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  • Author or Editor: Karen Lee Ashcraft x
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This chapter develops a sociophysical model of gender. It starts by condensing the purposeful venting from the previous chapter into five ‘bad’ habits of gender analysis and ways to break them. It then explains how these habits hold us back, by affirming a foundational binary that values certain people and things over others, to the detriment of all involved. The chapter captures this harm with concepts crucial to the rest of the book, such as the practice of “Othering” and the gender binary’s sacred trinity, which consists of the “universal subject,” “Western Man,” and “the self-contained individual.” These are three renditions of the same fantasy, a quest for impermeable Man that is not sustainable because our bodies are, in fact, permeable. In place of the gender binary, the chapter advocates gender biodiversity and builds a corresponding model of gender as a defining force in the world. This approach sensitizes us to the daily contact we make with gender and its less conscious, sensory aspects. Where Chapter 2 deconstructs, Chapter 3 reconstructs in order to equip the reader with fresh gender knowledge and skill.

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This chapter begins the work of dismantling the gender binary. It does so through a popular narrative about gender and leadership that resurfaced during COVID-19, which contrasted the bungled response of populist “strongmen” with the success of governments led by women. Reacting to this narrative in an intentionally emotive way, the chapter both shows how it recycles ‘common sense’ ideas about gender and evokes frustration at the dead ends where ideas like this lead. To get out of these culs-de-sac, we can stop treating ‘men’ and ‘women’ as the given starting point of gender analysis. A better opening question is how apparent men and women come to be, or how they happen in everyday life. The chapter redefines gender as mundane encounters that become real and compelling by continuing to happen.

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This chapter identifies the ‘hard versus soft’ binary as a major way we carve up the world. We use this binary to differentiate things and secure their relative nature and value—as strong versus weak, for example. Through ‘hard and soft,’ we come to think of the material world as separate from the social realm, the former rigid against the latter’s flexibility. The chapter introduces an alternative to this common division, a sociophysical approach that regards life’s social and material dimensions as one—indivisible and mutually influential in shaping the world. It then reveals that the ‘hard–soft’ split is the gender binary. This core dualism inhibits our thinking and yields significant real-world consequences. To better understand contemporary populism, we must let go of the gender binary. Part I seeks to upgrade our gender analytical skills accordingly.

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The conclusion returns to key questions that opened the book, such as what aggrieved masculinity is grieving, and whether this might be addressed without giving in to its grievances. The chapter answers, respectively, (a) the dying myth of self-containment and (b) yes, by finally addressing the fact of our permeability. The New Populist pufferfish must go, which means the circuits of aggrieved masculinity must somehow be interrupted. To do so, the chapter proposes a partner for critical thinking: critical feeling, which adopts a pandemic frame to mitigate the transmission of viral masculinity. Whereas critical thinking confronts communication at the ‘front door’ of awareness, critical feeling confronts communicability through the ‘side doors,’ those peripheral bodily entrances that are both less conscious and less guarded. In this way, it enacts lateral empathy. Critical feeling is the next front of cultural warfare. Neither hard nor soft, it melts their distinction. This is ‘critical’ indeed, a show of respect to our sociophysical world.

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Is populism fueled by a feeling of manhood under attack? If gender is the impetus, are there better ways to respond? This book upends prevailing wisdom about contemporary populism. Whereas most attribute its global rise to socioeconomic shifts, this book makes the case for a different cause by taking seriously the prevalence of certain men and manly energies in today’s populist politics. Aggrieved masculinity is the shared feeling at the heart of these movements, and their worldwide outbreak should be reread accordingly—as a sign that a seething sense of “manly right, wronged” has gone viral and global. COVID-19 delivered a stark warning about this pandemic of manly outrage: It endangers public health. This book introduces “viral masculinity” as a novel way to meet that growing threat by tackling the deep connection of our social and physical worlds. Leading with gender without leaving class, race, and other vital factors behind, the book develops a new course of action toward populism today. It compels us to ask not what populism says, but how it spreads, and to realign our efforts accordingly. You need not know or care about gender to get invested in this analysis. You need only be invested in our common future.

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Armed with a new sense of gender from Part I, this chapter delves into that ‘thing’ called populism which is growing around the globe. The chapter sets the task of Part II: to develop a better ‘feel’ for contemporary populism. Key questions include what sort of feeling defines populism, whether it’s cause for concern and what kind, who are ‘we’ to say so, and are expressions of concern inherently anti-populist? Following the thread from the COVID-19 lockdown protests through the January 6 US Capitol riot, an energetic signature is discernible: victimized anger in search of more outlets. Is this a populist uprising, after all?

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This chapter exercises the analytical ‘muscles’ developed in the previous chapter. It applies the sociophysical approach to a second narrative about gender during COVID-19: “mask-ulinity,” or the notion that men resist face-covering more than women. The chapter analyzes a mask-ulinity incident that went viral in 2020 and rejects the popular reading that toxic masculinity, or ‘bad’ gender ideology, is what leads men to such actions. A sociophysical approach rereads mask-ulinity like this: Wearing a mask stirs an unnerving physical sensation of permeability for bodies accustomed (or ‘entitled’) to feeling impermeable. The chapter illustrates how feelings of gender come upon us, such that ‘the smile makes the woman’ and ‘the outburst makes the man’—reversing how we usually think of it. People are not entirely aware or in control when it comes to feeling gender.

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This chapter delves into how aggrieved masculinity intensified after it was declared all but extinct. The chapter suggests that the online culture wars of the late 2000s and 2010s better illuminate the rise of New Populism than the socioeconomic and demographic shifts marked in Chapter 11, though all of these are involved. During this period, the “manosphere” (the online phase of anti-feminist men’s movements) became a major political player. The manosphere cultivated the focus on Western Man under siege and perfected the edgy, countercultural vibe that fuels New Populism today. The chapter identifies the manosphere as the ‘super-spreader’ of New Populism. This is neither technological determinism nor a linear account of cause (why, for what reason, or in response to what event). Instead, this is the version of cause introduced in Chapter 12 (how, or on what electricity, does something move). The manosphere propels New Populism’s global surge with a transnational economy of attention and amplification.

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Part IV explores how aggrieved masculinity continues to multiply exponentially and what to do about it. The chapter proposes to treat it as an actual, not merely metaphorical, pandemic of feeling. To start, we must admit what COVID-19 exposed: that manly grievance has become a public health problem. This chapter makes that case, demonstrating how violence motivated by aggrieved masculinity, often targeted toward Others, poses a generalized risk, as evident in US mass shooting patterns. Climate denial and destruction, also linked to aggrieved masculinity, endanger public health as well. The rise of New Populist “anger management” (from Chapter 10) exacerbates the public health threat by turning manly grievance into policy. Any residual hard–soft division—between class and culture wars, for example—is shattered by this chapter, which shows how New Populist culture wars endanger everyone, including the very men they seek to benefit.

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In light of the last chapter, this one considers the limitations of “toxic” and recommends “viral masculinity” as a metaphor suited to the challenge ahead. A poison control frame does not address the transnational movement of manly grievance because it concentrates on the substance (ideology) instead of how it gets passed around (feeling). Viral mitigation better captures a pandemic of feeling and redirects focus accordingly: from stopping individual ingestion to slowing communal transmission. Viral masculinity is more than a metaphor, in fact. Short of a biomedical virus, it is a physical transfer of social feeling through bodies, technologies, and other material means. Aggrieved masculinity is a genuine sociophysical pandemic.

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