White, male and angry: revenge of the nerds

Irish Tribes Today, part 4: Young Irish men police their own expressions of masculinity

 Rapidly-changing performances of the masculine self – from Conor McGregor (above)  to Donald Trump.

Rapidly-changing performances of the masculine self – from Conor McGregor (above) to Donald Trump.


A group of students and teachers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently got together to start a Men’s Project. It was “a six-week course open to 30 male-identifying undergraduate and graduate students that involves discussion around issues of masculinity in culture and practice,” according to feminist site Jezebel. It probably came as no surprise, then, that local Republican senator Steve Nass threw quite a hissy fit.

This is not Nass’s first run-in with the state university. In 2007, he proposed cutting funding for a sociology department centre because it was “too far to the left”. Last year, a course titled “The Problem of Whiteness” also came in for extreme criticism and threats.

“Our friends at UW-Madison, not happy enough with labeling ‘whiteness’ as a societal problem, now are attacking another social ill . . . Men and their masculinity,” wrote Nass in an email to his fellow Wisconsin lawmakers. The subject line of the email? “UW-Madison Declares War on Men and their Masculinity – Not a Joke.”

There are, it seems, certain things which are not to be questioned. “Women’s studies and feminism can keep exploring and discovering and trying to fight for their rights, but men are just men,” says Dr Deirdre Duffy, a lecturer in retail and fashion studies at DIT. “And it’s assumed that men are on top.”

Village voice

Duffy’s doctoral thesis explored the consumption and leisure practices of young men in Irish society, and her 2011 paper The Negotiation and Consumption of Mediated Masculinities in the Artistry of the Male Self, is a fascinating look at how young Irish men police each other in their performances of masculinity. Duffy puts forth the idea of the “village voice”, a subtle, unspoken set of rules that govern how we present ourselves in given contexts, how we think we are allowed to behave.

“That’s the power that’s dangerous, the power that we’re not even aware of, the power that we can’t even put our finger on to say, why can’t you wear a certain collar?” says Duffy. “Those subtleties are so minuscule but they are so definite, that you can’t step outside the grain, the norms of society. But there’s no rules. There’s no definitive guidebook that says this is how you live.”

While the “village voice” was once literally contained within villages, towns and cities, the internet has broken down many of those constraints. Now, rather than imitating just what we see around us, we can learn from rapidly changing performances of the masculine self anywhere in the world – from Conor McGregor to Donald Trump. We fall into communities we could not find “in real life”, and the consequences of this kind of socialisation can very difficult to predict.

“The explosion of hate speech and, in particular, of misogynist vitriol online is alarming and was not anticipated,” says Dr Debbie Ging, a senior lecturer in media studies at Dublin City University. “If anything it was expected that the internet would de-accentuate gender, so I think we are still very much grappling with this. Was the hate always there? Is it performative? To what extent does technology facilitate it?”

Ging began researching on-screen masculinity in the late 1990s, analysing the films which came out of the lad culture epitomised by the likes of Loaded magazine and the work of Guy Ritchie. What we’re talking about now, Ging says, is something quite different.

“I think that when this particular gender-political conjuncture migrated online, things rapidly degenerated into angry-mob mode. In this context of anonymity and profit-driven algorithms which aggregate and amplify the loudest and most extreme actors, affinity groups have become increasingly polarised. The result is that complex debate has increasingly been replaced by the rhetoric of war.”

Ging says that these online performances of masculinity “purport to be marginalised or subordinated,” but are instead “revelling in a pseudo-victimhood status” as they attempt to reclaim and redefine white male power and privilege. Willie Osterweil, in his essay What Was The Nerd?, has also highlighted this changing of the guard. Where lads (or jocks in the US) assumed an unquestioned, dominant patriarchy, Osterweil says that today’s most visible masculine narrative, mostly found online, is a development of the classic nerd. (Ging uses the word “geek”.) Most distressingly, despite its current elevation in mainstream culture, this “nerd” narrative comes with a revenge fantasy baked in.

“With comic-book franchises keeping Hollywood afloat and video games a $100 billion global industry whose major launches are cultural events, nerd culture is culture,” writes Osterweil. “But the nerd myth – outcast, bullied, oppressed and lonely – persists, nowhere more insistently than in the embittered hearts of the little Mussolinis defending nerd-dom.”

Osterweil links the nerds of websites such as 4Chan and Reddit with “crypto-populist fascist movements”. With right-wing propagandist Steve Bannon now ensconced in the White House as the new administration’s chief strategist, it’s easy to see why. “Crypto-populist” is an accurate term; they don’t represent most of the people who voted for Brexit or Trump, they’re not the much-analysed “white working class”, but they’re canny enough to piggy-back on those events and claim them as successes of their own. These toxic nerds are an amorphous but organised force in contemporary culture, disembodied but ever more effective in defining the issues of the day.

Tara Isabella Burton has written about some key elements of their approach, including trolling. For many on the “alt-right”, being correct or consistent is not an issue. They are simply interested in being heard. This makes “starting a conversation” about the “alt-right” not just pointless, but dangerous. By their own logic, they can’t lose.

“Attempts to analyse what their online posts really mean does nothing to defuse them; instead it reinforces their project by amplifying their signal,” writes Burton in her essay Apocalypse Whatever. “Shitposting [worthless negative online posing] can’t be refuted; it can only be repeated.”

Ging mentions the “rhetoric of war”, a rhetoric that elevates the avatar of the male soldier, full of courage and righteous anger in his protection of his property, and Burton details the pathetic reality of how this fantasy plays out. These battalions of trolls, frog-memes and failed pick-up artists have no skin in the game: flame wars – lenghty, back and forth online messages – are not real wars.

“This uncomfortable truth sits at the heart of the contemporary ultra-ironist’s disengagement and disembodiment: the suspicion that “real” masculinity, like the Wagnerian heroism of the past, demands that you actually die when your avatar does,” says Burton. “Without that risk, the performance of masculine heroism may never cease to feel like a performance.”

If there is a positive side to the current flare-up of these antipolitical trolls, it is to provide evidence that the battles fought by feminists and people of colour over the past century are not over. We might have same-sex couples in ads for car insurance and mortgages now, but there’s a lot more work to be done in unseating and disempowering traditional, conservative notions of what people – men and women – might be.

“Taboo lifting does not necessarily equate with shifts in material power,” says Ging. “So we need to be much more specific about what progressive actually means.”


Concluding part tomorrow: Effortfully cool – how the hipster has haunted modern culture

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