Rob Ford and Toxic Masculinity

by Steph Guthrie (@amirightfolks)

Violent temper. Refusal to admit wrongdoing. Penchant for expressing every feeling as anger. Penchant for expressing anger through physical intimidation. Homophobia and transphobia. Impulsive, risky behaviour with no consideration of potential consequences. Obsession with the competitive parts of politics (campaigning) and disdain for the collaborative parts. “Boys will be boys” brand excuses for egregious behaviour. Yup. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sure is winning at Toxic Masculinity Bingo.

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about Rob Ford’s embodiment of the socially-constructed norms that shape and constrain our culture’s understanding of what it means to Be A Man. I thought about it a lot after the Mayor violently confronted journalist Daniel Dale on the property adjacent to his home, fist cocked and charging at full speed.

I thought about it after reports quoted him calling Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau a homophobic slur. And when he asked if a transgender person was “a guy dressed up like a girl or a girl dressed up like a guy.” And when he made homophobic comments about who really contracts HIV/AIDS and whose life is really worth something at the end of the day.

I thought about it when he voted (on every occasion possible) to cut all kinds of community programs that help all kinds of children and youth, believing instead that personal support of a football program exclusively for boys was sufficient to help at-risk youth in Toronto. Boy-only football programs are great for boys who like football, but not all boys do – and there’s a whole lot of other kids out there who aren’t boys, besides.

I thought about it a lot when I launched my personal blog with a post about my suspicion that Rob Ford is a woman abuser – based on the consistent history of domestic calls to his home (including one charge that was later dropped) – which I later deleted because a handful of male non-libel lawyers said it left me vulnerable to libel suits.

But it was hard not to think about it extra-hard when a video surfaced of an inebriated Rob Ford ranting in disturbingly graphic terms about his desire to “first-degree murder” someone. He was blind with anger and the evidence poured out of his erratic movements and rhetorical violence. His explosive anger appeared to be a result of things a third party had said about him; in other words, he craved physical violence as a response to some ostensible verbal wrongdoing.

The nail in the coffin came later on when his mother sneered at a television reporter that she wouldn’t want her son, who clearly has a debilitating issue with substance abuse, “off in some rehab” – she’d prefer to focus on the size and shape of his body as the real problem. It hurt to watch. It was a painful reminder of how men are socialized to never show weakness or softness; how often a man caring for himself is perceived as unmanly, how men must be strong at all times. It said a lot about why he may have ended up in the sorry state he has.

There has been a lot of talk in Toronto this last week about enabling in the context of Rob Ford’s substance abuse, which is good, but the public writ large seems to enable his toxic masculinity. People who called Daniel Dale a wuss on Twitter for being afraid of a much-larger man approaching him violently? Enablers. People who said Ford’s “murder rant” was just the kind of murderously violent speech we all engage in when we’re a little angry? Enablers.

But then, when it comes to the replication of gender norms, most of us are enablers. Toxic masculinity is not “men being awful”; rather, it is people of all genders holding, performing and perpetuating rigid ideas of who we are allowed to be. Rob Ford, in particular, has spent a lifetime striving to perform what a Rich, Powerful White Man should be (a whole other level of toxicity beyond the merely masculine). His pursuit of idealized masculinity seems unmistakably modelled after that of his simultaneous bully and protector brother, who has often been framed by the media as “the smart one” and seems to have always been perceived as more competent, more likeable, more of A Man.

Articles imploring Rob Ford to step up to some ill-defined code of manhood do not help matters. It is not useful or accurate to frame honesty, accountability and “honour” as masculine traits, nor is it ever helpful to implore someone to “be a man.” Why not just “be a decent, trustworthy human being”? Why gender that? This kind of macho posturing only serves to validate idealized masculinity and reductive, binary understandings of how gender can and should influence identity.

Consider for a moment if a woman sharing Ford’s documented track record of physical aggression would ever have been elected Mayor of a major city. More likely she would have long ago been perceived as “unhinged” and cast out of the leadership pool in her chosen field. Yet we laud – or at least will grudgingly accept – this behaviour from a man, so much so that we elect him to a prime position of public trust. His impulsive expressions of anger are part of what endears him to so many as a ‘regular guy,’ one they could ‘have a few pops with.’ Boys will be boys, right?

If we want more gender diversity in politics, we need to understand that a) a good politician can come equipped with a wide variety of character traits, not all of them about cutthroat aggression and cold calculation, and b) there is immense diversity within genders and no trait is “naturally” masculine or feminine – we choose to understand and value traits in these binary ways, and if we want to, we can choose to change that.

