When people talk about masculinity, it normally goes one of two ways. Either the discussion descends into feminism-bashing, bemoaning the decline of the ‘traditional’ male role model and the mythical time when men were men and women knew their bloody place; or they begin and end with a deconstruction of this notion, pointing out that this traditional masculinity has never really existed, and telling us that we need to talk about masculinity but not really going any further than that.
We need to talk about masculinity in the same way that we talk about femininity: in many places, in many ways, through many articles, which discuss the huge variety of ways in which it has been constructed, how it manifests in newspapers and TV and film, how it serves to control and make miserable the lives of both men and women, and how it can be instrumentalised as a way of improving and enriching all of our lives.
We need to talk about what it can mean to be a man, rather than what it does mean to be a man. We need to carve out the characteristics which we believe good men should cultivate, without defining ourselves purely as not women, as not feminine, as not sissies, or pussies, or bitches. In short, we need to talk about masculinity without succumbing to misogyny.
So to start with, let’s talk about everything that’s wrong with masculinity today. Let’s talk about Dan Bilzerian.
Dan is the ‘King of Instagram’. He has over 7 million followers, gained through documenting a life of what on first sight appears to be nothing more than stupendous, pointless excess. A self-styled ‘asshole’, articles label him an ‘unbridled douchebag’, hating him so much that they compare him to Adolf Hitler, and it would be incredibly easy to dismiss him as an air-headed exemplar of everything that’s wrong with inherited privilege and leave it at that.
But let’s hold on for a moment. The guy has seven million followers on Instagram. He’s not regularly on TV or in films, he doesn’t have any fame except that which he’s garnered through his notoriety. He’s clearly got something, or doing something, which strikes a chord with people. The simple answer is that he’s rich, and people like to think about what it would be like to be rich. They like to live vicariously through the rich and reckless.
Dan’s appeal goes further than that, though. He embodies an ideal of masculinity which only a few men are capable of achieving. He leads a life as a man in possession of ‘hegemonic masculinity’.
When we think about masculinity today, we think of aggressive, competitive, sexually and socially promiscuous, financially successful men - usually white, straight men - who live lives of equal parts luxury, adventure and risk. Not every man can achieve this. Some men by definition cannot. The hegemonic masculinity that Dan embodies cannot exist without other, ‘subordinated’ masculinities - the masculinities of black men, of working class men, of gay men - which are devalued and marginalised. Men are not a homogenous block - patriarchy can only sustain itself by upholding ideals which are glamourised and valorised but which are unattainable to all but a select few.
Dan Bilzerian takes this ideal and then straps a giant phallus to it before parading it around, all the while firing a rifle into the air and whooping like a gorilla.
Dan doesn’t conform to ‘traditional’ standards of masculinity which tend to involve fatherhood, marriage, children and steady labour. His masculinity is something altogether newer, and appears to have its roots in post-war action power fantasies like James Bond, Batman and the life of Hugh Hefner. The new hegemonic masculinity lies outside of the realm of the nuclear family, the steady job, the 2.3 children and the quiet social sophistication. The new hegemonic masculinity, in America and increasingly in the UK, revolves around a rugged, modernised conception of the primitive man, typified by violence and aggression, ostentatious displays of strength and virility, the subordination of women to the status of trophies whose only merits are embodied in their tits and ass, and loud, brash demonstrations of financial and social success.
So without further ado, a non-exhaustive list of the facets of toxic, hegemonic masculinity, as illustrated by Dan Bilzerian.
1. Divorcing sexual pleasure from intimacy. Many of Dan’s photos focus on women, and specifically their breasts. Heads are often cut off by the frame of the photo, turning these women into anonymised objects of desire. Dan also plays on the ‘men only want sex and women only want relationships’ trope, saying that all he really wants is to sleep with as many beautiful women as possible. His lifestyle change, of course, has everything to do with his beard, and nothing to do with his fame and wealth.
