Blizzard Entertainment recently confirmed that the character of Soldier: 76 (from the video game Overwatch) is gay. The internet, being the internet, had a wide variety of responses to this. Some of these were Social Justice Warriors cheering. Some people considered it a PR stunt on Blizzard’s part to distract from the embarassing “Ellie” incident in the Overwatch eSports community. Some of these were the yawns of people who don’t really care too much about the sex lives of fictional characters.
But there was a a set of responses to the reveal which, frankly, were rather unpleasant and unjustified. Some people argued that Blizzard had somehow ruined Overwatch forever (even though this change does nothing at all to the gameplay), and some people who played as Soldier: 76 ingame reacted in ways that indicated they felt personally insulted and demeaned by the reveal.
These responses are telling. They evidence what Professor Eric Anderson, who spoke at 2018’s International Conference on Men’s Issues (see https://youtu.be/yUVqHsNMSUA?t=4) referred to as Homohysteria (see Anderson, 2011). However, whilst the concept of Homohysteria originated from a pro-feminist background, the concept is valuable for men’s rights advocates. When viewed in light of the concept of Precarious Manhood (see Vandello and Bosson, 2013), the homohysteric reactions toward the reveal of Soldier: 76’s sexual orientation evidence something much more complicated than simple bigotry of the “I hate queers” form; rather, we see a paranoia about being socially emasculated that ultimately is based on Precarious Manhood. Precarious Manhood is something society inflicts upon men, not something that “men” collectively are responsible for. Homohysteria is thus something men can be fairly described as victims of.
Homohysteria and Precarious Manhood
Homohysteria is a concept which arises to explain a paradox: in certain countries that have extremely traditionalist gender norms (moreso than the West) and have not had prominent political movements that challenge such norms, men can experience more behavioral freedom in terms of how they act. For example, in many parts of the Arab world, two men holding hands is considered a socially-acceptable gesture of friendship. Extensive self-care and ornamental dress, typically restricted to women in the West, is practiced by many men in non-Western cultures and is perfectly consistent with their culture’s ideal of masculinity.
How can men be more liberated, in certain respects, in cultures that are arguably more repressive on gender lines than the West?
The answer is homohysteria. In these traditionalist cultures, it is presumed that no one is gay; they see homosexuality as a particularly Western degeneracy that doesn’t exist in their culture. As such, a man from their culture can act in any way without being presumed to be gay. In the West, on the other hand, we believe that not only does homosexuality exist but that homosexuality is socially emasculating for males; a man whom is gay or bisexual is no longer a “real man.”
As the notion of precarious manhood points out, “real manhood” is an earned social status which one must not merely assert but socially prove, defend and have socially validated; it is something others grant to you (I made this same point in Summa Genderratica (http://honeybadgerbrigade.com/2014/02/27/summa-genderratica-the-anatomy-of-the-gender-system/) in different terms; “masculinity” is seen as a platonic form rather than an innate essence). You must act in ways that prove you are a real man, which means you must act in a way that evidences your straightness. You must loudly assert your heterosexuality and heterosexual accomplishments. You must avoid any behaviors or characteristics which are associated with homosexuality, because homosexuality is emasculating.
If homosexuality is seen as either not real or not emasculating or not correlated with any particular kinds of social/cultural behaviors/preferences, homohysteria cannot flourish and men enjoy more freedom in terms of their social/cultural behaviors/preferences. But the West believes that homosexuality is a real thing, that it does make a man unmanly, and that it is correlated with a specific set of social/cultural preferences (fashion, ‘diva’ pop singers, Broadway and general fabulousness). This creates a breeding ground for homohysteria; because men have to consistently prove their masculinity (and thus heterosexuality) to other people in order to be socially accepted as real men, they must ruthlessly avoid any social/cultural behavior/preference socially seen as indicative of homosexuality.
This fosters an absolutely paranoid level of gender-policing (both self-policing and the policing of others). Thus, where manhood is precarious and homohysteria exists, men’s roles will be very rigid in terms of social/cultural behaviors/preferences.
