Male CallA Conversation About Masculinity and Violence with Byron Hurt and Jackson Katz

Illustration by Joe Waldron

This article appears in our 2014 Summer issue, Tough. Subscribe today!

For all the conversations out there that center on men, gender seems to be off the table when it comes to discussions of violence. Yet the connections between masculinity and violence have sweeping implications for women, men, and every living being. Byron Hurt and Jackson Katz are filmmakers, authors, and feminists who have spent their careers dissecting male violence—a violence they say stems from toxic gender values.

Hurt is the director of Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes—which looks at violence and sexism in hip hop music and aired on PBS’s “Independent Lens” series in 2007—and I Am a Man: Black Masculinity in America. His latest film, Soul Food Junkies, which traces the history of soul food in America, aired on PBS in 2013. Katz is the author of two books and the creator of the 1999 film Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity, which examines violence at the heart of American masculine culture by looking critically at Hollywood films, video games, popular music, and television. The film’s updated sequel, Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood & American Culture, is now available from the Media Education Foundation. Bitch asked Hurt and Katz about mass shootings, gang rapes, climate change, and calling men out on their worst behaviors.

Tough Guise discussed how men far outnumber women as victims of male-initiated violence. Is that still the case? Are we getting any closer to realizing the stake men hold in this struggle?

Jackson Katz: Overwhelmingly, men are still the primary victims of most forms of violence, with the exception of sexual violence. Men are the primary victims as well as the primary perpetrators of murder, attempted murder, assault, and aggravated assault. Not much has changed there. I think there is a growing willingness to have a more honest conversation about the gender issues at the heart of violence, but it’s an uphill battle to get it into the mainstream discourse. You can’t talk about violence without talking about manhood, and you can’t talk about manhood without talking about violence.

Byron Hurt: Investing in patriarchy and in the system of patriarchy looks and feels powerful, but at the end of the day, it’s a very disempowering state to be in because there are so many devastating consequences that come along with being invested in a rigid, narrow view of manhood. We have to name it: People are not going to make the connections between masculinity and suicide. Or masculinity and depression. Or masculinity and high incarceration rates. Or masculinity and higher rates of violence. Masculinity and higher rates of physical and sexual abuse toward girls and women. Masculinity and mass shootings. Masculinity and gun control. They’re all interrelated, and when you begin to name it and talk about it openly, publicly, people will then be able to make connections.

Mass shooters the world over are almost always men, yet the public and media reactions to mass shootings almost never include gender analysis.

JK: While other factors are important, gender is the single most determining factor contributing to mass shootings. Imagine if only women committed mass shootings: Would gender be off the table to discuss, or would it be the central argument? If 98 percent of school shootings and rampage killings were done by women, would we not look into that? Or would we just say, “Well, it’s obvious.”

That’s what a lot of people say about masculinity and shootings—“Why do we need to talk about it? Everybody knows it’s men.” It’s frustrating: Over and over again you hear these analyses that there are no characteristics connecting these shooters, or “we’re looking for patterns in these behaviors.” If gender is even mentioned as a connecting pattern, it’s noted and not discussed, or it’s sidelined completely. It’s just incredible.

From left to right: Suspected BART shooter John Cowell and victim Nia Wilson (Photos courtesy of ABC7 News and Facebook)

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When women commit violence, gender is almost always the first thing we talk about, like the idea of “girl gangs.” When boys do it, we talk about other factors related to street gangs, like poverty or unemployment, or lack of opportunities, racism, drugs, and alcohol. All those factors are important but not as central as gender: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over 90 percent of homicide is committed by men. You’ll see a spectrum of data across economics, race, and alcohol or drug problems, but none of those other factors are anywhere near 90 percent.

There seems to be a similar double standard when it comes to the race of the people implicated in these crimes.

BH: White masculinity—white violent masculinity, specifically—gets a pass in ways that Black and Latino masculinity do not and in a way that women who are violent do not. So when you have a mass murderer or a homegrown terrorist who is white and who is male, his masculinity and his whiteness is never the center of the story. What is at the center of this story, normally, is going to be whether or not he has mental illness, his relationship to guns, how isolated and how lonely and how depressed he was as a young boy growing up, whatever pathologies that he had as an individual. Despite the fact that a white male could slaughter tens of people, he’s still given a level of subjectivity and humanity that is not ascribed to an African American male or a Latino male or a woman.

Byron, you’ve looked at hip hop closely over the years. What are some recent examples of masculinity that you’ve seen?

