Men Who Love Bukowski: Hegemonic Masculinity, Online Dating, and the Aversion toward the Feminine
Author(s): Sarah Vitale
Sarah Vitale is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ball State University. Her research focuses on Marx and post-Marxism, especially on the notions of production, labor, and human nature, as well as contemporary feminist theory. She is Co-Editor of the Radical Philosophy Review, the journal of the Radical Philosophy Association, as well as Co-Editor of The Weariness of Democracy (Palgrave Macmillan 2019). Her other publications include “Community-Engaged Learning and Precollege Philosophy During Neoliberalism” (Teaching Philosophy 42:4) and “Castoriadis, Marx, and the Critique of Productivism” (Telos 174). Vitale is the founder of the Ball State Philosophy Outreach Project, a precollege philosophy program that hosts an annual conference. At Ball State, Dr. Vitale teaches introduction to philosophy, existentialism, and classes on critical theory.
Abstract: While Eric Anderson and Michael Kimmel argue that orthodox masculinity now has an equal competitor in egalitarian masculinity, this paper argues that orthodox masculinity remains hegemonic. Anderson and Kimmel may be correct that masculinities are shifting in other contexts, but various Internet cultures seem to perpetuate the hegemony of orthodox masculinity. This paper examines Kimmel and Anderson’s arguments and then examines the performances of masculinity in digital contexts, including online dating sites. The author argues that while the disavowal of gay male sexual orientation has lost its prominence in maintaining hegemonic masculinity, aversion toward the feminine continues to play a key role.Tags: 22-1, hegemonic masculinity, homosociality, online dating, orthodox masculinity, toxic masculinity
I encounter one profile on OkCupid where CHARLES BUKOWSKI in all caps sits atop a list of authors and books. In another profile, a user announces a favorite movie, noting his awareness of his own gendered consumption: “Fight Club (I am a guy, I believe it’s obligatory.).” Recently on Tinder, I have seen admonishments in male users’ short profiles against women posting pictures with “duckface” selfies; one user writes that profile pictures where the woman is posing with a duckface with “half-naked children” in the background are “not cute.”
After looking at profile after profile written by heterosexual men in their late twenties and thirties, something stood out: the men whose profiles I viewed did not seem to like women, or, rather, they did not seem to like femininity or activities and objects considered feminine. Their profiles were filled with rhetorical signs of their own masculinity and their love of all things masculine, including the somewhat surprising and recurring interest in beat poet and hyper-masculinist Charles Bukowski. It seemed to me that these men were not even writing their profiles for women, despite their professed interest in sexual relationships with women. They had created profiles on a dating site with the apparent intent to meet women, but they performed from a script of masculinity that requires a disavowal of all things feminine. These men were in a position fraught with contradiction.
In examining online dating profiles and considering scholarship on digital cultures, I have found a series of digital spaces that perpetuate orthodox and even toxic masculinity often among the same men who demonstrate performances of egalitarian or inclusive masculinity in offline settings. In this article, I suggest that there is something about what Adrienne Massanari calls “toxic technocultures” (330) that perpetuates hegemonic masculinity online, including on heterosexual dating sites. These findings run counter to the conclusions drawn by leading masculinities theorists Eric Anderson and Michael Kimmel, who claim that we are entering a new age of masculinity, defined by the triumph of inclusive masculinity over orthodox masculinity. Anderson and Kimmel, however, have not examined online settings, and I argue they overemphasize the importance that decreased homophobia plays in the maintenance of hegemonic masculinity. The masculinity upheld by Internet cultures is fueled by an aversion toward the feminine more than by homophobia.1 In what follows, I first discuss the concepts of orthodox and hegemonic masculinity and consider Kimmel and Anderson’s arguments about the rise of inclusive and egalitarian masculinities. Then, in response, I review the ways digital settings breed toxic masculinities by relying on an aversion toward the feminine. I do so by examining a specific archive—OkCupid online dating profiles—as well as the work of other scholars on other online spaces.
This article has autoethnographic origins in my own forays into online dating while living in Philadelphia between the years 2005 and 2013.2 I started visiting online dating sites in a search for companionship or love, not as a research venture, but I returned to the archive as a feminist theorist to reread the profiles and to unearth trends in them. I use a mixed methods approach and engage in a textual analysis of online dating profiles through a feminist lens and employ empirical methods to examine trends in word choice and style in dating profiles. I also engage in an examination of the literature in media studies, digital and feminist rhetorics, communication studies, and masculinities studies, among other fields, to best approach the archive of online dating profiles and the larger archive of Internet social spaces.
