Toxic Shock

Like many folks, I first saw the news that the record for the largest mass shooting in American history has been set once again while on social media. Since then it’s been on televised news 24/7 – a break from 24/7 election coverage, except that this horrible carnage is merging into election speeches. One of the things that I noticed as I scrolled through Twitter, which is 24/7 but never one channel, was how suddenly confusing it was. I saw a gory image and the word Bloody Scotland and thought “oh, shit. It’s happened there, too” before realizing no, it was something about a book festival. A book festival that was familiar and fun. But suddenly, not so much.

There’s something very disconcerting about intermingling real carnage and hate with fiction represented in imagery that draws so heavily on blood spatter and guns, with titles and descriptions heavy on death, killing, and terror. I’ve always wondered what attracts people to crime fiction, but right now the glorification of guns and death seems part of . . . I don’t know, some pandemic disease.

The massacre in Orlando is so confusing. Violence is always confusing, but we try to find an explanation: we must do something about mental illness. We have to stop being so stupid about gun laws. We have to stem the politically inflamed rhetoric that encourages homophobia. If we had better intelligence, took a tougher stance, bombed more targets, built higher walls . . .

I’m ashamed that our two leading presidential candidates used it as an occasion to brag about how tough they would be against something one of them insists the current president should say out loud or immediately resign. No, whatever ISIS social media channels say, this wasn’t their work. This was much more complicated. A brown American-born man whose father came from Afghanistan, a brown American man who had wanted to be a cop, a brown American man whose ex-wife says he beat her, a brown American man who had frequented a gay club, a brown American man whose religion is regularly demonized by opportunist politicians, that brown American man took weapons of war that he bought just down the street into a room full of mostly brown, mostly queer folks dancing together and killed as many as he could, which was a lot because he had weapons designed for killing and for nothing else.

Matt Pearce, a reporter who I follow on Twitter, said


(Which, of course, makes it also a story a politician can use in any of a number of ways to promote completely opposed agendas, but also very hard to understand on its own terms.)

The best way of thinking about it that I’ve heard yet came in reply.


I think he’s right. It’s a very large part of why so many Americans love guns. It’s infused in cop culture in ways directly tied to Ferguson and beyond. It’s driving the wild anger among some that most American have no issue with GLBT folks, anger that leads to absurd laws requiring bearded transmen to use bathrooms labeled for women and feminine transwomen to use bathrooms labeled for men where they will be in danger – supposedly to keep women and children safe from pedophiles. When reason fails, bring in the imaginary pedophiles. Bring on the fear that will distract people from thinking for themselves.

It’s toxic masculinity that drives fundamentalist interpretations of religions that use violence and terror to put down women – in fact, to put down anyone who isn’t the right sort of man – and return us all to an imaginary golden age when strong men were in  charge. It’s what makes Trump strut and splutter about warfare and Christian values, it’s what makes Clinton rattle swords to show she’s tough enough for a job only men have held so far.

All hate crime is meant to inspire terror in a class of people. That slaughter in Orlando was terrorism. But it was not caused by that label that Trump insists the president use (and which the president eloquently refused.) My best guess at the moment is that it’s toxic masculinity that made one angry, mixed-up man walk into a store to buy weapons of war – easily available thanks to other toxic men – so he could kill gay brown people whose joy and sexuality threatened him. He knew he would become famous by attributing his actions to a violent, masculine cult about which he knew little apart from shouty slogans and exciting film clips and the power it seemed to have over the rest of the world and his own countrymen who considered him either a loser or a threatening Other.

So here’s what I’ve been wondering about since misreading a Twitter stream and seeing violence where only entertainment was meant. How does a reader who enjoys fiction about people getting killed square it with her pacifist and feminist values? How can I enjoy reading one book after another about murder after 49 murders were committed in a crime that can’t be solved?

I’ve never been a great reader of mysteries that set a crime in an innocent place to be surrounded and smothered by goodness and recipes. I particularly dislike grotesquely violent thrillers that use a good-versus-evil storyboard with lots of blood and explosions so that that the monstrous Other can be defeated over and over. I have generally made the excuse that I’m drawn to “sociological suspense” – stories that delve into social issues in some interesting way, using narrative and characters to explore ideas that are otherwise abstract or dry. But other kinds of fiction can do that. Why am I so drawn to books about people killing one another? Why is that narrative the only one that seems to hold my attention?

Perhaps what I’m learning about society right now is that I’ve had enough of blood spatter and guns and am not interested in seeing it on book jackets or event announcements, however innocently intended. It makes me eye my pile of book waiting to be read with a new wary suspicion that a genre I love carries its own measure of toxic masculinity.






2 Responses to Toxic Shock

  1. Keishon says:

    Great post, Barbara.

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