BH: One artist who disappoints fairly regularly is Rick Ross, who famously rapped about dropping a date-rape drug in a woman’s drink. Lyrics like that are evidence of a tremendous lack of concern about girls, women, and sexual violence, and they reinforce a hypermasculine persona and male privilege that is still very problematic in pop culture—whether it’s rap music or outside of rap music in pop culture. For example, I read an article the other day about a Texas preacher who said that he was not going to allow women to speak during church services. So in the world of hip hop, there’s Rick Ross, who clearly has misogynistic views about women, but by the same token, you have this pastor in Houston who’s equally misogynistic, paternalistic, and patriarchal. So [while] hip hop definitely has a problem with hypermasculinity, there’s still a problem in the larger culture as well.

You can’t talk about violence without talking about manhood, and you can’t talk about manhood without talking about violence.

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Gang rapes in Steubenville, Ohio, Tahrir Square in Cairo, and New Delhi are discussed in Tough Guise 2. Jackson, could you talk about your analysis of gang rape?

JK: Young men in particular are under intense pressure to prove their manhood on a regular basis, and gang rapes are the extreme example of that. Gang rape is a group experience between men who use a woman’s body as a vehicle for homosocial enactment. The woman is completely objectified and dehumanized. They’re not thinking about the woman as a person or a human being. The men are thinking about themselves and their relationship to each other, and the rape becomes a way to prove their manhood to each other. In a number of gang rapes, including Steubenville, the men have taken pictures or actually filmed the rape. They don’t think they’re committing a crime. They’re thinking, “This is kinda funny. This is cool. We have to show our other friends who aren’t here.” They think it’s a joke. Why else would a group of guys videotape something that is providing evidence in a potential trial against them for a first-degree felony?

How do you see issues of masculinity play out in United States politics?

BH: I think it’s very interesting how John McCain has been framing President Obama and his foreign policy as weak and naive. Clearly he’s tapping into people’s notions around traditional ideas of manhood as it relates to foreign policy and America’s masculine identity. From the time President Obama was elected, there have been a lot of different charges from the Right to weaken the president in terms of his manhood and masculinity, from his policies on gay rights to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to Obamacare being a piece of legislation that they’re trying to reverse. His masculinity has always been questioned in spite of his being responsible for finding and killing Osama bin Laden and ending the war in a way that the previous president was not able to do. Of course, there have been many attempts to emasculate, criminalize, and marginalize Black men for centuries in this country.

From left to right: Byron Hurt and Jackson Katz (Photo credit: Umystic and The Feminist Wire)

JK: In my most recent book, Leading Men: Presidential Campaigns and the Politics of Manhood, I discuss presidential races and the ideology that the United States is a “manly” country. One of the reasons why it’s so hard for a woman to be elected president is that the presidency plays a critical role in maintaining the symbolic architecture of men’s dominance. The symbolism of the president as the embodiment of national masculinity also relates to the United States as “police officers of the world.” When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, a masculine ideology helps sustain military spending and endorsement of war. We come in and “rescue” countries that are somehow in trouble or being imperiled by the bad guys. The United States is the good guy with the gun, the sheriff who’s going to rein in the outlaw.

BH: [On that note,] President Obama, as progressive as he may be in some areas—gay rights, women and fair pay, etc.—still has, in my opinion, adopted very hypermasculine values of the American government. His foreign policy has been hypermasculine in similar ways to George W. Bush, especially in terms of drones and military strikes that have affected innocent civilians around the world. So while he has done really progressive things, he’s also sort of played right into some of the traditional notions of manhood and masculinity that are not very progressive at all.

How do you think the ideology and the coded messages men receive about masculinity play into being a part of the military?

BH: If you look at who domesticates men in the armed forces, there’s clearly an appeal to young men’s masculinity crisis and young men’s desire to shore up their heterosexual masculine credibility. You see commercials and advertisements, or hear recruiters who are really playing off a lot of young men’s insecurities about their masculinity and about their violent fantasies, like affirming their desires to use violence or enact violence in a a poor white guy, and you don’t really have many options, the military presents a very viable option to someone who wants to prove their masculinity to society and to their male family members. It’s like an ideal location to do just that and to do it in a way that gives you instant credibility. Men also primarily control industry and government, which together are threatening all life on this planet through reckless energy policies leading to climate-change catastrophe.

JK: Most people don’t see the gender angle on climate change, but guess who is the leading force for climate-change denial? White conservative men from the United States. That is not a coincidence.And even though there’s a conservationist strain in the Republican Party and among elites in the United States—preserving nature, Teddy Roosevelt, and all that—the environmental movement since the 1960s has been coded as feminine, as opposed to go-go masculine capitalism and hardworking engines of industry and extraction and oil. “Tree huggers” are wimpy men with long hair who are saying we need to save the earth, and those men are not “real” men.

