Small acts of violence: On men in public spaces

To describe the experience of masculinity, what it looks and feels like, I think about experiences I have had sharing public space with other men.

I am on a train during peak hour, about to take the last empty seat in a four-person seating bank. The other three seats have already been filled by men on their way home from work.

The man beside the empty seat is taking up more than the allotted space determined by the dimensions of the seat. He is ‘manspreading’, the widely documented phenomenon of men on public transport taking up absurd amounts of space by spreading their knees to obtuse angles. He does this, men do this, out of a need to feel our capacity to take up space is unconstrained (despite watery justifications from men invoking ‘biology’).

This is masculinity. In these small contests between men, imagined or otherwise, there is no possibility for a draw; you’re more or you’re less, you’re better or worse, stronger or weaker.

To avoid physical contact with this man I would have to sit precariously, uncomfortably on the seat’s edge. This is a valid option—settling for this smaller share of the space would be a loss in our contest, but it could be minimised by imagined appeals to ‘fairness’ (the other man was here first) or simply because it remains unacknowledged. On a relatively short commute this might be acceptable.

But in this case, the man’s spatial occupation is too excessive. And it has been a bad day for me, with other losses to other men in other circumstances.

I shift my body slightly into his space. When I do so, my shoulder touches his: our first opportunity for real conflict. Another man might acquiesce to my intrusion with a slight physical readjustment to make room, but this time the man is unwilling to cede ground. He doesn’t say anything but makes his body rigid, hard to the point of absurdity, so he is unable to be physically influenced by my intrusion.

I watch him maintain this rigidity with immense physical effort while also attempting to look relaxed and nonchalant, reading something on his phone.

If I was feeling particularly bold I might comment on his unwillingness to create space, but this could also be taken as a loss of face—to fall back on the verbal implies defeat at the more fundamental level of the physical.

In these ‘micro expressions’ of masculinity, the role or the perception of ‘effort’ is important. The paragon, the most masculine, is the man who can enact himself upon the world without even trying. As such, to even admit to thinking about masculinity in this way feels on some level like weakness, as though if I was a real man I wouldn’t have to.

I have never been a man comfortable with my own masculinity. I am not a manspreader, for example, most simply because I have never been a man comfortably able to take up space. I feel like an imposition, even as I feel emasculated for that apparent weakness.

I am on a plane, on a long-haul flight across the Indian Ocean. I am sitting in an exit-row seat. I am just shy of two metres tall, and while I wouldn’t usually stump for the extra leg room, it’s a work trip so I haven’t had to.

When the plane took off there were two empty spaces to the right of my window seat—I appeared to be the only passenger seated in the row.

Shortly after takeoff, once the seatbelt lights had flicked off, a man, well dressed, probably in his late fifties, sits in the seat on the end of the row. I take from his brief discussion with the flight attendant that he had seen the empty spaces and requested to move.

He is not a tall man, or particularly large, but he quickly begins to take up as much space as possible: legs stretched right out into the thoroughfare in front, seat reclined as far back as it would go into the space of the man sitting behind. He appears at ease.

Watching this man, a stranger, I feel emasculated. He is not even intruding into my space—there is an empty seat between us. What angers me, and beneath that what fills me with shame, is knowing how incapable I would feel of dominating the space in the same way. I know how I would agonise, apologising as I put my seat back.

His behaviour enrages me on one level because I imagine I would never be so rude, to intrude on everyone around me so aggressively, but more importantly I am ashamed because I wish that I could.

Watching him, I wonder what it is that makes me one kind of man and not another, why I cannot so effortlessly and obliviously take up space. I wonder why I am not comfortably able to assert my masculinity in this most fundamental way.

I wonder if it’s because I’m tall—specifically, tall and unathletic. I have always been acutely aware of my own body in public spaces, having spent most of my life with an apologetic slouch.

I wonder if it’s because I’m gay. Sometimes I even wonder if it’s the other way around: that I’m gay at least in part because of some early inability to assert my own masculinity. That may sound paranoid, but I entertain the notion quite seriously, not as an exercise in blame or apology but in a genuine attempt to understand how the complex relationship between male sexuality and masculinity is produced in my body.

