culture

Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes

If you’ve followed my Problematic Badass Female Tropes series (over at Writers’ HQ, kids), you’ll recall that the central argument to all those discussions was that those tropes restrict and weaken strong (read: badass) female characters. The bait and switch problems of each PBFT was the dangling of the “badass” in front of us to distract us, while assuming that the character’s strength is enough to make us not notice nor care about the inherent misogynistic structures she has been constructed with.

This new series will look at seven Problematic Toxic Masculinity tropes, and its central argument differs somewhat from that of the PBFTs, though of course the two sets of problematic tropes are intricately and innately connected. This series centers around the inherent assumption that males are strong and dominant. Where the PBFTs focus on the bait and switch of the strong female that’s in fact not strong but subservient to males, the PTMTs focus on the false labels of strength in male characters, as well as the narrow, restrictive, and damaging definition of what it means to be a strong man.

Both sets of tropes do similar things; both are examples of problems of gender and power. We will learn as we go through the male counterparts to the PBFTs that both sets of Problematic Tropes affect how media and entertainment express characters of all genders, and that all these problematic trope characters have a negative impact on the real people that consume and admire them.

But first, what does this trendy phrase Toxic Masculinity actually mean? Lately, in the continued wake of the #metoo movement, the phrase Toxic Masculinity is being bandied about by feminists of all stripes, mainly as a way to shut down conversations. I want to start conversations by writing about these tropes, not shut them down, so real quick let me give you, dear intelligent readers, my working definition of what Toxic Masculinity means (at least as far as these discussions go).

In a nutshell: Toxic Masculinity is the harmful view (ingrained in our patriarchal and heteronormative society) that if a man does not dominate, he is not a man. Domination of all things (from one’s own emotions to other people) is the key poison that puts the Toxic in Toxic Masculinity. Also remember: just like the Problematic Badass Female Tropes were, the Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes are not examples of what real men in the real world are actually like, but rather are problematic expressions of masculinity in the forms of characters in popular culture, art, and entertainment, and as such are influential to those who consume and attempt to emulate them. I want to point out the problems in these characters so that we can be aware of what the tropes are doing to us even as we continue to enjoy our media.

I will be writing full blog posts discussing these seven tropes, just like I did with the PBFTs, but first (as indeed I did with the PBFTs), here’s the bare basics in a rundown of what you can expect from these new magnificent seven:

1. Go Big or Go Home

As a man, the only choice you have for beauty is to be big and muscular. Thin, short, “feminine” or small men aren’t men, and certainly aren’t desirable. Where women are told by culture to lose more and more weight, diminishing themselves to invisibility, men are told they are nothing unless they take up more and more space, and are physically strong to boot.

2. Grow a Pair (or, Stoicism Ain’t Just For Hellenistics Anymore)

Pop Culture Detective’s excellent video article, “The Case Against the Jedi Order” describes this harmful trope well. Basically, boys are taught at very young ages to man up, grow a pair, boys don’t cry, etc. which means by the time they become men, they are not able to express emotions healthily, or even at all. The Jedi are a prime example of this, as is every Shane that breezes into town, kicks the bad guys’ collective ass, and moves on. The coolest male characters are ones that show no emotion whatsoever, and certainly don’t form deep emotional connections with other humans. Which leads me to:

3. Bond, James Bond

The misogyny and classism of the gentleman’s gentleman will be explored here, with our good friend 007 at the helm of our examples.

4. The Tale Of The Nerd and the Neckbeard

Nerds are sub-males. That’s the gist of this problematic trope. Brain bigger than your biceps? Well you certainly won’t get the girl. And the extreme of this trope is the seed from which incels sprout.

5. Sassy Gay Friend (with his polar opposite companion, the Terrifying Leather Daddy)

This pair of gay male stereotypes are two sides of the same problematic coin. Both sides of this trope speak to the deep seated fear ingrained in men of being seen as feminine, and as we have said in our definition of Toxic Masculinity, a man who does not dominate is not a real man.

6. Violence is Normal

Not only is violence a normal behavior trained in boys since early childhood, it’s encouraged and even necessary in most social situations depicted by culture. Violent domination is the most commonly seen form of domination in our entertainment and arts, in the form of Problematic Masculine characters taking their strength and power by force.

