In "Extremism and Toxic Masculinity: The Man Question Re-posed," Elizabeth Pearson analyzes the theories of Marysia Zalewski, Raewyn Connell, and others, and decribes her ethnographic research (e.g., observations of rallies and interviews) of activists from the English Defence League (EDL) – a far-right Islamophobic organization—to investigate the question: “What work does gender do in structuring anti-Islam(ist) masculinities?” (Elizabeth Pearson 2019: 1254). Pearson’s central objective is to “disrupt the idea of ‘toxicity’ as distinct from patriarchy, and recognize EDL masculinities as belonging to a repertoire of wider social norms” (Pearson 2019: 1252); to argue that masculinity must be read through an intersectional lens; and “to disrupt the necessary link between men’s bodies and masculinities” (Pearson 2019: 1252), as women may play a role in “either constituting masculinity or embodying it” (Pearson 2019: 1258). In this paper, I describe my observations and experiences at an all-boys camp and a predominantly male gym and review ethnographic studies—primarily the work of Pearson, Wozniak and Uggen—in order to analyze various masculinities and observe how distinct patterns emerge in diverse groups.
Pearson maintains that toxic masculinity is not an exceptional quality attributed to specific individuals. People who join extremist hate groups are not social isolates, but rather by-products of patriarchy. Following this logic, the hegemonic masculine performances of EDL activists can be examined through Foucault’s idea of docile bodies. In their reading of Foucault, as described in "Makeup at Work," Dellinger and Williams argue that “through self-surveillance and everyday disciplinary practices, individuals internalize and reproduce hierarchies of social status and power” (Kristen Dellinger and Christine Williams 1997: 152). I would argue that EDL activists—who are predominantly white men—fight for a power they feel is their inherent birthright, as promised by the patriarchy. These activists highly value camaraderie, adopt militaristic values, and transform their bodies “into ‘carriers’ or representatives of the prevailing relations of domination and subordination” (Dellinger and Williams 1997: 152) to obey their culture’s demands.
In "Real Men Use Nonlethals," Wozniak and Uggen cite Enloe’s (Enloe 1993: 52) use of the “term ‘militarism’ to speak of the creeping spread of militaristic values into nonmilitary institutions. This has an important connection to masculinity, as ‘to be manly means to be a potential warrior’” (Jesse Wozniak and Christopher Uggen 2009; 278-279), as seen in the police habitus (Wozniak and Uggen 2009: 290). This deeply masculine environment values “strength, stoicism, loyalty, and obedience to hierarchy” (Wozniak and Uggen 2009: 277).1
Deeyah Khan argues that part of the growth of extremism is due to the difficulties some individuals have in adjusting to an ever-changing world. People turn to these groups in search of “meaning, belonging, a sense of purpose... for brotherhood, camaraderie” (Khan 2019). Pearson confirms these notions when she cites the Critical Studies on Men and Masculinities (CSMM) authors who “have linked masculinity in crisis to the macro-effects of globalization, suggesting that this is an explanatory factor across a spectrum of extremist ideologies” (Pearson 2019: 1259). It is important to note that dichotomous ideology is inherent to patriarchy—and, by extension, to toxic masculinity. The police use the terms ‘good guys’ or ‘heroes’ in contrast to ‘bad guys’. Pearson highlights how many participants (of all genders) in the EDL movement have a dichotomous understanding of the female body as either virtuous or not. This is evident in EDL activist Darren’s description of specific women as “female by birth, but you wouldn’t say they were ladies… The men go through them. I wouldn’t. I despise them all, they are filth-bags” (Pearson 2019: 1267).
Pearson acknowledges Beasley’s criticism that a purely “structural approach ‘lets men off the hook’ ... by relegating male agency or identity in its account” (Pearson 2019: 1258). However, it is clearly demonstrated in the dichotomous worldviews of far-right extremists that their struggles to adapt to the changing world and adoption of militaristic structures are not exceptional performances of hyper-masculinities. I argue that both individuals and patriarchal structures should be held accountable.
Salem, in "Intersectionality and its Discontents," argues for a move away from only considering “‘dual systems’ – patriarchy and capitalism – [as they neglect] race, sexuality and other social relations of power” (Sara Salem 2016: 408), and toward an intersectional approach. Pearson references Kimmel’s work on politically radical masculinities, explaining that “‘all masculinities are not created equal’. Within the extremism discourse, ‘toxic’ men are often the most marginalized, or subordinate, in terms of class or race, or both” (Pearson 2019: 1257). Khan explains that when these individuals do not have their basic human needs met, they are left feeling insignificant and powerless (Khan 2019). In turn, this makes them vulnerable to be preyed upon and instrumentalized for political purposes.