Orthodox and Inclusive Masculinities and the Decline of Homophobia
Kimmel and Anderson strike a note of optimism when they write that we are witnessing the decline of the hegemony of orthodox masculinity. Yet, the archive of online dating profiles should give us reason to question that optimism. A survey of online dating profiles shows a continued ambivalence toward the feminine even among the men most likely to exhibit more inclusive masculinities and even alongside their own increased tolerance for gay male sexual orientation. The profiles I examined are written by men who sit atop the hierarchy of masculinity, the men whom Kimmel and Anderson see expressing more egalitarian masculinities. These are not the same men as those engaging in the Incel or Pickup Artist communities. They are men with more “masculine capital” than most and thus are allowed to transgress rules of orthodox masculinity with less threat of punishment (Anderson 41–43). Even as they are able to articulate more egalitarian positions and may very well do so quietly in their personal lives, they continue to exhibit an aversion toward the feminine, and we can see on their profiles the performative strength of the scripts of hegemonic masculinity.3
Anderson argues that hegemonic masculinity is not a good concept to understand masculinity today. The terms orthodox masculinity and hegemonic masculinity are often used interchangeably, but one concept includes a set of traits, and the other marks a relationship with other masculinities. Orthodox masculinity includes the traits required to live up to the archetype of masculinity in our era (Anderson 31), which Anderson lists as “not associating with homoxexuality or femininity, being a muscular leader, and reserving all acceptable emotions” (41). As hegemonic masculinity is relational, it involves a type of masculinity that has gained ascendency over others; it indicates a “social process of subordination and stratification” (Anderson 31). While one may follow all the rule of orthodox masculinity, they may fail to achieve hegemonic masculinity, as this requires possession of characteristics that fall outside one’s control, like race, height, class, and good lucks (Anderson 41). It is then maintained and vouchsafed through a man’s relation with other men. Other men might give him the camaraderie he needs, or they might expose him as a fraud.
Anderson argues that the notion of hegemonic masculinity fails to comprehend the terrain of masculinities in the 21st century.4 He claims that we are living in an age of decreased homohysteria, or homophobia (Anderson 7), and we are witnessing competing masculinities vie for a dominant position, rather than the hegemony of one type over all others. He believes orthodox masculinity is in competition with a new form of “inclusive masculinity.” Inclusive masculinity provides space for heterosexual men to demonstrate increased “emotional and physical homosocial proximity”; the inclusion of gay men; the inclusion of heterosexual men’s femininity; and decreased sexism (8-9). Anderson has claimed that at least white, university-attending men are losing orthodox gender patterns and are adopting what he calls “inclusive masculinities” (46). Anderson finds support for his position that inclusive masculinity now shares a position of prominence with orthodox masculinity through his ethnographies of athletes, in which he finds that many university-aged white men are demonstrating less homophobia, and he suggests that the change occurring among teamsport athletes should indicate a change occurring among non-athletes as well (16).
Kimmel agrees that a new type of masculinity is appearing in the United States and holds that what he calls the Self-Made Man is losing his hegemony. Like Anderson, Kimmel claims that there are two dominant forms of masculinity today. About half of men still subscribe to more traditional notions of masculinity, and half subscribe to the new, more egalitarian notions (Kimmel 288). He writes, “One of the hallmarks of that new, twenty-first-century masculinity is an increasing comfort with gender equality—both at home and at work” (Kimmel 295). According to Kimmel, the shift to a more egalitarian masculinity has been a quiet one. In homes across the United States, “the biggest shift in American masculinity has taken place quietly, with little fanfare and even less media coverage” (Kimmel 294). Kimmel suggests that while many men are angry over the challenge to what they considered their birthright provided by women in the workforce, “most men have simply accepted these changes. American men have quietly and relatively easily accommodated to the dual-career couple model that characterizes most marriages” (317).
The online dating profiles I reviewed did demonstrate the decrease in homophobia hinted by Kimmel and Anderson. I compared 50 profiles of white, heterosexual male users with post-graduate education between the ages of 27 and 37 in a 10-mile radius of Philadelphia with 50 profiles of heterosexual female users with the same education status, age, and geographical location. The post-graduate education filter is intended to demonstrate the persistence of the aversion toward the feminine among those men who are in a privileged social position. These users were selected at random.5 To emphasize that this population of OkCupid users generally self-reports as tolerant, I searched for their responses to the following OkCupid-generated questions: “Would you consider dating someone who has vocalized a strong negative bias toward a certain race of people?” and “Do you think homosexuality is a sin?” To the first question, 21 out of the 50 men responded. Only two said yes; two responded that it “depends on which race”; and the other 17 said no. These results make this sample set slightly less tolerant than OkCupid users in general, of whom 84% answered no to this question, but still comparable with 80% responding no. In response to the question regarding gay male sexual orientation, 27 men responded and only two said that it was a sin. The responses support Anderson’s position that we are living in an age of decreased homohysteria.6 The white, heterosexual, educated men in urban areas are the men Anderson claims are practicing more inclusive masculinities—liberal, open-minded, and comfortable with their gay friends. OkCupid founder Christian Rudder points out that “OkCupid users are, if anything, more urban, more educated and more progressive than the nation at large…Self-described liberals outnumber self-described conservatives more than two to one” (112).
However, the decline in homophobia does not necessarily mean that sexism is decreasing, nor does it mean that orthodox masculinity is losing its hegemony. When Kimmel notes that the acceptance of women into egalitarian positions takes place quietly, the fact that it occurs quietly should be telling. Not only does it take place quietly, but online cultures show us that it takes place alongside a contrary performance of inegalitarianism. Men who are more comfortable accepting women in equal positions in their private lives—sharing responsibilities, making decisions, and negotiating futures—are still adhering to scripts of orthodox masculinity in many settings, including online dating profiles and other Internet settings. The aversion to the feminine exhibited in these spaces calls the decline of hegemonic masculinity into question.
If Kimmel and Anderson are correct that masculinity has changed, why does the Internet, including online dating sites, fail to show it?7 Erving Goffman’s distinction between frontstage and backstage appearances proves helpful here. For Goffman, a front is a setting in which people offer performances that accord with various norms and standards (107). Here we give performances that are conscious of their audiences. Backstage, however, the performer “can relax; he can drop the front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character” (Goffman 112). What we see online is that in many men’s frontstage appearances, they exhibit a performance of orthodox masculinity defined by a continued expression of the aversion toward the feminine. In their backstage lives, however, men may very well be adopting more egalitarian masculinities. If the same men who are demonstrating egalitarian masculinity in some aspects of their lives are expressing orthodox masculinity in others, it seems optimistic to mark the end of hegemonic masculinity. The frontstage performances of orthodox masculinity remain almost compulsory, among heterosexual men who are ostensibly becoming more inclusive and among gay men as well.
The Aversion Toward the Feminine
Hegemonic masculinity defines itself in large part by emphasizing what it is not: femininity. Masculinity has always been something that has “had to be constantly demonstrated, the attainment of which was forever in question—lest the man be undone by a perception of being too feminine” (Kimmel 89). One of the ways this manifests itself in online dating profiles is through expression of interests.
On many men’s profiles, I found lists of interests that included literature, movies, and music that were not only explicitly masculine, but were often expressly anti-feminine. Consider the literature lists of two different male users:
Literature – Fight Club, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, anything by Carl Sagan, Charles Bukowski, LOTR, I hope they serve beer in Hell, Hunter S. Thompson, 1985, Battle Royale, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ender’s Game, etc. Comics and Manga.
CHARLES BUKOWSKI, Nelson Algren, Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, Roberto Bolano, Iris Murdock, BAUDELAIRE, nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen
On the first list, we see a juxtaposition of Bukowski and Tucker Max, whose autobiographical I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell chronicles his sexual exploits. A NY Times book review suggests that “[i]ncorrigible womanizers will see him as a hero” (Schillinger). Max’s character is a twenty-first-century Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, without the mid-century grit and charm. The second list includes a more surprising cast of characters. Some fit together: Jonathan Franzen has been accused of presenting sexist themes in his novels (Sittenfeld), as has Bukowski. Iris Murdoch appears as a possible outlier, as the only female author on the list. However, Murdoch is a philosopher and novelist whose themes can hardly be called unambiguously feminine or feminist (Hämäläinen).
As we see on these lists, gender identity is often represented through cultural references as our consumption patterns often represent gendered interests. Melonie Fullick examines profiles on the dating site Nerve.com, focusing on how users expressed their gender identity, and concludes that “gender identity is ‘indexed’ primarily through references to other, lifestyle-affiliated categories as well as through more direct discursive cues,” including “signification of lifestyle through references to activities and practices, consumer items (such as food, technology), and culture (books, music, films)” (546).
The profiles I examined also represent gender identity through cultural consumption. The central characters in frequently mentioned books on men’s lists reinforce scripts of hegemonic masculinity. For instance, there is significant enthusiasm for beat poet and novelist Charles Bukowski, as we can see in the examples above. In a search on OkCupid of heterosexual male users between the ages of 27 and 37 in a 100-mile radius of Philadelphia, 3.4 times as many men than women indicated an interest in Bukowski.8 This is not to say that an interest in Bukowski’s work is an illegitimate interest or that Bukowski was not a talented writer. But when Bukowski appears repeatedly, especially alongside other writers like Hemingway, Palahniuk, and Tucker Max and on lists without any female writers, the rhetorical force of Bukowski’s name indicates a fascination with a certain rugged, individualistic masculinity—one exhibited by the type of man who does not need women, who disposes of women in a series of one-night stands, who may not even like women. The prevalence of authors like Bukowski on such lists indicates at least that the aversion toward the feminine in the maintenance of hegemonic masculinity remains firmly in place.
Another favorite author of the twenty-seven to thirty-seven-year-old users whose profiles I reviewed is Jack Kerouac, whom 2.4 as many men than women stated as an interest. Stephen M. Whitehead describes Kerouac as embodying the mythical image of the man as adventurer and explorer: the myth of man leaving home, rejecting the private sphere, distancing himself from the feminine (Men and Masculinities 118), a theme that Kimmel also addresses at length as he discusses the Self-Made Man (11–31). Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty epitomizes this hero. Whitehead quotes Dean Moriarty: “I’ll tell you Sal, straight, no matter where I live, my trunk’s always sticking out from under the bed, I’m ready to leave or get thrown out” (119). Moriarty is an image of a man always ready to leave, who seeks to disentangle himself, to get away from his emotional attachments.