7. Mr. Mom

LOL, men can’t be good parents! The awful trope of the bumbling dad, nothing more than another child for moms to manage, is the trope on this list that angers me personally the most. Look for some heartfelt angry rants in this article, readers.

Well that’s the basic idea! What do you think? Look for this series to start up on Writers’ HQ after the PBFTs are all done. And leave ideas you have in the comments; I may want to include some of them as I get more in depth with these tropes during the writing process.

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Your Body Tells Your Story

Is your body telling the story you want it to? Body language and expression are among the most potent tools we have for communication. Used well, they lend power to your message. Used poorly, they can undercut everything you’re trying to convey. Whether in communication with customers, leadership, the investment community or your own teams, the story you tell physically can be one of your greatest advantages, or most serious risks.

Let’s look at a recent example: One of my clients is part of the leadership team for a Denver area software company. Though he’s an experienced public speaker and a good communicator, he has a chronic slouch. Age, injury, and boxing training combined in him to make it nearly impossible for him to sit up straight. When he came to work with me, I immediately saw how his body language often communicated defeat, low status, other things that were the opposite of what his words were saying. He wanted to do something about it, but it was clear that just sitting him upright wasn’t going be easy, and wouldn’t feel authentic anyway. Rather than attempting to force his posture into something painful and unnatural for him, I instead worked with his natural slouch to create a series of powerful posture-gesture combinations that changed his demeanor entirely. Where before, his slumped, seated self projected a feeling of defeat to his audience, now his active, forward-slanted position showed passion, detailed knowledge, and direct communication of his confidence in the product he was selling. His new customized power-posture also helped free up his hands, thereby allowing for precise gestures for emphasis as he spoke.

Very soon after our session, my client was put on the spot to do a high pressure pitch in front of the executive team for one of the biggest retailers in the U.S. My client used his new tools to project a powerful sense of confidence in his offering, something absolutely necessary in front of a Fortune 500 executive audience. The result? His team landed the deal, which was the biggest in his company’s history. As he put it, “Was that success just about me? Of course not – the product and the team had a lot to do with it. But the first thing that the customer’s leadership team knew about us, before I’d even said a word, was that I had total confidence in what I was putting forward. That didn’t close the deal by itself, but you better believe that it opened the door.”

What doors do you have that need opening?

Leveraging my twenty years of experience as a movement and communication educator, I can show you what your body language is saying, and how it’s saying it. Better, I can help you take control of the story that your physical presence tells, and help you transform it into one of your strongest assets as a leader and communicator. Book me for my customized seminar in body language for leaders, and, during the month of August, take advantage of this opportunity at half price.

Email me: jenn zuko (at) gmail (dot) com, or if you know me online, use any messenger app at hand to contact me. Let’s get started!

Oh, just one more thing…

I forgot to share this with you at the time of broadcast, lovely lurkers, but not only did my email comment get read on the air on The Columbo Confab podcast, but the gents were sweet enough to plug my book! What a lovely gesture.

Here’s the link, so you can listen to their slightly tipsy analysis of Death Hits the Jackpot, one of the later 1990s series.

Thanks Sean and Steve!

Punching Through a Crystal Wall

Remember that Doctor Who episode, where he was trapped in the nightmare loop? The way he escaped was, each time he got to the end/his death, he punched a thick glass (or rock crystal?) wall, just once, with his bare fist. Turns out that he ends up going through that time loop so many times, that he eventually punches through the thick crystal wall completely. Think of how many millions of times you’d have to punch with a bare fist, to get through a rock wall several feet thick. But he succeeds, and it sets him free.

My life lately has run up against that thick layer of crystal, or so it feels: beautiful, but holding me in a loop. I’m punching it with my bare fist, though, over and over, and will persist until it gives way. Problem is, I also have to rely on others to add their punches to mine, and so am also being forced to wait. I spent a long while musing about this last night: I’m stalled, and it’s frustrating, as I am powerless to move these other people into action. And so I wait.

But here’s the stuff I am indeed actively doing–these things may be interesting to you, lovely lurkers, so here goes:

Wisdom From Everything was a remarkable production, and my scenes of violence were carried out beautifully. This production closes on the 26th, so those of you lurkers who are local, don’t miss it.

