Set to Explode: On masculinity and death

My best friend died at twenty years old. He, like so many males, was set to explode; a bomb of manhood with a wick as short as impulse. He was taught only one game: breaking boundaries. In the end he broke his own. Game over.

Masculinity is killing us all. In men’s endless drive to prove themselves as real men, they must break boundaries as a matter of course. “Don’t do that” is simply an invitation. Each inhibition crossed is a further affirmation of manhood. There’s a reason why a certain major firearm company’s main marketing ploy revolves around convincing men that, without these guns, their “manhood cards” will be revoked. Like bombs, men don’t simply hurt themselves when they explode, but also whoever happens to be nearby. That’s the point.

Power is addictive. The more men taste it, the more they grasp for it and the more they cling to it. But masculinity kills them just as surely. Beneath the toxic exterior of ego, men need what all humans do: communion. There is no communion in violation. After all that can be violated is, what remains?

Yet, some men are different. Some men want back the empathy that was long ago stolen from them by the cult of masculinity.

I’d like to say my best friend lived with humanity. He certainly did when I met him. We were 7 years old, and I just moved to town. I asked him to be my best friend, and he agreed. We played and played for years: by the river, in the woods, with a baseball, with skateboards. Gratitude radiated from me and I was sure our friendship would last forever.

The friendship ended years before he died. As teenagers, everything changed between us. He was fully immersed in a conversion from a human being to a man. The culprits were men everywhere: his father, his older brother, the boys at school, the boys on the streets, popular culture. The lessons: pornography, substance use, machismo. It didn’t take long before he was teaching them to me, a true disciple of the manhood gospel. But I was scared. He resented my tepidness and made it known. I tried and tried to care, but it was all too much, too soon. I gave up trying to be this real man he wanted me to be. That was the end of our friendship.

It comes as little surprise to me now to hear of my old friends winding up dead, in prison, or on their way to one or the other—tragic to be sure, but surprising, no. These are merely the logical endpoints on the trajectory of masculinity; its fate, if you will. My friends were set to explode, and they never found their way to defusing the inevitable.

For years, memories of my best friend troubled me, no, tormented me. Daily, I relived this or that disturbing interaction: the first time he showed me pornography, the first time he had me smoke cigarettes, the time he almost set my house on fire by playing pyro, the time he landed us both at the police station because he fired a bee-bee gun at some neighborhood children, and on and on. Such memories confused me: why did I take part in these things? But they also angered me: why did he make me?

Not only was he in my memories, but also my dreams. In that realm, however, it was entirely different. In the dreams he was usually kind, even seeking of my approval.

Such was the case in the dream I had the night of his death. After waking up, my old friend very much on my mind, I checked my phone to find a message from a mutual acquaintance: our friend has overdosed on heroine. He was sorry to have to tell me, but assured me he would let me know about the funeral once details were set. Never before that moment, nor any time since, have I felt devastated in just that way.

Instantly, my feelings about my old best friend shifted. All the contempt that had built up in me for his wrong-doings transformed into something else. Yes, he was still to blame for all the hurt he’d undoubtedly done to others (most especially the women in his life). But it was not him, that little human being who agreed to my friendship all those years ago, that marked this path. No. He was set to explode. I lay the blame at the feet of the whole culture of masculinity; they are the ones who lit the wick.

My best friend died from manhood, as so many others do. Some die from abiding by it, but more die from it being used like a weapon against them (and too often, this is no metaphor). My friend ran his course of a fast and dangerous life, hurting others, but killing himself. There are many more like him out there, hurting and hurting just to try to feel alive. Those who could, rarely tell them to stop. Those who could, rarely show them another way.

Men who break boundaries must be stopped. Of course masculinity hurts men by tricking them out of their humanity, but it’s nothing compared to the plight of its victims. I mourn my old friend’s death, yes, but there are many, many others to mourn as well, for what he did to them. I’m not certain that he ever would have changed, though I know he could have. And that’s the problem.

