Like many folks, I’ve been consuming a lot of media lately—from the fictitious but all too real series “Big Little Lies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” to the real, but seemingly fictitious news coverage of the current administration. And I’ve noticed a shared theme that crosses over from the fictionalized world to the real one: dangerous male fragility.
Frankly, I’m over it.
Male fragility—which goes hand in hand with another concept, called toxic masculinity—occurs when society sets up stereotypical ideals of what it means to be a man: men should be the sole providers, men are the ones who know what’s best for their partners, men need to be strong and macho, etc. Toxic masculinity is what happens when men try way too hard to live up to those ideals and end up on the extreme end of the spectrum, aggressive and maybe even violent. Male fragility, on the other hand, is the phenomenon of men feeling like they’ve failed to live up to these antiquated ideals—then they blame everyone else for their failures, both real and imagined.
While “Big Little Lies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” center on women’s experiences, they also share another plot element: the behavior of men who are scared of losing their perch.
In “Big Little Lies,” we see Perry as the most obvious example of this. He feels the need to have ultimate control in his life, his career, and his marriage. When his wife Celeste does something his disapproves of or when she pushes back against his controlling ways—effectively toppling over his carefully created version of masculinity—he lashes out violently, abusing her both physically and sexually. It’s easy to see Perry as the epitome of toxic masculinity and male fragility and the violent and tragic consequences that can cause.
But Perry isn’t alone. Pretty much every man in the series shows their male fragility (except Tom. Gotta love Tom). Adam Scott’s Ed seems like the nice guy next door, but the way he handles himself with his wife’s ex Nathan is crappy. Ed feels like he isn’t enough, isn’t the rugged man that Nathan is (despite Madeline making it very clear there’s no simmering feelings over her ex at all). Ed still feels his masculinity is at stake and physically threatens Nathan. And Nathan gets all puffed up over their confrontation as well.
Is nobody immune? In “Big Little Lies,” these men verge between scary and comic. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” however, takes these concepts to a frightening conclusion. With infertility on the rise causing panic, the men in power end up subjugating all women by force, categorizing them as Wives, servants (Marthas), incubators (Handmaids), or unwomen. I’m fairly certain that there had to have been other ways to handle the dwindling population crisis, yet the one method that was pushed above all—by the white men in charge and their gun toting posse—allowed men to feel strong and powerful and as if they were somehow fixing things by oppressing women and controlling their fertility.
Could there have been a way to save their society without enslaving women? Yes. The fact that it didn’t happen, however, shows how a society based on male power can easily be co-opted by extreme elements. A particularly galling example is the fact that infertility is never considered a male problem in Gilead–a clear case of overcompensation.
Speaking of overcompensation, we currently have a President who is the poster boy for white, male fragility. His inability to take any responsibility and place blame on everyone else is remarkable in its audacity. For instance, he is still tweeting about Hillary Clinton despite the fact that he obviously won the election. But he can’t let it go: in fact, he’s obsessed with talking about the size of his victory, even in inappropriate circumstances.
Speaking of tweets, the childish and churlish insults he lets fly on social media—from fellow politicians to world leaders—absolutely scream fragility. A confident person wouldn’t feel the need to go low with schoolyard insults and taunts. Trump and his supporters go on and on about “special snowflake syndrome” when it feels like they’re the poster-children for it, posting defensive tweets and mocking memes.
We’re living in a society where men are at a crossroads. Gender as a concept is being shaken up by many—and we are answering the question: what does it mean to be a man or a woman? And for many men, the idea that masculinity can be fluid and not conform to an outmoded idea, might seem scary. That fear ends up presenting as anger, resentment, violence and poor choices. But in fact, it can be liberating! Men should be able to explore failure and vulnerability without lashing out like monsters.