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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Women explaining politics to each other

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Jennie Worden holds up some ideas we generated

Last night was a perfect example of how passion, ingenuity, and a sense of humour can turn a frustrating incident into something constructive.

On Sunday, Mayor Rob Ford made some (I expect) very well-intended but clumsy comments offering to “explain how politics works” to interested women in Toronto. Many women in my Twitter feed seemed outraged in that kind of bemused, exhausted way. We needed an outlet.

On Monday, we penned an open letter to the Mayor to take him up on his offer and organize a WiTOpoli event about running for office at which the Mayor could be keynote. On the same day, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam did us one better and organized an event for the #WiTOpoli community (i.e. any woman interested in Toronto municipal politics). She cheekily called it the “Explain How Politics Works to Women” Coffee Party, and framed it as a collaborative opportunity for women to discuss the representation/inclusion of women in politics amongst themselves, with the input and support of a councillor. A portion of the proceeds from food and drink sales will go to Fife House, a supportive housing organization for people living with HIV/AIDS. Naturally, we were enthusiastic.

Last night over coffee and beer, we shared our experiences engaging with politics and politicians, our perceptions of the unique challenges women might face breaking into the field, and what kinds of changes we could effect on a micro or macro scale. I met a bunch of whip-smart people for the first time, including firebrand activist Susan Gapka (who I’ve admired from afar for some time and was thrilled to finally meet). The room was filled with other women whose names I expect will become familiar to you in the future as they shape the political landscape in Toronto.

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Siva Vijenthira and Susan Gapka – new friends!

New friend Arianne Matte circulated sheets of flipchart paper with ideas about how to break down some of the barriers for women who might otherwise run for office. Other attendees jotted down their thoughts on post-its until every sheet was covered with them. I chatted at length with one attendee about the logistics and challenges of deputing before Toronto Council committees. I chatted at length with another about her plans to run for office in the near future. Read more in Robyn Doolittle’s Toronto Star article about the evening.

It was hard not to be inspired and energized by the ideas, connections and ambition that emerged from what began for many of us as a negative experience. From mayoral lemons, a truly delicious lemonade.

Steph Guthrie is co-founder of Women in Toronto Politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @amirightfolks.

Open Letter to Mayor Rob Ford

Yesterday on his radio show, Mayor Rob Ford lamented the dearth of women in politics, and offered to make himself available to the women of Toronto to explain to us how politics work. It was an offer Women in Toronto Politics couldn’t refuse, so we issued an open invitation for Mayor Ford to speak at an upcoming WiTOpoli event at his convenience.