Ours is a culture of violation. Women, children, other cultures, and other species pay for the exploits of the dominators. Men—like my old friend—serve simply as masculinity’s foot soldiers. They may think they are benefiting as individuals, but in the end, they are slaves to a force that kills their empathy, kills their loved ones, and eventually, kills them.

This world needs universal human rights and universal justice. In a culture based on these, my friend would not be dead, nor would he have learned violation as a means of survival. Instead of universalizing manhood, we need to universalize an indivisible respect for the boundaries of all others.

It’s too late for my best friend. The damage—both to him and to others at his hands—is done. But the masculinity culpable for the harm thrives more than ever, which is to say there is no better time for it to stand trial for all its crimes against life. Masculinity was thought up by men and it can be dismantled by all of us. Men can reclaim their humanity; they can have the kind of honesty I saw in the eyes of my seven-year-old best friend when he made that pact to stand by me. None of us can afford any less than the end of manhood.


This post was originally published at DGR News Service.

Ben Barker is a writer and community organizer from West Bend, Wisconsin. He is a member of Deep Green Resistance and is currently writing a book about toxic qualities of radical subcultures and the need to build a vibrant culture of resistance.

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of Feminist Current, is a freelance writer and journalist. She completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog. Follow her @meghanemurphy

  • Miep

    Good to see Ben’s work getting more attention.

  • TotallyUnsexy

    A very touching story, of course MRAs will use to push the “men are oppressed” line. Men are harmed by masculinity, but oppressed, no. To be masculine is to take on the characteristics of an oppressor; aggression, ruthlessness, a willingness to use violence, a sense of entitlement (especially with regard to sex), a lack of empathy and emotional connection, etc.

    If masculinity were put forward as moral code by some philosopher, people would think the person was nuts. It is obviously a terrible way to live one’s life and yet this shit is brainwashed (yes, liberals, I said “brainwashed”, people are brainwashed, deal with it) into five year old’s heads through advertisements for toy guns and various other toys that encourage violence and aggression. If a post-patriarchial society ever existed they would view our society the same way we view totalitarian societies that openly brainwashed kids into their ideologies.

    • votvik82

      I’m not so sure all people would reject masclinity as a philosophy, after all there was futurism.

      • TotallyUnsexy

        Yeah, there have been ideologies that had masculinity incorporated into them (Nazism being an obvious example of such an ideology) but to my knowledge no philosopher has ever come up with a moral theory (a theory which attempts to examine why some behaviours are right and others are wrong) that matched up with masculinity.

        Imagine being in an ethics class at college and saying “I think the way to be a moral person is to beat the shit out of as many people as possible. The more people you physically hurt and the less bad you feel about hurting them the more awesome you are. And while you’re at it, do stupid shit that puts your life at risk, just to prove you can.” People would think you were nuts if you said that in the context of a rational discussion about ethics, but put that same philosophy forward in a non-rational manner (e.g. through constant depictions of big strong men beating the shit out of people and doing dangerous stuff, then being reward with praise or sex) and people (especially young boys) internalise it constantly.

        Corporations and other powerful entities can get people to accept a lot of bullshit simply by presenting it in such a way so that the fact that they are presenting an ideology isn’t obvious. They do the the same thing with regard to issues like race and consumerism, constant images of “cool”, individualistic, happy people using products is more effective than a document that states “people who buy a tonne of junk they don’t need are cool, individualistic and happy”.

        Convert the dominant ideology of the culture into a set of statements and you get something that sounds ridiculous. Or rather, you get liberal academic feminism. “Fashion is a LANGUAGE, ladies. What you WEAR is who you ARE!” Hmmmm, where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, all over the goddam media.

        • Hugh Jass

          I think Marquis de Sade would argue that masculinity as you described would be an a good thing.

  • kfldfs

    Tthis essay recalls Noel Ignatiev’s whiteness abolitionism (men “reclaiming their humanity”) for me. Kind of like this post:

    I agree with all this. We can’t, though, fall into the habit of categorically prioritizing our own literal self-destruction (which happens to only a subset of men) over the total oppression of all women. Studies people like Michael Kimmel do re: men is important, but so are those of feminists (i.e. women) before him.

