Masculinity As Radical Selfishness: Rebecca Solnit on the Maskless Men of the Pandemic

The Burden of Care Falls Ever More to Women

I grew up with the old axiom “my right to swing my arm ends where your nose begins,” which is about balancing personal freedom with the rights of others and one’s own obligation to watch out for those rights. The maliciously gendered rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, the incels and pick-up artist subcultures, Trumpism, and a lot else have proposed, in recent years, that actually their right to swing their arms doesn’t end and my nose and your nose are not their problem or are just in the way and need to move. Wearing masks, it turns out, is not manly, when the definition of manly is not having to do fuck-all out of concern for others.

There are a lot of other things that turn out not to be manly, including caring about climate change and environmental problems, and even according to some studies recycling (and others, handwashing). Taking care of things is not manly. Four of the worst-hit countries in this pandemic are also afflicted with heads of state preoccupied with meeting the terms of machismo—Bolsanaro, Putin, Boris J., Trump—in ways that conflict with recognizing the gravity of the Covid-19 crisis and responding adequately.

This is a definition of masculinity as radical selfishness, and just as it’s taken a huge toll in American lives by demanding and utilizing deregulation of access to semiautomatic weapons and other implements of mass death, so it’s taken a huge toll by insisting that we don’t have to respond to the pandemic because the “we” that is not responding imagines itself as invulnerable and full of unlimited arm-swinging rights. As conservative philosophy intent on cutting taxes (limits on my right to swing my arm) and social services and safety regulations (your nose) it’s been making inroads for decades.

In the USA, unlimited armswinging peaks at an intersection between whiteness and maleness, with plenty of white women on board who seem to believe that a white lady’s job is to protect white men’s armswinging (often with a selfless disregard for their own noses). It all reached a peak with the white men with guns in the Michigan legislature a few weeks ago, the guns and the lack of masks and the belligerence against medically important regulation all forms of fistswinging united at last.

And maybe another peak of whiteness, if not maleness, earlier this week with the white executive apparently beside herself with rage that a black birdwatcher wanted her to leash her cocker spaniel while in the Ramble, a leashed-dogs-only part of Central Park legendary for its birds (because, the birdwatcher reported, her dog was tearing through the underbrush that’s part of the bird habitat there; among other things the incident made me realize that all my own decades of miserable-to-scary encounters with aggressive off-leash dogs have involved white owners). She called 911 and pretended her fury was fear, turning her aggression with the dog into an attempted escalation of aggression via the police by pretending that the other party, a black man, was the aggressor. That he was the arm and she was the nose. “Get your cut throat off my knife,” as Diane DiPrima once put it.

So we have parties insisting that their rights are boundless, which is what the Trump Administration has been all about, notably Betsy DeVos rewriting Title IX legislation to enhance the freedoms and rights of rapists and curtail those of the raped. The logic behind all this stuff is that the isolated individual—ideally white, ideally male; they are the fists; the rest are inconvenient noses—must rule supreme. (Thus the perfection, at least as specimen, of the Nashville man who yelled at singer Roseanne Cash’s masked daughter “liberal pussy.”) Of course no one is isolated, and that’s what pandemics, climate change, and all the other evidence of disturbed natural systems keep trying to tell us.

Why is doing what literally billions of women do day after day framed as some terrible ordeal? Where is the headline “Local Man Cannot Parent Own Child”?

As Martin Luther King, Jr., once put it, “In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Which is exactly what libertarianish conservatives and the hypermasculine deny to justify an every-man-for-himself ethos instead. And as it turns out, radical self-reliance ends where social withdrawal actually begins to be a form of care for others in this pandemic. Thus the white men who have been telling us all along that they are rugged commandos of self-sufficiency who could live alone in the post-apocalyptic woods off what they could hunt with their bare hands suddenly claim they need help right away with their hair.

At the other end of the spectrum are women making masks so that vulnerable populations and frontline workers have a better chance of surviving this thing. Caregiving has been gendered as feminine and so has sewing, and though I have seen men making masks, I have seen a lot more women doing this, many of them I’ve kept tabs on sewing steadily day after day, making hundreds of cloth masks by hand. The mostly women-of-color Auntie Sewing Squad group (full disclosure; I’m a nonsewing member) sewed 5,000 masks for Native populations in a week earlier this month. This is the extreme antithesis of too-manly-to-wear-a-mask syndrome. It’s not just caring enough to do the no-real-work of wearing a mask; it’s caring enough to do the huge work of trying to see that everyone has a mask, and so all over America are (mostly) women—solo, in repurposed quilting groups, in newly formed organizations—sewing for strangers.

It’s nurturance work and protective work. Mega-masculinity only likes the idea of protection if it’s in the Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood mode of protecting something by blowing something else away. It’s worth noting that the part of the world—Asia—in which wearing masks is routine is one in which one wears masks not to protect oneself, but others, out of courtesy toward where everyone else’s nose begins. Speaking of Asia,  a 2013 study found that American boys are socialized differently than girls, and that any argument that the differences are innate withers away when you look at Asian children: “In the United States, girls had higher levels of self-regulation than boys. Self-regulation is defined as children’s ability to control their behavior and impulses, follow directions, and persist on a task. It has been linked to academic performance and college completion, in past studies by Oregon State University researchers. In three Asian countries, the gender gap in the United States was not found when researchers directly assessed the self-regulation of three- to six-year-olds.” In other words, in this country, parents and the culture giveth the latitude to swing arms without regard for noses and could taketh away.

