From Peterson to Incels: is there a generation of ‘lost boys’?

Saturday 2 November, 16:0017:15, Pit TheatreIdentity politics

At the beginning of 2019, Gillette launched a much-discussed advertising campaign aimed at challenging ‘toxic masculinity’ – a supposed set of norms and assumptions that encourage men to be violent, aggressive and discriminatory. While the advert was subject to a substantial backlash, it is symptomatic of a trend where charities, activists and politicians blame traditional ideas of masculinity for everything from rape culture to the financial crash of 2007/08.

But it is not just others who are endangered by toxic, traditional men. When actress Meryl Streep argued that she didn’t believe in the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ because women could also be pretty ‘toxic’, she was castigated for not understanding that toxic masculinity is harmful to men, too. Traditional masculine attributes like being ‘strong and silent’ are seen as a cause of high male suicide rates. In response, men are told they should be ‘more open to their feelings’, or ’discover their more vulnerable side’.

Some describe this as a ‘crisis of masculinity’, with its roots in the decline of the traditional male breadwinner role as women achieve equality in the workplace. In response, many men are actively questioning what their role should be in contemporary society. One popular answer has been provided by Jordan Peterson, whose best-selling book told men to ‘tidy their room’, take responsibility for their lives and recognise that they can expect no favours in the evolutionary rat race. Peterson has been attacked for supposedly wanting to turn back the clock and asserting precisely the problematic, toxic masculinity that feminists want to overturn.

Further outside the mainstream, men are turning to internet forums to search for guidance about how to be a man. Shy, awkward men look for advice on how to date, with some turning to supposedly expert ‘pick up’ artists who can advise on how to ‘hack’ the dating process. Fringe communities of men dissatisfied with women or feminism proliferate, from the ‘Men Going Their Own Way’, who disavow relationships with women altogether, to the ‘Incels’ (involuntary celibates) who seek comfort for their lack of sexual activity and blame women and society for the problem. The latter group has been the subject of repeated profiles (one recent story followed Incels seeking extreme plastic surgery to create more ‘masculine’ facial structures), especially after a man claiming membership of the group drove a van into a predominantly female crowd in Toronto in 2017, killing 10 people. This was seen by some as further proof of dangerous toxic masculinity.

Has the war on toxic masculinity merely breathed life into old-fashioned ideas about what it takes to be a man? Can we take such claims about a ‘war’ on ‘traditional masculinity’ at face value? Why are huge numbers of young men so eager to find role models through online celebrities – or drawn to alternative thinkers? Are we lacking sufficient male role models in Western society? On top of this, what would a ‘non-toxic’ masculinity look like and how, if at all, would it be distinctively masculine? Are we now witnessing the rise among certain men of the very thing they supposedly criticise: a victimised identity politics?