Beyond their stated interests in authors like Palahniuk, Bukowski, and Kerouac, male users are more likely than female users to list only male authors and musical artists. Male users were much less likely to list female authors, books written by women, and female musical artists on their lists. Books written by women or names of female authors comprised 35% of the female users’ lists, but only 17% of the male users’ lists. The average length of female users’ musical interests was shorter than the male users’ lists, but women mentioned 1.7 times more female solo artists and all-women bands. Both men and women listed more male authors and musicians, but women included a higher percentage of female artists on their lists.9
The fear of feminization is deeply sedimented and reinforced by both men and women. It also continues to exist alongside appearances of egalitarianism and inclusivity. In an offline example, in one study of parents of preschool-aged children, many parents appeared to accept some expressions of gender nonconformity by their children (Kane). Several had positive reactions, for instance, to their sons playing with typical feminine toys that emphasized “domestic skills, nurturance, and/or empathy” (Kane 158). Mothers expressed less ambivalence towards these toys, such as dolls and kitchen sets, than heterosexual fathers did, but many fathers also indicated tolerance for these toys. Anderson and Kimmel might take this as indicating the encouragement of a more inclusive or egalitarian type of masculinity.
However, the parents expressed less tolerance for their sons playing with, wearing, or participating in what Emily W. Kane calls “icons of femininity,” including pink or frilly clothing, nail polish, ballet dance, and Barbie dolls (160). Both mothers and fathers steered their sons away from these objects and activities, reminding them that these things are “for girls.” One parent compromised and got her son a “NASCAR Barbie”; another was comforted that his son, when playing with Barbie dolls with his sister, was more interested in the Ken doll (Kane 161). Kane concludes that parents across racial, class, and sexual orientation categories enforced hegemonic masculinity in their sons by encouraging their sons to distance themselves from feminine objects and activities, especially objects and activities that had been deeply associated with femininity (162).
While this does not map neatly onto Goffman’s distinction, it nonetheless indicates a tension between commitments held by these parents. Fathers who had tolerated their sons playing with certain traditionally feminine toys likely were committed to norms of equality, but they still required to perform a certain script of masculinity that says enough is enough, Barbie is a step too far. It is not as if they are acting disingenuously, however, when they say that playing Barbie has crossed a line; the script of hegemonic masculinity has been so well sedimented that their aversion to these icons of femininity is visceral. Mothers also discouraged their sons from associating with these toys, indicating that they too understood, whether consciously or not, the importance of adhering to hegemonic masculinity for their sons.
Just as the aversion toward femininity is also expressed by women, it is also expressed by gay men. Culling the written portions of 385 profiles of heterosexual and gay men on Match.com, Lisa L. Walker and Jackie L. Eller observe that gay male sexual orientation does not bar entrance into dominant masculinities. What heterosexual and gay men share in common is an aversion to the feminine that they express online. While heterosexual men have more flexibility both to “claim and temporarily distance themselves from masculine dominance” (and thus express more egalitarian masculinities), gay men “approri[ate]…many of the same orthodox symbols used by heterosexual men to increase masculine capital and subordinate femininity” (Walker and Eller 43). Gay men can benefit from hegemonic masculinity, though they have to do more work to distance themselves from femininity in order to do so. They must “exercise greater caution to avoid associating themselves with traits that signify femininity” (50). But, like heterosexual men, they “capitalize on the simple man demeanor to reinforce an ideal masculinity that is emotionally durable, as opposed to the fragility and complications they associate with femininity” (50). Many gay men also explicitly describe themselves as masculine and describe masculinity as a trait they desire in a partner, indicating their aversion toward the feminine. They are looking for “other men who…do not disrupt the dominance of masculinity. In other words, gay men wanted partners whose gender identity also reinforced men’s entitlement to the benefits of hegemonic masculinity” (59). Walker and Eller explicitly reject Anderson’s claim that hegemonic masculinity as a theory no longer serves us because of the decline of homophobia. Rather, they emphasize the continued importance of the concept of hegemonic masculinity, insofar as they show that “as homosexuality, alone, does not appear to bar gay men from participating in dominant masculinities…it is still femininity itself that stigmatizes some gay men, while its avoidance allows some gay men and straight men in general, to benefit from masculinity’s hegemony” (44). The tent of dominant masculinity might extend to include more men, but it maintains its hegemony over femininity, which keeps women in a second-tier position in society.
Homosociality and Geek Masculinity
Scripts of hegemonic masculinity on online dating sites do not depend only on content, but also on the cultivation of particular rhetorical styles. Luce Irigaray argues that the feminine differs from the masculine insofar as it is characterized by indirectness and a tendency toward proximity rather than mastery (25–29). Evidence for this view has been found by feminists in the social sciences who have shown that women’s speech aims at building connections and distancing itself from authority (Fishman 254–55). An analysis of the styles in male users’ online dating profiles exhibits a masculine form of communication, which indicates a concern for expertise and mastery and a conception of knowledge as acquisitive.
