The virulent reaction to public health orders isn’t just about politics, ideology and conspiracy theories. It is also very much about gender – and archaic notions of what it means to be “masculine.”
From the first days of the pandemic until now, men have refused mask orders at higher rates than women. (They’ve also died at higher rates.)
Despite all the talk about “liberty” and “rights,” researchers have shown that the desire to appear “tough” is the most telling predictor of who will refuse masks.
This is the definition of “toxic masculinity” – when qualities typically associated with masculinity, like displaying strength – cause damage. Turns out toxic masculinity has been a huge public health obstacle in the unchecked spread of COVID-19.
National surveys show that our society currently places a higher premium on masculinity than it does on femininity. More than half (53%) of the public says that most people in our society look up to men who are manly or masculine.
This is part of what’s turned mask wearing into a battlefield in the culture war – one of which played out at this week’s gathering to protest public health orders.
Though there were plenty of women in the crowd, a “traditional” gender hierarchy – placing masculinity at the top – was on full display. Outgoing Rep. Scott Clem – who is also the pastor of Central Baptist Church of Gillette – reportedly told protesters, “We should call Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and ask if she could give one of her testicles to our governor.”
His point was clear: the gun-toting, public health- ignoring, “more hunting, less COVID” governor of South Dakota – who is a woman – is more masculine (tougher, better) than our own male governor, who has exhibited some measure of compassion, common sense and regard for science. (And who, let’s be clear, has lawfully applied state statute.)
It’s a pretty basic argument: Men are strong, women are weak. And “weak” men are worse than strong women.
This also aligns with what (white) Christian women have pointed out in multiple places recently.
In her history of white evangelical Christianity, “Jesus and John Wayne,” Kristin Kobes Du Mez asks what it means to be an evangelical.
“[Does] it mean upholding a set of doctrinal truths, or [does] it mean embracing a culture-wars application of those truths – a God-and-country religiosity … that [is] organized around a deep attachment to militarism and patriarchal masculinity?”
Or as Gabrielle Blair, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, writes, “[Men are] picturing some great thing – having to protect their family at gunpoint from a clear and present danger.”
She imagines God explaining it to men this way: “Pinworms, athlete’s foot, lice, strep throat, colds and flus. Pneumonia and diarrhea are serious killers of children under 5. So you’re going to need to do laundry basically daily … I can’t emphasize this enough: protecting your family involves a lot of laundry.”
She’s right. It’s the mundane, daily decisions that keep our families and communities safe and healthy. It is putting on a mask and wearing it as though compassion is the greatest strength you have.
With the rise of toxic masculinity in our culture, religion and politics – and the election of men and women who promote masculine values at all costs – we’ve seen a rejection of qualities like empathy and compassion.
It is no coincidence those qualities are most often associated with women – and with weakness.
It is also no coincidence that women leaders – who have put empathy, compassion and science at the forefront of their policymaking – run the nations that have best managed the pandemic and protected their people, health care infrastructure, businesses and economies.
What’s at stake here is more than the very real struggle between political ideologues or religious sectarians or even conspiracy theorists. What’s at stake is also the health of every resident in Wyoming. And I don’t just mean our exposure to COVID-19.
This kind of dogmatic performance of “strength” and “masculinity” reinforces a set of expectations that have proven deadly to men across Wyoming.
Where they’re not only more likely than women to die of COVID, but they’re also significantly more likely to die by suicide by gun.
I can’t emphasize this enough: When we value women and men equally, we save lives.