Illustration: Lehel Kovacs
By Johanne Engel Aaen, Junior Researcher
On a Saturday in October I am sitting at home, in my bed, getting ready to watch a YouTube video. Nothing out of the ordinary in that scenario.
Still, I am having this particular YouTube-session for a reason. I’ve been postponing it for some time, everyday struggles of being alive getting in the way, but now I am ready to try and dive deeper into my project as a Junior Researcher. I have decided to focus on ‘traditional’ masculinity in an online context, with my research question at the moment being:
How is traditional and/or toxic masculine identity portrayed, performed and conveyed on social media? Why or how does this expression of gender speak to a younger generation of men?
I am particularly interested in toxic masculinity and in trying to understand why there are some men who seem to hate women so fundamentally and why a more traditional idea of masculinity seems to have an upsurge, flourishing in particularly online.
To help me try and understand this, I am looking at two men whose online presence have gained them a lot of attention, influence and followers.
One of these men is the kick-boxer, turned reality star, turned online motivational speaker, turned shady business man, the one and only Andrew Tate (AT).
AT is one of the more extreme characters that have gained somewhat mainstream attention. In August of 2022 he was banned from almost all major social media platforms due to hateful and misogynist content. Simultaneously his accounts on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram were dismantled, his videos at this point having over 1 billion views.
It is AT that brings us to the ordinary Saturday in October where I’m sitting in my bed, laptop in my lap, YouTube open in the browser, a video called The Speech that Broke the Internet ready to be played.
I press play.
It is obvious that this is not an original Andrew Tate video. At least I don’t think so. It is from an account called Motivation Soul and has been edited. In-between snippets of Tate talking to the camera, there are stock-like videos of men in various settings; in offices, on public stairs, gazing into the camera or into the distance, emotional piano music playing in the background.
Screenshot of Andrew Tate from the video The Speech that Broke the Internet. Source: YouTube
In the scenes that are most obviously OG-AT the stage is rather boringly set: he is sitting in a room that looks like a weird bachelor pad. In the background a gigantic, round sofa and what I think is an arcade game. There is nothing spectacular whatsoever about the setting. Just AT talking, rambling about what it takes to be successful as a man. I’m about 2 minutes in, when he says the following:
“A man who’s not dangerous, a man who has no physicality he will never be seen as successful. “Oh, I’m successful. I’m rich.” Yeah, but I’ll break your neck. Look how big my hand is. I’m gonna grab you by your neck and choke you till you die. Who’s successful now?”
I pause the video.
What is happening? Is this for real? I don’t know what I expected, but I’m a bit thrown off, not quite sure how to react. I decide I don’t need my weekend ruined. I close the browser window.
Suppressing the ugly?
Weeks go by. I rewatch the video. I even manage to get through the entire thing. Several times. I watch other videos with AT as well. They are just as awful.
I can feel that I’m going to struggle with how to approach this subject or, more specifically, one of the subjects of my subject. There is a resistance, a resistance that is rooted deep inside me.
Every time I watch a video with, of, or by Andrew Tate, my first response is disgust. My second is anger. Then these feelings morph into ridicule. I mock the statements. The idiocy of the simplifications, the one-dimensional ideas of what success as a man is. The ridiculous self-staging, the megalomaniac attitude of Andrew Tate: on a private plane, in an expensive car, surrounded by men in suits and beautiful women in bikinis, all the while wearing fast sunglasses and smoking a cigar. I mean, seriously, what year are we writing?
Then I catch myself. I recognise this response. It is the kind of disregarding that people tend to do when something is so far out that it is ungraspable. Silence it or make fun of it. Then maybe it doesn’t hold any power or influence. Then maybe, just maybe, it will cease to exist.
So why don’t I just toss AT aside, into the dark abyss of the web, where lunatics who have no effect in “real” life roam?
In her 2020 book Men Who Hate Women Laura Bates describes her undercover journey through various fora on the internet, fora where extreme misogyny flourishes, something she calls the manosphere (Bates, 2022, p. 14). Bates contemplates why she even concerns herself with these fora, discussing whether giving attention to these views is to legitimize them. She describes how she has noticed a change when she gives talks about feminism at schools. The teenage boys increasingly express themselves using some of the rhetoric that Bates recognizes from the manosphere. She argues that by not discussing the existence of these views we counterintuitively can give them a position of being an underdog, an underdog that slowly but steadily finds its way into the general public (ibid., p. 17-18).
There is a risk in simply discarding the existence of people who hold opinions that may seem extreme. The election of Donald Trump as president and the aftermath of his 2020 election loss is just one example. Suppressing or discarding intense emotion, your own or others’, rarely results in resolution. Denying the existence of something, does not make it any less real.
