Joanna Williams

When did traditional masculinity become toxic?

There's nothing more elitist than knocking men

When did traditional masculinity become toxic?
(Netflix)
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It’s hard for privileged white men to stay relevant in this age of identity politics but a number of fail-safe strategies have begun to emerge. Prince Harry and, to a lesser extent his older brother, have captured the mental health market by publicly discussing their issues. William’s school pal Eddie Redmayne, and pretty much the entire cast of the Harry Potter films, have spoken out in defence of the transgender community. Benedict Cumberbatch is going down the feminist route.

Cumberbatch is calling time on ‘toxic masculinity’. Interviewed by Sky News ahead of the release of his latest film, a Netflix Western in which he plays the part of a rancher, Cumberbatch took the opportunity to chastise men. ‘We need to fix male behaviour,’ he implored viewers, and the first step is for men to ‘shut up and listen’.

I don’t know what budding actors are taught in drama schools today but the line between fact and fiction doesn’t appear to be high on the list. Redmayne has just this week apologised for playing a transgender woman in the 2015 film The Danish Girl. The part should have gone to a transgender actor, he has said. But isn’t the whole skill of acting to portray someone you are not?

Poor Cumberbatch seems similarly confused. To get with the Western vibe of his latest film, he apparently stayed in character as the charismatic cowboy Phil Burbank, ‘who inspires fear and awe in those around him,’ throughout his time on set. And it seems to be this experience that has given him insight into the problems with men. But it’s fiction, Benedict! Not only are there few ranchers nowadays but the whole cowboy fantasy, epitomised by John Wayne and portrayed in countless Hollywood westerns, has fallen out of fashion. Men have changed since the 19th century.

These actors may struggle to separate fact from fiction but they have their finger on the pulse of woke thinking. The assumption that there is something inherently wrong with men, expressed through the trope of ‘toxic masculinity,’ is very fashionable indeed. Cumberbatch has said it is important to ‘finally point out the inadequacies of the status quo’ but men are routinely presented as a problem to be solved. If toxicity isn’t exactly inscribed within their DNA, then it’s a product of their socialisation, we are told. Masculinity is considered a disease, its poison infecting not just individual men but the whole of society.

Knocking men, or the only slightly more sophisticated diagnosis of toxic masculinity, has long been a favourite feminist pastime. A peculiar strain of feminism has always maintained that the only way to raise up women is to do men down. Recently, new life has been breathed into this outdated argument by the assumption that male bad behaviour is on a spectrum, with wolf whistling and knee touching at one end and rape and murder at the other. The complete absence of evidence for such outlandish claims does not prevent their repetition.

But Cumberbatch taps into a deeper cultural trend too when he writes off stereotypically masculine values as toxic. Qualities such as courage, stoicism, strength, resilience, independence and assertiveness have become unfashionable with the cultural elite Cumberbatch very much represents. Far better, they tell us, to be gentle, caring, in touch with our emotions, open to displaying our vulnerabilities and sharing our struggles with mental health. Stoicism has given way to emotional incontinence.

But there’s a problem with this. Cumberbatch and his acting chums may do well out of public emoting but people who have to work in dangerous, physically demanding and poorly paid jobs, not so much. If I’m ever unfortunate enough to find myself trapped in a burning building, I want someone brave, strong and assertive to come to my rescue, not someone who is going to shed a tear over patriarchal social norms before asking me if I really want to be saved.

Cumberbatch is an aristocrat. His family tree is said to encompass connections to royalty and slave owners. From Harrow to Hollywood, his life has been one of privilege. He is in the luxurious position of now having a platform from which he can tell the rest of us how to live. Lucky him. But using this to assuage his personal sense of guilt while securing his own position in the woke world of film is just not on. Knocking masculinity is an elite preoccupation that not one everyone buys into. Film stars should stick to acting and ditch the preaching. Some of us want to be entertained, not educated.