The Offended, “Betrayed” Player
Overwatch is a “hero shooter” that portrays all of its characters as having specific and developed personalities. Whilst a game with a user-customized or blank-slate protagonist can easily reflect who the player sees themselves as and/or would like to see themselves as, specific and developed characters in a video game can be identified with or disidentified with similarly to characters in traditional fictions. This likely impacts which character a player chooses to play; even if they may have specific preferences in terms of gameplay style, they may prefer to play a character whom they identify with more than a character who matches their playstyle more closely.
As I argued in Towards A New Nerd Culture (http://honeybadgerbrigade.com/2015/08/28/towards-a-new-nerd-culture/), Nietzsche was right and people tend to relate to characters that serve as flattering and idealized self-portraits. Alternatively, for people who do not have a high level of esteem for the kind of person they are, they will fantasize about being a very different kind of person, one more in alignment with their values. Let us call these two kinds of identification “validational identification” and “aspirational identification.” In many cases these two processes work together (a character may be seen as validating in several respects yet aspirational in others). In brief, people validationally identify with characters whom are positively-portrayed versions of themselves, and aspirationally identify with characters who they wish they could be. The former celebrates aspects of themselves, whereas the latter provides an escape from disowned aspects of themselves.
To put it bluntly, many men whom are deeply involved in video games are socially considered “nerds” or “losers” or other kinds of “not real men.” This is not to insult them nor to agree with how society treats them (I very much oppose social emasculation), but rather to point out that these men have experienced the pain of social emasculation and are intimately aware of just how precarious ‘real manhood’ can be. Many of these men play video games as a so-called ‘male power fantasy,’ although it would be more accurate to describe these fantasies as ‘masculinization fantasies.’ They are aspirational fantasies of having “real manhood” and being a “real man” according to society’s standards. There is a market for these fantasies precisely because of the precarious nature of “real manhood.”
And so, we have a bunch of men who are in some respects not traditionally masculine and who know it and have been treated accordingly. In order to escape their sense of humiliation and emasculation, they engage in something which gives them the opportunity to feel “worthy” and “socially acceptable” and a “good man.” Some of them did so through the use of Soldier: 76 as an avatar. Because the character is traditionally masculine in terms of mannerisms and appearance and cultural inclinations (at least from what we have currently seen), Soldier: 76 served as a character whom this kind of player could aspirationally identify with. Everything about the character, as interpreted within our homohysteric cultural norm that sees muscular military manliness as heterosexual, indicated that Soldier: 76 was straight (even though, from a strict textualist viewpoint, nothing at all was actually said about the character’s sexual orientation at the time).
Then the reveal occurred, and the fantasies of several players were essentially invalidated. Because our society socially emasculates males with same-sex attractions, Soldier: 76 could no longer serve as someone with whom the socially emasculated could aspirationally identify with. As such, this left only one kind of way in which the character could be identified with; validational identification, however, implies similarities between the character and the player, which is precisely what inflames homohysteria. In brief, the character had to be disidentified with, because identifying with that character would be thought of as a sign that one is homosexual and therefore a “not-real-man.”
And this explains why some people are feeling “betrayed” and personally insulted by this. In essence, they feel that they were victims of a nasty prank that splattered “the gay” all over them and thus sliced off their scrotum.
Even though this is ridiculous from a rational perspective, we must remember that traditional gender norms are not rational.
Men As Homohysteria’s Victims
Most feminist perspectives operate on the position that the gender roles were created by men, for men, and are enforced by men, and thus any aspect of the gender roles which inconveniences or inflicts suffering upon men is ultimately their own fault. Such a perspective gives men only one piece of advice: “stop hitting yourselves.”
But both sexes co-constructed (and continue to co-construct) the gender norms. Both sexes can enforce and police these norms. It is likely that these norms were not instituted for men’s benefit, but rather due to the economic challenges of survival and thriving that humanity faced for the majority of its existence. Not to mention the fact that everyone is socialized into these gender norms and the socialization process is not performed on consenting adults but rather impressionable children. This is a situation in which blame is almost impossible to assign; no one chooses to be born into a culture where manhood is precarious and homohysteria is rampant.
