Locker rooms and Trump’s arena of masculinity

Among the many weird things about the Trump groping scandal is the defense of this vile banter as “locker-room speech”, by a man who avers that the closest thing he does to exercise is public speaking. But then, this is of a piece with his contention that he is a better military strategist than America’s generals. There’s nothing unusual about insecure plutocrats trying to associate themselves with conventional symbols of masculinity: buying sports teams, military medals, weapons, military-style vehicles. I imagine the dominance displays of business, being almost entirely verbal and symbolic, must leave a nagging hole of insecurity in the core of your average wealthy psychopath.

I am reminded of a book I read many years ago, The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality and the Meaning of Sex, about the role that sports play in the performance of masculinity in the US. It’s pretty far off my usual reading, but I picked it up off the new-book display at the Lamont Library at Harvard, and it was extremely helpful to me in trying to understand why people are so interested in sports (which had always mystified me), and why people are so interested in masculinity (ditto). Well, it didn’t get me very far. I mean, sociologists and psychologists like to talk about “fragile males”, constantly under threat because “masculinity” needs to be performed anew or it is lost, unlike femininity which (in this account) is an inherent quality. (Tell that to a mid-40s Hollywood actress…)

But the accounts I’ve read seem to beg the main question: Why does anyone care? Suppose I lose my masculinity through underperformance. What have I lost? “Who steals my manhood steals trash…” What am I missing? I understand how keeping up an appearance of strength can be crucial to keeping from being victimised in a warrior society, but that’s not where most of us live. (Well, not after primary school, which perhaps explains a lot…)

The most disturbing thing about this whole event is the number of men who are coming out to say, yeah, that’s normal male talk. My guess is that this is about 1/3 true, 1/3 projection by people who  don’t realise how depraved they themselves are, and 1/3 an example of how Trump, by motivating people to defend his dangerous and disturbing pathologies, is corrupting public morals. This isn’t a concept I usually think much of — what people usually call “corrupting” is really just letting people have what they already want, so that the corruption, if any, must have preceded the attraction. But there is something fatal about forcing people to defend something that they would otherwise find reprehensible. It’s cognitive dissonance: Once you’ve found yourself defending it, for whatever reason, you will convince yourself that it’s really not so bad.

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