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Toxic masculinity, the sickness of society, and what the theater can do about it

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

On Sunday, a young white man who had been court-martialed and dishonorably discharged for spousal and child abuse donned tactical gear, grabbed his legally obtained Ruger AR-556 rifle, and murdered 26 men, women, and children in cold blood as they worshiped in their church in tiny South Texas community.  The president of the United States tweeted that the man was suffering from "mental health issues" (a diagnosis exclusively reserved for white males who act violently against society).

This fragile young man was suffering, all right, but not from mental health issues. He was suffering from toxic masculinity.  It's an epidemic in this country. His ego was so fragile, his sense of entitlement so enormous, his capacity for bearing a grudge so bottomless, his resources to manage his emotions so underdeveloped, that he lashed out. First, he lashed out at his wife and child, and when they were removed from his reach and he was forced to face the consequences of his actions, he lashed out at innocent people.


This is not an isolated incident; he is not an outlier.  This is the horribly logical outcome of the hellish stew of evil and misery imposed by patriarchy and consumerism, and our buy-ins to them.   Misogyny, racism, sexism, the active war on the middle class designed to make the rich richer and more powerful and everybody else into a serf class --- it's all tied together.

 There's an important question we need to ask ourselves, always ask ourselves, when presented with anything we are being sold, whether it's an item of clothing, a new car, a doctrine, a political agenda, a business plan. That question is, who benefits from this?

Who benefits from toxic masculinity, which is a byproduct of patriarchy? Men sure don't, though it may seem on the surface like they do. Sexism and misogyny are necessary to the patriarchy, because any power structure is built on some people having more than others; and the best way to do that is keep the weaker parties weak and dependent. Think about all that goes into keeping women "in their place": religious decrees (because who can fight with an all-powerful God, right?). An absurd emphasis on appearance, including unattainable beauty standards such as a specific body type and illusion of youth. An equally absurd set of standards in which women must be sexually attractive and available on demand to any random man, yet remain "pure"; and in which women are largely held accountable for microaggressions, harassment, and violence committed against them or else disbelieved. The list goes on and on, and people of color face a similar society-enforced list of contradictory and cruel standards and mores designed to keep them, too, "in their place".

But sexism goes both ways, and men pay a very high price for their privilege. Yes, the balance of power is on their side, and they get away with a lot of horrible stuff, but they do pay, especially decent men. They pay by having the enormous pressure and responsibility to be strong, physically and mentally; to be the providers, the leaders, the stoics, the winners.   And society sets up an impossible image of what that is supposed to look like --- as impossible to achieve as the perfect image it requires of women. Real men are supposed to make a lot of money, have nice cars, have sex with lots of beautiful women, attract "hot" wives. They're supposed to like sports and other designated "manly" pursuits. They're supposed to be ruthless in business. They're supposed to be good at whatever they do.


And when they are not inclined to those things, or not successful at them, society makes them suffer --- but they are not supposed to show their pain (stoicism, remember?). They often pay with their health, even with untimely death, when the stress adds up or stoicism keeps them from seeing a doctor when they should.

Some  men aren't strong enough to handle this abuse. Some men turn to substance abuse to self-medicate the pain away. Some men turn it outward and become rage-filled and abusive themselves. Some men beat their wives and children. Some men rape. Some men obtain guns and murder people.

Who benefits from the patriarchy? The answer is: anyone who monetizes it. Anyone who uses their power and profit not just to get ahead honestly themselves, but to keep others down. Anyone whose product inflicts pain and suffering on others. The NRA cloaks itself in patriotism; the Stars and Stripes in which it is swathed covers up hands drenched in the blood of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Sutherland Springs, and a thousand other avoidable shootings. They've done a great job of selling guns by keeping their adherents scared and angry and unwilling to consider alternate paths to safety. The same right wing government that blames those shootings on mentally unstable individuals or, in the case of people of color, on thuggism, cuts funding for education, programs that benefit the most underserved and needy among us, health services, and anything that would help the poor or the struggling middle class --- and who benefits? The politicians and the rich. Those in power. The media --- especially cheap and tawdry entertainment like gossip rags, so-called reality shows, heavily manipulated "competitions"; magazines, tv shows, and movies that present as reality an outrageously glamorous lifestyle and physical look that the average person has no hope of attaining; "news" programs that focus on the antics of celebrities and sensationalism over good, old-fashioned reporting --- all of these profit from distracting us, making us feel bad about who we are and what we have or don't have, and reinforcing harmful patriarchal stereotypes to do so. 

 And this brings me to the theater --- specifically to opera, which in its traditional form is rife with the diseases of the patriarchy. Women suffer greatly in opera, although they may be glorified for it. Women who act outside the norms assigned to them by the patriarchy are always punished, and almost always pay for it with their lives, in opera. And they are almost always depicted through the male gaze. Carmen, the independent Roma woman whose sexual appetite and casual attitude towards romance earns her a death by stabbing when she chooses, then rejects, the wrong man, is usually seen as an unsympathetic character, a temptress who has it coming. Meanwhile her murdering, abusive, temperamental stalker boyfriend Don Jose is viewed as a good man led astray by a bad woman. Turandot is an icy-hearted bitch with no regard for human life until Calaf (obsessed enough with a woman's looks to risk his life for her)  forces a kiss on her --- it couldn't be that he wants the throne and she wants her independence. Brunnhilde is punished by her father Wotan for acting independently (one could even say for being true to her hard-wiring and mission as Wish Maiden by granting the fervent desire he could not himself accomplish) with the loss of her power and independence, being left helpless and open to rape and forced marriage. Don't even get me started on Magic Flute or Cosi.