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29 thoughts on “Rob Ford and Toxic Masculinity

  1. I’ve never come across the term “toxic masculinity” before now. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention, because a google peek reveals it’s fairly widely used. I just want to say, as a man reading that term for the first time, that my initial gut reaction was, “Who is this woman to tell me what aspects of my gender are toxic or not? If I were to write a column about toxic femininity I’d expect to be widely and justifiably called out.”

    I understand that the term is not meant to give offense, but to describe how aspects of the masculine gender role can be harmful to men. Useful and necessary analysis for sure! BUT, I want to suggest that the words themselves combine for a shitty choice in terminology that I would expect to get under the skin men who encounter it without the benefit of the nuanced definition. I would have expected feminist writers (in general–I’m not trying to pin this on you, Steph) to take more care in choosing their terminology.

    This obviously has nothing to do with Rob Ford, but I just wanted to share my personal experience as a man who believes in equality of the sexes, but is apparently not aware of common feminist terminology, reacting to the term “toxic masculinity” for the first time. Intentional or not, it sounds a lot like “men are toxic.”

    • I am female and I have no problem with the term “toxic femininity.” Indeed it seems like a feminist term: many of the ways women are taught to perform femininity are really damaging. I don’t see how this is a shitty choice of words at all. Masculinity and femininity — the socially prescribed ways we perform gender — have a lot of different varieties and some of them suck. Steph has explained very ably why some of the ideals of manhood Rob Ford is trying to live are bad for him and bad for the people around him.

      I also don’t see how two dudes on the Internet who admittedly don’t know much about this subject feel entitled to tell a woman who DOES know how she’s allowed to talk about it. Your immediate knee-jerk reaction is not equal to other people’s years of study and thought.

      • Yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on here. I’m the splainer — not the guy who talks at length out of his arse, acknowledging he’s talking out of his arse, but nonetheless expecting to be listened and catered to because he’s a man.

      • There are really two significant differences. 1: “Toxic femininity” has never actually been used as a term in feminist discourse (it is largely used by counter feminist culture to expose to sexism inherent in the “toxic masculinity” concept). 2: I don’t think you realize what’s actually being attributed to toxic masculinity, and so have made out, with your “many of the ways women are taught to perform femininity are really damaging” comes off more like an interviewer trying to turn a strength into a weakness, like “I care too much”. Would you be so willing to accept the term toxic femininity if things like racism (white women had no problems accusing black men of all sorts of things that got them hanged), hypergamy and a tendency towards prostituting oneself, and irrationality and histrionics were tacked onto femininity, and in doing so, attributed to women in general? Somehow, I think you might take more offence if that were the case.

      • ” Would you be so willing to accept the term toxic femininity if things like racism (white women had no problems accusing black men of all sorts of things that got them hanged), hypergamy and a tendency towards prostituting oneself, and irrationality and histrionics were tacked onto femininity”

        Your attempt to blame women exclusively for white Southern violence in the Jim Crow era marks you as an MRA, not a serious historian or a reader of serious historians, but the cult of white womanhood was and is real, and it absolutely does qualify as “toxic femininity.” Your other examples are ahistorical MRA nonsense.

        “and in doing so, attributed to women in general?”

        Using a term like “toxic femininity” doesn’t actually attribute those traits to women in general so no, I’m not offended by it.

      • “Your attempt to blame women exclusively for white Southern violence in the Jim Crow era marks you as an MRA, not a serious historian or a reader of serious historians, but the cult of white womanhood was and is real, and it absolutely does qualify as “toxic femininity.” Your other examples are ahistorical MRA nonsense.

        First of all, how is my presenting racism as inherently femininity any different from the “toxic masculinity” concept presenting homophobia as inherently masculine? You’ve demonstrated my point that you don’t object to the term toxic femininity because you aren’t subscribing hateful and inappropriate attributes to it, like is being done with masculinity. You are objections to the ascribing of incorrect and hateful traits to femininity, just as so many men object to the same being done with masculinity, and yet, you try to play me off as some kind of villain for demonstrating this point, as if being an MRA is some kind of evidence I can’t possibly have a valid point. But all you’ve done here is PROVEN my point, as I was never actually arguing those attributes are inherent to femininity, only that you wouldn’t be so willing to accept such a “toxic femininity” concept if such wrong and hateful attributes were attributed to it.

        Using a term like “toxic femininity” doesn’t actually attribute those traits to women in general so no, I’m not offended by it.

        Then you clearly aren’t as familiar with the usage of the term toxic masculinity as you pretend to be. Toxic masculinity is deemed to be normative masculine behaviors, attributed to “most” men, and how those concepts can be harmful when taken to an extreme. This means those attributes ARE being attributed to men (in general), albeit, not always in extreme and harmful forms.

