February 20, 2020

"Non-toxic masculinity."

There's a phrase.

I saw it on the front page of The New Yorker.




Inside, the article is titled "What Charles Portis Taught Us."* Charles Portis —who died this week at the age of 86 — was the author of the book "True Grit."
Portis’s diffident, modestly gallant characters were a world away from the marital bonfires and priapisms of other male writers of his crop—Roth, Updike, Yates. His male heroes practiced a masculinity that by the standards of the day was uniquely (and unfashionably) nontoxic. It’s hard to imagine the bafflement with which Portnoy or Angstrom would have confronted a guy like Jimmy Burns, from “Gringos,” who tries to persuade two young women to move into his hotel with a come-on like this: “The doorknobs are porcelain with many fine hairline cracks. The towels are rough-dried in the sun. Very stiff and invigorating after a bath.”

“Only a mean person won’t enjoy it” is something a critic once wrote about “True Grit.” In part, I love Portis because I feel less mean when I read him. It’s not just that his novels are gentle and funny; it’s that Portis’s books have a way of conscripting the reader into their governing virtues—punctuality, automotive maintenance, straight talk, emotional continence. Puny virtues, as Portis himself once put it, yet it is a great and comforting gift (in these days especially) to offer readers escape into a place where such virtues reign....
I didn't like the phrase "non-toxic masculinity" when I saw it in the headline, but in the context of this essay, it's fine. It's explained and specific. Out of context, I don't like the way it implies that masculinity is bad and in need of toning down or that we only want men who make sure they are innocuous.
_______________________

* Is that supposed to make us think of the passage from "Alice in Wonderland"?
"Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.

"We called him Tortoise because he taught us," said the Mock Turtle angrily: "really you are very dull!”
I think rhymes should be edited out of writing unless the writer has some sort of porpoise.

65 comments:

tcrosse said...

That's Merv Gryphon.

Sebastian said...

"who tries to persuade two young women to move into his hotel with a come-on like this"

I think Portnoy and Angstrom might have been willing to learn, realizing that for certain ba--, I mean ch--, I mean women the come-ons have to be suitably nontoxic, flattering even, if only to their self-regard. Jimmy Burns, PUA avant la lettre.

Ficta said...

Charles Portis is fantastic. Funny, carefully constructed prose. Off kilter characters and plots. Everybody's heard of True Grit, but Portis is not nearly as well known as he should be. And if you liked the TV show Lodge 49, go read Masters of Atlantis right now.

rehajm said...

All I can think of is the art supplies in second grade. Paste. Magic markers...

J. Farmer said...

First, Wells Tower is an amazing name. Second, even he cannot escape the toxicity of his genitals or his skin pigmentation.

The Portland publisher Tin House holds a summer writer's workshop each year at Reed College. In 2016, a black writer named Kiese Laymon delivered an harangue because, you guessed it, there weren't more writers there that looked like him. In response, the publisher attentively "diversified its teaching staff and took measures to ensure that a broader range of writers would be able to come to the workshop." All good, right? Well, not so fast:

Flash forward to two weeks ago and the 2018 Tin House summer workshop.

Initially, Laymon and Wortham [black NYT Magazine podcaster] both say they were delighted to see the changes in teaching staff and attendees. Wortham, in the podcast, talks about a vibrant range of writers and teachers, “much weirder and blacker and more interesting than I’d ever seen it before.”

But toward the end of the week, a reading by Wells Tower, a white writer from North Carolina, brought the group to a standstill.

He was reading a passage from a 2010 essay first published in Harper’s magazine.

“He starts reading this story about this … mentally-unwell man who’s a deep misogynist, an abuser, has been abused, living beyond the edges of society,” Wortham told her podcast audience. “And he’s reading it in this … very Hunter-S.-Thompson-inspired, William-Burroughs [way] … And Wells, via this character, is saying some pretty heinous, misogynistic stuff.”

Several people, Wortham reported, left the event right away.

The director of the workshop, Lance Cleland, said he spoke with some faculty members shortly after the reading, and agreed that both the story selection and presentation were unacceptable.

“I took Wells aside after the reading,” Cleland told OPB. “It was a good idea to bring in other faculty members as peers.”

After discussing what to do, Cleland said the group concluded, “It was a public reading, so it should be a public apology.”

Tower’s publicist did not reply to OPB requests for comment.

Tower addressed the entire group the next morning, apologizing to the entire Tin House community.

In “Still Processing,” Wortham explained her own feelings:

“It’s not that he shouldn’t have written what he wrote … but in a way that glorified this character’s ideology, in a space full of all these brown and black people, all these queer people — many of whom it was their very first time at Tin House,” she said. “It really felt like we’d taken all these steps into the future … and in that moment we were yanked back, not only 10 years, but 50 years.”