Anna Caterina Antonacci as Carmen and Andrew Richards as Don Jose in the Opera Comique's Carmen. Photo by Pierre Grosbois.

What does this have to do with the harm patriarchy inflicts on society? It romanticizes bad behavior and reinforces prejudicial tropes and stereotypes. A short time ago, I read a touching blog post in which a man explained why some men might not understand "no means no." I wish I'd bookmarked it; I can't remember where I found it. The writer referred to the movies of his childhood, specifically Star Wars, in which the heroic and sexy Han Solo forced attention on the beautiful  Princess Leia, who kept telling him "no" until he overcame her objections with physical force and she was swept off her feet. This was presented as romantic. This was presented as what women wanted deep down. 

This trope has been presented to us over and over and over again, literally for hundreds of years. Men must conquer, women will yield and admire them for it. 

It's sick.

So what do we, as interpreters of the great works, do? How do we  -- can we --- continue to perform these works, knowing the harm they do to society?

As performers we must carefully analyze the characters we will portray with special attention to how we can play against stereotypes. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is a world-class artist who regularly smashes character stereotypes with her sensitive interpretations. She is one of my artistic heros --- creating a Fricka who is sympathetic rather than the shrew she's often seen to be; a Katisha who manages to be cute and human despite being created as a trope of the old, ugly termangent with whom marriage is a fate (almost) worse than death; a sexy Carmen who isn't a size 2. She is famous in the business for refusing to allow her size to be an issue, and certainly will not allow any onstage jokes to be made about it. (As her cover in the aforementioned Mikado, I once witnessed her gently but firmly warn off a stage director who seemed to be headed in that direction. He hastened to assure her that wasn't his intention)!

09 Walkure cb 113
09 Walkure cb 113

Stephanie Blythe and Greer Grimsley as Fricka and Wotan in Seattle Opera's Die Walkuere. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Recently, I had the opportunity to play The Mother in Menotti's The Consul. At first glance, I did not like her very much. I found her to be on the whiny side, obsessed with her age and with death. Written by a middle-aged Italian man, I felt she represented his view of a worried, fussy, world-weary old nonna who has "seen too much blood, too much betrayal". That certainly is one way to play her, but with the guidance of our wonderful director, Gary Briggle, I found a more palatable version The Mother, which reflected her strength, wisdom, and power, and made her tragedy that much more palpable and real. As actors, we have options --- even if we aren't headlining at the Met. 

As stage directors, we have a responsibility to the composer and librettist, but also to our audiences. In the opera world, when we are frequently dealing with works written in previous eras, we often change small details to make them more palatable or comprehensible to modern audiences, who may not have the same frames of reference as those they were written to entertain. In America, at least, we also change racist libretti. Two common examples: 

In Mozart's The Magic Flute, the villain Monostatos (originally a black slave) stands over the sleeping heroine Pamina, who he will shortly attempt to rape, and sings:

"Und ich soll die Liebe meiden, Weil ein Schwarzer häßlich ist?" 

("And I must avoid love, Because a Black is ugly?")

and later, 

"Eine Weiße nahm mich ein, Weiss ist schön! Ich muß sie küssen ..." ("A White took possession of me, White is beautiful! I must kiss her...")

The former lyrics are almost always changed to avoid racist content, although the latter usually stand; and in singing translations the original lyric is completely ignored. 


Greg Fedderly as a creatively costumed and made up Monostatos in San Francisco Opera's Magic Flute. Photo by Cory Weaver.

In The Mikado, the Lord High Executioner (and town tailor) KoKo's most famous aria, "I Have a Little List", contains the n-word as part of a suggestion that certain women should be punished for their vanity by having their faces stained black with walnut juice. This, too, is always excised from performance.

 If we can make changes like these, to avoid obvious racism, we can also make changes to avoid other offensive content. We can make a concerted effort to cast a light on characters that are traditionally perceived in unflattering ways simply because that was the view society took at the time. 

As producers and administrators, we can encourage new works that show modern life realistically and address modern concerns of racism, sexism, homophobia, and "otherness". There are many, many worthy contemporary operas being commissioned and performed. We can encourage women composers and librettists and conductors and stage directors. We can educate our audiences. We can make our works available to the young and the underserved and defeat the vision of it as an elitist art form.

As audience members, we can actively encourage our local opera producers to give us casts that reflect a wide range of ethnicities, ages, body shapes and sizes. We can demand contemporary opera be added to the mix of traditional, and that traditional productions address offensive stereotypes. 

Our society is sick to the core, and it's not going to heal with more guns, more violence, more hate. It's not going to heal by buying more stuff or buying into the idea that we have to look a certain way or own certain things or drive a certain car or live in a certain neighborhood, and if we do, we're better than those who don't.  Right now, we are all behaving like frightened, abused dogs --- snapping and growling at each other, building up to a fight. Each of us has to learn how to gently, calmly, lovingly hold out a hand and bring each other back into love. And this is one of art's highest callings --- healing.  Creating, performing, and sharing art is an act of love and healing. We can use it to reach those who are hurting; we can use it to show young people that there are choices and dreams worth striving for beyond what they may see around them; we can use it to create dialogue and change in our society. 

 Grab a thread and start unraveling. Better yet, grab a needle and start building something better.