Not to idealize the largest continent and all its people, since an article in an Indian publication notes of the pandemic there, “More people at home means more food to be cooked, more clothes to be washed and more similar chores to be done. Women…are expected to do it all, despite the presence of men who are equally responsible to participate.” Similarly, we are being told that the stay-at-home decrees in the USA have meant, for that peculiarly popular arrangement that is heterosexual two-parent families, that women are doing most of the work.

The New York Times ran a piece suggesting that men don’t even recognize the inequality—“Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree” is the headline that says it all. Many academic outlets note that women’s scholarly productivity, measured as submissions to scholarly journals, have fallen off during the pandemic, while men’s have stayed steady or risen. This is, as the journal Nature put it, because “women scholars may be more likely to face an intensification of domestic responsibilities when confined to the home and, consequently, a reduction in scholarly production.”

You could rewrite that sentence as “men scholars may be less likely to take responsibility at home and have as a result less professional impact” from the closing of schools and shelter in place. But we always tell these stories as being about women, as being stuff that somehow happens to women, and that women need to address. One way this happens is by segregating articles about such things in women’s sections of publications. Women’s sections in newspapers and magazines have always annoyed me, because they too often make concerns that maybe should be everyone’s women’s concerns and women’s work to fix.

The Washington Post has a section called The Lily, a name clearly designed to funnel women in and filter men out, and recently ran a story that provoked a lot of strong responses. The story has the headline “‘I had to choose being a mother’: With no child care or summer camps, women are being edged out of the workforce.” Subtitle: “When parents can’t do it all, women’s paid labor is often the first to go.” It’s very placement says “this happens to women; this is a woman’s problem.”

We’ve had the story told this way about so many things. About how men’s actions, in other words, are more women’s work, and what women should do more not to get raped, beaten, murdered. I’ve written here before about the use of the passive tense and evasive language to erase perpetrators. Changing the grammar changes whose responsibility it is to do something about it, or to stop doing it, and so does changing who’s the subject of the story.

I looked at this Lily story and wanted to retitle it and put it where men would see it, or see someone write a story for them, about them, with interviews about the decisions they made, and how they benefitted from them. With headlines like, “I Chose Not to Coparent Equally and Helped Edge My Wife Out of the Workforce” or “How to Unwittingly Ruin a Marriage and a Career at the Same Time By Being a Selfish Jerk.” Maybe in the spirit of peppy women’s sections, a men’s section piece titled “Strategic Obliviousness Is How I Perpetuate Patriarchy, and I Bet You Do Too!” Maybe we got it in the New York Times: “Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree.”

The feature in the Lily falls into framing childcare as a thing women need, which assumes that it’s women’s responsibility and maybe something men give to women, rather than that every parent ought to care for their offspring. It focuses on a woman with a demanding career and a stay-at-home husband who had to quit her job because he wouldn’t do jack and claimed, with what’s often labeled “learned helplessness” but could be called strategic helplessness, he couldn’t. “But could she ask her husband to handle 12-hour shifts of child care, with no help, no breaks and no clear end point? She wasn’t sure her family could survive that. She wasn’t sure he’d do it, even if she asked.” Why does one (working) parent have to ask the other (nonworking) one to parent? Why is doing what literally billions of women do day after day framed as some terrible ordeal? Where is the headline “Local Man Cannot Parent Own Child”?

The Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women just issued “A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19” that says some of this beautifully: “Caregiving, associated with and expected of women, is necessary for economic production to take place and yet it is split off from economic production, thereby structurally subordinating women in society. This is why even within their own racial, indigenous status, and economic groups, women are the most marginalized. Case in point: Native Hawaiian women are more economically vulnerable than Native Hawaiian men, earning 70 cents for every dollar a man makes, and 79 cents for every dollar a Native Hawaiian man makes. Women will never be able to equally participate in Hawaiʻi’s economy without a social care infrastructure and if men are not supported and incentivized to share care activities.”

All of which is to say, we are having a pandemic, and it has been experienced unequally along race and class lines, and it also intersects with what maybe we should call the pandemic of patriarchy, which has made it far worse by action and inaction that has amplified the spread and impact of the disease and has punished women in the ways it always punishes women, through violence and the shifting of the responsibility of caregiving onto them.

Which intersects with the malignancy of whiteness, when it is white people threateningly demanding unlimited freedoms in a pandemic that, here in the USA, disproportionately kills black and brown people. The good news is that unlike Covid-19, we know what the cure is for the gender part. The short version is: feminism. Now in size XXL for men. And the rest: feminism is just a subset of human rights, and universal human rights and absolute equality would answer all those questions about what to do about coronavirus and nearly everything else.

Featured photo by Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit’s first media job was in fact-checking and her last book is the memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence. She’s sent a lot of mail to her nieces and nephews during the pandemic.





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