Toxic masculinities: The demon in the soul of artistic men
Men in the arts are no less capable than other men of violence, their tendency to be highly sensitive people notwithstanding. Why are we surprised when they are accused?
Filmmaker Khalo Matabane, creator of the television series When We Were Black and Mandela: The Myth and Me, and Dominican-American author Junot Díaz grew in notoriety in recent weeks. They joined the public list of men in the arts the world has accused, some tried and convicted, of sexual and other violence, mostly against women.
The addition of Matabane and Díaz to this fast-growing list cuts against the popular notion that artists are introspective, highly sensitive beings.
Artists, psychologists such as Scott Barry Kaufman have argued, are more open to feeling and responding to the world around them, the beautiful and grotesque alike. In his co-authored book, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Kaufman argues that this is true even of those who might, as part of their artistry, project an image of being hard, brash and outlandish.
Matabane and Díaz in their bodies of work do indeed demonstrate progressive politics and sensitivity — fragility, even. Their demeanour is also not “macho”, wrongly thought to be the sole indicator of a predilection to violence.
Consequently, revelations of their atrocious acts against women have come as a shock to many.
But, according to Kopano Ratele, professor, researcher on violence and author of Liberating Masculinities, sensitivity and a heightened capacity for introspection are not enough to cause any man to face the violence they inflict on others, nor what they’ve likely experienced personally but repress.
“Only a different kind of introspection about the kind of man you are, the kind of man you have been made to be, the kind of man you want to be — not about art that you do — can bring men to face this violence,” Ratele says.
He says that people, perhaps creative-minded people more so, have an incredible capacity to build walls in their minds around otherwise incongruent ideas and actions. This allows them to function with no apparent cognitive dissonance. This is how men like Matabane and Díaz could present a progressive public image yet be violent in their private lives, he suggests.
Matabane and Díaz have joined the list of men alleged to be violent in the arts which includes kwaito star and West Ink Records founder Mandla “Mampintsha” Maphumulo and Mark Coetzee, who resigned as chief curator of Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art. City Press reported that Coetzee resigned during a meeting of the museum’s trustees after being confronted with evidence staff had gathered of his sexually inappropriate and abusive behaviour.
Maphumulo, for his part, stands accused of domestic violence against Bongekile Simelane, who is signed to West Ink as musician and performer Babes Wodumo, the “Queen of Gqom”. In a controversial interview with Simelane on Metro FM, Maphumulo is said to have broken the performer’s leg during one of the assaults. He posted a statement and a rambling video on Facebook the day after the interview, in which he said he was no saint and conceded the veracity of some of the claims — made by host Masechaba Ndlovu, who seemed to have ambushed Simelane with the accusations live on air.
In an interview with Ndlovu last Tuesday, Maphumulo was evasive and seemed to retract his concessions. Alarmingly, he seemed to lay claim to Simelane, as if she were property.
Also on the list are painter and photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa, serving an 18-year sentence for murdering Nokuphila Kumalo. There’s also fugitive Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, and Bill Cosby, convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault. Both were expelled by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which continues to nominate and award Oscars to Woody Allen, accused of sexually abusing his adopted daughter Dylan.
Film producer Harvey Weinstein is also on the list. It was the accusations against him that triggered Hollywood actors to adopt the #MeToo movement, started by activist Tarana Burke. The movement has spread to countries such as France, Sweden, India and South Africa — and women have come forward to say they, too, were subjected to violence, sexual and otherwise, at the hands of a man, a specific man. In most instances, multiple women have come forward, suggesting that the behaviour could be part of these men’s way of being.
There is also kwaito artist Sipho “Brickz” Ndlovu, a convicted rapist who still lands gigs after his release on bail pending the outcome of his appeal. And playwright and former drama lecturer Tsepo wa Mamatu was dismissed by a disciplinary committee at the University of Witwatersrand on sexual harassment charges. Similarly, filmmaker Sipho Mpongo was charged and found guilty by the University of Cape Town of “sexual harassment, sexual assault and interfering with the complainant”.
There’s a bevy of others who’ve been accused but denied the claims, including Swedish photographer Jean-Claude Arnault, Hollywood executive Adam Venit, rapper Nas (Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones), former Ruth First fellow and arts journalist Lwandile Fikeni, musician R Kelly, Kenyan columnist Tony Mochama and kwaito producer Arthur Mafokate.
