2016 was a banner year for toxic masculinity ― a victory lap for an ugly social devil who has already spent centuries perched atop the medalists’ podium. In 2016, millions of American voters ― both men and women ― were willing to accept that bragging about sexual assault was simply boorish “locker room talk” or at least stomach the rationale long enough to cast a ballot for an accused rapist.
In 2016, political and social discourse was dominated by a legion of bitter and insecure men, hiding behind computer screens, looking to punish women for their failure to live up to the poisonous and archaic standards they set for themselves.
In 2016, politicians dragged gender-nonconforming Americans through the mud to fight over whether they could feel safe using public restrooms, only to abandon ship on their promise to undo the legislative hate crime of HB2 at the 11th hour, stymied by their own undemocratic attempts to consolidate power in North Carolina voting districts.
Perhaps this is why it hurt so much to hear on Christmas Day that pop icon George Michael had passed away. Perhaps this is why, in retrospect, the loss of Prince and David Bowie from earlier this year now seem to carry a special sting.
In many ways, angst over this past year have been divided into two separate categories, the two major taxonomies of “fuck 2016”: the social and political strife that have dominated nearly every aspect of life in America and abroad, and the seemingly unending string of celebrity deaths, which have come on ― what appears to be ― a monthly rate.
At first glance, these two things might seem largely unrelated, one certainly more severe than the other. It’s easy to (in the hectic sphere of social media wherein everyone seems convinced that only one topic can exist at any given time) say that, while the loss of a living legend like Leonard Cohen or Alan Rickman or Zsa Zsa Gabor sucks, there are bigger fish to fry, that the living have a couple more courses of tragedy yet to be served.
Still, acting as though the “lowbrow” world of popular culture and the “highbrow” firmament of political state building are somehow separate spheres ― that they have ever been ― is fundamentally foolish, if not totally dishonest. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the first strains of the misogynist white nationalist collective that now calls itself the “alt-right” manifesting in the 2014 (and ongoing) debacle that was GamerGate; or the violent backlash against Paul Feig’s gender-swapped Ghostbusters remake, the ugliest episode of which involved the harassment of the actress and comedienne Leslie Jones by Twitter trolls incited by “alt-right” mainstay Milo Yiannopoulos.
“... viewing the more dismal moments in pop culture this past year through the lens of the political shitstorm that has served as their perpetual soundtrack ... is wholly natural, and the two often inform one another.”
As such, viewing the more dismal moments in pop culture this past year through the lens of the political shitstorm that has served as their perpetual soundtrack (the Chainsmokers will have to settle for not being the most frequently broadcast example of white man bullshit in 2016 ― sorry, guys) is wholly natural, and the two often inform one another. They empower and deepen each other, and they give us a fuller view of where we stand.
If it was so hard to watch toxic masculinity reaffirm its position at the head of the table in American politics and culture, it was even harder because ― in losing artists like Bowie and Prince and George Michael ― we lost three major voices who, for the 40-plus years, opposed these values, spat in the face of the idea that there were certain ways to be a man that were correct and acceptable, flaunted identities that contradicted traditional manhood and male sexuality unrepentantly.
This is not to say that these three musicians are to be seen as flawless crusaders against the toxic ideas we are currently staring down, or to be lionized without question about their personal behavior. It is only to say that ― for someone like myself ― knowing that a singer like David Bowie, with his extraterrestrial androgyny, or a superstar like Prince, with his overt gender-creative expressions of passion, or an icon like George Michael, with his unabashed engagement with queerness, could command such confidence and power was deeply moving. It affirmed in a culture that was all but programmed to dismiss ideas and identities that failed to conform. There was a gleeful, luxuriant, and enlightening punkness to it.
“... knowing that a singer like David Bowie, with his extraterrestrial androgyny, or a superstar like Prince, with his overt gender-creative expressions of passion, or an icon like George Michael, with his unabashed engagement with queerness, could command such confidence and power was deeply moving.”
For some, it might have been one of these artists who helped them realize that there were ways to exist beyond the options laid out by society in the morning. For others it was all three. Either way, I know that I am not alone in feeling that somehow there was absolutely something transcendent, ecstatic, and almost gospel to a denim-and-leather-clad George Michael shaking his ass in the wake of the church organs that open his perfect “Faith.” Watching Michael’s video for that 1987 single, it’s easy to miss how subversive the pop star is being.
Though he was not outed until 1998, the singer often played with the trappings of traditional heterosexuality. In the “Faith” video, over a rockabilly guitar line, Michael struts across the frame, dressed as one might expect an early ‘80s Springsteen. The whole production is an exercise in queering everything in frame: from jacket to sunglasses to jukebox. Over the course of nearly four minutes, as the video vacillates between black and white and color, George Michael leads an unwitting viewer into a sort of Oz, where markers of gender and sexuality become skewed until they’re all but meaningless.
Michael’s twisting of the fashion symbols of manliness are as much an affront to toxic masculinity among gay men as among straight men, who are often wrongly deemed the only perpetrators of these dangerous ideas. In the wake of the Orlando Pulse Shooting, gay men across America flooded social media with promises that they were equally equipped to be violent (all in the name of rational self-defense, of course; proportional force, thy name is AR-15). Yiannopoulos—who (while dressed like a white eighth grader just recently in possession of his first Eminem record) went out of his way to present pictures of a trans student during a speaking tour, and crow to his audience at UW Milwaukee “the way that you know he’s failing [at passing] is I’d almost still bang him [is there a ‘sic’ equivalent for when someone is both linguistically incorrect and a irredeemable piece of shit?]”—identifies as gay. In November of 2015, he published a piece on Breitbart—which I will not link and discourage you from seeking out ― calling for the “T” to be removed from “LGBT.”
George Michael was, for me, the most captivating of these three artists because of the way he managed to incorporate the ideas of manhood that many young gay men are told to aspire to into his persona, but then subvert them so that they served his queerness, rather than acted as an exception or an allowance to heteronormativity. While it’s easy to consider his engagement and meddling with masculinity and its meanings unremarkable by today’s standards, he laid the groundwork for a number of queer cultural figures, and the ways in which his “passing” was never more than a wink away from outright rejection of all heterosexual masculinity altogether makes all of his work sparkle with a sort of mockery of the people who just needed a slight change in the singer’s wardrobe to convince themselves that he wasn’t what the rumor mill was trying to say he was.
Looking back on the last 12 months, it’s frustrating and agonizing (though not surprising) to see how the fragile and insecure vestiges of traditional manhood have redressed themselves, and embarked upon a campaign of what is nothing if not social and political terrorism as a way to try to regain their long undeserved cultural footing. Equally disheartening is to look back and to see the multitudes of ways by which that culture has enabled and endorsed them, carving new avenues and highways, creating new footing and ledges. As with any evil, 2016 is the sum of the perpetrators and those who have found reason to excuse them. At this point, their difference in sin is only a matter of degrees. As such, mourning the loss of a figure like George Michael, or of Prince, or of David Bowie, also feels like a mourning of the place to which we have allowed ourselves to regress, the ever-present demons we have committed ourselves to providing room and board.
I was comforted to hear that George Michael died peacefully. I hope he rests that way as well.
I am not at a place where I can say America or many of her people will be given that same grace.