One of the ways male users signal their expertise is by directly acknowledging the breadth and depth of their knowledge. Among the profiles I studied, one male user, before listing his favorite directors and films, writes: “Too many movies to name.” Then, at the end of a list of 48 musical artists and genre, he closes with “etc., etc., etc.” He also shares that he had not “listened to broadcast radio music in probably 20 years,” emphasizing that his knowledge went far beyond the mainstream. Another user ends his list of 19 books and authors with “and on and on and on,” indicating his encyclopedic interest in literature. In fact, a higher percentage of male users than female users report themselves to be “geniuses” (39% compared to 30% of female users) (OkCupid).
Male users also mark themselves as experts by simply including long lists of their favorite things. Of the profiles I examined, while more women made lists, men’s lists of favorite things were longer. The median list length of movies/actors/directors, musicians/albums, and television shows, for instance, was longer for men. The median number of movies, directors, and actors listed by male users was 10 and for female users was 3.5; the median number of musical artists, bands, and songs was 11 for men and 8 for women; and the median number of television shows was 6 for men and 4.5 for women. The median length of books and/or authors and favorite foods were the same for men and women at four and three respectively. These figures indicate gendered approaches to the expression of interests, and more work could be done exploring which areas had more significant gaps and which areas did not have any gaps. I suggest that men’s longer lists indicate a desire to express expertise, which is often associated with masculinity, and as we have seen that men are more likely to do on Wikipedia and on other niche sites. Female users, on the other hand, seem to be sharing their interests to invite conversation, seek common ground, and indicate that they are well-rounded or open to new things.10
Wikipedia, for example, a site that welcomes volunteer authors to contribute entries on topics on which they consider themselves expert, is written almost entirely by men. An internal 2011 study estimated that over 90% of Wikipedia editors are men, and a University of Minnesota study in 2011 found that just 6% of contributors of articles that have more than five hundred edits are women (Paling). In her research on Wikipedia’s gender imbalance, Leigh Gruwell argued that “[a]lthough Wikipedia endorses an ‘encyclopedic style’ that presupposes objectivity and claims to be open to everyone (part of its appeal is the supposed ‘democratization of knowledge’), I argue that it, in fact, privileges patriarchal methodologies and epistemologies” (118). Gruwell argues that the neutral point of view advocated by Wikipedia ends up privileging a sort of “objective” point of view, despite Wikipedia’s claims to the contrary, insofar as its “style policy actively discourages any show of embodied positionality” (122). This style is far from neutral, Gruwell argues, calling on feminist standpoint theory, as it denies the rich history of situated knowledges advocated by theorists like Donna Haraway (122). In addition, when asked why they thought women were less likely to participate as writers and editors on Wikipedia, participants in Gruwell’s study cited three main reasons: “women’s lack of time, Wikipedia’s interface, and, perhaps most significantly, the norms and standards of its discourse community” (Gruwell 124).
By establishing themselves as experts in such a way, men are participating in what some call “geek masculinity.” The terms geek and nerd are overdetermined and are used as both insults and badges of honor. I use the terms interchangeably and not disparagingly. Rather, geek or nerd indicates someone who, as Massanari claims, “valorize[s] expertise and specialized knowledge and geek culture revolves around the acquisition, sharing, and distribution of this knowledge with others” (332). There is nothing inherently masculine about these qualities, but women are less often conditioned to be geeks, so geek cultures often become masculine cultures.
Geek masculinity has a fraught relationship with hegemonic masculinity. Massanari writes:
So to discuss geek and nerd culture is to discuss masculinity—in particular, white male masculinity…[I]t both repudiates and reifies elements of hegemonic masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). For example, geek masculinity often embraces facets of hypermasculinity by valorizing intellect over social or emotional intelligence. At the same time, geek masculinity rejects other hypermasculine traits, as “the geek” may show little interest in physical sports and may also demonstrate awkwardness regarding sexual/romantic relationships.(332)
Those who express geek masculinity exhibit some but not all characteristics of orthodox masculinity, and many of those exhibiting geek masculinity may lack the necessary attributes that allow them to exercise hegemonic masculinity. The geek, for instance, is often not the most athletic or best-looking man. The men who inhabit geek cultures are often not those who exercise hegemonic masculinity, but they nonetheless end up upholding it.
Geek masculinity often upholds hegemonic masculinity through the maintenance of homosocial spaces.11 These spaces vary significantly from apparently innocuous sites for male bonding over shared interests to communities that breed explicit calls for violence against women. In her ethnography of the multi-user domain, online forum BlueSky, Lori Kendall discusses how the “cultural connections on BlueSky among work, masculinities, computer use, and sociability ensure a male-dominated atmosphere regardless of the number of women present…[BlueSky participants] relate to each other in ways that support heterosexual masculinity (although not all identify as heterosexual) and in the process continue to objectify women” (Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub 107). The users on BlueSky often chat about computers themselves, which tends to create a “geek culture” that excludes women. In addition, hegemonic masculinity is supported through objectifying women, even if the objectifying is not an intentional or malicious act. For example, Kendall describes an ironic refrain of “didja spike her?” on BlueSky when users mentioned women in whom they were romantically interested outside of the group, followed by a more reflexive conversation in which one user commented that “the SPIKE stuff wouldn’t be funny if there was any chance in hell that anyone ever would” (“‘Oh No! I’m a Nerd!’” 264). In this case, the user seemed quite aware of a split between his frontstage performance that upholds hegemonic masculinity and a deeper backstage commitment to egalitarianism, which he wished would be apparent so his joke would be clear.
