I was with my girlfriends at A Club Called Rhonda in Los Angeles, and by “girlfriends” I mean friends who are girls. I am male, but do not identify either as a man or with masculinity; I instead identify with femininity, but not as a woman. I thus feel in alignment with the colloquial term “girlfriend” to refer to close female friends, and think it is interesting that close male friends do not call each other “boyfriends.” I grew up at Rhonda; it was there that I began experimenting with makeup, exploring my queerness, and realizing my non-binariness. I used to smear my lipstick across my face, and for a time was referred to as the “guy with the smeared lipstick.” I rarely wear avant-garde makeup at Rhonda anymore because I am too exhausted to endure the stress that accompanies queering gender norms, and as of the last presidential election I am also too scared to be made up strangely when traveling to and from the venue. I assimilate into a façade of normativity in order to protect myself from harassment, and note that white male privilege is what allows me to do this. If I am not wearing makeup, then I am read as a white man, and being read as a white man grants me privileges that bodies of color do not receive. While I may look like a white man, I am not; I am a non-binary feminist spy, and I am a critical observer of how whiteness is enacted in everyday situations.
Anyway, I was conversing with my girlfriends in the outdoor smoking area when suddenly a white man inserted himself into our conversation: “I never really thought I was fully straight, you know.” We all fell silent and turned toward him. “I’ve always thought I was a little bit queer,” he explained. My friend Nora jumped in deftly: “Oh, you’re one of those…” she said, rolling her eyes and taking a drag of her cigarette. He didn’t pick up on her sarcasm, and asked where we were from. “Long Beach,” I said, more kindly than I should have. “Oh, Long Beach? I’ve been there before,” he said. “I just got back from Europe, actually. I was in Spain, Italy…” He began rambling about his travels. My guts churned with anger as I made eye contact with my friends: we had been colonized. They nodded, and we entertained his conversation until our cigarettes were finished. “We’re gonna go back inside,” I said, standing up and becoming taller than him. “Ok, good talking with you, bro,” he said. I laughed.
This man taught me something about gender and sexuality. Upon reflection, I realized that what he did was an act of social insertion, and insertion requires some degree of hardness in order to achieve penetration. “Hardness” is a symbolic way to describe masculinity, which implies that this man’s social insertion into our group was possible only because he felt “hard” enough in a masculine sense to thrust his narrative into the nearest soft opening, i.e., a group of femme-presenting people. His insertion was analogous to fucking: his repeated narrative thrust asserting his seed of influence demanded we stop what we were doing to listen to him. Social insertion usually happens whenever I am with my girlfriends, and almost never happens when I am with my boyfriends. There’s something gender-sexual going on here!
I have since thought critically about what it means to “act like a dick,” and have come to realize that it seems to involve imitating the phallus by maintaining a permanent symbolic erection (i.e., a continual state of “hardness”). In this essay, I join the theory of performativity with the phallus in order to expand what it means to “act like a dick.” I’ll first explain what performativity means and how it works, and then I will outline how the phallus can be conceptualized performatively in order to unpack what it means to “act like a dick.” My overall aim in this paper is to present a theoretical framework to describe how masculinity becomes toxic, and what I am claiming is that it becomes toxic by repeatedly imitating and attempting to embody the phallus.
I want to be clear that I am in no way supporting biological essentialism about gender; having a penis has no necessary connection to masculine gender identification. Anyone can perform masculinity, regardless of their gender identity or what is between their legs. The phallus and the penis are not the same, which is why having a penis is irrelevant to the enactment of toxic masculinity. I also do not believe that men or masculinity in general are toxic, but that its toxificiation is both rampant and based in unexamined sociocultural wounds. This parallels my conception of whiteness as well: whiteness is not inherently toxic, but has been thoroughly toxified by white supremacy through its socialization of white subjects into expectations of superiority that, when unmet, are maintained by acts of domination. Social insertion and mansplaining are two phallic acts of masculine domination that appear to maintain a feeling of superiority, but there are many others that can and should be named.