The figure of the gay man is an important one for masculinity, a point of favourable comparison. You might not be as masculine as the guy sitting opposite you on the train, but at least you’re not a faggot.

Because the male figure in question is imaginary, archetypal, gay men ourselves aren’t immune to making similar comparisons. “No femmes”, “attracted to men who act like men”, “looking for straight-acting”—these are common refrains on gay hook-up apps.

And of course, despite my focus on men’s bodies, masculinity does not occur in a vacuum, in a world populated entirely by men. Gay men are a looming, symbolic other, in large part because we represent women and femininity. If masculinity encodes dominance, then the feminine is weakness, submission, the fundamental ‘other’. “No femmes” makes this particularly clear, as do the gay men on hook-up apps who say things like: “I’m gay because I like MEN, so masc guys only.”

While masculine archetypes may change over time or from place to place, the process of comparison to imagined men is fundamental to masculinity—whether we dream up a mincing faggot to make ourselves feel better, or a mythical man’s man to try (and fail) to live up to. And of course, with these images in mind we can scrutinise ourselves and the men around us for signs, for family resemblances to those archetypes, in an effort to determine if we and others are more, or less.

These ideas are part of what Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell calls “hegemonic masculinity”. Within this framework masculinity is not simply aesthetic, a set of recognisable behavioural symbols arranged to create a kind of ‘masculine affect’ (as these symbols vary throughout history)—it is ideology.

It is worth taking a moment here to say something about emasculation and shame.

As I have said, the game of masculinity described above, the one played by men sharing public space, has winners and losers. To lose is to be emasculated—to interpret some sign as evidence that, in adhering more closely to the archetype of the ideal man, another has proven themselves ‘more masculine’.

The feeling evoked in emasculation is shame. It is a notoriously difficult-to-pin-down experience—something to do with failure, with exposure, something not simply about being ‘less’, but being seen to be less and fearing it is true. Because it is relational, hierarchical, masculinity necessitates emasculation, and so it necessitates shame.

It is also important to say that we could as easily call emasculation by another name: misogyny. If masculinity depicts a hierarchy with femininity at the bottom, then misogyny is inextricable. Part of the shame of masculinity is the shame of imagining oneself to occupy a devalued feminine subjectivity. It is not difficult to imagine violence against women (for example) as an outcome of an ideological system that positions women and femininity as fundamentally less human.

We do not talk about masculinity in popular discourse, not really, not directly. We certainly do not talk about emasculation and shame in meaningful ways. It feels taboo. (Though researcher Brené Brown’s 2011 TED talk on shame and vulnerability is excellent, and one of very few examples.)

When we discuss these things in the context of masculinity it is usually in relation to men’s violence against women. It is good and of course vital that men’s violence is discussed in relation to masculinity, but even then the focus is always too narrow. We are able to say that masculinity plays a role in men’s acts of violence, but we situate that masculinity in particular, recognisable acts (the man who beats his wife, who fights at the pub) and even particular, archetypal men (football players, tradies).

Arising from this line of thinking is the term ‘toxic masculinity’. In a piece about the Pulse nightclub shooting in June this year, when Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 more at a gay venue in Orlando, Florida, writer Amanda Marcotte argued in a piece for Salon that Mateen’s acts had to be understood in relation to “toxic masculinity”, defining the term:

“Every time feminists talk about toxic masculinity, there is a chorus of whiny dudes who will immediately assume—or pretend to assume—that feminists are condemning all masculinity, even though the modifier ‘toxic’ inherently suggests that there are forms of masculinity that are not toxic.

So, to be excruciatingly clear, toxic masculinity is a specific model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control. It’s a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.”

I understand the point, I understand that in the face of men’s rage and violence against the increased visibility of feminism these kinds of distinctions seem necessary. I understand too that this is an attempt, one made often, to imagine a version of masculinity that is redeemable, that is not “toxic”. I do not believe this masculinity exists. The centrality of desirable archetypes to masculinity means that dominance, comparison, emasculation, shame, the experiences I have described here are not simply ‘features’ of a kind of masculinity, they are masculinity itself.