In his upcoming book Born to Kwaito, writer Sihle Mthembu is scathing of Mafokate, whom he describes as “kwaito’s most hideous man”. Mthembu argues that the hit-maker, currently on trial for assaulting Cici Twala, his former girlfriend, is undeserving of the title “King of Kwaito”.
“Not simply because he is not the genre’s foremost innovator (that title could go to an Mdu or Spikiri), but because he represents a toxic masculinity and a co-opting of the very notion of artistic autonomy, placing him at odds with the aspirations of black excellence and joy that are at the core of the music’s roots,” Mthembu writes.
He also expresses distress that Mafokate still has a place in our culture.
Despite being the accused in an ongoing domestic violence trial, Mafokate was among the local celebrities allowed on to the pitch to meet players as Mamelodi Sundowns squared off in the Mandela Centenary Cup against Spanish football club FC Barcelona. He has not been asked to step down nor been suspended, pending the outcome of his criminal trial, as a board member of the South African Music Rights Association.
Based on Ratele’s framing, it is the toxic masculinities Mthembu says Mafokate represents that allow the music producer the support and freedoms he continues to enjoy.
“Masculinity, at a minimum, operates at two levels. It operates as something that is corporeal. It is incorporated on to the body, in the choice of clothing, the way you sit, the way you carry yourself,” Ratele says.
These choices communicate and are understood by society as masculine and defining of the person who embodies them as a man, he says. This is the more dominant understanding of masculinities, he adds.
The other interconnected but, according to Ratele, poorly understood level at which masculinities operate are as ideologies. He says they organise our lives and how we relate and engage with each other.
“Masculinities are both, on the one hand, performance to societal expectations and, on the other, ideologies — bundled sets of beliefs created over time and taught to everyone from one generation to the next,” he says.
These are taught and reinforced not just by children’s primary caregivers, who in South Africa are mostly women, but also by everyone they encounter and through mechanisms societies use to transmit and enforce cultures and norms, Ratele adds. He identifies the poor understanding of masculinities as ideologies as the underlying reason that gender-based violence continues without a coherent, decisive response from the state or society — or the artistic community.
The case of Wa Mamatu illustrates this and parallels that of Díaz.
In 2014, after gender activists successfully campaigned to have a play by Wa Mamatu removed from the lineup of the Cape Town Fringe Festival, the now-defunct African Arts Institute (Afai) organised a panel discussion about the decision. It had been a year since the playwright had been fired by Wits. The title of the panel discussion was incendiary, some at the time said violent: Withdrawal of Play by “Sexual Harassment” Playwright from the Cape Town Fringe Festival: Justified Action or Continued Persecution?
Wa Mamatu was initially scheduled as a panellist but removed after gender activists lobbied Afai. They also excoriated the institution, saying it had focused the discussion on reintegrating an unapologetic perpetrator when no support of the kind had been offered to his victims, who were also members of the arts community. Tellingly, Wa Mamatu apologised for the first time publicly in a post on Facebook hours before the panel discussion was scheduled to start. “I apologise to everyone who was hurt and disappointed by my lack of judgment.” He apologised to the students, the university, his community, family and “every woman for failing them”.
Playwright Mike van Graan, Afai director at the time, said the intention was to convene a platform for a discussion that was happening in private and on social media. He says that the fact that some of the more vocal gender activists on the issue were white women, such as Melanie Judge and Michelle Solomon, seemed to be emboldening claims that Wa Mamatu was being targeted because he was black — hence the word “persecution” in the title of the topic.
At the discussion, a black woman in the audience argued such claims ignore that many of Wa Mamatu’s victims were black. Their needs and voices were neither being heard nor sought in the discussion, she said. She suggested that it was morally bankrupt to defend a perpetrator with arguments that he is a victim of white supremacy without recognising that his victims are also victims of the same systemic racism.
Van Graan says that, after the panel discussion, Afai produced a discussion document on whether or how to reintegrate people accused of serious offences back into the industry, and a code of conduct to guide institutions on dealing with serious offences.
“Conduct considered unacceptable or inappropriate includes violence and harassment of anyone on the basis of colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, disability, culture, language, ethnicity, age or any other prohibited ground of discrimination recognised in South African law,” the document reads.