Knowing this, however, doesn’t make the struggle any easier. I need something to help me crack the code, something that makes my own biases tolerable. Or at least acceptable. I have a hard time accepting my biases – I can acknowledge them, but somehow acceptance seems impossible. And perhaps acknowledgement is enough. At least for the purpose of academic research. It still feels unsatisfactory, though.
I understand that one does not necessarily have to have lived understanding of the field, people, etc., that happens to be the subject of an analysis, but my instinctive recoil makes it difficult for me to engage in any prosperous way. I keep asking myself: How can I even begin to approach the question of why someone may be drawn to this kind of masculine expression, when my instinctive and repeated response is: “Well, how could anyone with a brain or a heart?” I ask myself if you can approach hate with hate? At least if you want anything beneficial to come of it?
I agree with myself: No. You can’t.
But the restrictions of academic formality do not help me. I need a way to engage from a less distanced position. Not up-close-and-personal, just a little less distanced.
At a discussion in ETHOS Lab, interpreting the videos through reconstructing and rearranging them is mentioned. Since I have no skills in video editing, this is not a possibility. But I can do something else, I realise. I can turn the speeches into poetry.
One reason for choosing poetry is personal. I come from a background in the arts, more specifically in writing, even more specifically in writing poetry. This is how I have always tried to understand the world. But choosing poetry as a means is not just about me.
Looking at the speeches as merely text makes it possible to peel off some layers in the videos. The voice, the physicality, the sheer confidence with which Andrew Tate speaks, to some extend distracts from what he is actually saying and may to some be alluring and convincing, simply by expressing ‘alpha-male’. By removing these factors, maybe something else will be found in translation.
A poet once told me that to her one of the trademarks of poetry is that it needs to be precise. It has fewer words than prose to do away with, so all excessive descriptions of state-of-mind, setting, etc., needs to be woven into the language and the rhythm of the poem. If the poet was right, poetry can bring forth some of the things that may lie underneath and do this with precision.
I convince myself there must be something underneath the speeches of AT. That no one is this angry for no reason. And maybe this is also expressed, although hidden, woven into the over-the-top, cocky utterings. Through poetry, I will try and approach AT with compassion, I decide. I will try to create compassionate poetry.
Rules and regulations
The steps of compassionate poetry are simple. Transcribe a speech, print it out, cut it up into sentences, and shuffle them together. Then separate them and start looking at the mess you just created. Register what draws your attention, and see if any patterns seem to emerge. Is there anything you notice, any meaning that you can draw from the sentences in front of you?
I realise, that as with all other methods, there needs to be some restrictions and guidelines to follow. Otherwise I might as well “just” write poetry, removed completely from the context and field of inquiry I am trying to grasp. The rules become the following:
- The sentences can occur in any order I choose.
- I can leave out as many sentences as I want, if they are not relevant for the compassionate essence that unfolds from the speech.
- I can make use of line breaks, pauses, repetition, etc., as much as I want to.
- I cannot change the sentences in their essence. I can delete certain words, e.g. an ‘and’ in the beginning of a sentence, but I cannot shuffle the words in such a way that I create whole new sentences. It has to be the language of the subject.
I kick off with the speech that set it all in motion. The speech that broke the internet, that is. I transcribe the first 3 minutes. I follow the rest of the steps. Looking at the sentences all scrambled up, I notice something. There is one phrase that keeps repeating: I need. This phrase is repeated several times with different things listed after it. Things AT claims he already thought he needed when he was as young as 21-22. Seeing these sentences together like this makes it seem almost like a longing. A longing after something that is expected of you. I also notice that he asks a lot of questions. Questions, he doesn’t give answers to, but that just lingers. Questions, that when isolated reads like loneliness.
I interpret, I shuffle, I think and reshuffle, and after a while I end up with the following poem, which has a completely different tone than the original speech, although still being the words of AT:
Screenshot of first attempt at compassionate poetry
The aftermath – where to go from here?
Poetry may to some seem like a silly response to an academic quest. Where does it even belong in an academic context – not as an area of research, but as a methodological approach? My answer to this would be: Poetry requires time. It requires care and contemplation. It requires us to feel, think, and take responsibility for each word, each pause, each repetition that we put into a poem. In this sense, it has a strong connection with academic practice.
So, what has come of all this? Have I become more compassionate towards AT?
I don’t know. Compassion is perhaps a stretch. But working with the content of the speeches with a different, freer, and more playful approach, has at least opened a possible understanding of what could be some of the reasoning behind the pull of people like AT. At least it gives me some patterns to look for when going forward. Patterns such as expectations and vulnerabilities, longing and insecurities. Patterns of humanity. Maybe it is just an experiment that worked well for my own navigation in this specific context.
Compassionate poetry created at Pitch & Play #2 in ETHOS Lab Dec. 6th, 2022
Bates, Laura: Mænd som hader kvinder, 2022, Rebel With a Cause