Kendall also reports several of the self-identified heterosexual men whom she studied on BlueSky had also admitted to being celibate for a period of years and had reported that they had “given up” on women (“‘Oh No! I’m a Nerd!’” 266). In their online discussions of their celibacy, they cite the reason as their nonhegemonic status (266). “Although they designate more sexually successful men as (by definition) ‘jerks,’” Kendall explains, “their discussion implies that the real problem is not with ‘assholish’ men but rather with the women who like the abuse they get from such men” (267). They indicate a resentment toward the women whom they perceive to be more attracted to the hegemonic men, and they understand themselves to be the disadvantaged nice guys.
The men on BlueSky blamed women for their celibacy, but also wanted to be clear that the “didja spike her?” comment was a joke which was not to be taken seriously, and in fact only “parody” (264). One user insightfully noted that the joke “brings up the whole ‘women as conquest’ idea” (264), and the users in the conversation did not want to be associated with such a trope. However, their playful use of this concept in a homosocial online setting is at one end of a spectrum, with the conversation held by members of groups like the Incel movement on the other end. While geek masculinity can be but is not necessarily inhospitable to women, the Incel movement’s response to femininity is overtly hostile in all respects, such that it is an expression of toxic masculinity. Masculinity becomes toxic when it is “threatened by anything associated with femininity” (Banet-Weiser and Miltner 171) and when it “encourage(s) men to be sexually aggressive, to value dominance and control, and to position women as inferior, especially in digital spaces” (Hess and Flores 4). The Incel movement is a clear example of toxic masculinity. Those who identify as Incels, short for involuntary celibate, do not allow women into their ranks, since, they argue, women’s celibacy is never involuntary. The Incel community has thrived on the Internet, beginning as a subreddit called r/Incels, which was banned by Reddit, a news aggregator and discussion site where users post content, in November 2017 (Hauser). Incels continue to gather on forums such as 4chan’s /r9k/, Reddit’s r/ForeverAlone, and Love-Shy.com (Dewey). At the time of the writing of this article, the most popular post on r/Braincel was about the poster’s disappointment that he is “so ugly that no women is attracted to [him]” (“R/Braincels”). The Incel community refer to an “80:20 rule” that disadvantages them in contemporary society, and many call for its abolition through enforced monogamy: “the most attractive 20 per cent of men are said to be sought after by the most attractive 80 per cent of women, with the least attractive 80 per cent of men left to compete for the remaining 20 per cent of women” (Myers). They refer to women as “femoids” or “foids,” which is short for female humanoid, denoting that women are less than human, and describe them as manipulative and conniving, driven by their biology to reproduce with the most attractive man they can secure.
Other groups who have created toxic subcultures online include Men’s Rights Activists and Pick Up Artists. Men’s Rights Activists organize online on sites such as A Voice for Men, which cites as part of its mission to “reject the unhealthy demands of gynocentrism in all its forms” (“Mission Statement”), and on subreddits such as r/MensRights. Pickup Artists promise to turn frustrated men into cassanovas. Their methods include
“peacocking” (wearing crazy clothing, like a red cowboy hat—yes, truly—to stand out), “group theory” (charming the desired woman’s friends before making a move on her) and the “neg” (a subtle dig disguised as a compliment—“I love your eyelashes, are they real?”—to disarm women they believed had grown immune to flattery).(Williams)
Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kate M. Miltner venture that the men comprising these groups are also not those exercising hegemonic masculinity but are rather men who would typically fall into the “geek/nerd” category (172). They followed the rules and did not get the rewards that they felt entitled to (beautiful wife, a particular lifestyle). Their resentment echoes on the Internet and is directed toward women.
Geek masculinity is exacerbated in some spaces when content and structural elements collude to make a space even less hospitable for women. On Reddit, for instance, on the level of content, the forum is comprised of several subreddits, each devoted to a particular niche interest, which attracts those who consider themselves experts or who seek to have specialized knowledge in one particular area. Massanari writes, “Spaces dedicated to geek culture and STEM interests (like Reddit) may exhibit the tendency to view women as either objects of sexual desire or unwelcome interlopers or both—making them doubly unwelcoming for women (Varma, 2007)” (332-33). She then determines that it “serves as a nexus for various toxic technocultures to thrive” (333). Some of these cultures include the culture around #GamerGate and the culture around /r/thefappening, which included posts of hacked, private photographs of actor Jennifer Lawrence (335-36).