Van Graan says it was published for public comment and distributed to playhouses and other arts institutions whose responsibility it was to decide whether they could or would include the recommendations in their policies and protocols.
In a similar vein, a group of Latinx (a gender-neutral term) scholars wrote an open letter in May accusing the media of mistreating Díaz after Zinzi Clemmons, author of What We Lose, publicly confronted him about the day he forcibly kissed her. Other women have come forward with similar accusations of sexual harassment and misogyny, including Díaz’s former partner, Shreerekha Subramanian. Writing in The New York Times, Linda Martín Alcoff, a signatory to the open letter and author of Rape and Resistance, argued that such conversations should focus on “a future in which repentant sexists might have a place”.
Alcoff also suggested that greater understanding should be extended to men like Díaz, who are not only themselves victims of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of men and other systemic violence but also make important contributions to anti-racist, and sometimes anti-sexist, liberatory movements.
“While individuals can never be absolved of responsibility by blaming structural conditions, those conditions do create opportunities, excuses, even training in the ways of domination, and these have to be radically transformed,” she wrote.
Alcoff did not acknowledge that Clemmons had not only rejected Díaz’s apology, issued through his publicist, as “a soup of unintelligibility” but also added that she knew of others to whom the Pulitzer prize-winner had done much worse.
Ratele finds the case of Díaz illuminating because it underlines the point that violent men can be and often are both perpetrator and victim. He says it also illustrates that societies such as South Africa that are founded on patriarchy produce masculinities that are toxic to all who live in it, including men. He cites the statistic that men in this country are overwhelmingly the victims of murder and interpersonal violence — at the hands of other men.
“The artist is a person in a body,” Ratele says.
When that body exists in a society that socialises male-bodied people into toxic masculinities, an act that itself is violent, the likely outcome is that the man that person becomes will perpetrate violence against others. In this way, artistic cisgender men are no different from other cisgender men in their society, he explains.
Mthetho Tshemese, a clinical psychologist whose alter-ego ‘cousin’ iNdlobongela is a musician, takes it further. He points the finger at himself and other men who espouse progressive gender politics as among the most dangerous to women, because of the apathy it can breed. “Being a 40-year-old black man in South Africa means a constant daily struggle and navigating my own masculinity. The kind of a man I aspire to be requires constantly checking my self because the norm is to be violent,” he says.
He agrees with Robert Morell, who has researched and written exclusively on masculinities. Both Tshemese and Morell say that South Africa’s ordering of race, class and sexuality refracts the social power of men of different racial classifications, socioeconomic standing and sexual orientation. They also exclude poor black men in particular from the mental healthcare that might help individuals to understand their place and role in upholding patriarchy and toxic masculinities. This is over and above the stigma that comes with therapy and the pervasive belief that “real” men don’t need therapy, Tshemese adds.
However, having conducted both individual and group psychotherapy, he is adamant that working on the individual is only one part of the equation. The other is to dismantle patriarchy as men are made to unlearn toxic masculinities and remain vigilant about sliding back into the violent norm.
Tshemese seems to echo Alcoff. But he refuses to see them as antagonistic or, as Alcoff put it, “easy binaries”. For Tshemese, the systemic and structural violence he faces as a black man is not a countervailing force that absolves himself and other men from acting on their personal agency to do the hard work, the constant daily struggle of not being what he describes colourfully as “violent fucks”.
Ratele is on the same page. He accuses the country of not having a national plan to end femicide and that recent responses by the likes of Police Minister Bheki Cele demonstrate a poor understanding of the underlying causes of gender-based violence. A co-host with Koketso Sachane of CapeTalk Dads, a show about fathers and fatherhood, Ratele thinks the arts could make a powerful contribution to the work needed to dismantle patriarchy and give rise to nontoxic masculinities. He credits Sachane for using the art of radio to convene a space in which men can talk about their experiences as parents and perhaps learn how to avoid passing legacies of violence on to their children.
I sought only cisgender men as interviewees for this article. We are generally silent on, or defensive about, toxic masculinities. This has left womxn, trans and nonbinary people largely on their own to do the tiring intellectual and emotional labour of responding to and ending the violence of men.