In November 2020 Candace Owens, a black, Pro-Trump, American, right-wing political activist, tweeted that “there is no society without strong men”. She stated that “the steady feminization [specifically in the West] of our men…is an outright attack”. Owens concludes her tweet with a tragic and archaic chant of “bring back manly men”, reminiscent of middle-aged, white, drunk blokes in some middle-of-nowhere pub, standing around and shaming men that do anything other than drink heavily, abuse everyone and grunt at each other. Sigh. I can see this phrase on the anti-feminism pickets already. All because Harry Styles wore a dress for a Vogue photoshoot. So, let us unpick these statements and (try to) get to the bottom of Owens’ “manly man”.
So let’s start with “the manly man”. Where on earth has this idea come from? Who started this? Because believe me, it wasn’t Candace Owens. We start at the very beginning of humankind, simply put, men were the hunter gatherers, the protectors and the warriors. Men were known for hunting down animals, bringing back food for the women and children, and fighting anyone (or anything) that they perceived as a threat. What’s wrong with that? I can hear you questioning. Well unfortunately, this perception of men hasn’t changed that much. No, I am absolutely not kidding either. We see this parasitic ideal worm its way into the 21st century, as this idea of the “manly man” stands the test of time. In a 2019 survey of UK families, it was shown that 92.6% of fathers were employed, compared to the 75.1% of mothers in employment. These figures show that although there is not a huge gap there are still a proportion of households in which fathers are still the breadwinners of the family, especially after having children. Progress has been made in terms of working mothers and sharing maternity/paternity leave. However, there is still the expectation that a man would go back to work before a woman after having a child. The idea of the “man of the family”, the warrior and the protectors, still stands.
We do see some new ideals emerge: the notions of the Romantic from Shakespeare with the famous Romeo, the emotional from the times of Romanticism, the Victorian Gentleman, and more recently “the feminine man”. Further, we have seen modern day male activist groups such as ‘Fathers 4 Justice’, fighting for rights by scaling buildings to make statements about equal care for their children and the fight for equal paternity rights. Sadly, all these developments have been temporary. Despite the attempts of some men trying to break free of this “manly man” stereotype, this concept has ultimately stuck with us. Hence we are still using this term “the manly man”.
If Owens' version of “the manly man” consists of these antiquated and frankly outdated ideals, then I am not down. Like at all. And that is putting my opinion nicely, Candace.
Now, I am not saying that these qualities are wrong (well some of them are), and that men can’t be these things. Because as a feminist, I believe in choice. If you choose to behave this way because you genuinely want to, then fine, it’s not the right choice, but it’s yours. But the type of man that this tick box masculinity creates is downright harmful and damaging. The reason is, is because it has been ingrained in society, and in men, that they cannot fall outside of this tick box, and if they do, they are degraded and taunted because of it. If men do too little, and at times, too much, of one thing, they are outcast and disowned by their associates. And everything with men boils down to one thing, the one thing every man is afraid of being perceived as: weak. Weakness is at the absolute core of the masculinity crisis and is what drives this vicious ideology into existence through our timeline of generations of males. Men have been conditioned to believe that weakness is the antithesis of man. That weakness is degrading, disgusting and demoralising. That weakness is so opposite, it is female, feminine. If a man: cries, loves, hugs, screams, whispers, is emotional, is apologetic, is gentle, is kind, is skinny, is short, is interested in anything other than women, if they wear a dress/skirt, they are weak and thus womanly. So goes the rhetoric.
In late 2020, The Metro published a whole article about the fact that in England and Wales, the male suicide rate is at its highest rate in 20 years, where it states that in 2019, 5,691 suicides were registered, and three quarters of that number were men. This brings me back to Owens, kicking off and stamping her feet because Harry Styles wore a dress in a photoshoot. How are we surprised that male suicide rates are so high, when Owens, and countless other keyboard warriors’ opinions are blasted online for everyone to see and read. Everyone has their opinion, and you don’t have to agree with me here, but this rhetoric is DAMAGING.
Let us return to the, soon to be infamous I’m sure, quote that “the steady feminization of men…is an outright attack”. The only thing that the challenging of toxic masculinity is a threat to is patriarchy. Because anything other than “the manly man” is a threat to society and its structures of power. Men (unfortunately) dominate in economy, industry, business and positions of power, and these are all threatened by the breakdown of toxic masculinity. If we had ‘weak’ men ruling, we might has well have women in positions of power (scary right?!), and with only 29% of senior management [as] female in business at the moment, it is no surprise that these “manly men” want to stay on top. The very characteristics of the “manly man”, the rational, aggressive, protective traits are considered the best attributes for positions of power; to be ruthless, unforgiving and selfish make for the most powerful ruler. Men who do not conform to these attributes are therefore feminised and thus ‘weak’. These men (as well as women, of course) are a direct threat to these tick box “manly men”. It is that simple. Because if women and weak men can run the world, where is the space for the hunter/gatherer/protector? There isn’t one. Thus, the manly man becomes obsolete. And for patriarchy, that is terrifying. And that’s all this is.
Owens’s echo of “there is no society without strong men” mirrors this fear. The ‘strong men’ that Candace worries for are those who are in fragile positions of power (which are all positions of power really), so fragile in fact, that she is concerned they can be toppled by a man wearing a dress. If anything, Owens should be concerning herself with looking at the type of man she politically supports; he is so much of a caricature for patriarchy that he is helping its dismantling but making sexism so obvious and vulgar. Here you can see clearly that toxic masculinity and feminism, affect us ALL in tandem. Some people deny or question the existence of toxic masculinity, but how can you when you can so clearly see the fear it provides of its downfall and the harmful nature of its ideology? We need to acknowledge the damage and restriction that these enforced ideals create for us. And not even just for men. For everyone. Feminism is rooted in freedom of choice, and it is something I believe in so strongly. Why aren’t we allowing people the freedom to make those choices about what they wear, look like, behave like, love and can be? Patriarchy is so deeply rooted in our society; that it is hard to pin it down. But this is pinning it down. Owens has pinned it down. She has given us the platform to analyse this. And she is frightened. Although Owens appears to be really concerned and worried about the fragility and deconstruction of masculinity, I think she is also genuinely concerned about what this means for femininity and the definition of what it is to be female, as she feels like the feminization of men is a threat to womanhood (this is a whole other article’s worth of content!). She directly feels threatened by this. Maybe, it all boils down to the fact that, deep down and in secret, Owens thought Harry rocked that glorious dress better than she ever could. And let’s be honest, he did it better than any of us could. And for women like Owens, and her “manly man”, it is an outright threat.