There is something wrong with many men at the moment and somebody should just say it.
It is not easy to say it because many of us are married to men; work with them; have best friends who are men; love men; have male children. But there is a macho-fuelled element on the rise, one that is becoming more and more the norm. It is destructive to both men and women. And yet we are reluctant to talk about it. To see it.
The performance of masculinity by Donald Trump – he of the chest-thumping, bellowing, alpha male division – attracts women and men. For males, in particular, his denigration of women, particularly women of colour, especially women of African descent, is a crowd-pleaser among a certain male demographic.
Even among certain African American men. And I say this because his policies affect them the most, destroy them the most, as their life expectancy rate continues to plummet. One African American guy told me that he secretly liked Trump’s crudeness because it put the guy’s grandmother “in her place”. What do you say after a remark like that?
Although Bret Easton Ellis was roundly condemned for his prescient masterwork American Psycho, he knew to make Trump the reigning deity of the novel.
“The Donald” is the deus ex machina of every man who loses, but needs to win at any price, every man who sits inside himself and mutters like Brando: “I coulda been a contender” or who wants to yell like Jimmy Cagney does at the end of Raoul Walsh’s crazy-man 1949 masterpiece White Heat.
At the finale, Cagney’s Cody, berserk during most of the movie, flees to the top of a gigantic, globe-shaped gas storage tank which, after being riddled with gunfire, naturally explodes.
Cagney yells before the whole thing disintegrates: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
At CPAC, the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican party’s annual bonfire, student activist turned man-about-crazytown, Charlie Kirk, said that he wanted everyone there to call what is happening at America’s southern border an invasion. Not what is happening to Ukraine. He stated that most Americans, anyway, could not pronounce any of the cities in Ukraine. Not bothering to mention that they could not pronounce the ones in Mexico, either. But this is beside the point when the goal is to perform a type of masculinity that is meant to be inevitable.
He did have enough sense, however, to delete a tweet that he sent out to his followers before what turned into the sacking of the Capitol on January 6, 2021: “This historic event will likely be one of the largest and most consequential in America history. The team @TrumpStudents & Turning Point Action are honored to help make this happen, sending 80+ buses full of patriots to DC to fight for this president.”
Of course, this tweet could have gotten Kirk charged under the Sedition Act. He must have calculated that this was way too much manhood.
But something else is being performed, too. Maybe we should call it what one writer, who since coming out as a non-binary trans person, formerly male, has observed: “petulant vulnerability”.
“Petulant vulnerability” is the American teen Kyle Rittenhouse, crying buckets of tears as he was charged with loading up and going out to correct what he thought he was destined to correct: looting. He killed two people and was acquitted.
Then there are the guys convicted of hunting down and shooting an African American man just out on a jog: Ahmaud Arbery. They were emotional in court, too; crestfallen; eyes full of tears and remorse. They got convicted anyway.
Think of Kendall Roy of Succession who tries his best, at one point, to perform a more empathetic masculinity than his macho father. But we know that it is all a ruse. Another way to gain power. To be a man.
Vladimir Putin rides shirtless on horseback; saunters down a seemingly endless corridor lined with armed soldiers. In another performance, he keeps the president of France away from him, a fellow president, at bay, both seated at a table that seemed the length of a football field; his whining nationalism; his pitiable call to arms because people were being victims of “genocide”.
Using that old Hitler “ethnic German” ruse that the dictator used as an excuse to invade and annex parts of Poland: an act that led to the second world war. This is shock and awe masculinity, performed by a man who takes pride in his lack of formal education and that he was a KGB agent in Dresden during the cold war. And where he would surely still be if his glorious Soviet Union were resurrected.
When I despair I think of guys like Terrell J Starr, a podcast host on foreign affairs and postgrad fellow who has placed himself in Kyiv. His empathy with his surroundings, his easy maleness, is rooted in a solidarity with the people around him, with the buildings and the streets. He is a human being with nothing to prove. He is simply trying to tell the truth. Simply trying to show it.
There is the strong sense that he will stay in this country foreign to him. And fight.
And there is BBC anchor Clive Myrie.
A good friend of mine, he once talked about a fellow journalist, one he had known in Bosnia in the 1990s during the wars, who had been killed.
There is something that some foreign journalists crave, he told me, a kind of buzz. But Clive was in Bosnia to do his job and when he had the sense that maybe it was time to stop being in war zones, he came home.
Now he is back on the frontline.
Someone said on social media that they thought they had seen tears in his eyes. They would not have been the tears of “petulant vulnerability”. They would have been the tears of a human being.