The account of masculinity I have laid out here is one rooted in radical feminism, in gender as power, in the politics of liberation. I understand the limits of a framework like this, but I value its force. Most importantly, thinking about this paradigm as masculinity allows me to situate my own experiences within a larger frame, and to confront their consequences. The experiences I have described here, sharing space with other men, reflect on a much smaller scale the same masculinity many would relegate to the specific sphere of ‘toxic’.

For that reason, I dislike the term ‘toxic masculinity’. Like a lot of language we use to describe things we don’t like, I find it distancing, othering, in a way that is dangerous. We cannot mark a distinction, for the sake of our pride—for the sake of our masculinity—between masculinities we like and those we don’t. It is vital that we are able to draw a line from my small feelings of emasculation on public transport to misogyny, to homophobia, to family violence, to rape, to murder, to war.

It is confronting. But it has to be if we are to stop men’s violence. If we are to reform men, if it is even possible to reform men, we cannot work in half-measures; what is needed is nothing less than an all-out assault on masculinity. It cannot be ‘reclaimed’. We should not look for ‘alternative masculinities’. We must burn it to the ground and try to start again.

I’m being deliberately blunt, deliberately without nuance. Given the stakes, given how damaging masculinity is, for ourselves, for those around us, for the world, blunt is what is needed.

For all this, I do believe we have a weapon in this war. Vulnerability is, I believe, masculinity’s opposite, its enemy. And when I think about that, I keep coming back to how utterly sad masculinity is. Vulnerability and intimacy are, of course, two sides of the same coin, and so masculinity cuts us off from intimacy—from connecting with each other, our families, our lovers. That this most wonderful thing is also an antidote, anathema to the violence and shame of masculinity, is so perfect and so hopeful, which makes its elusiveness within a paradigm of masculinity that much more sad.

The thing is: shame, the feeling that powers masculinity, the feeling invoked in the experience of emasculation, is so close to vulnerability. I believe men’s experience of shame can offer us a choice, a branching narrative: we can respond with small or large acts of violence, or we can expose ourselves, we can take a risk and hope we are met with acceptance.

Importantly, this is not about creating a new masculine ideal, one that incorporates vulnerability—that would be to miss the point entirely. The existence of the ideal is itself the problem, not simply that our ideal masculine archetype is a harmful one. Learning a new set of rules and behaviours to live up to, or more often than not fail to live up to, will not change things. We will dismantle masculinity by embracing uncertainty itself, by abandoning ideas of who we are and who we should be.

As destructive an ideology as masculinity is, it is dangerous to pretend its violence is not a part of us, or that its excision, if possible, will not be painful. At this point, given the annual toll of men’s violence on the lives of the people we abuse, we humiliate, we rape and we kill, I don’t think we have much of a choice except to try.

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  • Mike Esler

    November 30, 2016

    Beautifully, honestly written piece. Who will write the accompanying articles that the unsophisticated man can plug into? These lofty ideals are fine theory for men already within the change movement. How does oblivious man, uncaring man, not me man make sense of “we will dismantle masculinity by embracing uncertainty itself, by abandoning ideas of who we are and who we should be”? Like the threads of feminism, the complexities of change are many and varied, from the highly intellectual to the more pragmatic and mundane. I look forward, not to the dumbing down of this crucial work but to more accessible, entry level stuff that is both relevant and comprehensible to every man that needs it.

  • Nicky

    December 6, 2016

    A really enlightening, honest and well articulated account of the dynamics between men in an Australian context, thank-you. As a slight and unimposing female, I notice these ‘small acts of violence’ in all aspects of my public life – perhaps most noticeably at the gym and pool… I suspect you’re right on the need for a more fundamental shake-up of the Australian take on masculinity. Having lived as an expat in Asia for some time, I am hopeful that some aspects of ‘soft masculinity’, spreading through Korean pop culture, might offer an accepted alternative and, at the least, shed a new light on ‘Australian’ masculinity (which, I have to report, looks pretty absurd, barbaric and backwards coming from an outside perspective). I can imagine many ‘masculine’ blokes here would baulk at that and feel the need to make a joke of it, but seriously, more worldly influences would help us to see that there are other (and more evolved) ways to channel strength.


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