The potential for racial tension to engender toxic masculinity is highlighted in James’ argument, referenced by Pearson, that much of “white identity is grounded in a sense of entitlement and victimhood relative to people of color” (Pearson 2019: 1262). This idea is exemplified in the altercation between EDL activist Daniel and ten men in his neighbourhood whom he assumed were Muslim. Daniel chased them with a pipe. The men called him a white bastard, and one man later stabbed Daniel from behind. Pearson writes that “This confrontation with his race as ‘other’ was significant for ‘Daniel’ to his masculine identity... [as] gender ... and sexuality help define and naturalize the hierarchies based on race and class” (Pearson 2019: 1262). This event challenged Daniel’s expectations of the privileges bestowed upon him by means of his identity. “Daniel now regards retaliatory violence as a necessary aspect of competition for ‘ownership’ of the town that he feels should uncontestably be his” (Pearson 2019: 1262). Pearson unearths the role of women in toxic masculinity, how they support it, embody it, or are affected by it: “masculinity is not simply a property of men’s bodies (it is also about women)” (Pearson 2019: 1259-1260). Pearson cites Connell, who writes that “focusing only on the activities of men occludes the practices of women in the construction of gender among men” (Pearson 2019: 1264).
Additionally, both EDL women and men endorse patriarchal misogynistic values in regard to particular women. Georgey (an EDL activist in her thirties) refers to feminists as “stupid cows ... more worried about tits in a tabloid than girls getting their clits cut off” (Pearson 2019: 1265). She “reject[s] the title ‘feminist’ entirely, yet mobilizes on protecting women from the perceived abuses of Islam” (Pearson 2019: 1265). Pearson notes the inconsistencies in this logic, as the EDL movement opposes “Islam for [its] traditionalist approach to gender; yet they also expressed a belief in the importance of ‘traditional’ gender roles as a legacy of ‘English’ culture” (Pearson 2019: 1267). EDL activists perceive certain practices against women as a deliberate assault on English culture and therefore call for a cultural war. Khan explains how the left has failed in its unwillingness to confront the existence of difficult cultural practices such as “honour killing, forced marriages, female genital mutilation… [and] grooming gangs” (Khan 2019). It is important to acknowledge the complexities of human groups and remove the dichotomous notion of the purely ‘good’ or ‘bad’. To view minorities only as victims rather than a multitude of variations in people is a limiting and racist view.
I participated in two site visits to better understand masculinities. First, I worked at an all-boys private camp in North Ontario a couple of summers ago. Second, I observed the behaviours displayed in a predominately male gym. I chose these sites to observe and identify the hyper-masculine patterns that individuals adopt or resist in these environments. My experiences were not as radical as the ethnographic study of the English Defence League activists, but I did see how patriarchal values were embedded in these institutions in subtle ways. During my camp experience I observed dichotomous ideologies, obedience to and enforcement of hierarchy, militaristic values, and construction of women’s identities and traditional roles. These patterns are also present in expressions of hyper-masculinity.
As in the Pearson, Wozniak and Uggen ethnographic studies, dichotomous values are deep-seated within the camp environment. The bedtime stories were always bloody, consisting of purely good characters fighting purely bad ones. This is clear evidence of a divided binary perspective, but it also recalls Nath’s observation in Gendered Fare? that “a series of masculine qualities are encapsulated in the idea of red bloodedness” (Jemal Nath 2011: 162). These stories regurgitate the notions that manhood is intrinsically linked to violence, which Connell argues “is essential to hegemonic masculinity” (Wozniak and Uggen 2009: 278). This also mimics police culture, which sees the world in terms of “good guys” versus “bad guys”. When this notion is exaggerated, it produces the sorts of extreme worldviews exemplified in EDL rhetoric (i.e., “against all Muslims”) or, as depicted in Khan’s film JIHAD, Abu Muntasir’s position that the world contains Muslims (“the good”) and non-Muslims (“the dishonorable and corrupt”). A camper disclosed to me the fear these stories created in him; however, he didn’t leave the room—although this was an option—for fear of appearing weak and unable to live up to the masculine values of strength and stoicism.
