Another week in South Africa and another slew of reports pointing to the toxic masculinity that resides in our society set me thinking about how men can be imprisoned by their own machismo.
The 2016 movie masterpiece Moonlight, provides a powerful demonstration of this. Throughout the movie we witness the destructive consequences of a young boy desperately trying to embody idealised forms of manhood that prove corrosive.
The protagonist, Chiron, begins the film as a sensitive, insecure and easily frightened black child submerged in a hostile environment — 1980s Miami at the height of America’s crack epidemic. Vital to the story is his homosexuality amid a culture often unashamedly repulsed by queerness.
By the third act of the film, however, the once scrawny and softly spoken boy, brutally bullied for being effeminate, has undergone a transformation. Now known as “Black” the drug dealer, Chiron’s new-found stoicism is unsettling; his body is burly and buff and his demeanour purposefully threatening.
In order to survive, Chiron has repressed his true self. Although his new persona acts as a shield, it is also a prison. With the stifling of his desires, came the numbing of his capacities for self-expression and feeling. Ultimately Chiron denied himself the ability to love and be loved.
In the film’s climax, the torment and tragedy he endured is revealed. With eyes full of fear and aching, his voice deadpan, Chiron confesses to his childhood crush: “You’re the only man that’s ever touched me.” This confession is a yearning — not for sex — but for the deep human connection that has been denied him his entire adult life.
His story resonates because it is both intimate and universal. I know a lot of Chirons. And I’m not just referring to those on the down low. Like many men and young boys across the country, he was a victim of a project of power: patriarchy. This may seem a contradiction — how could a man suffer at the hands of their own power and privilege? But, systems of domination degrade the humanity of both the oppressed and oppressor. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave are gruesome illustrations of this point.
Both films are set during the era of American slavery and while the portrayals of the antebellum south are stylistically divergent, the two films show how slavery created a codified system of cruelty that infected everyone. The slavers in these movies commit disgusting acts of brutality.
Yet my hatred for these characters was also infused with a hopeless pity as I wondered how terrible it must be to have your dignity so debased and your morality so impoverished that you could bring yourself to enact such barbarities. In the frantic pursuit of masculinities of the worst kind, men gain power over others and it comes at a price to their victims and themselves.
“If you can’t love anybody, you are dangerous. You have no way of learning humility and no way of learning that other people suffer,” said writer and activist James Baldwin.
The capacity for men to love is often eroded by the perverse pressure patriarchy exerts on our minds. Next to the terror unleashed upon women and children, unloving men are the worst outcomes of toxic masculinity.
Entire industries have distorted the meaning of love — romantic comedies, billboard hits and advertising campaigns — all in the name of consumption. Love is not just a feeling. It isn’t a vessel to be passively fallen into. It isn’t an event of inexplicable fate. It isn’t a spell which captures the heart. Love is the longing and earnest attempt to create and maintain a profound human connection.
Therefore it is an activity and, according to sociologist Erich Fromm, love can be mastered like an art. For Fromm love requires the poet’s passion, an athlete’s discipline, a nurse’s care and the patience of a priest. It is through love, be it romantic, platonic or familial, that we engage with the greatest aspects of the human experience.
The models of manhood glorified by patriarchy, however, call on us to reject the better angels of our nature. Worse, they are not grounded in the reality of being human and so we end up trying to drag fantasies into a world in which they don’t belong.
This clash between authentic human needs and the fantasies of male domination creates explosive consequences.
You could accuse me of overstating the problem, but evidence has captured the severity of this situation: relative to women, men are four times more likely to commit suicide. We abuse more drugs and feed our souls copious amounts of alcohol. It is us who are mostly responsible for the levels of violence in this country, so widespread and soaked into the fabric of our society, that brutality has become banal in South Africa.
These are symptoms of anguish, rooted in material conditions and social dysfunctions.
The perilous descent into the male prison often begins with the demand for an almost inhuman toughness among boys. It’s often carved into their minds from a young age. Pain is to be endured in proud silence and one’s ability to endure suffering, without a plea for help or sympathy, is evidence of one’s manhood.
The heart must learn to harden against any onslaught of emotions. To be weak is to be vulnerable and those who are vulnerable are to be controlled, conquered and corralled. Men — as providers and protectors — are not to be dominated.
Pressure for superhuman toughness is not to be confused with resilience. All children should learn resilience, as the ability to cope with crises. The toughness asked of boys and young men, however, usually leads to emotional paralysis or a mind petrified by seeming vulnerable, resulting in adults who can’t properly feel emotions or who are afraid to do so, and are therefore incapable of love. This dooms them to the worst kinds of loneliness — and makes them capable of the worst kinds of brutality.
This demand for toughness is historic, emanating from the imperatives of the powerful. Men must be tough because humans are rendered into tools by projects of power.
In high school I was always confused by the ever-stewing aggression of my elderly, white male teachers. Theirs was anger like a cocked gun, thinly concealed by that intense politeness so common among Englishmen in KwaZulu-Natal. But their aggression wasn’t a quality generally shared by their female counterparts.
Part of the mystery was solved upon learning that an entire generation of white men had been conscripted into military service for an authoritarian regime. In the service of the military project, many had become truculent.
Hyper-aggressive Zulu men are a cultural stereotype reflected in reality and fiction. Brutus Khoza, a character in the telenovela The Queen, is an exaggerated portrait of a Zulu man: overbearing, shamelessly sexist, easy to anger, inseparable from his booze and with an affinity for violence. Although Themba Ndaba’s macho character is entertaining, it glosses over a darker reality.
With the release of last year’s annual crime statistics, KwaZulu-Natal was again labelled the “rape capital” of the country. It is sadly unsurprising that the prevalence of violent machismo will explode into rampant cruelty.
Zulu masculinity as we know it today was largely forged by the imperatives of war and conquest. It remains a warrior’s culture. And although the Zulu Kingdom has become a symbolic institution rather than a political entity, the ways of thinking established by King Shaka Zulu’s reign remain.
A part of those patterns of thinking was an embrace of aggression by men towards each other but also towards women.
Fromm argues that love requires one to overcome narcissism. This means being able to see, understand and take seriously the world beyond one’s narrow perspective. Displacing yourself as the centre of the universe allows you to see life through lenses that aren’t your own.
Through such displacement, the needs, desires, fears, opinions and aspirations of others become not only real but relevant and deserving of your respect. It’s arduous for most to summon the nerve to debase the dignity of someone they respect. Love can have its messy complications, but none of its tribulations justify abuse or violence.
Patriarchy arouses men’s narcissism by blurring our perception of women. People who can’t be seen for their humanity cannot be respected, let alone genuinely loved. If men are raised to see women as fundamentally different or in some regards inferior and, worse, as objects to be owned, then possessive attachment or infatuation can be confused for love and both distortions can justify violence.Throughout these reflections, the fervent pleas in Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness lingered in my mind. This soulful classic is a plea from the King of Soul to men to abandon our male pride and coarse gender roles. It is a call for men to submit to a loved one, embrace tenderness alongside the vulnerability that comes with it and be enriched by love. It is this practising of tenderness, intertwined with systemic change, which can transform South African masculinities.