  • Maureen Master

    Thanks so much for this, Ben. I am going to share it will my nephews. They are both in their teens and I worry everyday about them succumbing to this deadly cult of masculinity. When I think of how sweet and kind and gentle they were as children, and still are it seems, it just terrifies me to think they could lose all of that in the quest to “become a man.” I was on a tour with the 16 year old this summer and, I don’t remember what I was doing, but I guess I was showing too much attention to him to suit our tour guide who instructed me to “let him be a man.” (By the way, my nephew was not minding the attention at all. He doesn’t have a mom and I try to give him as much attention as I can as I know that’s something that’s lacking in his life.) I thought, dear god, you mean let him be like you? Our tour guide was clearly a very unhappy person who spent the tour complaining about how his ex-girlfriend did him wrong and doing his best to demonstrate his ridiculous bravado. I just thought, please, please don’t let my nephew become that kind of man.

  • votvik82

    I’ve often wondered about this and wondered how much of it is biology and how much culture. From a sexual competition standpoint it would make some sort of sense for young men to goad each other into doing dangerous stupid things (a bit like deer growing huge anters) both because surviving ment prooving suitability, but also because their mates might die and they would loose some of the competition.

    Natural or not, we don’t have to keep doing thins these ways. Young men need to know about the structures they are growing up in and that there are real choices in how to be a man.

  • sporenda

    interesting text, but a tad too complacent:

    ” I lay the blame at the feet of the whole culture of masculinity; they are the ones who lit the wick.”

    Sure the pressures are enormous but it’s not like the surrounding culture, in Canada or the US, offers no other option to men than destructive masculinity.
    Men have real choices, and what the article doesn’t underline enough, is that they choose machismo not just because they are raised in a macho culture but mostly due to the many benefits-material, social, psychological–of being a real man. They WANT to be alpha males because of all the perks they get.
    The choices available to the members of the dominant class are real and should not be equated with the limited “choices” available to women.
    There is no reason to excuse men for endorsing this blatantly perverse and dangerous ideology, or then we should excuse all Germans for having been nazis.

  • benwbarker

    Thanks for republishing, Meghan and Feminist Current!

    In response to the above comments, I fully agree with your constructive criticism. I hope the article didn’t come off as suggesting men are, in any way, oppressed for being men. And while I think men have a particular and unique obligation to stopping violence perpetrated by other men, I think it should always be within the framework of a women-led feminist movement.

  • sporenda


    My reaction was only meant to underline that men chosing violent masculinity is not just about being pressured by society : it’s about embracing it enthusiastically for the many perks you get by doing so, too numerous to list them here.
    It’s about chosing to be a bastard because of the power and numerous advantages you get in return.
    To speak symbolically, it’s a pact with the devil, and whoever enters in such a pact always loses in the end–as you underline it. But if you lose, it’s because you have badly compromised your ethics to start with.

    Whereas women are just pressured into femininity, period; because there are hardly any perks that go with it.

    • benwbarker

      I hear you, and agree. Men are certainly complicit in the process and certainly to blame for their own actions. That said, my goal in the article was to express that I don’t think men are biologically set to violate, but rather culturally so. And therefore, boys are innocent human beings until deformed into otherwise.

    • Me

      I would say it’s more of a literal pact with the devil. You take the/a devil into yourself and become him. And the more you do, the less clear it is who’s to gain and how much “you” lose yourself. The devil is a sort of a parasite, with no life force of his own, who can consume us and turn us into parasites of other “lesser” beings.

      It’s very harmful that men and women conflate masculinity with personhood, equating sympathy for the person with sympathy for his masculinity/his gender. Just saying, not that I thought anyone was saying otherwise.