My initial writings on the topic of Problematic Female Badasses in lit and pop culture are slowly, painfully, becoming a book. Page 23, the academic branch of Denver Comic Con, has accepted it as part of their panel presentations, and so I will be talking about this project and my 7 Tropes live in front of a roomful of geeks this June. Will I be the catalyst for Gamergate 2.0? Time will tell…

Also this summer, I’ll be trekking back to Longmont to teach the teenaged ballerinas how to fake punch each other in the face, drag each other around by their hairpinned buns, and etc. One of the highlights of that is when they learn the face slam. The initial teaching of it is slamming the face into the floor, but some tutued girl always gets the idea to slam her partner’s face into the ballet barre, which is just such a delightful thing to witness.

Sooner than that, though: Blue Dime Cabaret is having our first show at Full Cycle on April 7th. It’s a bike shop, coffee shop, and bar over on Pearl Street where Penny Lane used to be. This is going to be a really fun show: we’ve got comedians, burlesque, burlesque on roller skates, and an opera singer. I’ll be jiggling my sparkles in a 1920s Charleston inspired burlesque bit that I actually need to finish choreographing… anyway, we’ve also been picked to perform in this summer’s Boulder Fringe Fest, too, so this’ll be a fun way to see how these variety shows will turn out. If you’re local, do come see us, and tip generously. I need the money.

I’ll let you know how Goth Prom goes, too. I have a rather ’80s inspired outfit to honor my early days of gothiness. But anyway.

These are the punches I’m throwing these days. What punches are you throwing into your walls? Add them in the comments, if you’d like to share. Of course, there’s a reason I call you all “lovely lurkers…”

Wisdom From Anything, Therefore Nothing

(If you recognize the quote I remixed for the title of this blog post, say so in the comments, and extra points for you.)

What I’m finally beginning to realize and embrace, lovely lurkers, is that I need to quit worrying about whether or not I have anything “important” to write about, and just write the damn blog. Write. Right? Right.

‘Cause there’s always something. Like for instance: I just turned 45 years old, after having danced burlesque only a couple weeks before such an auspicious anniversary. The play for which I consulted and set the scenes of violence, called Wisdom From Everything, opens soon (in fact its first preview is tonight). I’m helping Friend Monica with her theatre piece, called Aphrodite’s Refugees. Both works speak to the plight of refugees: the play, about Syrian refugees, Monica’s piece, about her father’s experience in the refugee camps (and military) of Cyprus.

Me and Friend Brandy have begun a pop-up cabaret project called Blue Dime, which is an eclectic collection of acts: burlesque, magic, music, comedy, variety, drag, and any etc. you can think of (and some you can’t). We just got accepted into the Boulder International Fringe Fest, and you bet your blue carbuncles I’ll be keeping you apprised of this as we move forward.

But one of the biggest things to occur in my little world is my branching out into the corporate world with my valuable skills. With Front Range unceremoniously dumping me, plus being reminded of the popular business adage that once one turns 45, one needs must change careers, I find myself shilling my stage movement expertise to those who need such coaching in the corporate world. Hence, *everyone* in the corporate world. Right? Of course right.

What I am doing immediately in this direction, in order to collect the necessary endorsements to paint me worthy of a piece of that corporate money pie, is something I’m calling Buy Me A Beer, Help Your Career. How it works is this: take me out for a pint, and give me your pitch/presentation/whatever it is that’s imminent, and I give you pointers on how to maximize your body language, poise, gesture, and voice to best effect. You then, ecstatic with the spectacular results of my coaching, write me a glowing endorsement on LinkedIn. Easy peasy, and win-win.

Neat, eh? I can’t take credit for the idea; that was the SO’s brilliance at work to help yank me up by my bootstraps at this advanced age.

Well, heck. With advanced age comes advanced expertise, right? Right.

The Aged Hero’s Journey

[(Aged) hero’s journey]

I was struck by recollection of Ursula K. LeGuin’s very-important-to-me Earthsea series upon news of her recent passing, and was especially struck by the Hero’s Journey she constructs in The Farthest Shore. Sure, it’s ostensibly young Arren’s Journey, but actually? No. It isn’t. It’s Ged’s. After already living comfortably as Archmage for many years, in middle age, he embarks on another hero’s journey. Arren goes through a classic coming of age adventure, but Ged’s Journey, though the same adventure and path, is at the same time completely different, because of his age (and station). So I was inspired to construct a hero’s journey that’s specifically for us old people.

