculine men share is their extremely fragile egos. Mel Brooks, defending his making fun of Hitler in The Producers, explained that when confronted with Evil on such a mass scale, the only weapon common folks like us have is humor, the power to humiliate the powerful. And so I will continue to poke the bear, assaulting their egos, diminishing them as they try to diminish all of us.
So, Richard! Jeff! My darlings! The next time you feel the urge to climb into your multi-million-dollar metal phallus and thrust yourselves into space to wave your dick at us…DON’T. Keep it in your pants. Go build a library or something.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-one-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.