      I’m not sure I’d go along with boys being innocent human beings, because that smacks of gender essentialism to me. Not because that’s how I think you meant it Ben, but because that’s a kind of an escape for some people, for women in particular, something small but significant to redeem masculinity by. “Men were still good as boys” kind of thing. Instead of fully trying to break out of the primary identification with men and imagine something else, one tries to find in boys a way to hold on to that identification, while acknowledging at the surface some of the things men do when those things become too much to sweep under the rug.

    • polarcontrol

      Sure there are many perks that go with (performing) femininity, and complying makes your days run more smoothly in many ways. But the thing is, these perks mainly come from those who have (are in a position of) power, ie. mostly men, and choose to reward your compliance. There is no real empowerment here, as the perks perks are dependent on the woman pleasing the men.
      Whereas women “choosing” to reward men for masculinity (I don’t know how much this happens) is actually often explained by their structurally inferior position which pushes them to do so. It’s a vicious circle!

    • Francois Tremblay

      I would question the idea of “choice” in the first place. Did you choose to be a radical feminist? Could you choose not to be? I certainly could not. And I would think this is all the more true in issues like one’s core personality, which attracts or does not attract any given man to masculinity, or attracts or does not attract any given woman to femininity, and everything that goes with it.

  • Jacqueline

    Great piece. Reminds me of Kathleen Barry’s latest analysis in Unmaking War, Remaking Men. Thought of my little nephew, who I wish I could shield, and the friend who cried imagining that her little son might grow up to be a batterer like his father.

  • J M

    Wow, Ben. Wow…

    This is absolutely amazing. It is such a poignant picture of what our community’s standards of “manhood” and “masculitiy” have done to the people we know. I remember when I heard the news of your friend’s passing. I remember that feeling, the wave of numbness and confusion that comes from out of nowhere when someone you know dies. He and I hadn’t gotten along very well, for many of the reasons you wrote about, but that didn’t make the sudden disappearance of him from the world any less upsetting or tragic. I’m sorry for your loss. And in the wake of that death, we have continued to lose friends, loved ones, allies, etc., at the hands of the violent and sociopathic men produced by a culture that is so tumultuous, so shamelessly hateful, and so self-destructive.

    I’m a man, and I’m okay with that. I embrace my masculinity. It is simply a part of who I am. This is not, in my estimation, the experience of most men.

    I believe that – for most men – masculinity is something to be contended with. Masculinity is something to be constantly checked and adjusted; to be held up to and compared against some intangible, invisible, and yet immovable standard. For so many men, it seems, masculinity is some strange mold into which a malleable and molten human identity is poured and hardened. Why are we so happy to pour ourselves into that mold, when we haven’t – for even a second – stopped to think what the purpose of it was? I was blessed to be raised up as a man by a strong and independant mother, free of much of the pressure and pain that my peers felt from their fathers. I remember watching some of the other boys cry as their fathers yelled at them and smacked them around in the middle of the little league parking lot after a lost game. It still leaves me speechless. My masculinity is, so far as I can tell, the kind that simply emerges out of a boy at it’s own pace; at his own pace. That is why it is such a small and rather unimportant aspect of who I am in comparison with the other parts of my identity. It is the kind of masculinity that values empathy and respect. It is the kind of masculinity that must be constantly checked and adjusted, not against other men, but in harmony with everything else.

    I am a man, and I’m okay with that, but I refuse to accept a culture that tells me that my masculinity obliges me to be violent. I refuse to accept a place in a culture of manhood that is simultaneously self-destructive and self-perpetuating.

    I’m kind of ready for manhood to die.

  • sporenda

    “Sure there are many perks that go with (performing) femininity, and complying makes your days run more smoothly in many ways.”

    I don’t see many of these perks: men give a few crumbs to compliant women but they keep the loaf for themselves.
    At least in the past, women were taken care of financially in exchange for sexual and domestic service and birthing children, now lots of them are doing it for free.
    Sometimes I am not so sure about women having gained much from sexual liberation/liberalism: it might be seen as men’s liberation more than women’s.

