The Night King, toxic masculinity and our contradictory culture

It’s hard to read social media today, or basically any Western media, without coming across discussions about “toxic masculinity.”

King of the White Walkers from 'Game of Thrones'. (photo credit: REUTERS)
King of the White Walkers from 'Game of Thrones'.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"The Night King is the supreme leader of the White Walkers, having existed since the age of the First Men,” is the description of a Game of Thrones character at a Fandom Wikia site. For those unfamiliar with the blue-eyed, leather-wearing Night King in the TV series Game of Thrones, he is a rarely seen but essential figure who leads an army of ice-like men called “White Walkers” and others who have been raised from the dead.
In terms of today’s discussion on popular culture, essentially the Night King represents toxic masculinity in a show that is otherwise known for strong female leads, including characters like Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Olenna Tyrell, Ellaria Sand, Yara Greyjoy, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, etc. We’ve become used to accusations of toxic masculinity overflowing in our culture, whether in shows such as Westworld, which seems to be one long rape scene, or discussions about the remake of Lord of the Flies.
As Liz Raftery notes at TvGuide reviewing Mr. Mercedes, the toxic masculinity embodied by one character “is a common trait seen in real people.” These are “angry young white men who reinforce their feelings of hatred and sense of entitlement through online forums and virtual harassment of others. In the most extreme cases that rage spills over into real action which often results in mass casualties.”
It’s hard to read social media today, or basically any Western media, without coming across discussions about “toxic masculinity.” From an explanation of football at “His paycheck is coming from a sport that promotes toxic masculinity and supports men of color getting concussions and dying.” Sports in general is infused with “toxic masculinity,” which is the “construction of gender roles around men that encourages abusive behaviors and discourages emotional development,” writes Patrick O’Connel at The Carolinian.
Robert Webb, a British comedian, has been speaking out about the issue as well. “It is clear this kind of gender conditioning creates a home filled with terror for everyone and perpetuates the troubling idea that an alpha-male is superior and has a right to own and control people. It creates a cycle of toxic masculinity that is insidious,” writes Katie Gross, in an article about Webb. In an article about the comedian Lil Duval, activist Andy Marra says “men of all backgrounds need to collectively reimagine their masculinity.” John Legend, the musician, says that part of the problem comes from the fact that male dominated jobs and roles are disappearing. “The coal miner or factory worker jobs in the Midwest where I grew up are disappearing. So a lot of men who used to hold those [traditional] roles are now asking ‘what is my role in the world?’ and they feel a sense of powerlessness,” according to a new article interviewing Legend at BET.
Now, let’s return to Game of Thrones and the Night King and consider how he fits the mold. He was a member of the fictional “first men” who invaded Westeros, a large island that sort of resembles medieval Britain. The First Men slaughtered the indigenous people of Westeros, who were known as the Children of the Forest. To try to stop them one of these forest people turned one of the First Men into the Night King. If there is anything that reeks of entitlement it is this ice-like white supremacist character leading an army of “White Walkers” – a thinly veiled reference to white nationalism – against the diverse peoples of Westeros, who are led primarily by women. The Night King is the embodiment not only of patriarchy, but also of male rage at a changing world in which globalization and diversity have led to major changes. In many ways we can see these challenges in our current times.
The problem is that the pastiche clichés found in the story of the Night King and his army of unthinking undead blobs of male aggression are so perfectly repackaged by major media today. They are repackaged both by those who represent “toxic masculinity” and those who ostensibly oppose it. As much as John Legend wants to talk about coal miners, most Americans in the past couple of generations have not grown up mining coal or working in factories. Most of those making popular culture today were raised in an America or Europe that was tolerant of homosexuality and diversity, and also gravitate toward an elite part of the culture which prizes acceptance and fights stereotypes. So any “toxic masculinity” found in major TV shows or movies cannot be the result of “coal miners” wondering about their role in the world and making movies, and is probably the result of proudly progressive, open-minded men and women who don’t think alpha males are superior and yet perpetuate our “toxic” male culture.
If we compare Westworld or Mad Men or any other hundreds of movies and TV shows today with shows from the 1950s and 1960s such as Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or 12 Angry Men, we find more diversity and complexity in male characters 60 years ago. Even shows today that are set in the past create less nuanced masculine performances than shows from the period. Pause and think about that. There was less “toxic masculinity” decades ago than today. Male characters in popular culture, or in the music industry with such performers as R Kelly are more connected to “toxic masculinity” today than in the past.
So how do we explain this? Men today searching for “manly” pursuits tend to do so only in cookie-cutter fashion, searching for an imagined past and adopting pieces of it. That is also why “alpha male” characters on TV or elsewhere are often clichéd and one-dimensional. A bizarre example of this comes from Munroe Bergdorf, a model who wrote a Facebook post castigating white people. “Your entire existence is drenched in racism, from micro-aggressions to’s inherited and consciously or unconsciously passed down through privilege. Once white people begin to admit that their race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on earth, then we can talk.”
Strong words that don’t leave much wiggle room. If you’re “white” and male, you’re evil. But what does Western culture do with this binary it has created? On the one hand it talks a lot about the evils of masculinity and “whiteness.” On the other hand Western countries are today the most diverse in the world.
Consider the fact that toxic masculinity and supremacism is the law of the land in Iran, Saudi Arabia and many other countries, and then ask what is happening in places like the US where we are constantly told to imagine legions of “angry white men” who are all supposedly former coal miners. Go watch the 1978 classic The Deer Hunter and realize even in those years coal mining was a dying industry. Despite depicting actual coal miners, the film had more complex male characters than most movies today. Every person in the West today was raised in diverse, globalized societies, yet we funnel them increasingly into a stereotypes that neither existed in 1950 nor in such simplistic form today. We search for toxic masculinity in the very places it is least likely to exist, and then make movies about it so that we can keep perpetuating notions of it.
Consider the new BBC show White Gold and its faux-male chauvinist sales team of the 1980s. It’s like a nicer version of Wolf of Wall Street. We are enthralled with these period dramas because in some bizarre, contradictory way our culture is both fascinated by misogyny and ostensibly seeking to challenge it. Consider the disproportionate number of women in film who are either strippers or prostitutes. The new HBO series The Deuce will look at New York City in the 1970 and ‘80s, focusing on pornography and prostitution. Those who suffered through the massage parlor glorification in The Client List will feel at home.
Are you confused? We are fed a non-stop pastiche of big chauvinist white males and women depicted as prostitutes and then critics of mass culture complain about “toxic masculinity.” The very same entertainers who feed us toxic masculinity are the ones who then oppose it on talk shows and interviews. It’s a little like Game of Thrones. At one and the same time, it is a celebration of male vigor and male abuse of women, with knights and nobles and rape and brothels, and also a show about complex women characters who all end up running most of the known world, while the ape-like men with their swords die in battle.
Except the Night King. He represents the last gasp of toxic masculinity and his hordes of white walkers the ever-present fear of a new rising white supremacism. But in the end Westeros will be conquered by effete, cruel slave traders and Dothraki hordes anyway. Game of Thrones offers us a strange parable on the lack of complexity and nuance in our society’s discussion about race and gender. The more complex Western societies have become, and the more accepting, the more they imagine themselves living in a simplistic time with traditional bogeymen. The more we deconstruct gender and masculinity, the more toxic masculinity we seem to have.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman