If you ran into Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) in a Starbucks somewhere in Missouri, he’d probably hold the door for you on the way out. If you started a conversation on the sidewalk, he’d likely mention that he lives nearby with his lovely family, including his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), who he’s thrilled to call a partner both at home and at work, and his talented daughter, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), who has started helping out at the office. As you made your way to your car, it might also come up that Wendy once worked on the famed campaign of a certain Black senator from Illinois and that Marty’s other closest business partner is another woman, named Ruth (Julia Garner). You’d likely leave thinking Marty is a decent guy—a white man using his power to make room for others.
Of course, anyone who watches Ozark, Netflix’s absurdly dark crime series, can tell you that Marty is in fact a vindictive money launderer working for an exploitative drug business—a white man personally complicit in the murders of many people near and far. He works for a person of color, but he could care less about the lives of people of color. He’s a capitalist willing to use his power to maintain his social position as a good white father, even if that means losing a few people along the way. For Marty, what’s most important is that he’s perceived as decent and that that decency, in turn, has a perceived connection to manliness. Decency and domination. Even if you don’t watch the Netflix series (and there are many reasons not to), you might be familiar with this “decent” white guy performance from this year’s presidential race, in which Joe Biden has effectively used the trope to win the Democratic nomination.
Indeed, this was the central message of the Democratic National Convention in August, where Republican John Kasich said it wasn’t just Biden’s “experience and his wisdom” but “his decency” that would “bring us together,” while Michelle Obama described the nominee as “a profoundly decent man.” This was meant to contrast him with his opponent, Donald Trump, whom many, including Biden himself, have described as “toxic.” During the Obama presidency, Biden—depicted as a beer-drinking everyman—was seen by many as the good-natured “Uncle Joe” at the side of the first Black president. In the past two years, that image has further crystalized into one symbolizing fitness and safety—Biden in a mask; Biden jogging up steps; or, as Vox’s Anna North summarizes Jill Biden’s DNC speech, Biden as “the powerful yet benevolent father figure America needs right now.” This effectively sets up this year’s election as a contest between “healthy” and “toxic” masculinity, a testament to the ascension of the latter concept in popular discourse over the last decade.
“Toxic masculinity” now appears everywhere from woke razor commercials to defensive Fox News segments, and as a result, many men know that it’s best to avoid falling under that characterization. And as more people have become comfortable with the term, the bar of “decency” has been lowered. It’s worth noting, though, that “toxic masculinity” was largely conceptualized by the “mythopoetic” men’s movements of the ’80s and ’90s, led by straight white men like Shepherd Bliss and Robert Bly, author of the 1990 bestseller Iron John: A Book About Men. According to the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, Bly’s book “exhorts men to re-establish contact with their inner maleness and their sense of lost power” and was central to the organizing of these groups amidst another backlash to feminism. In an essay in the 1995 collection The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement (and the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer), Bliss explained his position, writing that “rather than trying to imitate women or become ‘honorary women,’ the path I suggest is to overcome Toxic Masculinity and recover the Deep Masculine, which lies at the base of each man.”
To do so, Bliss encouraged men to look to the fields of “health and recovery” for inspiration. Two years earlier, Raewyn Connell published Masculinities, a highly influential text in feminist studies, and in it, Connell tellingly doesn’t use “toxic” but rather focuses on “hegemonic masculinity,” or the dominant form of masculinity within a particular social context. It wasn’t until a decade later that “toxic masculinity” seemed to catch fire more broadly, and many point to the work of Terry A. Kupers, who differentiated the phrase from Connell’s in a 2005 paper on mental health treatment in prisons:
The term toxic masculinity is useful in discussions about gender and forms of masculinity because it delineates those aspects of hegemonic masculinity that are socially destructive, such as misogyny, homophobia, greed, and violent domination; and those that are culturally accepted and valued… After all, there is nothing especially toxic in a man’s pride in his ability to win at sports, to maintain solidarity with a friend, to succeed at work, or to provide for his family.
In a 2019 interview, Kupers further expounded on the idea that men who have been incarcerated—disproportionately Black, brown, and Indigenous—resort to “negative” behaviors only because they’re “deprived of all the more positive avenues to get ahead.” Yet what Kupers seems to consider “positive avenues” of dominant masculinity aren’t clear-cut, especially in a society designed to see fat Black trans men, for instance, as inherently “negative” and criminal. As a psychologist discussing the need for better therapy in prisons, Kupers ultimately helped portray “toxic masculinity” as something that could be cured, just as Bliss had likened it to an addiction. The contemporary use of this language tends to then reinforce the fantasy of a “healthy” white man capable of being an “ally” within a patriarchal system without having to give up the power of being seen as a man.
