Men, Murder, and …. Metrosexuality? Masculinity in a Mediatized Age

Post by Jennifer Evans

All alliterations aside, it is indeed curious to see how the media has seized upon Anders Breivik”s masculinity. Almost from the very beginning, when word first surfaced of the attacks on Utoye, Breivik’s image, whether in a wet-suit or sporting a preppy pink collar, circulated widely in the digital arena, putting a face, literally, to the man behind these heinous crimes. It didn’t take much digging to turn up a treasure trove of information about his own self-perception. Alongside his vitriol against the supposed Islamification of Europe was proof positive that this was a man deeply invested in performing the role of ascetic, mastermind, and — if need be — martyr. At the center of this, as SUNY-Stoneybrook sociologist Michael Kimmel noted in a widely-circulating blog entry comparing Breivik”s self-portrayal to that of homegrown terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, was a particular vision of masculinity under siege and a prescription for the kind of man needed to make things right. The Breivik case may be many things: a clarion call for the continued promotion of multiculturalism in a changing Europe, an example of the fine line between mental illness and criminal consent, and a social media spectacle. But it is also, fundamentally, a case study in 21st century masculinity in a heavily mediatized age.

There is already good work circulating online on the hows and whys of radicalization like the Demos think tank’s report on radical movements in the UK and Canada. Doctoral students like Ov Cristian Norocel are hard at work interrogating the construction of radical right populist masculinities in east and northern Europe. And even Kimmel’s next book will explore the links between masculinity, self-perception, and extreme group behaviour in Scandinavia and the US. But as feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte observed almost from the very beginning, very little attention has been paid to what appeared most obvious of all, at least in Breivik’s manifesto: the link between misogyny and the racial politics of populist hate. As she commented in a post on Pandragan: “misogyny and violence go hand in hand so often because misogynists really buy deeply into the idea that women are weak and men are “strong”, by which they mean aggressive.”

Gender-aka-masculinity has certainly entered media discourse surrounding the Breivik case but what about femininity — not just in Marcotte’s meaning, as in the lack of engagement with misogyny and the far right — but in relation to Breivik himself? On this question, yesterday”s testimony of Breivik’s four friends, and media reaction to it, proves most telling.

Writing for the Telegraph (and tweeting from court) Richard Orange quoted that Breivik”s friends were concerned he was becoming depressed and reclusive in 2006 as a result of personal struggles surrounding his suppressed homosexuality. A failed internet date, withdrawing to his mother”s house, the use of powder and make-up — all proof, apparently, that Breivik was struggling with his sexuality, and dredging up in the process the time-honored link between homosexuality and right-wing violence.

This link between repressed desire and extreme violence has been made before. Every decade or so a book comes on the market with spurious claims about Hitler’s homosexuality. For some, the notion of sexual dissonance provides critical insight into the orchestration of genocide in a way that race thinking, rightist ideology, imperial designs, and total power does not. Even the debate over the US Don”t Ask Don’t Tell policy saw Defend the Family President Stephen Lively claim that gays should not serve in the military since “open homosexuals are distinct from everyone else, men and women, in being exceptionally brutal and savage” (leading Jon Stewart and his merry gang of mischief makers to send up this thought in a video intervention).

Going back a bit further still, many of the so-called 1968ers — the name given to the generation of student activists that challenged authority and governance instead of just “tuning in, turning on, and dropping out” — took seriously Wilhelm Reich’s thesis that fascism was caused, at least in part, by bourgeois gender norms and repressed bodily desire. Historian Dagmar Herzog has shown quite convincingly that this involved a degree of mental gymnastics and a misremembering of the recent past, at least insofar as German student activists were concerned. Casting the Nazis as sexually repressed may have emboldened students to make links between their own sexual practices and the morality of the movement, but it also traded on earlier suggestions that there was something downright nefarious about the sexual politics and practices of the right.

History shows that the Breivik case was not the first time that soft masculinity was maligned alongside homosexuality, whose repression could bring national shame and scorn. It also wasn’t the first time that homosexuality was used to attack certain political perspectives and goals. As far back as 1908, imperial Germany found itself in the throes of the Eulenberg Scandal, which ended the carriers of several high-ranking aristocratic members of Kaiser Wilhelm”s inner circle, including the military commander of Berlin Lieutenant General Kuno Graf von Moltke and the Kaiser’s personal adviser in matters of state Phillip Prince zu Eulenburg-Hertefeld. Like the mediatized Breivik case, which provides a timely window into “end of multiculturalism” policies and integration debates in today”s Europe, professor emeritus James Steakley noted some time ago that the iconography of the Eulenberg scandal in Europe”s daily broadsheets was a good barometer of social cleavages in the years leading up to World War I.

And now for the cautionary tale. If the Breivik spectacle’s reach and impact is yet to be determined, it can be said with some certainty that the Eulenberg affair had wide-reaching effects on European society. Among other things, it generated national interest into the question of the origins of homosexuality and saw the rise to prominence of sexologist and gay rights campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld. It also led to the the rise of a more militant masculinist wing of the homosexual rights movement, one bent on exonerating hardened masculinity, male bonding, and militarism as the foundation of government. Many future Nazis did in fact spring out of these circles, and while they certainly didn’t make up the entirety of the movement, they did underscore a connection, at least in the minds of adherents, between the emasculating impact of industrial modernity and the pressing need for a rhetoric and practice of militant manliness in the face of these challenges.

Breivik’s flawed logic — that multiculturalism threatens to destroy the cohesiveness of European values and thus requires desperate actions by militant martyrs — has a place in the historical register as an example of the links between gender, violence, and rightist ideology. But in our struggle for answers, especially in inferring a connection between soft masculinity and repressed homosexuality with the propensity for extreme violence, we allow fiction to stand as fact, doing violence in our own right to all those whose lives — and lifestyles — serve as a testament to democratic values, progressive politics, and respect for human diversity and pluralism. And we neglect this history at our own peril.

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