Performativity: Or, How We Are What We Do
Judith Butler first outlined the theory of performativity in Gender Trouble (1990). In it she argues that gender is performative, meaning that it is an effect of repeated behavior, not something essential that is expressed through behavior. This is a reframing of the way identity is usually framed as something “essential” that we have on the “inside” first and then express on the “outside” afterward. If, for example, I am a man, then this is thought to mean that I am a man inside myself first, and that I outwardly “act like a man” because of this. Performativity claims the opposite: what we express on the outside is what leads to our identity on the inside, not the other way around.
The behavior that is repeated to create and maintain performative identity is an imitation of a norm. Performative identities are thus based in repeated imitation, and would not exist without repeated imitation. Embodiment follows from repeated imitation, and refers to how immaterial things like thoughts and ideology take residence within the body and then motivate how the body moves throughout the world. To imitate a norm is to act out what is alleged to be the “normal” way of doing something, and this perception of normalcy is based in cultural ideology. “Being a man” is thus based in repeatedly imitating masculine gender norms, and “being a woman” is based in repeatedly imitating feminine gender norms. Gender non-conformity is based in failure to imitate gender norms, which means that those who target gender non-conformity are doing so not just because of the moral judgments placed upon gender non-conformity, but also because gender non-conformity threatens to expose gender in general as a contingency that no one actually has to perform. Anything that threatens the repeated imitation of a norm is subject to punishment because it exposes the norm’s descriptive inadequacy and ontological uncertainty (e.g., “Are you a guy or a girl? I need to know which kind of thing you are!”). Repeated imitation is how normativity nudges collectives toward maintaining investments in cultural ideologies. Preventing an imitation of the phallus involves challenging an action that is performed to appear “hard” (i.e., masculine). Social insertion is an act of phallic imitation because it presupposes a symbolic affiliation with a masculinized sense of hardness that comes across through the assumption that the inserted want to hear what the inserter has to say. Interruption is a prime example of social insertion, as it presupposes that the interrupter believes that what they have to say is more important than what the other is currently saying. I propose insertiveness as a term to describe those who repeatedly insert their narratives into social situations without consent. These are the kinds of people who act like dicks… and maybe not just dicks, but fucking dicks.
The Phallus: Or, Where Dicks Come From
The psychology of penile erection is a useful framework to describe how masculinity is enacted generally through imitation of the phallus. To quote Christopher Bollas, a psychoanalyst from Southern California:
“Erections point something out, but is the self up to the act suggested by the shape? Who leads whom? A physical object with psychic correlates, it eventually signifies penetration of x, initially standing for the vagina, which comes to signify any object to be penetrated.” (Hysteria, 2000, p. 21)
Phallic embodiment is not just being “up to the act suggested by the shape” of the erect penis; it is becoming like the erect penis by repeatedly imitating one. “Acting hard” and “acting like a dick”, in other words, are necessarily related. After all, I have never seen any public graffiti of a flaccid penis; all publicly-drawn penises I’ve seen have been fully erect and circumcised. I think circumcision is another physical process that allegorizes the toxification of masculinity… but this is a topic for another essay.
The phallus played a central role in most ancient human societies. My favorite story about the phallus comes from Ancient Egypt: Osiris, a principal god, was killed by Typhon, a deadly serpent, who dismembered Osiris into 14 pieces and scattered them throughout the land. Isis, Osiris’s wife, collected his pieces with the intent to reassemble him, and found all of them… except his penis. She created a phallus to substitute for his missing penis, and in doing so not only resurrected Osiris from the dead, but also created cults that began worshipping the phallus. The phallus was worshipped not just in Ancient Egypt, but also in Ancient Greece and Rome. David Friedman’s A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis (2001) is an overview of the sociocultural history and symbolic significance of the penis. Roman fascinum, for example, were miniature phalluses that Roman soldiers wore around their necks for protection, and phallic statues were erected all throughout Ancient Greece for this same purpose. Christianity in its mores against sexuality is what led to the renunciation of the phallus as a symbol of worship and its relegation to the realm of the unconscious. The penis has played an important role in the cultural history of human societies, so it should not be a surprise that the phallus is a useful symbol to describe human behaviors.
I like the story of Osiris’s missing penis because it articulates a key insight about the phallus: which is that it substitutes for something that is not there, and that through this substitution it gives life to an otherwise-incomplete form. The phallus is, in other words, a cover-up for a hole in the fabric of being that signifies lack within the being. The phallus is an important signifier in psychoanalytic theory, and reflects the ways subjects relate to lack. Jacques Lacan, for example, believed that the phallus initiates a subject’s entry into language because it represents the gap between signifier and signified. In other words, there is a difference between what exists in reality, and how that reality is symbolized in language. The word “tree”, for example, is a sound made in English to symbolize an object in the world, but is not actually that object for the same reason that a picture of a river is not an actual river. There is an irreducible difference between symbol and reality, and there is nothing that can be done to eliminate this gap… which is where the phallus comes in. The phallus, for Lacan, signifies this gap between symbol and reality. It is, just like in the story of Osiris, a substitution for what is not there. The phallic function he describes is unconscious and necessary — meaning that the psyche depends upon it, and humans are not conscious of depending on it — which is why many of us may feel uncomfortable considering that the phallus is how symbols are joined with objective reality. Remember, though, that human beings openly worshipped the phallus for longer than they did not, which means that the phallus remains a relevant symbol that structures the human psyche — whether we like it or not.
The Phallus as a Symbol?
Feminist theorists have been justifiably critical of the phallus. In “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary” (1992), Judith Butler argues that the phallus has no meaning as a symbol because it is a penis that signifies a penis. Butler argues that symbols have to be different from the thing they symbolize in order to make sense as a symbol. If, for example, I asked you to create a symbol of a banana, then you could not use another banana as the symbol. This is because the symbol (i.e., the signifier) and the reality it signifies (i.e., the signified) have to be different. In the case of the phallus, Butler is arguing that it is like using a banana to symbolize a banana: they’re the same thing, so they do not relate as symbols. This is why she argues that anything can be phallic: the phallus has no meaning as a symbol and can therefore be substituted for anything else.
While I agree with Butler that the phallus is a penis that symbolizes a penis, I do not agree that they are the same: they are different because a phallus is always erect, and a penis is not. This distinction is crucial for the psychology of toxic masculinity. When a penis is flaccid, then it has the potential to become phallic, but this is only because it is not erect (i.e., “hard”). The comedic tragedy of the phallus is that as soon as the penis becomes erect, it can no longer be symbolically phallic, because once it is erect, it is then the same thing as the phallus, and can therefore no longer relate to the phallus as a symbol. In other words, the erect penis and the phallus are the same thing, which means that erect penises are not phallic, and flaccid ones could be. This is why, from a psychoanalytic perspective, the phallus is the same thing as castration: the phallus is lost as soon as it is had, which means that it is always-already lost and can never actually be had. This paradox situates the pathological psychology of toxic masculinity, and explains why some individuals repeatedly act like dicks in order to feel like men. The crucial point here is that the “hardness” of masculinity is based symbolically in the “hardness” of an erection, which is why the more masculine one acts, the less phallic they feel: which then motivates more performances of masculinity to remedy this phallic lack, and so forth into toxic masculinity.
Phallic Embodiment: Or, Where Toxic Masculinity Comes From
It is important to emphasize that no one actually embodies the phallus; phallic embodiment is an ongoing, impossible project because, as I have explained, the phallus is lost as a symbol with the embodiment of masculine hardness. Phallic embodiment is how masculinity becomes toxic because it is an attempt to embody and maintain a permanent erection, and erections that last longer than a few hours are a medical problem. Phallic embodiment is similarly a psychological problem, as it involves a sustained commitment to achieving an impossibility, i.e., negating the inevitability of softness, which is the natural state of flaccidity that penises inhabit, as well as the feminized domain of feeling and emotionality.
The softness of feeling can never be fully negated, because feeling is human, and people of all genders are human. Toxic masculinity attempts to negate softness, which is feminized as emotionality, and so part of “being hard” involves repeatedly ignoring feelings and suppressing emotion. It is thus important to name the emotionality that accompanies toxic masculinity, and to let those who perform it know that they are being emotional when they are expressing anger. This will probably inspire more anger, and the expression of this surplus anger will be a performance of what it means for the phallus to be the same thing as castration. Phallic embodiment is a guaranteed failure: hardness is not phallic because with hardness the reality and the symbol overlap and the phallus loses its meaning as a symbol. The toxified won’t admit this, though, because they’re probably too busy enjoying the gender-sexual pleasures of acting like a dick.