Because of his rare public appearances, sporadic music releases, and ghostlike social media presence, many regard Frank Ocean as an enigmatic figure. He’s a bohemian in today’s fame-obsessed culture — one that values men by aggression, wealth, and dominance. These everyday examples of toxic masculinity are the touchstones for masculinity in the digital age.
For much of my teenage years I took them as threats to my self-worth; it was as if I needed physique, and money, and women to be someone. Frank Ocean, however, is the antithesis of this coming-of-age struggle.
I only started following his career a few years ago after Blonde’s release, I admire him a lot. I admire Ocean for how he preserves his rough edges when crafting his portraits of humanity; his music forgoes the bravado of elusive perfection, instead searching for growth through bare vulnerability.
“There Will Be Tears,” a song from Ocean’s mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA., is a glimpse into his tumultuous boyhood. Ocean sings about the heartache he suffers from his deadbeat father. He also sings about the death of his grandfather, who was the only father figure he ever had. The lyrics describe Ocean hiding his crying face to his friends, who grew up fatherless as well:
Hide my face hide my face
Can’t let em see me crying
‘Cause these boys didn’t have no fathers neither
And they weren’t crying
My friend said it wasn’t so bad
You can’t miss what you ain’t had
The song ends with Ocean beseeching questions about why his father abandoned him. There’s no one to answer Ocean though, so his grief remains unattended.
Most men would consider what he did as social suicide; we instinctually bound our emotions to preserve a red-blooded image. Ocean’s friends, despite also not having fathers, mask themselves with apathy, which makes Ocean believe he does not have permission to cry. When coping with anything heavy, reticence is a man’s primal defense mechanism — one that is bridled by the terror that others will lacerate us more for revealing our tears and cuts.
There is a pervasive untruth among us that the man who cries will crumble. Holding back tears may protect our pride, but the show eventually ends, the armor rusts away — and when all that remains is pent-up turmoil, the side-effects are destructive. It is the root of toxic masculinity.
If Frank Ocean’s honesty was a symbol of what masculinity should be, many may consider Elliot Rodger a symbol for the opposite. We’ve coined this end of the spectrum ‘toxic’ masculinity.
Everyday Examples of Toxic Masculinity
On May 22, 2014, Rodger, a 22-year-old student at Santa Barbara City College, posted a seven-minute YouTube video repenting his life of loneliness. It was a textbook example of toxic masculinity. He vilified the “spoiled, stuck-up blonde slut[s]” who rejected him for the “obnoxious young brutes” in his school, claiming they forced him into “an existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires.”
Along with the video, Rodger wrote a 137-page manifesto that rationalized his malevolence. He presents himself as the epitome of a misogynist:
There is something mentally wrong with the way [women’s] brains are wired, as if they haven’t evolved from animal-like thinking…. They are like animals, completely controlled by their primal, depraved emotions and impulses. That is why they are attracted to barbaric, wild, beast-like men. They are beasts themselves. (117)
One day later, per The New York Times, Rodger went on a rampage in Isla Vista, California that killed six and wounded 13. Police officers found him in his car afterwards with a bullet in his head.
I was 12 years old at the time and remember feeling repulsed. I still am, but when I revisited the story last week, at 18, I couldn’t help but recognize the struggles behind his hatred. I couldn’t help but recognize the parallels with Frank Ocean’s lyrics in his album Blonde.
“Solo” is about staying up all night abusing drugs while yearning for a lover to call you; it reminds me of how Rodger grieved in jealousy while yearning his entire life for any morsel of social acceptance (see pg. 16 of his manifesto).
“Good Guy” is about feeling deep intimacy for someone on a date, and the emptiness that ensues when you realize the date was a forgettable late night out for your partner; it reminds me of how Rodger cried alone in a toilet stall after he said “Hi” to a girl when passing her on a walk, only for the girl to ignore him and continue walking (see pg. 88 of his manifesto).
“Futura Free” is about how our insecurities are in the end completely unimportant, that we must relish how far we’ve come and how far we can go, that life is precious and what matters is the people you touch along the way. This is where Rodger diverges; he snapped before he could have such a self-realization.
“What was seen can never be unseen, and I will never forget it, nor will I forgive it,” his manifesto reads. Ocean’s story ends in gratitude and hope, but Rodger’s ends in destruction.
Both Men Are Products of the Same Plague
Much of Blonde is about self-hatred. Frank Ocean illustrates the monotony and depression of indulging in bad habits, even when you’re well-aware that you’re crippling yourself. His lyrics depict a man at war with himself—but unexpectedly, they finely echo the same emotional turmoil that swelled in Elliot Rodger throughout his life.
His story is extreme in many respects. While Ocean found an escape from his grief through songwriting, Rodger stifled his grief until it warped into vile destruction. Both men, however, are products of the same plague.
I mean not to justify the Isla Vista massacre, but to suggest something larger and more piercing: the reality that, in today’s world, Elliot Rodger is as ordinary as he is anomalous. As long as we equate violence with respect, more men will use violence as the antidote to their pain. That is how a culture of toxicity is bred.