2. In hegemonic masculinity, promiscuity is lionised as a sign of strength and marriage is equated with entrapment. To really understand the silliness of this trope and the damage it causes, try inverting it: imagine if the only dick you had for the rest of your life was Dan Bilzerian. Not smart.
3. Men who cultivate and demonstrate hegemonic masculinity have to show their fearlessness - even recklessness - and their mastery over nature. Dan’s very first Instagram post is of an alligator he has presumably killed. From the beginning, he performs the role of the rugged, risk-taking macho man. Presumably in the prehistoric times he’s attempting to emulate, hunter-gatherers also used AK-47s to dispatch their prey. Brave.
4. Wealth and the ability to ‘provide’ are archetypal traits of masculinity, and some of the only values which have remained constant as part of the masculine repertoire over the course of history. Dan’s ostentatious displays are performative, illustrating how much of a man his money and his handguns and his expensive watches make him.
5. You would think that strength and aesthetic physicality would be constant traits of the masculine man, but the ‘ideal’ of the male body has changed significantly over the past half century. Male centrefolds in Playgirl, action heroes and even GI Joe dolls have become more and more muscular since the 1970s, with some of the ideals promoted being achievable only with the aid of steroids or other performance enhancing drugs.
6. Part of what makes Dan’s kind of masculinity ‘hegemonic’ is its juxtaposition with other, subordinated or devalued forms of masculinity. Here Dan makes subtle digs at his golf-playing, child-raising brother in order to demonstrate his superiority. His brother should be giving his son a Glock, not a golf club. Dan knows.
7. Thrill-seeking with a nihilistic disregard for the future is one of the hallmarks of men like Dan. This kind of trait is ubiquitous in film and TV, and perverts the idea of the selfless man who will take risks to help others, replacing it with a man who takes risks purely for the thrill. His license plate, I’m told, reads ‘SUCK IT’. Deducing the symbolism of this is left as an exercise to the reader.
8. Even Dan’s ‘symbol’, the image of his goat, which is sprayed on the tail of his private jet, is a symbol of virility and sexuality. In Ancient Greek mythology, the satyr was a half-man, half-goat beast, always portrayed with a prominently erect penis, Dionysiac creatures with a love of wine, women and physical pleasure - not unlike Dan.
9. Just as hegemonic masculinity relies on the subordination of other groups of men, so too does it depend on the denigration of women, particularly those who have achieved success or power. One day, people will fill their Facebook profiles with Dan Bilzerian quotes, for he is a true philosopher.
10. Women are portrayed as a drain on wealth and a liability, explaining in part why Dan, and men like him, are reticent to settle down with any single person.
11. Finally, Dan glamourises the capacity of wealthy people to achieve and obtain all of the things he has: to fuck more, and more beautiful, women, and have sex in a way that doesn’t necessitate attachment or intimacy. Let’s hope that one day, Dan finds the love he needs.
Before we can talk about what masculinity should be in the modern day, we have to understand everywhere we’re going wrong: all the ways in which our conception of the ideal man relies on the subjugation of other people of all genders, on the glorification of aggressive, reckless and callous traits, on the glamourisation of the kind of life which is all but unattainable for all but a lucky few. Before we can decide where we’re headed, we have to understand what’s wrong with where we are.
Ultimately, the hypermasculine ideal likely harms women more than it does men - after all, desirable masculinity is so often defined as simply being not feminine. However, we need to stop framing these issues as if it were a competition for who’s getting screwed over the most. Headlines like ‘Men are more objectified than women‘ and ‘Men hate their bodies as much as women do‘ don’t help anyone: they just serve to perpetuate the idea that gender relations are a zero-sum game which can only be ‘won’ by men or women.
In reality, the problems of gender intersect with the problems of class, and race, and sexuality, and disability, and all kinds of other factors we probably haven’t even considered. Our inability to tear ourselves away from the harmful, violent ideals we’ve built for ourselves over the course of the last century is only compounding the harm we do in playing off men against women for the crown of who has it worst.