It was like the internet had just vomited all over my screen.
I’d just had a popular Youtuber recommended to me. Apparently he had spoken well in the past on topics such as well-being and inspiration. Sure, he came on a little strong at times, I was told, but generally he gave a motivating and upbeat performance.
So I searched his name and the regret was instant. “Women Belong at Home,” “The Problem With Women in the Workplace,” “The Purpose of Women,” “Women Who Won’t Submit,” “Make Women Wives Again,” along with endless videos ranging from the toxic: “Men, Stop Being Vulnerable,” to the paranoid: “The Chemical Attack on Masculinity.”
No, this wasn’t the Commander from The Handmaid’s Tale, leaping through some magical doorway to our world in search of a Youtube career as a motivational guru for fascists. This guy was real. I know, I know, being surprised to find lunatics on the internet is like being surprised to find fish in the sea. So why was I bothered?
Because he has 815,000 subscribers. And he is just one Youtuber.
understanding the insecure man-child
I never thought very much about my gender when I was growing up. My maleness was just a fact of my existence, like the fact that I had blue eyes or a large nose. I never attached any importance to it. Never even occurred to me to do so.
It has been strange, then, to witness the rise of a certain sub-culture that seems to place massive importance on the genitals they happen to have been born with. It’s almost a “philosophy of well-being”; a bizarre, toxic, deeply disturbing philosophy, but a “philosophy” nonetheless.
According to this narrative, all our problems would be solved if men would just be “real men.” That’s right: think of all the cliché, Neanderthal gender stereotypes you’ve ever heard of, and apparently that is what it is to be a “real man.” However, the narrative goes, “real men” have been in decline in recent generations, relentlessly attacked by the insidious agendas of feminists, gay rights activists, and now transgender people.
Because although “real men” are super hard, tough “alpha males,” and are “winners,” they are also victims, and are losing. And although feminists, gay and trans people are “soft snowflakes,” and “losers,” they are also somehow oppressors, and are winning.
The narrative doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t need to. All it needs to do is appeal to the deep emotional insecurities of a certain subset of men with fragile masculinity, and that is enough to override all logic and reason.
They’ve always been there, of course. They used to be the norm, in a time when gender stereotypes were not seen as “gender stereotypes” at all but simply as “the way things are.” And yes, a lot of good work has gone into battling this toxic mentality into the margins of society where it rightly belongs.
What we’re seeing now is just the backlash against progress, the desperate last stand of those who can’t let go, to the extent that they mistake the loss of privilege for persecution. Why? Maybe I’m not qualified to diagnose the pathology of the insecure man-child, but as a man who has experienced first-hand the pressures of toxic masculinity growing up, I think I can hazard a guess.
Maybe you’re a young male with the common anxieties and insecurities of the young. Maybe you’re unsure of your place in the world. Maybe you feel a distinct lack of status in society. Maybe you’re awkward around women. Perhaps there’s legitimate economic anxiety; precarious employment, low pay, the rising cost of living, etc.
Whatever the underlying insecurity, it makes you feel distinctly unlike the role models of masculinity showcased to you in action films: cool, calm, collected, in control of both yourself and your environment. Undefeatable. Every scene of Jason Statham beating up multiple bad guys at once, of Pierce Brosnan calmly outsmarting all his enemies, of both having their pick of the ladies, seems to mock you with your inferiority as a man.
You’re torn between the reality that you are not like such men (because nobody is) and your desperate need to convince yourself that you actually are. The only way to prove to yourself that you are is to assert your masculinity, and the only way to do that is to draw a sharp line between what is a “real man” and what is not.
And the mere existence of feminists, gay and trans people blurs this line. The moment a feminist critiques gender stereotypes as the Patriarchy-serving nonsense they undoubtedly are, the minute a gay man speaks in voice that sounds anything less than straight, the instant a lesbian woman cuts her hair short – in short, the moment they make their presence in the world so much as known – you are “triggered” because they are threatening your fragile illusions about who you are.