It is clear how people at the camp internalized and reproduced hierarchies, creating docile bodies. The ‘leaders-in-training’ (or L.I.T.s, who were the youngest and newest staff members) occupied the lowest place in the camp hierarchy, after the instructors, counselors, senior staff, and camp director. In camp, the higher your position, the greater your privileges – such as choices of daily tasks and better sleeping accommodations. Those at the lowest end of the spectrum, L.I.T.s, had the least desirable tasks and virtually no choices. Furthermore, L.I.T.s ate separately and had to serve meals—an unpaid service. If L.I.Ts deviated from obedience to this hierarchy by complaining about tasks or sharing different values, they were punished by having to complete physical activities, such as doing fifty push-ups. Obedience to hierarchy is present in deeply masculine environments.
James’ concept – that much of white identity is grounded in a sense of entitlement – and Pearson’s point that sexuality and gender “help define and naturalize the hierarchies based on race and class” (Pearson 2019: 1262) were embodied at this camp. Until recently, the campers were divided into two groups with Canadian Indigenous names who competed in activities to win the ‘war’. This activity – mocking and exoticizing Indigenous culture by attempting to embody its alleged ‘warrior’ characteristics – is a clear assertion of an appropriation that aims to assert masculine dominance.
Enloe’s theory of ‘militarism’ was manifested in the camp through rituals, notions of hero warriors, and the honouring of strength and stoicism. Each morning, patriotism was displayed with the raising of the Canadian flag and singing of the national anthem, followed by the raising of the camp flag and a song about what it means to be a man. Camp stories included tales about camaraderie and the hardship that inspirational men endured in wartime. One of the most respected visitors and former employees was a Navy Seal officer who told stories to the staff that proved his mental toughness. During his training, he recalled, he was strapped to a pole for an entire night as ocean waves pounded him – a ritual performed to prove sailors’ stoicism, strength, and resilience against potential torture. The camp praised this individual as the epitome of masculinity that all boys should strive to emulate.
The campsite was a very homosocial group, as there were only seven female staff members amongst at least ten times as many male staffers and hundreds of male campers. The camp claimed to respect women, while individuals judged aspects of certain female sexuality. I observed how two male staff members advised a female staff member that she shouldn’t ‘hook up’ with any more guys since she was ‘sending the wrong message’ – which recalls Pearson’s observation of the dichotomous way in which EDL participants viewed women as honorable or not according to their sexual behaviour. This statement was presented as protective advice—for “her own good”, yet, in the context of this hyper- masculine environment, it was a shaming tactic intended to preserve traditional gender roles. Similarly, men cross-dressed in female clothing and portrayed women as stupid and docile, further projecting male superiority. When I asked why these skits were continuously performed, they replied that they had been performed for generations and were therefore an integral part of the camp’s culture – just as the EDL movement expresses its legacy in terms of ‘traditional’ English culture.
Following Pearson, I also observed at this camp how masculinities do not only reside within male bodies; women also played a role in supporting it, embodying it, or/and were affected by it. Women perpetuated the camp’s patriarchal culture in many ways, including mandatory weekly meetings with the director’s wife in which the only topic was the female’s staff romantic interest in males. During my time there, I witnessed how many females refrained from expressing any strong opinions, perhaps thereby internalizing their ‘inferior position’. In one of my first conversations with an older female leader (who learned that I was single), I was given a list of males in the camp who were around my age and single, and a list of their favourite meals so I could cook for them. I remember asking “Would they be cooking for me, too?” She clearly had internalized and reproduced a traditional gender hierarchy. I endured three more weeks of working there. I had to quit because I opposed the camp’s apparent core values regarding gender.
In my second field site, the gym, I was able to adopt a more intersectional approach and observe how “all masculinities are not created equal” (Pearson 2019: 1257-1258). Although there were clear displays of strength and pride in individual physical superiority, there was also a resistance to patriarchal structures. Over time, I befriended a male personal trainer who in casual conversation expressed his desire to start his own personal training program with co-workers who shared his values. The gym they work in forces employees to manipulate clients’ insecurities about their strength—and, indirectly, their manhood—for economic gain. Trainers were told to ask clients what activity they thought they excelled in (for example, squats). When the client performed the activity (squats), the trainers – as their employer had directed them to do – criticized their ability in order to establish the client’s role as the “inferior masculine” who needed the guidance of the trainer (the “superior masculine”). The goal was to make the clients believe that the only way they could attain the ideal strong male body was to purchase more services. The gym’s expectations and values not only reflected toxic masculinity, but directly forced their employees to perpetuate it. In contrast, the trainer I befriended began to form his own group where trainers could contribute to the rental of a space separate from the gym.They aimed to build clients' confidence by validating their achievements and acknowledging their strengths, instead of establishing positions of inferiority and superiority. These males who could have easily internalized their ‘superior positions’ – they were strongly built white men – created their own agency by recognizing their privilege and rejecting the gym’s patriarchal values. In this instance, Foucault’s idea of docile bodies has limitations, as the trainers negotiated their own relationship to power despite the gym’s imposed structural conditions.