This is a hero’s journey that isn’t a coming of age story (or at least, it’s not a coming of that particular young age, nor is it a story of becoming an adult). Our hero is already an adult, and even already a hero, before s/he embarks.

I’ve made it into 8 stages, to go with my 8-Stage classic hero’s journey and the villain’s journey I’ve written about here before.

You might want to familiarize yourself with those again before plunging into this one.

———–

1. Break in stasis / call to adventure

I use a term from the beginning of the Freytag’s Pyramid story structure here along with the Hero’s Journey classic “call to adventure” because for our older, experienced hero, the comfort of regular life, the level life of stasis, the “way things is” in normal existence, including the presence of friends and family, is a deeper and higher stakes situation for the older hero. The comforts of home are kinda essential for someone with chronic arthritis in her knees, and her family, in contrast to the young hero running from/rebelling against her parental figures and elders, instead is herself the elder. Her family might be her own children, her home the comfort of a chosen partner. Leaving this behind takes a great, dire, often violent, disturbance.

2. Resisting the call / shutting the door

I’m too old for an adventure; get off my lawn! How dare you disturb me in my retirement—I’m done with all that now. Allow me to milk these island beasts in peace. No, I haven’t tapped into the Force since my nephew went bad, which was my fault, by the way. I can’t harm anyone out here in my retirement, nor am I willing to save the world. Again. Been there done that got the T-shirt and the scars. Go back to your rebellion, kid, and leave me here where I belong.

3. Return to the forest

There’s usually, as stated in stage one, a volatile, vital, and necessary reason to drag the Aged Hero out of her stasis, comfortable or no. Once she realizes her refusal of the call to adventure is to no avail, she’ll embark on her journey, back into the Forbidden Forest. But, unlike when she was young, she knows exactly how to navigate the threshold; in fact, it’s usually her own stubbornness that’s the only thing holding her back. Those fearsome guardians at the gate? They remember her and know her well, or at the very least, our hero knows very well how to move through that gate. It’s familiar territory, as is the Realm itself.

4. Becoming the fae

Once the Aged Hero is back in the Forest/Enchanted Realm/whathaveyou, he doesn’t have to fight anybody, or pit his wits or strength against the magical guides or guards. Both, honestly, are fading at any rate. And boy does that stump look comfy to rest on, just for a minute while he catches his breath. And look at that young hero who just broke through the gate guardians, looking terrified of the path. I wonder if he has any water to spare…

Know how in every old tale, the young hero always should share his meager supplies when he comes across strangers in the Wood? That’s because the strangers (if treated kindly), will help him succeed in his journey. Sometimes the strangers are magical denizens of the Realm. But sometimes….

5. Give up the gifts

The Aged Hero acquired these magical boons long ago, and if she’s a real hero, she already returned with them, using them to benefit her community. They have served her well, and made life a little better for her tribe/family/etc. But now it’s time to give them to somebody who can use them better than she can. Or, it’s time to use them one more time: just once, for the final and most important act.

6. Acknowledge the child/ren

This stage can come simultaneously with Stage 5, with the old hero giving his gifts up to the younger one, or it can be a more symbolic passing of the torch. At any rate, it’s not his story anymore: it belongs to the young ones now, and will continue with them.

7. Last legs / home again

The return-w-boon is usually in this stage the Empty Vessel, from which the Aged Hero has poured out her power in order to save the world, or it’s an empty hand from which the torch was passed, etc. More wisdom, often in the form of deep love, is now the Aged Hero’s boon, and she, tired to death, returns without magic, but all the empty spaces wherein the magic once was. And a deeper, more integrated, quieter, powerful innerstrength withal.

8. Golden years / I’m fucking retired, y’all

No really, kids. This time I mean it. For reals. Get off my lawn, seriously.

This stage can take the form of a disappearance or death, like our elder Jedi in the Star Wars stories, or just going into retirement, or moving on physically, like Tolkien’s old immortal Elves retreating to the western lands, leaving Middle-Earth to the young humans to mind. Maybe the Aged Hero teaches the younger ones now, or (more often) not, but a new stasis is established in any case.

Of course, this new stasis can be broken again at any time.

Ugh, what’s that call I hear? The Call to Adventure? Again? Nope, not this time—my back hurts…