Being Masculine Doesn't Make You a Top: The Real Problem With Russell Tovey

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 14: Russell Tovey and BBC Radio 3 does 'something funny for money' and raises money for Comic Relief.
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 14: Russell Tovey and BBC Radio 3 does 'something funny for money' and raises money for Comic Relief. Tune-in March 18 held at The Royal Albert Hall on March 14, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

The fury over Russell Tovey's comment about masculinity and its implied judgment of effeminate gay men is in full swing, as is the blowback from Tovey's defenders. I find it boring and largely useless. I actually find that most people are missing the real problem. It isn't Tovey's misguided valuing of "masculinity," or masculinity as defined by his upbringing, that is the issue. Instead, it's the fetishizing of a fictional definition of "masculinity" that has become an every-present object of the highest social value in American and British cultures. This fetish is especially present in gay male culture in the United States, and Tovey's comment only helps perpetuate that.

I want to address several components to this Tovey situation directly. First, if I read one more person talk about gender as performance that clearly doesn't understand the theoretical basis for that concept, I'm going to have to go binge on double-stuffed Oreos to kill my rage. I read an article a few months back by a trans woman, tired of people telling her gender is performance, as though it was a costume all of us wear. Her frustration was in part with people who took a gender studies class or two in college, and then thought they knew everything about gender. Gender isn't performance as if it were a mask we can take on and off or a costume and role we play like actors on a stage. Instead, it is a lens or filter, or a combination of them, through which "doing" or "willing" takes place. It prescribes limited choices for us to choose from and shapes our knowledge and understanding of what goes into those choices and what they mean.

Second, Tovey isn't just "proud to be masculine," as I've seen some trolls insisting. It isn't "just the way he is" or "who he wants to be." Tovey places a positive moral value on being masculine, and negative value on gay male effeminacy. However, being "masculine" isn't a fixed or permanent thing. It means different things to different people in different places and at different times. Being masculine in a working class family in Manchester is going to be different than in rural Senegal. It also is different than what it meant in 1890 Manchester. Also, Tovey is what I'd describe as "boyishly" masculine, or having an adolescent masculinity that historically has meant a kind of androgyny that is feminizing. He is by no means butch, and I've never seen him play a character that was anywhere close to the archetypal masculinity of John Wayne. Moreover, in U.S. and British culture, masculinity is often defined in terms that are hetero-centric, defining virility in sexual terms related to procreation, and thus requiring a compulsory heterosexuality that Tovey and other gay men cannot achieve through man-on-man sex. Although Tovey never claimed to be John Wayne or butch in his interview in The Guardian, some of his defenders and critics have been referencing his masculinity as if he had.

My third point, related to compulsory heterosexuality, is probably the most crucial to this whole affair: The fetishizing of masculinity in U.S. and British -- and particularly gay male -- culture. Gay male culture in the U.S. places the highest social value on a definition of masculinity that is both unattainable and fictional. It is defined, as in our wider culture, with power, strength and confidence. It is distinctly associated with patriarchal images and ideas of sexual virility that have been associated with reproduction for eons. It participates in perpetuating misogynist disdain for femininity and manifests in homophobic attacks on other gay men. All of this is easily identifiable in the number of gay-for-pay performers in gay porn, the fetishism for chiseled bodies and recent fetishizing of body hair and beards, bottom-shaming and the absence of effeminate male characters in gay movies.

Tovey's personal insecurities about gay male effeminacy are his business, but they are consistent with the value placed on masculinity or symbols of masculinity that are visible in many parts of gay male culture, including in the show Looking. While there isn't anything inherently bad about fetishizing masculinity, the consequent misogyny and homophobia in gay male culture directly impact our lives. When we idolize images and characters -- be they characters on television or abstractions like this fictional masculinity -- that are unattainable, it only feeds our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. This is distinctly dangerous for gay teens that lack the life experience to allow them to escape that negative cycle.

Returning to the issue at hand, Tovey is not really the problem. He's an example of a troubling part of gay male culture that needs to be addressed.