This paper has analyzed two environments specifically in an attempt to understand the different manifestations of masculinities. It is important to adopt an intersectional approach where class, race, gender, and sexuality are intertwined in the construction of masculinities. Pearson recognizes that “just as extremists are in reality not separate from society, toxic masculinity is not separate from patriarchy or social gender norms” (Pearson 2019: 1269). Groups like the EDL activists are the most explicit manifestation of patriarchal values; however, subdued variations – such as in my two field sites – also exist, and are socially perpetuated.
- Additionally, Connell states that “violence is essential to hegemonic masculinity, both to support or underpin male authority and to mark boundaries... [which is extremely obvious] in the hypermasculine world of the police habitus” (Wozniak and Uggen 2009: 290). These police values were evident in Lt. Dave’s speech during a StunCo conference where he judged officers who avoided physical confrontation and used the stunner instead. He said, “How do I put this politically correct? [pauses] They don’t wanna fight” (Wozniak and Uggen 2009: 285). As Wozniak and Uggen explain, “This approach is masculine goading at its simplest; Lt. Dave was straightforwardly asking the audience if they were men who could do real police work or a bunch of ‘sissies’ that needed to hide behind some fancy new invention” (Wozniak and Uggen 2009: 285). Lt. Dave expresses his frustration with the “loss of hypermasculinity” (Wozniak and Uggen 2009: 282) in a changing world that demands that police be professional and accountable. In fact, “civil society has moved toward greater racial, gender, and sexual equality, dramatically changing the world in which the police operate” (Wozniak and Uggen 2009: 289).
- Drag “involves performance whereby the intent is an undoing of gender norms through doing (or dressing) the part of the opposite sex” (Britannica Academic 2017). The distinction in the counselors’ performance was to mock femininity and assert male dominance.
Alondra Ruiz-Hernandez is a cross-disciplinary artist with a BFA from OCAD University, majoring in Drawing & Painting and minoring in Social Sciences. In October 2020, she will begin her studies in the MA Fine Arts program offered at UAL’s Chelsea College of Arts. Alondra’s interest in diverse cultures and passion for cultivating informed research led her to study at OCAD U’s Florence Program, as well as, study of Chinese culture at Jiangnan University. She partook in twenty-one national and international exhibitions. Alondra has won 21 awards including the FOLAS/SIS Essay Writing Award in Social Science, an Honourable Mention award in the Figureworks exhibition at St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, and 19 Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards.
Dellinger, Kirsten, and Christine L. Williams. “Makeup at Work: Negotiating Appearance Rules in the Workplace.” Gender & Society, vol. 11, no. 2, 1997, pp. 151–177., journals-sagepub-com.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/doi/10.1177/089124397011002002.
Khan, Deeyah. Interview with Russel Brand. “How Love Will Defeat Hate | Russell Brand & Deeyah Khan | Under The Skin.” Luminary, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gP-ekeEQXkc&t=1005s.
Khan., Deeyah, director. JIHAD. Fuuse Films, 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_usgevtEppg&t=230s.
Nath, Jemál. “Gendered Fare?” Journal of Sociology, vol. 47, no. 3, 2011, pp. 261–278., journals-sagepub-com.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/doi/10.1177/1440783310386828.
Pearson, Elizabeth. “Extremism and Toxic Masculinity: the Man Question Re-Posed.” International Affairs, vol. 95, no. 6, 2019, pp. 1251–1270., academic-oup-com.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/ia/article/95/6/1251/5613459.
Salem, Sara. “Intersectionality and Its Discontents: Intersectionality as Traveling Theory.” European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 25, no. 4, 2016, pp. 403–418., journals-sagepub-com.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/doi/10.1177/1350506816643999.
Wozniak, Jesse, and Christopher Uggen. “Real Men Use Nonlethals.” Feminist Criminology, vol. 4, no. 3, 2009, pp. 275–293., journals-sagepub-com.ocadu.idm.oclc.org/doi/10.1177/1557 085109332676.