I was googling “earliest known examples of mass murder” for this piece on toxic masculinity when my wife Karen suggested I was going about it all wrong. “Why not talk about your road rage?” she said.
That seemed unfair. I feel like I’ve dealt with my road rage. And it’s not like it’s ever been that bad. I never jumped out of my car and banged on someone’s window. Or followed them home and sat outside their house writing down their address, and listing all the catalogues I was going to sign them up for. Restoration Hardware, motherfucker. Enjoy that bland brick. And just try to make it stop coming. Just try.
But that’s crazy. I wouldn’t even think of doing that.
Still, Karen says the car is where my toxic masculinity comes out. It’s true that I belong to the most entitled breed of human: the straight, white, American male. I think I’m more important than everybody else, and driving a car forces me to acknowledge that everyone else thinks they’re more important than me. I can’t give other drivers lessons on etiquette, or common sense, or even the most basic laws of physics. I have no way of explaining to them that if they tailgate me at 80 mph, and I have to slam on my brakes, they’re going to smash into me, and for what? FOR WHAT. What’s the big emergency for these braindead, reckless, overcompensating, front-window-tinting pieces of — OK, I’m hearing it now. Yeah, that’s pretty toxic.
You have to cut me some slack. I grew up in the 1980s with cable TV, and my viewing wasn’t monitored. I watched every show that had a weaponized vehicle in it, and there were tons of them. (There were two just about helicopters, Air Wolf and Blue Thunder.) I loved all the action movies: Rambo, Commando, Predator, Delta Force, Cobra, American Ninja, and all the problematic comedies: Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, Stripes, Bachelor Party, even this Scott Baio movie Zapped, in which his superpower (and curse) is that he can blink women’s clothes right off of their bodies.
I entered high school an awkward, angry mess of sexual frustration and resentment. I played football and loved the feeling of knocking other people to the ground. I used to lie awake at night, replaying in my head my best tackles, especially this one time I knocked a kid flat on his back and landed on top of him so hard that he blew snot bubbles.
Back in the early ’80s, a few years before I started fantasizing about building my own Kelly LeBrock, communication professor George Gerbner developed Cultivation Theory, which argues that exposure to media over time changes our perceptions of reality. Studies found, basically, that what you watch, you think. Just like with food, garbage in, garbage out.
Since I first read about Gerbner almost fifteen years ago, I’ve tried to be more mindful about the culture I consume. I think taking in less aggression will make me feel less of it, and that will make me, and the people around me, happier.
I avoid watching TV commercials, especially during sporting events. So many of them aim directly at men’s id:
Spray yourself with this body spray and have sex with any woman you want, because your penis is totally normal.
Lease this luxury car and let everyone know you’re a successful person with a totally not-weird penis.
Take this pill and fuck like you’re never gonna die and prove that your penis is… fine. It’s fine.
Also, I haven’t watched football in over a decade. I know many people love football, and that’s cool. (We’re all on our own journey, and some people still eat veal.) Whatever. (You do know your team doesn’t care about you though, right? It’s not mutual.) The problem with football, aside from the fact that it gives people brain damage, destroys their bodies, shortens their lives, and is run by a cartel of white, right-wing billionaires, is that it’s got toxic masculinity built into it. No matter how many rules they make about helmet-to-helmet tackles or hitting defenseless players, the goal is still to crush the other team.
Buddhism scholar Bob Thurman once called football “the yoga of militarism, the yoga of violence.” Games are still framed as “battles” with quarterbacks “commanding” their receivers and linemen. Is it a surprise to anyone that all that pumped-up aggression doesn’t stay on the field? That players get in fights, shoot people, and assault women and children? That even fans get violent?
Which is all to say, please support my petition to turn the NFL into the NFFL, the National Flag Football League.
The other thing I haven’t done in over a decade is play any video game more violent than Mario Kart. I know they’re fun: I lost a month of my life to Goldeneye back in 1997, and a weekend to Grand Theft Auto in 2003. For those who’ve never played Grand Theft Auto, you get to inflict mayhem on a whole city. Hijack a bus and drive it the wrong way through a one-way tunnel. Trick a cop into getting out of his car so you can steal it and become the subject of high-speed, multiple-fatality chase.
I’m not blaming video games for real-life acts of violence, but I still think they affect our brains. After two straight days of playing Grand Theft, I saw a Porsche parked on the street and was like, “Ooh–let’s take that one!” It was a passing thought, but obviously some neural connections had been formed.
Some people think humans can’t be peaceful, that violence is in our DNA, and maybe it’s better to have contact sports and first-person shooters than real violence. I think that’s bullshit. I’m a pretty peaceful person these days. When I’m biking home from work and a driver cuts me off, I don’t even bother to flip them off. I never get in fights, and I practice almost no passive-aggressive behavior. When I make Karen cry, it’s usually just because she’s overly sensitive, or she has cramps.
Humans took over the planet because we could cooperate with each other. We evolved from tiny tribes to much larger tribes, and now we just have to get past the idea of tribe all together and accept that other people have just as much right to a tolerable existence as we do.
Toxic masculinity is just one expression of the delusion that we’re more important than everyone else, that our well-being isn’t totally intertwined with the well-being of everyone around us. We just need to wake up to the fact that we’re not separate, that we make ourselves happier by making the people around us happier. That we shouldn’t harass women or demean people who are different from us, or tailgate people on the highway, who are going with the flow of traffic. And we should use our turn signals because it’s so easy, and people aren’t mind readers, and the lever’s right there. It’s. Right. There.
Just thinking about that level of laziness, of unconcern for others, still makes me so angry that I lose track of my thoughts. But not my point suggestion, which is just: Do what you can to make the people around you happy. And if you’re at a gym, and the people around you are women, that means ignoring them.