At the structural level, Reddit has safeguards to ensure its homosociality is maintained and that its male users to fight against what Banet-Weiser and Miltner call “female encroachment” (173). Massanari characterizes the non-interventionist approach of the site’s administrators (331) as well as the site’s “karma” system, wherein certain posts and comments are upvoted and appear first to readers (337), as two of the key structural problems of Reddit. Minority views or views posted by women have less of a chance of gaining purchase on the site. She believes that these structural issues result in a site that ends up “reif[ying] the desires of certain groups (often young, white, cis-gendered [sic], heterosexual males) while ignoring and marginalizing others” (A. Massanari 330).
While objectification and exclusion are certainly types of violence, violence toward women also occurs in more explicit ways in homosocial online settings. The #GamerGate scandal, for instance, involved threats of rape and death against female gamer and designer Zoë Quinn and feminist blogger and gamer Anita Sarkeesian. Even prior to #GamerGate, Quinn had received death threats, ostensibly for her incursion into a male-dominated space through her production of a text-based video game called Depression Quest (A. L. Massanari 316–17). Despite the critical praise she received for her game, she received what Emma Jane calls “e-bile” from other gamers, who articulated displeasure with its political nature (Salter 43). Jane explains that instances of e-bile typically have the following characteristics:
they target a woman who is, for one reason or another, visible in the public sphere; their authors are anonymous or otherwise difficult to identify; their sexually explicit rhetoric includes homophobic and misogynist epithets; they prescribe coerced sex acts as all-purpose correctives; they pass scathing, appearance-related judgments and they rely on ad hominem invective.(Jane 560)
E-bile is largely a response to a fear of female encroachment, especially insofar as it increases as a feminist response to it occurs (Jane 563). This occurred in Quinn’s case. She spoke out against her harassment, and the calls for violence increased. At this point, she was doxed, that is, her home address was shared publicly, and she was forced to leave to protect herself. Feminist blogger and gamer Anita Sarkeesian, who had already received violent backlash after posting short films about sexism in video games on her blog Feminist Frequency, became implicated in the #GamerGate scandal, as well, and also received e-bile in the form of death and rape threats (A. L. Massanari 316–18). Sarkeesian was also doxed and forced to leave her home.
Women have received e-bile on sites that seem unlikely to foster homosocial relationships, as well. One Instagram account, Tinder Nightmares, documents that e-bile in the form of screenshots of various users’ experiences of toxic masculinity on Tinder, an app-based dating service. Aaron Hess and Carlos Flores find the site to be rife with “heterosexist performances,” including phenomena like “failed pickup lines, hypersexual declarations, and objectification through consumption” (8). However, they note that such heterosexist performances are typically displayed in public where men use them as a homosocial tool and can hide behind the anonymity of a group. A clear example would be catcalling. Tinder, on the other hand, is “relatively private (user-to-user) [and] lacks a group bonding context” (Hess and Flores 4). If men recite from heterosexist scripts primarily for homosocial reasons, why would they do so when no other men can see them? The authors hypothesize that the heterosexist performances are nonetheless “guided by larger heterosexist gender scripts—both online and offline—…that invite misogyny” (4). That is, in online contexts, the men are not reciting the script for homosocial reasons, but rather because they cannot help but recite the script no matter the context. In addition, Tinder Nightmares exists precisely because the people who manage the site assume that the toxic frontstage or online performances of Tinder users might contradict their backstage performances. “The original posting of the Tinder screenshot,” Hess and Flores write, “reinforces the idea that men who engage in hypermasculine performances should be publicly disciplined for their performance” (12). Individuals are tagged in the comments and this serves as a way to warn potential offenders (12). Even if they have not behaved badly yet, they should know there will be consequences for doing so.
Anderson is able to be optimistic about the inclusive masculinities in our current epoch primarily because he prioritizes the role of homohysteria in orthodox masculinity. He argues that “the reason for this underlying discontent of femininity is because effeminacy among men is correlated with homosexuality” (Anderson 34). He recognizes the important role sexism plays in orthodox masculinity, but since he believes it is caused by homohysteria, he can be optimistic that in an age of decreased homohysteria, sexism will decline. This position is not supported by the behavior of men on online dating sites where many heterosexual men who subscribe to what Anderson would call more inclusive masculinities and what Kimmel would call egalitarian masculinity still demonstrate a problematic aversion toward the feminine in their cultural (e.g. literary and musical) icons and rhetorical style. The persistence of this aversion toward the feminine does not motivate confidence that this phenomenon will decrease as homohysteria decreases or as economic shifts lead to a different division of labor in the household, as Kimmel suggests.
Online dating sites might seem a peculiar space for encountering an aversion toward the feminine. Their primary purpose is for people to meet partners. In fact, research estimates that 5% of married couples in 2015 met through online dating sites, and that percentage promises to rise as one in five adults between the ages of 25 and 34 have used online dating sites (Smith and Anderson). Online dating users are diverse, and their profiles indicate a wide array of interests, but anyone scrolling through profiles will observe a difference between heterosexual women’s and heterosexual men’s interests.