And so you enlist in the “gender police,” issuing mockery or threats against anyone who defies your narrow definitions of “real man” and “real woman.” You become a walking oddball of irony, thinking you’re “tough” while seeing the lifestyles of others – which don’t actually affect you in the slightest – as some sort of existential threat. You even start to project your own fragility onto people, condemning others – without the faintest sense of self-awareness – for being “easily triggered snowflakes” with a “victim complex” if they do so much as politely ask you to stop being such an asshole.
Somehow, you even convince yourself that this self-delusion, projection, other-blaming and insecure need to control others is “strength.” After all, all the other men-children on the internet tell you that this is strength. Couple this with the sexist tendency to treat the words “masculinity” and “strength” almost as synonyms, and this toddler-tantrum behaviour becomes what it is to be a “real man.”
Clearly, we need some alternative vision of what “strength” really is.
When I think of “strength” I don’t think of James Bond or Bruce Lee. I don’t think of muscle-bound heart-throbs who get all the ladies.
I think of Master Yoda.
Yes, I think of the small, old, physically unimpressive being who incidentally seems to have one hell of a grip on himself and his own ego. When referred to as “a great warrior” he just laughs and says, “Wars not make one great.”
In addressing fear, Yoda teaches us that “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” And fear, of course, was the beginning of Anakin Skywalker’s path to “the dark side,” his evolution into the ominous and barely-human figure of Darth Vader.
Yoda could almost be addressing the insecure man-child directly, for at the bottom of all the toxic masculine rage is a deep-seated fear. Fear of inadequacy, fear of not measuring up, fear of the loss of power and privilege as formerly oppressed groups gain some level of acceptance and equality in our society.
And fear leads to the need to control everyone and everything around you.
Yoda’s strength is so powerful because it’s a form of inner strength. It isn’t based on muscles, brute force, or being “a real man.” It’s based on wisdom, on character building. In fact, this kind of strength can be summarised by the advice he gives to (and is ignored by) Anakin: “You must learn to let go of all that you fear to lose.”
This line is based on an old idea, found in both East and West. The Buddhists call it “non-attachment.” The Stoics call it “indifference.” While both words are readily misunderstood as developing an attitude of not caring about anything, or about getting rid of everything, that’s not what they mean.
What they mean is the cultivation of a particular attitude towards the world; an attitude of being so strong and secure in yourself that you no longer crave for, nor cling to, anything. An attitude where, no matter what happens in the world around you, you are ok.
Don’t worry, you can keep your relationships, your possessions, and so forth; there’s no need to go full monk. You just don’t need to be a desperate, needy, clingy individual who lives in a persistent state of anxiety about losing them. In other words, you don’t need to let go of things themselves in order let go of your attachment to those things.
Different traditions have different ways of cultivating this attitude. The Buddhist approach, of course, emphasises mindfulness-based meditation, where you focus on an anchor like the breath, the body or the senses to ground you in the present moment, so that you naturally become non-attached to the rise and fall of thoughts and emotions.
Stoicism gives a philosophical approach, telling you to focus on what you control (yourself) and to let go of what you don’t control (other people). Yes, focus on making yourself a better person, not on trying to tell others how to live their lives.
Either way, when you let go of attachment, you let go of fear. When you let go of fear, you become strong in all the ways that truly matter.
Suddenly, you don’t need the praise of others to feel good about yourself. The very idea of wanting your ego to be stroked becomes laughable, petty, ludicrous. And why on earth would you allow yourself to feel threatened by things like, say, women’s equality, or the sexual orientations or gender identities of others?
Rise above your needy, desperate, insecure nonsense. You’re better than this.
a better human
As you may have noticed, there’s nothing exclusively “masculine” about this definition of strength. After all, to say that any character trait is “masculine” is to deny that trait to women, and of course that is ridiculous.
The woman, the homosexual, the transgender or non-binary person who exhibits the kind of inner strength and non-attachment I outlined above are all infinitely “tougher” than the whining, self-proclaimed “alpha male” throwing toxic tantrums all over the internet. They’re certainly nicer to be around.
Cultivating this kind of strength is not about being a better “man.” It’s certainly not about being a better “alpha male.” My God, get over yourself.
It’s about being a better human.