Review – Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined by J J Bola

Mask Off offers a toolbox of explanations and arguments to question and challenge toxic masculinity, writes Huw Lemmey

May 14, 2020 · 8 min read

In May 2014 in California, a young college drop out from Santa Barbara City College, a local community college, killed his three male flatmates in a knife attack before releasing a 100,000-word manifesto and video blog from his parked car. He then undertook a shooting spree, killing three women and injuring 14 more, cruising around the scenic town that sits halfway between LA and San Francisco.

The shootings weren’t random. Driven by a toxic mix of misogyny, racism and sexual entitlement, the 22-year-old Rodgers saw himself as undertaking a form of retribution for everything he felt he was owed and had been denied by society. In his self-pitying, violent manifesto, released online, he wrote: ‘For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection, and sex and love to other men but never to me.’

While the level of violence Rodgers used might make him seem like an outlier, his ideology is drawn straight from a mainstream view of gender and masculinity that we see all around us, and that many would view as normal or natural. Rodgers felt like he had failed as a man and was weak; he regarded himself as unattractive to women, whom he viewed as malicious, shallow and greedy. Having never had sex, he felt he had been short-changed by women who didn’t provide him with the access to their bodies that he felt he deserved.

The answer to this fragile sense of self was clear: he could become an anti-hero through violence. It’s indicative of the wider ubiquity of this mindset that, tragically, he did become an anti-hero; at least two further perpetrators of anti-women mass shootings cited Rodgers as a hero and influence in their violence. It does not diminish Rodgers’ own responsibility for his hatred to acknowledge that he was also a product of a society that is itself deeply violent and misogynistic, and that traditional forms of masculinity are catastrophically damaging for everyone who encounters them. Indeed, for Rodgers and the incel (involuntary celibate) movement he was attached to, their problem is not ‘chad’ (alpha male) culture but their exclusion from its perceived rights and privileges, which they regard women as being complicit in.

Failing men too

In his new book Mask Off, JJ Bola attempts to outline how the gender roles men are raised by within Western society are failing not just women, but men too. Written primarily for young people, Bola uses the book to talk directly to those who are coming to terms with their position as men emerging into adult society, to acknowledge the challenges they might be facing, but also to demand they make themselves accountable for how they handle their masculinity – and tries to give them a set of tools to live well as men without it being at the expense of women. Central to Mask Off’s thesis is the idea that toxic masculinity doesn’t just harm the women who suffer at the hands of violent, misogynistic men, but also harms the men themselves.

That might be a hard sell when we live in a country where four in five violent crimes are committed by men, where, in the year prior to March 2017, 1.2 million women were victims of domestic violence, and where women are still paid less and experience higher unemployment than men. Often, and especially online, when women try to describe and discuss their experience of patriarchy, they receive a hostile and sometimes violent and misogynistic response from men. Responses like ‘what about the men?’ or ‘not all men!’ are frequently used by men as bad faith attempts to silence women, disguised as concern for men.

A book like Mask Off, however, should be welcomed in such an atmosphere as a sincere attempt at getting men to talk with each other about their experiences of patriarchy and masculinity. If patriarchy is to be dismantled, at least half the work must come from men interrogating their positions, changing their attitudes and holding each other to account. Bola lays out a handful of areas where young men can start.

The book is broken down into chapters covering everything from the myths of masculinity to the way current masculine norms play out in sport, in pornography, on social media and in politics. In describing the problems current masculine models produce for young men Bola adds depth by contrasting hard data with first-person accounts, both from himself and from a number of first-hand testimonies sprinkled throughout the book. This helps give the book a more equivocal approach, although that could have been built on. Too often there are assumptions that certain experiences of male behaviour, especially within groups, are universal, and doesn’t give enough room to acknowledge that huge numbers of young men already find the dominant portrayal of masculinity deeply alienating from a young age, even in the aspects that are supposed to confer status and power.

Intersecting oppressions

Some of that is tackled in a chapter on masculinity and intersectionality, a concept coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw that addresses how experiences of oppression differ in, and are compounded by, the way different aspects of oppression intersect. That’s a valuable conceptual tool to offer readers, especially young men who might not feel like they’re top of the tree, especially if they experience discrimination based upon their race or class.

There is an unspoken set of questions running beneath the whole book, namely: ‘Are men just as much a victim of patriarchal society as women or queer people? Are some men worse off under patriarchy?’ There is no doubt men do suffer under patriarchy, but, rather than offering men’s problems as a disingenuous response to women’s oppression, Mask Off, at its best, approaches the problem intersectionally, acknowledging how interlinked the problems are.

Men suffer disproportionately in some areas; they are more likely to kill themselves, become drug addicts, become homeless, or be incarcerated. But some of those reasons are interlinked with the reasons that women suffer disproportionately from abuse; violence and toughness are prioritised as ideal male qualities over discussion or seeking help. In one striking passage, Bola demonstrates that even the methods of male suicide are distinguished from female suicide by their violence, with men being more likely to die by firearm or hanging than women.

Reading the book is sometimes frustrating. Too often, over-simplistic or obvious readings, such as the fact that most dictators have been men, are reiterated over and over, or anecdotal accounts of everyday life are used with the implication that the reader comes from the same background – some of us aren’t, and never were, young heterosexual men struggling with the poisoned privilege of ascending to dominance in straight male social groups, for example. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that this is probably the audience the book does need to address, and it does that admirably.

In keeping with its aim to address a younger readership, Mask Off is written from the position of someone who knows what it’s like to be bang in the middle of a toxic form of masculinity, raised on it, struggling with its effects and trying to think and act his way out of it. It is laudable for its frankness, acknowledging both the privileges that the author gained from upholding that masculine culture, but also discussing the shame and trauma such a process involved.

That’s important for the book to function; it’s a text written for boys and young men, and so coming at the topic from a position in the belly of the beast will surely mitigate some of the feelings that discussing masculinity is a lecture or a telling off, rather than, and perhaps this is the wrong term, a man-to-man discussion. Nonetheless, this is a book that should be in the library of every secondary school in the country. It offers a toolbox of explanations and arguments for any young person beginning to encounter, question and challenge the standard, thoughtless patriarchal truisms and norms they meet on a daily basis.

Huw Lemmey is author of Red Tory and Chubz and co-host of the Bad Gays podcast. This review was originally published in our Winter 2019 issue. Subscribe here

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