The fact that the phrase was initially spread by a white men’s movement responding to feminists—and may have been further popularized by its application to men in prison—doesn’t feel coincidental. Within the present structures of American society, only certain people ever have access to so-called “healthy masculinity.” Around the same time that Bliss and Bly were using their binary logic to encourage men to restore the “deep masculine,” Biden was using similar rhetoric to pass the 1994 crime bill. In a 1993 speech, Biden warned of “predators on the street” who lacked “conscience…because they literally have not been socialized, they literally have not had an opportunity”—evoking an anti-Black, racist caricature that once more portrayed him as an exemplar of better manhood. Ozark is not a show interested in deeply challenging this worldview (the show would rather dwell in its darkness), but in many ways it visualizes how this thinking allows white people like Marty to stay on top.
The show tells the story of a seemingly “nice” white family falling into the drug trade while trying to pursue their version of the American dream. Wendy is as complicit as her husband in this desperate grasp for power, yet the narrative is initially fueled by Marty’s insecurities and lack of self-worth (partially exacerbated by the fact that, at the start of season one, Wendy is cheating on him). His troubles land them in Missouri, “washing” money in order to pay back a debt incurred by one of Marty’s more aggressive partners, and throughout the series the directors attempt to contrast the surface image of poindexter Marty with the seeming instability of other characters. At one point this looks like upper-class Marty wearing khakis and a button-down shirt as he operates a strip club with his brash, working-class colleague Ruth.
Marty’s usually the meekest person in the room until he’s backed into a corner that “forces” him into an extreme act of dominance. His outwardly visible treatment of women wouldn’t be described as “toxic” by most definitions, but he consistently weaponizes the implied rationality of wealthy white manhood to bully his way to the top. In season three, for instance, he pays a couples therapist to guide conversations toward his perspective instead of his wife’s in an attempt to portray his way of thinking as more logical (though Wendy, committed to her own white rationality, ends up engaging in the same practice). While Joe Biden isn’t Marty Byrde, he has presented himself in the mold of “Iron John,” a white man who deserves a dominant position in American society because he’s in touch with a deeper sense of manhood.
If both Marty Byrde and Joe Biden can get away with positioning themselves outside of “toxic masculinity,” we have to wonder what the concept’s usefulness is.
Though he helped further institutionalize mass incarceration through his crime bill, has been accused of sexual assault and harassment, and oversaw the dehumanizing treatment of Anita Hill after she brought her own claims against Clarence Thomas, Biden remains unafraid of aggressive displays of this manhood. Because despite the fact that he was integral to a presidential administration that murdered thousands of people of color worldwide and that he has continued to say racist and sexist things offhand while running for president, he remains in position to claim more power on the basis of “decency”—just so long as he disavows overt terrorists like the Proud Boys. Thus, as part of the same 1994 bill that endangered the lives of millions of Black and brown women and gender-nonconforming people, Biden cosponsored the Violence Against Women Act, and he eventually made himself the face of the It’s On Us campaign, giving speeches around the country about the need for men to take greater responsibility in the fight against sexual violence.
Yet, in these speeches he’s continued to encourage “good men” to “beat the hell out of” other men while claiming he’s been “fighting against sexual violence for [his] whole career.” When challenged during a 2019 debate by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on his prior views of women working outside the home, which he once described as “the deterioration” of the American family, Biden didn’t use the moment to explain how he’d grown but rather defiantly pointed to VAWA and It’s On Us as proof of his goodness. And, as North observes, during his DNC speech, Biden didn’t “just offer a different, more benevolent form of masculinity from Trump. He also essentially accused Trump of failing at masculinity—of being a bad protector.” For men like Biden, the solution is never to contend with their own role in upholding an oppressive system—or to step aside to make room for others—but rather to insist that “decent” (white) patriarchs like themselves must lead the repair job.
If both Marty Byrde and Joe Biden can get away with positioning themselves outside of “toxic masculinity,” we have to wonder what the concept’s usefulness is. In Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, Princeton University professor Imani Perry encourages us to avoid using reductive concepts as “proxies for feminism,” since “there is always a complicated architecture of relations of domination, one that often falls out of view” behind these popular positions. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the fact that Trump and Biden are the two people vying for the top job underscores the futility of how we debate masculinity and demands that we embrace a vision of gender beyond the limitations imposed by the settler colonial state or patriarchal white men’s movements. If the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and effective demands to defund the police in the wake of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign have taught us anything, it’s that language has the power to stifle us and the power to create the conditions for liberation.
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