-Tin House Gathering Erupts Over Wells Tower Reading

robother said...

Portis' male characters perfectly capture something I was trying to explain last night to my wife about the difference between the male cultures of the South and the West I grew up in Montana and encountered in Texas, and the Wall Street male culture I encountered in NYC (roughly corresponding to Portnoy and Rabbit's culture.)

The Wall Street male culture that Bloomberg came of age in, especially the trading desks, had none of the formal chivalrous attitude toward women that I was raised in. Of course, the 60s feminists were critical of both traditions, indeed seemed to favor the open sexuality of Portnoy as somehow more liberating.

JaimeRoberto said...

I like my masculinity the way I like my liquor, strong and toxic.

Nonapod said...

I too somewhat agree with the sentiments of the article but greatly dislike the "toxic masculinity".

There are certain words and phrases that serve as markers of so called intersectional adherents. Words like "toxic" and "problematic". The appearence of these words immediately let the reader know what they're potentially in for. If a word such as that appears in a headline or a hyperlink I probably won't read whatever its connected to.

J. Farmer said...

@robother:

Portis' male characters perfectly capture something I was trying to explain last night to my wife about the difference between the male cultures of the South and the West I grew up in Montana and encountered in Texas, and the Wall Street male culture I encountered in NYC

That is an interesting observation. Wall Street guys in 1960s New York would have mostly been WASPs descended from East Anglia and the Netherland and Jews. The south and the west, however, were mostly settled by people descended from the South of England or the borderlands. I suspect that such cultural differences at least partially explain the phenomenon.

Fernandistein said...

Best of Formula Offroad Extreme Hill Climb!

J. Farmer said...

@Nonapod:

There are certain words and phrases that serve a markers of so called intersectional adherents. Words like "toxic" and "problematic".

So true. The second-to-last paragraph from the article I linked to says: "Tower has taught at Tin House twice before, and Cleland called him 'a valued member of the Tin House community.' But, he added, of the 10-year-old essay, 'there’s some problematic stuff in there.'"

mockturtle said...

That is an interesting observation. Wall Street guys in 1960s New York would have mostly been WASPs descended from East Anglia and the Netherland and Jews. The south and the west, however, were mostly settled by people descended from the South of England or the borderlands. I suspect that such cultural differences at least partially explain the phenomenon.

Not necessarily, Farmer, as many East Anglians who came to New England in the 1600s [like most of my ancestors] explored and settled in the west later on.

Ken B said...

True Grit is a great book. I have read most of the books that perennially make the best western novel lists. The two best, which usually top the lists, really are Lonesome Dove and True Grit.

traditionalguy said...

Non-toxic men are like non alcoholic beer. Some women cannot hold their men and have to go on the wagon. Toxic is in the eye of the beholder.

Clyde said...

Old joke (I think I read it in a Bennett Cerf book ages ago): A scientist researching longevity found a way to keep dolphins alive indefinitely: Feed them seagulls. One day, he was taking the daily ration of seagulls to feed his test subjects when he noticed that an ancient toothless lion, which had escaped from the circus, had wandered into his yard and was sleeping on the sidewalk between him and the pool. He pondered this risky situation and decided to try just walking down the sidewalk and leaping over the sleeping lion. But when he did so, the police swooped in and arrested him.

The charge? Transporting gulls across a staid lion for immortal porpoises.

(Yes, a quintuple pun.)

mockturtle said...

My husband could say 'talk' and 'torque' and they sounded identical to me, although he insisted they did not.

traditionalguy said...

Lonesome Dove is the Texas state book.

J. Farmer said...

@mockturtle:

Not necessarily, Farmer, as many East Anglians who came to New England in the 1600s [like most of my ancestors] explored and settled in the west later on.

Hence I said "mostly" and not "entirely."

Ann Althouse said...

"All I can think of is the art supplies in second grade. Paste. Magic markers..."

Yeah, I had a similar experience. I thought: crayons.

J. Farmer said...

Clyde:

The charge? Transporting gulls across a staid lion for immortal porpoises.

I've heard versions of that joke but all with much longer setups.

Ann Althouse said...

If you're not a child, you can work with toxic materials, and it's an advantage, for example, for art supplies.

JPS said...

mockturtle, that is beautiful. Reminds me of the professor who told us that until he was twelve he thought ion and iron were the same word.

Ann Althouse said...

"Reminds me of the professor who told us that until he was twelve he thought ion and iron were the same word."

Was he from New Jersey?

Roughcoat said...

