“There has been a very dominant strain of men who clearly feel that wearing a mask would so expose their vulnerability that they would rather risk death from the virus.”
— Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World”
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When President Trump returned to the White House on Oct. 5, after spending three days hospitalized with Covid-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he stepped out onto the balcony and ripped off his face mask to greet his supporters. He was sending a clear signal: He had gone to war with a ruthless enemy and come out unscathed, still standing strong.
“I’m better and maybe I’m immune, I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives,” he said in a video later that day, minimizing the danger of the virus that has now killed more than 220,000 Americans.
That same day, when the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., posted a video of himself on Twitter wearing a face mask, the Fox News host Tomi Lahren suggested that he “carry a purse with that.” The implication: No strong, powerful man would resort to mask wearing.
That mask-wearing has become such a gendered issue isn’t surprising for public health researchers. A 2016 paper by the Los Alamos National Laboratory found that men are less likely than women to adopt protective behaviors, like washing hands, social distancing and wearing masks. More recently, three different studies — published this summer by Cambridge University Press — arrived at the same conclusions.
“Masculine toughness is consistently related to higher negative feelings and lower positive feelings about mask wearing,” noted the authors of one of those studies conducted in June.
This particular image of masculinity, which hinges on muscular strength, has in fact been a through line of the president’s leadership style — he has characterized everything from trade relations with China and disarmament negotiations with North Korea to budget negotiations with Congress in confrontational, mano a mano terms.
But the president’s strong exterior hides weakness, argues Anand Giridharadas, the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”
“He is a weak man who has always longed to be a strong man, and he is a weak man’s idea of a strong man,” Mr. Giridharadas wrote in a recent article for his newsletter The Ink.
In Her Words caught up with Mr. Giridharadas to dig deeper into the notion of masculinity and how it relates to American systems and institutions. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You wrote in your newsletter, The Ink, that President Trump removing his mask on the White House balcony was a show of toxic masculinity. Explain.
I grew up in America and, having lived through this culture, I recognized in the fear and false bravado the same men who threw me into lockers at school.
From the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an aversion to basic common sense protections — wearing masks, observing social distancing and embracing government-imposed lockdowns — that has done a poor job at concealing its entwinement with male insecurity.
Of course, people of all identities have been spotted spouting these things. But there has been a very dominant strain of men who clearly feel that wearing a mask would so expose their vulnerability that they would rather risk death from the virus than what they perceive as the humiliation of not being invincible.
In my piece, I quoted Robert O’Neill, the former Navy Seal who tweeted a maskless photo of himself on a Delta flight, captioned “I’m not a [vulgar slang for female genitals].” But I don’t think he’s the only person to think that — I’ve seen that phrase come up repeatedly with masks. There’s something so profound and awful there.
What is it in American culture, as you mentioned, that has filled so many men with this kind of anxiety you’ve described?
What is our society teaching men? It is teaching men that the only way to have dignity is not be a woman, not be weak, not be gay, always hit first and never present yourself as vulnerable or in need.
This dominant way of teaching men leads to the epic amounts of abuse and assault that women face, and it actually doesn’t really work for most men. It traps most men in images of ourselves that have failed most of us and that don’t fit our lived inner experience.
But is that uniquely American?
I think the expectation of invulnerability in men is quite universal.
But the idea of “freedom from” is an American obsession — freedom from the government and so on. But freedom to — to be able to eat or to pursue your dreams — we’re much blinder to those types of freedoms, which political philosophers call positive freedom.
I think that “freedom from” obsession results in this feeling that government is emasculating.
The common sense exertion of public institutions to protect people makes many American men feel weakened, as though faceless bureaucrats are doing for their family what maybe they feel like they should be doing for their family instead.
Does this kind of masculinity underpin American institutions, too?
Yes, I think it does. When I look at the kind of business models that have undergirded our economy, it does seem to intersect with male excess and an economy of toxic masculinity.
What feels very thrilling about this moment is that we are at a moment of real reckoning with three interlocking supremacies: white supremacy, male supremacy and capital supremacy. These things work together and what they have in common is dehumanization and the centering of the aggressor’s point of view instead of those who most need our support and attention.
We saw, this week, some men ridiculing on Twitter an image of Joe Biden hugging and kissing his son, Hunter. What do you make of that reaction?
I was heartened to see that Joe Biden loves his son, and visibly. Given all the family he has lost, I can understand the tight grip with which he holds what he has left. What we learned this week is that a picture of a father loving his son can be terrifying to the legions of men in this country, whose narrow vision of masculinity is that it consists of being independent to the point of isolation. The whole episode is a reminder of a culture of toxic masculinity that trains so many men to turn their sense of vulnerability into a fraudulent performance of strength, and their own wounds from being unloved, or not letting themselves be loved, into a desire to hurt those who take pride in giving love.
It has been noted several times by the media and by academics that countries with female leaders — Taiwan, Germany, New Zealand — have handled the pandemic better. Do you think toxic masculinity incompatible with crisis management?
We can speculate that those women are outperforming men because there’s something different about how women leaders, in general, see the world. Another possibility is that in patriarchal societies, it remains much harder for a woman to get to the top and so when a woman gets to the top, she’s three times better. Like Jacinda Ardern — my guess is she didn’t just become good when the coronavirus struck, my guess is she had to be three times as talented as many of the cruisers and flunkies around her to even have a shot at being taken seriously.
It is also about lived experiences. In a properly constituted society, women wouldn’t do disproportionate amounts of child care work, but in this society they do. As a result, when you marginalize women from public life or roles in leadership, you are overweighting the experience of the non-primary caregiver — so is it an accident that we did bailouts for big corporations before we did any kind of child care help? If there were more women with young children in the Senate, it’s hard to think the Senate would make exactly the same decisions and have the same priorities it does now.