    “Did you choose to be a radical feminist? Could you choose not to be? I ”

    Yes I could choose to be a handmaiden, it’s definitely a fundamental choice that all women have to make: to be on men’s side, or on their own.

    • Francois Tremblay

      Could you really convince yourself to become a handmaiden tomorrow, or are you just saying that? It’s easy to say it when you don’t have to try.

    • lizor

      “Yes I could choose to be a handmaiden, it’s definitely a fundamental choice that all women have to make”

      I’m glad you said that. It’s a truth that tends to get buried in the fantasies of atomized individuality and “my feminism is whatever I choose it to be”.

      While I know that many/most of us live a complex combinations of compliance (hopefully occasional – for survival) and resistance, it is an essential choice that has repercussions for everyone else.

    • Grackle

      Beautifully put, and appreciated too.

  • sporenda

    Thanks for your insightful comment lizor.

    We all have to be handmaidens sometime; as we have said elsewhere, most women can’t thrive or even survive in patriarchal societies without men’s approval.
    But there is a difference between just pretending to be a handmaiden to get ahead or just survive, and being mentally colonized and throughly male identified.

    That, I have never done (I think). Because I have never taken conventional masculinity seriously, I have always seen it as an imposture, a crock.
    Someone said elsewhere on the site that “real men” are whiny babies posturing as Superman (the quote is not verbatim). I have seen this early on in my father, and macho shenanigans and posturing never interested me nor impressed me.

    François: “Could you really convince yourself to become a handmaiden tomorrow, or are you just saying that? It’s easy to say it when you don’t have to try.”

    No, but at some time, I was faced with this type of dilemma: get ahead faster careerwise if I sided with men–in a sexual harassment case where I worked.
    The “harassers” asked me if I could certify that their behavior with women was A-ok. and hinted that if I did, there would be professional rewards in it for me.
    I did not testify first because I hated those guys and had been a target although much less than lower ranking, defenseless women. And also because I knew that the promotion that they (sort of) promised, they would not deliver it.
    Some women believed them, vouched for them, and got nothing in return of their betrayal. Just scorn from other women–and lower self esteem, I suppose.

    This anecdote to show that most women have to make this decision in a very concrete way at some time in their lives.

    • Me

      Also for women in relationships with batterers and sexually abusive men, especially when they have children, it’s very complicated. Questions of risk, responsibility, choice and shame for instance. As a man it’s much easier to think of all that in the abstract.

  • Laur

    Hi Ben.,

    I didn’t feel this piece was as strong as some of your other writing. For one thing, I don’t see many specific examples of how what happened to your friend was due to *masculinity*. There is a mention of guns, but that’s it.

    In a general sense, it does remind me of some MRA writing where the menz wail over “the lost era” of boyz and menz bonding.

    Where are women in this piece? I see hardly any mention of us and what we lose in this war. I think it’s fine, when talking to men, to talk *some* about what men lose. Men, as a group, are already used to thinking about what benefits them,because the status quo benefits them. They are not used to considering women, as a group, as actually having opinions and, goddess forbid–feelings!! In a mixed group setting, I could easily see women, who are so used to caring for men, interpret your talk as, “we must have feminism to save men!!!” Which of course, does not mean feminism at all, but perhaps some status-quo loving “humanism”.

  • Benjamin

    A troubled mind tries to cope with growing up by finding solace in all the wrong places and somehow this can all be tacked onto MASCULINITY? Sometimes perspective is good, and I think a larger dose could do you some good.

  • Guy Looking Into Feminism

    I disagree with masculinity being the problem here, I think hyper-masculinity is the issue. Actually, the standards our society sets for men, it helps to feed the hate and violence toward women and men.

  • ptittle

    (a poem by chris wind)

    masculinity kills

    this is for the sixteen-year-old boy
    a daredeveil debutante
    whose body flipped over his Evel Knievel bike and
    snapped like a twig

    this is for all the suits
    corporate climbers
    who fell thirty stories off the ladder
    when the coronary hit

    and this is for every man the military made –
    they were right:
    there’s no life