      • You are attacking a straw feminist. Everyone else understood the inherent assumptions behind this post, which are that maleness and masculinity are different, and that there’s more than one way to be deemed masculine.

        But you’re an MRA, which means you have a vested interest in not understanding these points, because being an MRA requires blaming women and feminism for everything that goes wrong in men’s lives.

    • I think it’s the perfect term. It prodded you enough to look it up and you’ve learned something as a result, which is great!

      That being said, I am a guy and I am getting tired of other guys freaking out anytime they’re challenged on their own masculinity or the stereotypical ideas of masculinity in general.

      • So, you admit you’re a violent homophobe? Or are you saying you aren’t masculine? Or is it possible, that a lot of hostile, incorrect attributes are being attributed to masculinity? Feminism has been waging a war on men and masculinity for a long time, and the advent of the term “toxic masculinity” is simply another effort to control how men define themselves, but attempting to attribute negative attributes to being masculine in order to deter men from even wanting to be masculine. I find this offensive in the extreme. Homophobia is not an inherently masculine trait. In fact, it is women who have defined male homosexuality as a bad thing, just as the MGTOW movement is being treated in much the same manner. Men who are not useful to women, who are not open to serving women’s needs out of a desire to gain access to reproductive opportunities, are deemed, by women, less than men. Kind of sounds like homophobia is more a feminine trait to me. but that narrative doesn’t serve the feminist agenda, it doesn’t make men and masculinity out to be the villains.

      • to markxneil I am sorry what? Feminism hasn’t been waging war on men. You’re mistaken, sorry. You know who is waging war on men? OTHER MEN. I;m not being glib. I mean actual war. Like guys with guns aimed at other guys with guns. You know who sends those guys there? Other guys.

        Homophobia what? Why aren’t I masculine? Nah, it’s not controlling how men define themselves, it’s men taking control of how OTHER MEN have defined us.

        Again, homophobia what?

      • “Homophobia what?…”

        Did you not read the article? Or are you just playing stupid? If homophobia is an inherent trait of masculinity, as is posited in the original article (in the very first article), and you support that assertion, then you are ether admitting you are homophobic, or you aren’t masculine. And I think this attempt to attribute homophobia, as well as a number of rather hostile, hateful attributes, to masculinity, demonstrates the feminist attack on men and masculinity. Again, playing stupid won’t negate that.

      • I read the article many times thanks!

        My confusion, and hence the question, is how you’ve come to the conclusion that I am admitting that I am a homophobe, based on the fact that I believe toxic masculinity is a thing, since that is the comment you replied to, stating “so you admit you’re a violent homophobe?”

        I see that you’re trying to play fun games with semantics. This article is addressing Rob Ford and toxic aspects of masculinity specifically, not all aspects of masculinity.

        Apparently in you’re mind you’re either ALL MAN or you’re nothing.

      • My confusion, and hence the question, is how you’ve come to the conclusion that I am admitting that I am a homophobe, based on the fact that I believe toxic masculinity is a thing”

        If you believe homophobia is an aspect of masculinity (IE, inherent in the masculine) that is toxic, then you ether must be homophobic, or not masculine. I notice you are choosing not to acknowledge that ether or portion of my comment, in some attempt to garner outrage

        “I see that you’re trying to play fun games with semantics.”

        I see you are setting yourself up for ether a flounce or an outright dismissal of my argument. But there is no semantics on my part. Ether homophobia is an inherent attribute of masculinity that is deemed toxic (and as such, must be accepted as an inherent attribute of masculinity. Something I do not accept, but you appear to), or the concept of toxic masculinity, as it is being presented, is flawed. I’m simply trying to point that out, by pointing out your acceptance of toxic masculinity is an admission of homophobia, or an admission of not being masculine.

        “This article is addressing Rob Ford and toxic aspects of masculinity specifically, not all aspects of masculinity.

        Apparently in you’re mind you’re either ALL MAN or you’re nothing.”

        I’m also not talking about all aspects of masculinity, only one alleged aspect… homophobia. But an aspect of masculinity that is toxic is still a aspect of masculinity, so if you attribute homophobia as a toxic aspect of masculinity, then it is inherent to masculinity, and in saying so, you are saying to be masculine, to any degree, is to be homophobic.

        I think you are attempting to present toxic masculinity and masculinity as two separate entities, but that is not how the theory is presented. Masculinity is masculinity, and some aspect attributed to masculinity have been deemed toxic. That said, while I do agree some aspects of masculinity are harmful when taken to extremes, I do not accept homophobia being presented as inherently masculine. Homophobia actually serves women’s best interest, and does not benefit men in any way.