Many people resent the fact that when a man has a controversial opinion he is listened to, but when a woman expresses the same opinion, she is not heard. I imagine you’ve received some criticism in regard to the privilege of that kind of spotlight. How do you reflect on that?

BH: I think that that’s very true—there are feminist women who have critiques about patriarchy or masculinity that are more insightful, nuanced, and layered than my own, but who unfortunately will not be heard simply because they are women. What gives me credibility is my maleness, my heterosexuality, my status in the culture as a former athlete and a guy who was a member of a fraternity and is very familiar with masculine culture. I definitely think that there is privilege involved in having the platform to stand up and have these kinds of conversations publicly with men in ways that men would be very resistant to if it were a woman saying exactly the same thing. No question about it.

Men who are progressive, profeminist, or allies to women—we have to constantly check ourselves. We have to be open and listen to women and sometimes respond by taking a backseat and not encroaching on female space in ways that are kind of natural to us. It’s so integrated into who we are as men: to take center stage, to lead, to be out front, to not really understand the power dynamic that’s at play. I think it’s really important for all of us men who are progressive and who are working to eradicate sexism and all the other social ills out there to be a lot more cognizant of our presence in these circles and spaces.

JK: I think it’s naive to believe we’re going to have any significant reductions in sexual assault, domestic violence, or other crimes without men’s active engagement at every level. I don’t just mean men volunteering and helping out. I mean men transforming what it means to be a man. If men aren’t actively engaged in that, then we’re just cleaning up after the fact. Does that then create challenges and some ideological conundrums? Of course it does. Because the goal is to empower women and create gender equality, but men’s voices continue to have more weight in that conversation politically and otherwise.

How do you reconcile those two, and how do men who are conscious of those dynamics navigate those waters? It’s a challenge. We do the best we can. It doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, it doesn’t mean we don’t replicate sexist beliefs or power structures unwittingly. It means you have to be constantly aware of these dynamics and be in dialogue with women and others about issues related to power and privilege.

It’s been roughly 15 years since both I Am a Man and Tough Guise originally came out. What have you seen within social movements that gives you hope that we’re moving in the right direction?

JK: The biggest change is the growth of social media and online communication that have begun to chip away at the gatekeeping of mainstream media. Women, especially, are organizing around and discussing sexual assault in new ways. Look at sexual assault in the military: It’s been a problem for a long time, but it’s being openly talked about now in a way that it wasn’t 10 or 20 years ago. The Senate Armed Services Committee has seven women on it—those are women in a powerful position to raise these issues in the Senate of the United States, holding the military accountable because they have the power to do that. There’s also been a shift in that more men are doing the type of work that I’m talking about: thinking about masculinity introspectively and discussing it in schools, in education spaces, and, to a certain extent, in political spaces. It’s not enough, but I think it’s a process and we’ve started on that road.

BH: There are a lot of men who are uncomfortable with the level of violence in our culture, but they are often drowned out by the voices of men who perpetuate and condone that kind of hypermasculine violence that you’re talking about. Those voices are loud, they permeate society—they’re like the air that we breathe. But my experience has been that there are a growing number of men who are not comfortable with the level of hyperviolence in our society and who don’t want to conform to it.

And I think those men—the men who are uncomfortable—have to use their voices where they see it, whether it’s on Facebook, on Twitter, at an NCAA tournament party, whatever. I think when men start to use their voices and challenge violent language and behavior it creates space for others to speak out as well. But that takes a lot of courage because that opens you up to being ridiculed, it opens you up to other men questioning your manhood, your sexuality—trying to silence you because you’re questioning the norm.

It seems like on multiple levels, the perpetuation of violent masculinity benefits a lot of the ugliest parts of our status quo—crime, mass incarceration, military dominance, imperialism around the world, and even violence within our own families.

BH: I think that it does, but it doesn’t have to. And that’s the difficult part of the work that I do: really convincing men that we can change, that this does not have to be a reality for most of us, that we don’t have to accept it. That’s where the difficult work is. I think the core issue is that most men don’t really have these conversations. The conversation that you and I are having right now? Most men don’t have those explicit conversations. They just move forward in their lives, camouflaging themselves in a culture of masculinity so they can feel safe, so they can feel protected, so they’re not feeling vulnerable. It takes a lot of work to get underneath it, a lot of education, a lot of challenging and prodding, and it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.

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by Jesse Fruhwirth
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Jesse Fruhwirth is a freelance journalist based in Salt Lake City.