In Chicago the guys on the trading floor were mostly Irish kids from the South Side, specifically the Beverly and Mt. Greenwood neighborhoods. Which meant that they were predominantly County Mayo Irish -- Irish immigrants to Chicago were predominantly (but not exclusively, of course) from Mayo, after the Famine and into the early 20th century. Working on the floor was what go-getter ambitious Irish kids without a college education did to rise in the middle class and higher. You could get rich at it with nothing but a HS education. The really ambitious ones found a way to go to college became lawyers. The rest became cops, tradesmen ... and cops.

Roughcoat said...

Was he from New Jersey?

Sounds to me like Southie or Town Irish.

JPS said...

Prof. Althouse:

Greater Boston area, actually.

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

Beau-toxic femininity
Salubrious masculinity

Marc said...

"Tin House has work to do and is listening."

The story has in fact not been updated. I remember buying Tin House in print, probably in the decade before 2010. Wells is reported to have said, "I like morally ambiguous characters who have certain low impulses that get in the way of their loftier ones"-- and we all know that no moral ambiguity can be allowed in the world of the Woke.

I tried to find Own Goal online; am not going to pay $24 for access to Harper's archive, however. Who knew homeless soccer was a thing?

Wells Tower is a perfect The New Yorker name, indeed.

n.n said...

It's the same failed apology and argument as that put forth for "cisgender". There is masculinity and femininity. There is masculinisnm and feminism (i.e. chauvinism). There is gender (i.e. masculine and feminine) and the transgender spectrum ("Rainbow").

rcocean said...

Portis was a typical liberal goofball in the 1960s and he refused to sell the film rights to "True Grit" to John wayne. He was upset when the Producers - who bought the film rights - then hired Wayne for the lead. If you read the book, its supposed to be a satire on a all the rough/tough Westerns since a little girl beats them all.

Of course, it didn't turn out the way Portis intended.

exiledonmainstreet, green-eyed devil said...

Ann Althouse said...
"Reminds me of the professor who told us that until he was twelve he thought ion and iron were the same word."

Was he from New Jersey?

2/20/20, 3:36 PM

A guy from Philly once mocked me because I pronounced "merry" and "Mary" the same way.

Tomcc said...

Can we use "boxic masculinity" for Mr. Bloomberg?

Ken B said...

Farmer
Have you read David Hackett Fischer's book, Albion's Seed? On just that topic.

Howard said...

When the walls are crashing down, that non-toxic shit won't save your ass, but it is safe for daily use.

J. Farmer said...

@Ken B:

Farmer
Have you read David Hackett Fischer's book, Albion's Seed? On just that topic.


Certainly. It's where I got the notion from the in the first place. It was one of many books that pushed me towards my current political trajectory.

Iman said...

What would anyone associated with the New Yorker know about masculinity?

Scott said...

Non-toxic masculinity huh. Was he top or bottom? I bet bottom.

J. Farmer said...

Non-toxic masculinity huh. Was he top or bottom? I bet bottom.

And the straight obsession with gay ass sex continues unabated.

Scott said...

I'm gay.

Jeff Gee said...

"Masters of Atlantis" and "Dog of the South" are laugh-out-loud funny

J. Farmer said...

I'm gay.

Top or bottom?

Brown Hornet said...

So "nontoxic" is a necessary modifier for "masculinity". The same way "pleasant" would be a necessary modifier for "New Yorker". Got it.

mockturtle said...

I read Albion's Seed about ten years ago and found it fascinating, although it seemed to embrace a sociological perspective, which always over-categorizes and stereotypes groups of people.

Shouting Thomas said...

I wish you’d move on from this sexual identity politics bullshit, prof.

Be a leader. Dump this crap. It’s tiresome and it’s been beaten to death.

Howard said...

Farmer and Scott are getting Thomas uncomfortably hot

bagoh20 said...

If masculinity was actually toxic, I'd be akin to typhoid Mary. I've known a lot of women who just gobbled it up like chocolates providing me a lifetime of enjoyment, and so far, no fatalities.

bagoh20 said...

How about "non-hysterical femininity"? Nah, that's not a thing.

If you ever watch YouTube videos in the popular genre "public freakouts", it's amazing how high the percentage of them are women, and how unstoppable they are. Many get away with it only becuase nobody generally gets violent with women even when they are begging for it, so it just goes on and on. Men could never get that far without settling it quickly and decisively.

wholelottasplainin' said...

No woman on this planet would exist for more than a two-three weeks unless males had built for her a world where she can rely on for enough to safely eat and drink, to live in comfort protected against the elements, to power lights and appliances she needs, to get medical care based on sciences and not folk wisdom, and to travel wherever her heart desires.


And they know it. Rational feminists like Camille Paglia have said so, which enrages the feminazis.

So they thrust impotent Fists of Fury heavenwards to curse the Doers, the Competent, the Brave....the Toxic Male.