    • I’ve never heard of the term either. But I have pondered the ideas contained within. Whenever extreme violent acts happen, it is almost always men responsible. Wars, mutilation, torture. That should concern other men as too often, they are the victims.

      I’m not sure what a toxic feminist would be, but my guess is something like the women in pop culture who gain fame and fortune by depicting women in a way that encourages more violence and discrimination against them. Every magazine shows women as body parts not people, in infantile poses which are often accompanied by images of dominating men. It’s not empowering, it’s the opposite yet women line up to play a part. Both genders engage in self-destructive behaviors. We tend to tolerate the flaws of men more.

    • If you can’t tell the difference between pointing out the strain of masculinity that you can rightly call “toxic”, and making a generalization about all men, I think maybe some of the nuances in this discussion are going to go right by you.

  2. Reblogged this on intersectionelle and commented:
    “Consider for a moment if a woman sharing Ford’s documented track record of physical aggression would ever have been elected Mayor of a major city. More likely she would have long ago been perceived as “unhinged” and cast out of the leadership pool in her chosen field. Yet we laud – or at least will grudgingly accept – this behaviour from a man, so much so that we elect him to a prime position of public trust. His impulsive expressions of anger are part of what endears him to so many as a ‘regular guy,’ one they could ‘have a few pops with.’ Boys will be boys, right?

    If we want more gender diversity in politics, we need to understand that a) a good politician can come equipped with a wide variety of character traits, not all of them about cutthroat aggression and cold calculation, and b) there is immense diversity within genders and no trait is “naturally” masculine or feminine – we choose to understand and value traits in these binary ways, and if we want to, we can choose to change that.”

  3. The problem, as I see it anyway, is that you have an out of control animal in a high elected position who is anti female at best. He needs to be put in his place and voted or thrown out of office. I would never put up with an abusive bully who puts women and everyone down constantly and feels entitled to be that bully. How in the hell did you people ever elect him in the first place? The only thing I can think of is that he bullied his way into office with threats against each and every one of the voting public. He needs to be chastised for acting that way and I do believe he did abuse his wife and most likely his children, if he has any. The problem with that is that he threatened his wife, in my opinion having lived through this, with yet more violence and more horrible consequences if she continued to prosecute him instead of dropping the complaint against him. I have no doubt she is living in fear to this day. His mother is most likely an enabler who was bullied and abused by her husband, the mayor’s father.

    • Bang on, as only a person having lived through a similar nightmare can possibly know. Ditto from over here! (I rescued myself from that hell 16 months ago).

  4. Unfortunately some men engage in appalling behaviour and should be held accountable for it. Clearly his ‘bully behaviour’ has worked in the past and he has been rewarded with a continued rise up the ‘success’ tree. As a society, we should do everything in our power to ensure that people like Ford are named, shamed and removed from public office. He’s not a role model, he’s an embarrassment to his profession and his gender. Come on men, we can do better than that

    • Yup. It’s men, and only men, that act in appalling manners. After all, if women showed such appalling behaviour, then such behaviour couldn’t reasonably be attributed to masculinity, as in this article, and by your opening sentence. Or maybe you and the author are just being sexist?

  5. Well, look how much time and attention he got in this discussion by deliberate obfuscation. Clearly, a successful strategy for spotlight grabbing and topic hijacking. It is, after all, all about him, isn’t it?

  6. Interesting piece. I have never really thought of Rob Ford in terms of his own masculinity. I do have to admit I believe in certain traditional traits of “being a man” but most of them run entirely contrary to how the Mayor behaves. These traits are, however, now that I think about them, not inherently masculine (honesty, integrity, leadership, doing the right thing even when it is difficult, accepting responsibility for your actions, being decisive). And I realize I have greatly enjoyed the company of many females (friends, family, colleagues, romantic partners) who have some of these same traits, and it never made me think of them as “manly”.

    So there is that.

    However, gender-neutralizing all of society is not really a goal I support, ultimately. I kind of like being expected to open jars, kills spiders, and pull out a chair. I guess I’m complicit in that sense, but I really don’t see the harm in embracing these positive or at least (to my thinking) innocuous facets of masculinity as long as they aren’t counterbalanced by destructive or degrading expectations of women on the other side of the spectrum (domestic roles, etc). When we hear about the epidemic of “revenge porn” I actually think invoking to young males that this is an inherently unmanly thing to do, that it is effectively a contraction of masculinity, a theoretical forfeiture of manhood, is actually an easier sell than getting them to abandon all conception of gender identity altogether. So I don’t endorse throwing the baby out with the bathwater in this sense.

    Bottom line, though, the article did make me think about gender identity in a way I hadn’t before, even I don’t completely accept the thesis.

  7. Pingback: Rob Ford and Toxic Masculinity – Steph Guthrie

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