The aversion toward the feminine that appears on online dating profiles points toward the strength of hegemonic masculinity today and how it is bolstered in online contexts. This aversion is not the same as the outright resentment and disdain toward women that occurs in other digital contexts, including app-based dating sites, but when users project an image of someone who is more interested in masculine things than in feminine things in a profile that is created to meet and even engage in long-term relationships with women, we can note the severity of the compulsion to appear masculine at all costs and at all times.
In addition, the Internet has functioned as a site for bolstering toxic masculinity and thus perpetuating the hegemony of orthodox masculinity. All expressions of orthodox or hegemonic masculinity are not necessarily toxic, though one might be able to make a case to the contrary. Orthodox masculinity becomes toxic, at least, when its performance moves beyond a simple aversion to the feminine to an outright disdain for the feminine usually accompanied by calls for violence toward women. In these digital contexts, such as various Reddit and 4chan threads, and especially among communities like the Incels and Men’s Rights Activities, we see more than an aversion toward the feminine and actual women; we witness disdain and violence towards them. While those exercising hegemonic masculinity do not necessarily participate in these cultures, those who do prop up and support hegemonic masculinity.
Certainly, there is a difference between Incels and men who like Beat poets who are attempting to date women through OkCupid. But there is also a difference between many of the latter and true egalitarians. The discrepancy between online and offline performances does not show us that the online performances are a farce and that the people encountered online are in fact egalitarians forced to enact hegemonic masculinity because of deeply sedimented cultural norms. It is one thing to become more accepting of the individual people in one’s life and to want partnerships with spouses or equal opportunities for female children. It is quite another to accept femininity as a viable mode of expression and being in the world or to challenge the dominance of traditional, orthodox masculinity. The disdain for the feminine remains the most intractable element of orthodox masculinities that continues to pervade even apparently more inclusive masculinities.
- I follow Luce Irigaray and Raewyn Connell in using the term “the feminine” to refer to the covered over, occluded, denied ways of being. As Connell explains, one form of femininity has not achieved hegemony in the way the dominant form of masculinity has. She writes, “[T]he French analyst Luce Irigaray…has emphasized the absence of any clear-cut definition for women’s eroticism and imagination in a patriarchal society” (Connell 183). These covered over ways are probably manifold and plural—but we do not have an adequate language to address them. The term “the feminine” functions as a sort of placeholder.
- Other feminist digital scholarship regarding misogyny has autoethnographic origins as well. Emma Alice Jane, for instance, discusses the autoethnographic roots of her research on “e-bile” in her article “‘Back to the kitchen, cunt’: Speaking the unspeakable about online misogyny” (559). Leigh Gruwell also discusses how her own experiences as a “faithful and regular (female) reader” of Wikipedia inspired her interest in Wikipedia as an area of academic research (122).
- I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for framing it in this language.
- For the term’s creators’ response to criticisms, see Connell and Messerschmidt.
- When searching for matches on OkCupid, one can sort them by Match %, which indicates how much they have in common with the user’s answers to various questions; distance; “who’s new”; when they were last online; “Enemy %,” which indicates how much their responses to various questions differ from the user’s; and “Special Blend,” which is the closest to a random search as possible. I therefore searched by “Special Blend.”
- Thirty-four of the 50 women surveyed answered the question on race, and all answered in the negative. Thirty-eight of the 50 women surveyed answered the question regarding gay male sexual orientation, and all answered in the negative.
- I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for helping me formulate this question.
- To access the heterosexual women’s profiles in order to make relevant comparisons, I made a blank profile as a heterosexual male user.
- Of the 50 men, 20 listed specific books and authors in their lists of favorite things, with an average list length of 6.8 and a combined total of 136 authors and book titles. Only 18 of the 136 items on their lists were women authors or books written by women. Fourteen users compiled lists of their favorite albums, songs, and/or musicians, with an average list length of 11.5 items for a total of 161 of albums, songs and/or musicians. Of the 161 items, only 13 female solo artists or all-female bands were listed, and 25 other items were bands with female members in them. On the other hand, of the 50 female users, 31 listed specific books and authors, with an average list length of 4.3 and a total of 131 items. On the women’s lists, 47 of the 133 items on the list were female authors or books written by women. Fifteen women compiled lists of bands, albums, songs, and/or musicians, with an average list length of 7.9 and a total of 118 items. Of the 118, 22 were female solo artists or all-female bands, and 11 were bands with women in them.
- Other research has historically found similar gender differences in Internet use. Studies indicate that men use the Internet more for information gathering, while women use it primarily for communication. Men use the Internet to search more, and women use e-mail more (Jackson et al. 372). Studies of Web 2.0, the more dynamic stage of the Internet dominated by user-generated content in the form of wikis and blogs, have yielded similar results. Women tend to use Facebook for communication more than men do (Junco). Women spend more time on Facebook and are more likely to think about their posts later in the day; they are also more likely to update their statuses, read their friends’ posts, and post their own media content (Shepherd 18–19).
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