J. Farmer said...

@mockturtle:

I read Albion's Seed about ten years ago and found it fascinating, although it seemed to embrace a sociological perspective, which always over-categorizes and stereotypes groups of people.

Is it possible to describe groups of people without categorizing and stereotyping?

Shouting Thomas said...

Drinking again, Howard?

Look, we’re all waiting for you to finally come out of the closet.

Might even alleviate your drinking problem a bit.

mockturtle said...

Is it possible to describe groups of people without categorizing and stereotyping?

I don't think 'groups' of people can be accurately described at all.

mockturtle said...

Wholelottasplainin' asserts: No woman on this planet would exist for more than a two-three weeks unless males had built for her a world where she can rely on for enough to safely eat and drink, to live in comfort protected against the elements, to power lights and appliances she needs, to get medical care based on sciences and not folk wisdom, and to travel wherever her heart desires.

Maybe most modern women but to say 'no woman on this planet' is an exaggeration. And I think that the female of most species is every bit as able to survive as the male--and with many species, is more so.

mockturtle said...

But I agree that men are the builders, the designers and the inventors and I have complete admiration and appreciation for their skills. They are the makers of civilization--and also the destroyers thereof.

Nichevo said...

J. Farmer said...
Non-toxic masculinity huh. Was he top or bottom? I bet bottom.

And the straight obsession with gay ass sex continues unabated.

2/20/20, 5:53 PM
Scott said...
I'm gay.

2/20/20, 5:54 PM
Jeff Gee said...
"Masters of Atlantis" and "Dog of the South" are laugh-out-loud funny

2/20/20, 6:02 PM
J. Farmer said...
I'm gay.

Top or bottom?

2/20/20, 6:16 PM


As little as I crave his society, this conversation is not viable in the absence of Titus.

J. Farmer said...

mockturtle:

I don't think 'groups' of people can be accurately described at all.

A few minutes later...

But I agree that men are the builders, the designers and the inventors and I have complete admiration and appreciation for their skills. They are the makers of civilization--and also the destroyers thereof.

Uh huh.

mockturtle said...

Men aren't a 'group' of people. They are a gender.

J. Farmer said...

Men aren't a 'group' of people. They are a gender.

What, precisely, is your definition of "group?"

Quaestor said...

On the subject of puns, tortoise for taught us hardly works in Received English today. American English pronounces the word as Tor-tuss with the embedded first-person plural pronoun quite apparent, which is mostly identical to the British pronunciation before the insidious posh versions of common English words took hold in the interval between the War for Independence and the ascension of Queen Victoria. Today's BBC newsreader is required to pronounce tortoise as tor-toys with near-equal stress.

Charles Dodgson, being a born a Cheshire man with a scouse brogue yet untainted with toffiness, probably called that shelled reptile a "tortuss", thus the pun.

mockturtle said...

What, precisely, is your definition of "group?"

People with shared interests could constitute a 'group', e.g., the PTA, BSA and Chamber of Commerce. Note that I do not consider anthropological tribes, races or classes as 'groups'. YMMV.

J. Farmer said...

People with shared interests could constitute a 'group', e.g., the PTA, BSA and Chamber of Commerce. Note that I do not consider anthropological tribes, races or classes as 'groups'. YMMV.

Could constitute?

That requires an extremely tortured definition of the word group. How do you consider phrases like "social group," "peer group," or "ethnic group." Group, by its very definition, means people or things that are classed together.

Icepilot said...

What kind of accent would "tort-us" fit?

Quaestor said...

What kind of accent would "tort-us" fit?

Thin-skinned English as spoken by people on the constant look-out for lawsuit riches.

Tina Trent said...

Portnoy and Angstrom are not Wall Street types. Angstrom starts out following his father into the blue-collar world of manning a printing press, where delicate letters are placed manually in huge, dangerous machines. In real life Updike grew up in a lower-middle class home in a town with a modest economy. His father was a schoolteacher. Angstrom climbs the small social ladder of his semi-rural town, which he never leaves, to inherit his wife's father's car showroom, then loses the contract to sell Japanese cars.

The way Updike describes the freckles on a woman's face is more sensual than anything written in the English language.

Roth was a sick bastard who, Mailer-like, fancied himself an honorary minority for bagging and abusing shiksas, simultaneously insulting every side of the transaction except his own imagined triumphant genitals. Don't conflate the two.

Portnoy is a social justice commissioner in city government, by the way. Fitting.

Portis is a nice read, but quirky only goes so far.

mockturtle said...

How do you consider phrases like "social group," "peer group," or "ethnic group." Group, by its very definition, means people or things that are classed together.

Simple. I don't.

Deevs said...

Since headlines are typically used to draw the reader's attention, the inclusion of nontoxic in the article title does suggest that nontoxic masculinity is the exception rather than the rule.