Not to mention, it is men who bear the majority of the costs of homophobia and, therefore, homohysteria: lesbians are rarely the target of gay-bashings in the west, were not systematically persecuted by the Nazis, are not stereotyped as predators out to rape children or disease vectors, are stigmatized substantially less in religious texts, and often didn’t have their sexual practices criminalized in historic sodomy statutes (see http://honeybadgerbrigade.com/2016/03/30/gay-men-are-not-oppressed-really/). Not only that, but due to the fact that femininity is seen as an innate essence whereas masculinity is conceptualized as a platonic form, women’s behaviors are rarely seen as being socially defeminizing; compare the treatment of the tomboy (normal, socially accepted, ‘just a phase’ and nothing to worry about) to the ‘sissy boy’ (whom is seen as homosexual and in need of having the femininity beaten out of him) to see the point. Women have more behavioral latitude, whereas men have to keep behaving in certain ways (and avoid behaving in others) in order to keep demonstrating their “real manhood”/heterosexuality. Homohysteria disproportionately constrains men.
The feminist and social justice movement’s reactions to homohysteria and precarious manhood are inherently counterproductive. Things like #MasculinitySoFragile work out to mocking and shaming men who, through no fault of their own, are trying to hold together a fragile sense of real manhood; damaging that sense of real manhood will not help them.
The same is true of homohysteria. Screaming loudly at an homohysteric that they are a homophobe will not cure homohysteric paranoia, as homophobia can exist in the absense of homohysteria. Not to mention, mocking a man for being ‘insecure’ over the sexuality of a fictional character is itself impugning that man’s “real manhood” (as real men must never be insecure), which only rubs salt in the wound.
There are several possible solutions in terms of societal attitudes. Whilst queer visibility means homosexuality will always be seen as a real thing, homohysteria would vanish if either homosexuality were seen as consistent with “real manhood” or if there were no stereotypical cultural/behavioral associations made for any particular sexual orientation.
But the radical solution, ultimately, would be the abolition of Precarious Manhood entirely. The entire need for heteromasculine aspirational figures is predicated upon men in need of a sense of masculine worth that society does not let them have. Male insecurities are not self-inflicted wounds but rather burdens society unjustly places on men. Mocking or shaming men for these insecurities only aggravates them. Because we are dealing with deeply-ingrained socialization to protect one’s “real manhood” rather than a simplistic arbitrary malicious animus against gay men, simply ordering men to “stop being homophobes” is ineffective.
As a bisexual man, I tend to have an initially positive predisposition to any queer male representation that doesn’t rely on cheap stereotypes and is written with tact and skill. However, as a men’s human rights advocate, I can understand how a small number of men would’ve felt that this particular situation constituted a particularly nasty invalidation of their own fantasies that reached the threshold of a personal attack.
In our culture, men’s “real manhood” is a precarious status they must earn from others and have continuously validated. Those who are not able to do so, or do so consistently, will often fill the gap with aspirational fantasies as a way to fill the void. Invalidations of their fantasies will be treated as attacks on their sense of self-worth (for the female equivalent, look at how Twilight fangirls responded to criticism of the character of Bella Swan). In our culture, homosexuality socially emasculates a man and homohysteria heightens paranoia about being perceived as homosexual. Even though there is no legitimate complaint to be made about the reveal of Soldier: 76’s sexuality on the basis of writing technique, a small number of presumably male players took the reveal as a personal attack that impugned their masculinity. Their reaction, whilst regrettable, is comprehensible given the disdain our culture has for male queerness combined with how homohysteria mandates that men relentlessly prove their heterosexuality.
Part of me wonders if the writers at Blizzard deliberately made Soldier: 76 gay and postponed the reveal for this long precisely to trigger this reaction. But I don’t think that inflaming homohysteria and intensifying a sense of social emasculation will actually do anything to encourage any man to question the gender norms, particularly when mocking “fragile straight male egos” implicitly reinforces such norms. Anyone who wants to truly dismantle homophobia and homohysteria should oppose Precarious Manhood, instead.
Anderson (2011); “The Rise and Fall of Western Homohysteria,” Journal of Feminist Scholarship, v1, p80-94. Viewable online at http://www.jfsonline.org/issue1/pdfs/AndersonFINAL.pdf
Vandello and Bosson (2013); “Hard Won and Easily Lost: A Review and Synthesis of Theory and Research on Precarious Manhood,” Psychology of Men & Masculinity, v14:2, p101-113. Viewable online at https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/men-a0029826.pdf