To Colleen Clemens, an associate English professor and director of women’s and gender studies at Kutztown University, it wasn’t even a particularly hot take. Watching the mass shootings flash across the news with increasing frequency — there have been 316 so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive — she tweeted, “Toxic masculinity is killing everyone.”
Then, she experienced a dose of that toxic masculinity firsthand.
Her Twitter feed was so clogged with death threats, she shut it down. After she declined a request to appear on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, he ran the piece about her anyway. And an interview with the conservative Washington Free Beacon was picked up by websites like Daily Wire, which began its coverage this way: “Everyone knows that today’s institutions of higher learning are nothing more than bastions of liberality, where professors with socialist ideologies coddle precious snowflakes with safe zones lest they be triggered. But it’s even worse than we thought.”
Clemens spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News about the connection between gender constructs and mass violence, her experience with toxic Twitter, and what she believes we can do better.
What’s your research about and how does it connect to toxic masculinity?
I’ve always focused on women and how they move through the world. My original research was on how Islamic veiling is depicted in world literature. After that, I shifted my focus to ideas of nationalism and how they connect to gender. How are women’s bodies related to the ways we talk about the countries we live in? For example, the way we talked in the U.S. after 9/11 of having to free women of their burkas as a rationale for having to go to war in Afghanistan.
The funny thing is that the idea of toxic masculinity is basic gender theory. When I teach Introduction to Gender Studies, I talk about it for like a day. Nobody is really writing about it because it’s Gender 101.
What exactly is toxic masculinity?
Toxic masculinity is a gender construct that asks men to find agency or power in violence and strength, rather than softness, for example. It is not all masculinity and not all men, but if we look at the way we talk about boys — that boys will be boys when they maybe knock someone over in the playground, or if a boy snapped your bra in middle school that means he likes you — these little messages cue to boys that there are no consequences for enacting violence.
The connection to what we’re seeing—in October, seeing the month start with a shooter in Las Vegas, then having a young man mow people down in New York and then the month ending with a man walking into a church and shooting —is the pattern that toxic masculinity is a rigged game that sets men up for failure. Then, men feel powerless, and that vacuum of powerlessness is going to be filled by something. Among the choices they may make to assert their power are enacting a violent shooting, joining ISIS, enacting violence in the home.
It feels like after these shootings, the national conversation is “gun control,” “mental health,” and then the conversation stops. That conversation is not working; these mass shootings keep happening. So my point is: Is there another part of this conversation — not about the biology of men, but about something we have taught these boys as a culture?
What do you see as the solution?
The solutions are dismantling our notion that masculinity needs to be connected to some kind of power. My argument I make in my classes is that what can be done is to talk to our boys and about our boys in different ways. The disruption of this brand of masculinity needs to start really young and really early. And that change is already happening.
There have been many men who have written to me and thanked me and said, “I felt growing up that there was only one way to be a man — and I didn’t like having to perform this brand of masculinity.” So the things that can be done are thinking about how we raise our kids, and having conversations in the classroom and elsewhere. And that’s why I answered the phone and talked to the Washington Free Beacon, because it’s important to have honest conversations about what our gender means to us and what it meant to grow up feeling we had to be something we weren’t.
And that conversation led to you shutting down your Twitter account.
I deactivated it after the Tucker Carlson thing. I didn’t want to make myself accessible to a specific slice of folks who make it their mission to spread hatred.
It was just my week. If you write about feminism, that’s what happens. The story is really ordinary for women who dare to say things online.
There’s nothing interesting about what I said. But it played really easily into a narrative that is told about feminism. The greatest irony is that all the things that were written about me, telling me to kill myself, telling me they bought a gun “for” me, they’re just proving the point. They’re buying into the idea of this one path, this violent path that feels like it needs to police people for expressing anything that doesn’t agree with you.
How have the university and students responded?
My colleagues have been supportive. My university president called to make sure I was OK. I feel privileged to have the protection of tenure and a supportive administration.
For my students, it’s been a real teaching moment. A lot of them are on Twitter. That was the worst part of this. They were in disbelief, reading these tweets aloud before class started and hearing those terrible words in my students’ mouths was really painful. And, also, people on Twitter were writing about my students, calling them snowflakes and tender hearts. My students are some of the toughest people out there! You can say mean things about me, but once you start busting on my students, that’s when I really got angry.