Nontoxic Masculinity


Sleater-Kinney in 1997. From left: Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, Corin Tucker

I consider myself lucky to have landed in Olympia, Washington in the fall of 1991, precisely when that city birthed, with the help of dozens of midwives, the riot grrrl movement. The moment I became aware of the existence of riot grrrls was a Melvins/Beat Happening show at the Northshore Surf Club. A cadre of young women dressed as what might be described as punk rock librarians stood at the front of the stage shimmying, occasionally elbowing the more aggressive moshers in the pit.

I believe I turned to my friend Ned and asked, “Who are those chicks?”

“Dude, those are riot grrrls.”

“Are they a band?”

“No, man, they’re a movement.”

The riot grrrls came along precisely when we needed them, right after the misogynist dry-humping of hair metal and during the testimony of Anita Hill. They were passionate, brilliant, creative women who said enough is enough and produced some of the best music of that era. I keep thinking of them in relation to our current cultural moment, this draining of the boil of toxic masculinity.

I worked in a great used bookstore in downtown Olympia after I graduated, Orca Books, where one of my favorite duties was to assess books for trade. I’d go through a customer’s box or bag of books and separate them into yes/no/maybe piles, then calculate an offer for cash or trade. One day Carrie Brownstein of local band Sleater-Kinney brought in a box. This would have been sometime between Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out.

As a bookseller, you infer a lot about customers from the books they bring in. I remember that Carrie’s books were in uniformly excellent condition, the sign of a true bibliophile, and that they were all hard, varied books, the mark of a creative genius. The only book I’m confident recalling from her batch was Susan Faludi’s Backlash, a foundational third-wave feminist text. Susan Sontag’s On Photography might have been in there, too, or my imagination might be hijacking my memory. I do remember that hers was one of those exceptionally rare buys, in which every book she brought in landed in the yes pile. I gave her a good offer that she accepted.

My exposure to the riot grrrl scene and the tremors it sent through gender identity norms gave me the courage to embrace being a stay-at-home dad. The flipside of feminism’s assertion that any woman can do a man’s job is that any man can embrace traditionally female childrearing roles. Which led me to be the only dad in my then four year-old daughter’s “Mommy and Me” ballet class.

Imagine a room of little girls in leotards and Lulu Lemon-bedecked yuppie moms riding a pretend choo-choo train together. There I stood, in yoga pants, my dance skills best described as seizure-like, holding my daughter’s hand, scared out of my fucking mind. But then I said to myself, You know what? I’m going to dance the shit out of this thing. And I did. And in the process I created one of my favorite memories of my little girl.

This morning I read an op-ed in the New York Times by Jill Filipovic called “What Donald Trump Thinks It Takes to Be a Man” that posits we’re dealing with an era of two competing versions of masculinity–the nurturing, feminist variety embodied by Barack Obama and Trump’s toxic variety. I started this post as a response to that piece but got sidetracked thinking of all the amazing music women created in the nineties.

Our Weinstein watershed moment has given men an opportunity to reflect on what kind of men we want to be. And I have to say I recoil from a certain variety of self-flagelation that certain men seem to be going through, equating sexual enlightenment with groveling, baroque expressions of guilt and the recitation of those groupthink, social justice terms I find vaguely creepy, like “ally” and “wokeness.” These terms make me uncomfortable not at all because of what they represent, but because they seem too easy, too readymade, like convenient labels that can simply be slapped on a forehead without having to go through the rigorous process of mindfully articulating one’s own nuanced position.

As I’ve gotten older, I have come to orient myself more and more toward what’s positive, defining myself by what I champion rather than by what I oppose. I choose to double down on being emotionally present for my children and my partner. Now’s the time to recommit to kindness, respect, and admiration for women, and–as the riot grrrls so wonderfully demonstrated–dance the shit out of this thing.




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