The Shooting in Orlando, Terrorism or Toxic Masculinity (or Both?)

Image result for omar mateen
Omar Mateen, who killed 50 people and injured 53 others.

The incident in Orlando was a homophobic attack, and whether [Omar] Mateen [the shooter] was (a self-hating) homosexual himself or whether he had been “radicalized,” neither of these things detract from the fact that homosexuality challenges notions of masculinity in the modern world. Using homophobia as the frame to understand what happened in Orlando, one foregrounds gender and the construction of masculinity in the Muslim world as well as in the West.”

“In her short report filmed for BBC Three, Stacey Dooley visited Orlando soon after the incident that shook the city. In her film, she spoke to Julia Lozada (a regular at Pulse) and asked, what has to change? Lozada’s response is worth listening to:

There is something socially wrong with America that this constantly keeps happening. Our culture here is like if you’re a G. I. Joe, you’re the man, you’re the tough guy— that’s wrong. You know, it should be somebody who’s peaceful, somebody who doesn’t use aggression to get what they want. And that’s what America is about: We use aggression and we get what we want. (BBC iPlayer, 2016)

Violence and gender are intimately connected. In her article for the website Rolling Stones, Soraya Chemaly identified the absence of any serious discussion of Omar Mateen’s violence toward his wife, broader than as a means of simply characterizing him as “bad.” There is a connection, she claims, between private violence, such as domestic violence, and public violence in America. “[Y]et the role that masculinity and aggrieved male entitlement plays [in such violence] is largely side lined.” She goes on to state forcefully that “Homophobia is nothing if not grounded in profound misogyny. Regardless of religion or ethnicity, anti-LGTB rhetoric is the expression of dominant heterosexuality that feeds on toxic masculinity and rigid gender stereotypes.”

Image result for mass violence

Soon after the shootings in Orlando, many commentators raised the issue of guns in America. In fact, Owen Jones’s co-panelist on Sky News, Julia Hartley-Brewer, spoke of this issue. What was missing, however, was recognition that guns are part of the iconography of masculinity in popular cultures across the world. Talking to Amy Goodman from DemocracyNow, Chemaly pointed this out:

… very often on the gun advocacy side, you’ll hear the argument that women should just go get guns, which is kind of just absurd for many different reasons … But also, it just turns out that even when women have guns, they’re much more likely to be used against them in the home … . And if you look at surveys of men and women, there is a huge gap between the feelings of security that men and women have when they own guns, and that gap is really meaningful. Women do not tend to feel safe when there are guns in the home, but men do. So, insisting that women go and buy guns is simply going along a norm that is extremely calibrated to the way men are experiencing violence, not the way women are experiencing violence. (Democracy Now!, 2016)

Image result for mass violence

What Chemaly and others highlight is the need to understand the violence we are seeing as grounded in conceptions of masculinity which cut across race and ethnicities, nationalities, and cultures. In a world where we should all “man-up” (Asher 2016) and not “throw like a girl,” the issue of masculinity needs surely to be part of the conversation, and the issue of framing becomes more and more pressing. As the Labor politician David Lammy has written with regard to the British context, “It is not unreasonable to ask why British males of a certain age and demographic but from all backgrounds almost exclusively provide the talent pool for our legions of racists, football hooligans, rioters, gang members and terrorists” (quoted in Asher 2016, 129).

When Goodman asks Chemaly about what Michael Johnson has called “intimate terror,” Chemlay’s (2016) response is instructive:

… the degree to which women are living with everyday terror is undeniable. But we simply, in our media, do not categorize it that way. I mean, women are making tens of thousands of calls to domestic violence shelters a day. … And so, on the one hand … we have this national concern with countering violent extremism [but ignore the link with intimate violence] and that’s an incoherent way to approach this problem.

The incoherence owes to the frames by which we (re)cognize different phenomena. The terrorism frame collapses the conversation (conveniently) into an “us” and “them” narrative, it recommends more funding for surveillance and security, and it continues to grease the wheels of capitalist industries that manufacture and distribute firearms and other combat arsenal. It keeps in place a patriarchal worldview, lauding competition, hierarchy, and strength (imagined too often as exclusively physical).

Framing the attacks in Orlando as homophobic terrorism, ought to prioritize the need to address the relationship between gender and violence. The challenge is to reconstruct masculinity but not through imagining a binary of good masculinity versus bad masculinity. Rather, it is to see that the “fictions of masculinity serve the interests of an abstract concept of male power … but few individual men” (Robinson 2002, 144). As Sally Robinson avers, “masculinity isn’t something ‘owned’ by individuals” (p. 146) and that it is this individualization in fact which gets in the way of our understanding of masculinity as a social category and what causes “individual men to feel attacked by discussions of it” (p. 151).

Instead, we must look elsewhere. Firstly, it is vital to see gender not as natural or even as socially constructed and individually apprehended, but (as Robinson terms it) “a system and an epistemological grid through which to approach the world” (p. 151). This grid divides the world into opposites—male and female—and establishes a heteronormative relationship between the parts. It then reaches beyond and does something similar: dividing the world of cultures into us and them and naturalizing the quest for power and dominance, the performance of roles and duties.

In this matrix, masculinity is underwritten by violence and, as this essay has sought to show, when there is a disillusionment with violence (symbolic and everyday) such masculinities turn toxic. But the effort to reconstruct masculinity cannot involve a simple disinvestment in violence, for that would reproduce the binary logic of patriarchy. Rather, it is to redirect the power of Thanatos to the power of Eros—we must see the “self” as the other, compromise as achievement, and renounce violence for nonviolence by ceasing to see in violence neither bravery, courage nor strength, but rather learn to see nonviolence as the “summit” of all that (Gandhi quoted in Finkelstein 2012, 36). And it is in order to see things differently that we need to frame things differently. That is what I argue the tragedy in Orlando teaches us.”

Haider, Syed. 2016. “The Shooting in Orlando, Terrorism or Toxic Masculinity (or Both?).” Men and Masculinities 19(5):555-565. [This excerpt from the Conclusion section, specifically pp. 562-564. Bolding not in original. References below.]

Asher, R. 2016. Man-up: Boys, Men and the Breaking of Male Rules. London, UK: Harvill Secker.

BBC iPlayer. 2016. Stacey Dooley: Hate and Pride in Orlando [Video]. Accessed June 24, 2016. [Above link only for UK; this video works for US:]

Chemlay, S. 2016. “In Orlando, as Usual, Domestic Violence Was Ignored Red Flag.” Rolling Stones [Online]. Accessed June 20, 2016.

Democracy Now!. 2016. When It Comes to Orlando Massacre, Domestic Violence Is The Red Flag We Aren’t Talking about [Video]. Accessed June 22, 2016. com/watch?v=QMyzPZ_K7_Y.

Finkelstein, N. G. 2012. What Does Gandhi Say about Non-violence and Courage. London, UK: OR Books.

Robinson, S. 2002. “Pedagogy of the Opaque: Teaching Masculinity Studies.” In Masculinist Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions, edited by J. K. Gardiner, 141–60. New York: Columbia University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: