What pro wrestling tells us about masculinity and environmentalism

A narrow view of manhood is obstructing real action on climate change
Photo: Wrestler Daniel Bryan. By Simon Q.
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The most villainous character in today’s WWE, Daniel Bryan, is a left-wing environmentalist. As a left-wing environmentalist, I don’t know how to feel about this.

The psychology of pro-wrestling is far more involved than most people think. Audience participation — in this case, booing and jeering a person haranguing viewers about sustainability — often obscures something complex going on underneath the surface.

The most intriguing part about Bryan’s gimmick is not that it suggests WWE fans hate environmentalists. It’s the possibility that Bryan (who seems to really believe in what he's saying) surmised that his heel turn as the brash “planet’s champion” introduces environmentalism to the WWE in the only way possible — by letting its primarily male audience openly perform disdain for the guy talking about it.

If I’m right, that’s, unfortunately, telling.

Man talk

Men tend to have hang-ups when it comes to the environment, even in the face of the most urgent existential threat we face.

As one literature survey concluded:

“Women are typically more likely than men to believe that climate change is happening; worry about its effects; perceive more climate change risks; express more knowledge about climate change; and perceive global warming as posing a threat within their lifetime. Moreover, women are less likely than men to endorse denialist beliefs about climate change and express skepticism about its existence on social media.”

The problem seems especially pronounced in the anglophone world, including here in Canada, which surveys in the past few years have shown.

And more worryingly, as hinted at by the gender gap in views about the need for major life changes to take on climate change, it’s not only with regards to concern for the problem where men are falling behind.

Justice is for sissies

A 2018 article in the journal Global Environmental Change showed that gender played an important role in the kinds of policy frameworks people supported in response to climate change.

Men were more likely to support business and science arguments over arguments based in ethics and justice (women, the reverse). They were also more likely to perceive a man promoting the latter frameworks as potentially gay and as having stereotypically feminine characteristics, including negative ones like being naggy and whiny.

After all, what better way to sidestep the messy politics and considerations of other people’s concerns than to just buckle on a futuristic tool belt and play planetary handyman?

For an explanation, the study’s authors turned to what’s called gender role congruity theory, which holds that men and women tend to act in ways consistent with traditional gender roles in order to avoid social penalties associated with gender deviancy. Accordingly, men tend to push ethics and justice to the wayside because these require (more feminine) empathy and compassion and might lead to having to question the system instead of reinforcing the existing power structures men benefit from.

“Men’s greater social, political, and economic power could potentially result in a minimization of justice issues for reasons external to the validity and importance of this perspective,” concluded the study’s authors.

The reason that climate justice is so important is precisely because it compels a climate response that business will not take up on its own. After all, markets operate not on moral logic but according to the logics of profit, effective demand, and so on. Businesses act no faster than those logics permit and, institutionally speaking, don’t care if Tuvalu sinks or if Madagascar is inundated or if the places meant to stay cold warm and recede and liquify.

Manly solutions

But I suspect there’s something else in addition to wanting to avoid the femininity associated with empathy. I’ve noticed how, when confronted with intractable political problems, a lot of men turn reflexively to a kind of myopic realism that goes something like this — whatever the issue is, quit bitching about how it came about (and stop dreaming about a better system); accept reality unsentimentally; and find a pragmatic solution within the rules of the game, whatever they currently are.

It’s an attitude well suited to rallying the team for a comeback in the dying minutes of a game, but it leads to us being obliviously unhelpful, even morally compromised, when it comes to complex, ethical, and systemic problems of power and the social good.

Just consider what kind of adaptations that attitude leads to as the reality and rules of the game changed under neoliberalism.

But do we really need to starting talking about a “manvironmentalism” in the same way we had to coin “manscaping” in order for men to take on the grooming habits long demanded of women?

That version of masculinity condones a too-ready capitulation to an unnecessarily brutal sociopolitical reality (“Suck it up, princess. No one said life would be fair … or have a functioning welfare state”). It berates men to grow a pair and steel themselves to hyperexploitation, job insecurity, stripped-down benefits, overwork, and meaningless drudgery in order to make ends meet. It constructs a tempered, chiselled, unfeeling suit of iron around a disempowered, depoliticized, and impotent core. And too often, it leaves us callous and begrudging towards those fighting for a fairer society. (“I had to work two jobs to pay for my education. What makes you think you should get it for free?”)

When I talk to other men about climate change, I’ve often seen how that attitude leads to a fascination with Teslas, stern pragmatism about the need for pipelines, and hardly any interest in the movements realizing the fight for a habitable world is also the same as the fight for a more just one.

And sometimes it leads to something even stranger.

A few times now when I’ve given lectures on responses to the climate crisis, I’ve noticed how (not all, but only) men’s eyes light up when we come to the topic of geoengineering — that is, deliberate, large-scale human manipulation of the earth system. After all, what better way to sidestep the messy politics and considerations of other people’s concerns than to just buckle on a futuristic tool belt and play planetary handyman?

A broader back

This is all a longstanding problem here in the North American settler-colonial context, as shown in work drawn upon for the Global Environmental Change article. In the early 20th century, men who opposed dams for environmental reasons were depicted as effeminate. While agitating for progressive political reforms or environmental protection, men mixed in science and business arguments to avoid coming across as overly sentimental. Later, men who organized around Rachel Carson’s warnings about DDT worried about being derided as “birds and bunny boys.”

Today, the derisiveness of the epithet “tree huggers” no doubt owes some of its effectiveness to its mockery of womanly displays of affection. Similarly, the Internet neologism “soy boy” is doubly emasculating, soy being a common substitute for meat (the manliest food) and a product certain men find threatening for its mild estrogen-like properties.

The authors of another study showing that men tend to find environmental behaviours unmanly recommend promoting sustainability in ways that reaffirm men’s masculinity and appeal to more manly sensibilities.

But do we really need to starting talking about a “manvironmentalism” in the same way we had to coin “manscaping” in order for men to take on the grooming habits long demanded of women, or “man purse” in order to make it okay for men to carry things? (See also “tactical baby gear”.)

Normalizing and accommodating this culture’s version of masculinity isn’t the answer, especially if it means justice solutions remain marginalized. The answer starts with admitting that the aggressive, dominant, unsympathizing, pretend-Spartan-warrior vision of manhood upheld by too-convenient evolutionary just-so stories — the one so many of us have been taught to use to restrict what foods real men can eat, what drinks real men can drink, what range of feelings real men can feel, what people real men can love, what colours real men can wear, what cars real men can drive, and now what world real men can fight for — was always suffocatingly narrow. It starts with acknowledging the hyper-fear and insecurity that it promotes and that underlies it, while seeing that the “feminine” is not evil.

If we continue to define masculinity so narrowly, we not only do tremendous damage to our own psyches; we also do tremendous damage to the world.

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