The specter of war between North and South Korea has dominated headlines, particularly as President Donald Trump increasingly matches the bellicose posturing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un word-for-word (and tweet-for-tweet). Under the best of circumstances, the precarious relationship between North and South Korea requires precise and thoughtful diplomatic handling; that is no more true now that North Korea approaches the threshold of achieving nuclear weapons.
A better president might develop a program to halt North Korea’s nuclear advancement with a measured balance of diplomacy and international sanction. A better president would understand the devastatingly high price of war, and would seek to avoid that at all costs.
But, America elected Donald Trump, a self-aggrandizing buffoon who sees the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula as just another opportunity to provoke Kim Jong Un with belittling — and highly racially emasculating — language.
Trump is no stranger to the use of disparaging schoolyard taunts to troll his political opponents. Many of Trump’s harshest critics have earned themselves Trumpian nicknames: Crooked Hillary, Little Marco, and Lyin’ Ted to name just a few. But, none are more brazenly grounded in racialized toxic masculinity than the nickname Trump has chosen for Kim Jong Un: Little Rocket Man. Trump first used the nickname at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama in late September, and has since deployed it three more times on Twitter to refer to Kim.
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
The Chinese Envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man. Hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions. Russia and China condemned the launch.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2017
At face value, this nickname might seem to be just another example of Trump’s penchant for puerile name-calling. But, when it emerges from the mind of a man who is both sympathetic to white nationalism as well as “the epitome of a bullying but frail brand of masculinity,” the nickname takes on a more sinister and deeply racist overtone.
Donald Trump styles himself as a “bold defender of white masculinity,” and with every word and action, he seeks to emphasize that asserted white manhood. Never mind that Trump has, as Dave Zirin of The Nation notes, “lived his life in thrall to toxic masculinity, but lacked the ability to prove this “manhood” on the football field, and then dodged the armed forces, never attempting to prove his “manhood” on the battlefield.” Instead, Trump thrusts his manhood into the public sphere through a braggadocious rhetorical aggression so over-the-top it would almost seem to be performance art (if not for the ineptness of the “artist”). Who could forget the infamous Access Hollywood tape where a desperately insecure Trump boasted about being able to “grab women by the pussy” — a textbook example of misogylinity?
With Kim Jong Un, Trump has been quick to apply the diminishing nickname “Little Rocket Man.” His use of “Little” is particularly noteworthy. One aspect of Trump’s fragile, desperate masculinity is his obsession with the size of things. For example, Trump is famously sensitive about the smallness of his hands and the largeness of his crowds. For Trump, bigger is not only better, it is a marker of masculine prowess. Little is more emasculating for Trump than small things.
Given this, “Little Rocket Man” might superficially seem to be a reference to Kim’s stature. But Trump’s gleeful use of the nickname also suggests an intentionally racist double entendre. If rockets are metaphoric penises (and they are according to George Carlin’s theory of Bigger Dick Foreign Policy), then “Little Rocket Man” becomes a not-so-veiled phallic reference — one that invokes the insidious stereotype of the under-endowed Asian man in comparison to the archetypal white manhood Trump would seek to assert for himself.
Earlier this week, it became even more apparent that Trump is making phallic references to cast Kim Jong Un as impotent. In a bizarre tweet, Trump declared that his “nuclear button” is “bigger” and “more powerful” than Kim’s, and that his button “works”.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Only a fool would think Donald Trump is talking about an actual button in this tweet.
For decades of American media, the Asian and Asian American man has been the victim of what Asian American Studies scholar David Eng has termed in his seminal book on Asian American masculine identity as a “racial castration” — a literary, as well as sociopolitical, expulsion of Asian and Asian American men from mainstream masculinity through the denial (or figurative removal) of the Asian and Asian American phallus. In the cisheteronormative framework of toxic masculinity, the Asian and Asian American male identity is forcibly constrained by this “racial castration” to reinforce aggressively masculine Whiteness. Put more simply, the same toxic masculine structures that revere white manhood necessarily invests significant energy into rendering the Asian penis invisible and Asian/Asian American men “emasculated”.
Although Eng explores this dynamic through the relatively contemporary lens of modern American media, Gary Okihiro notes in his landmark essay “When and Where I Enter” that the figurative feminization of Asian men has existed hand-in-hand with the stereotypes of submissiveness for Asian women for centuries. Taken together, the twin stereotypes of the “castrated Asian man” and the “docile Asian woman” serve as a twisted logic to justify Western military imperialism into — and colonialism of — the East. The “emasculation” of the Asian man is not only angst-inducing for men, but has served for centuries to buttress white supremacy.
(At this point, it is worth noting the inadequate and exclusionary language often used to discuss masculinity and male identity in the Asian American community. As Ashley Truong of Everyday Feminism points out, “emasculation” is often talked about in the Asian American community in a manner that reinforces gender roles, gender binaries, and cisheteronormativeness. As Hermit_Hwarang points out in an insightful Twitter thread, “emasculation” is not real because “the criteria for emasculation is rooted in cisnormativity and patriarchal views of women’s bodies.” Indeed, one runs the danger when using phrases like “emasculation”, “feminization”, and “racial castration” of reinforcing gender binaries and the false equivalence between masculinity and the phallus — this is a problem that Eng, himself, does not contend with in his book. In the context of this particular essay, I use these terms only to describe the internal logic of toxic masculinity. I acknowledge that my usage could nonetheless reinforce the reductive logic of toxic masculinity that prioritizes phallic manhood over feminization; however, to date, I have not come across any satisfactory alternative language to discuss these ideas.)
The damning racism of toxic masculinity with regard to Asian and Asian American men is no better illustrated than through Trump’s treatment of Kim Jong Un. As if predicted by George Carlin, the threat of war between North and South Korea has become an actual, international dick-waving contest: one wherein Trump takes repeated, perverse delight in figuratively castrating his Asian male rival, thereby reinforcing the violently imperialistic and colonialist logic of Orientalism. For a man whose entire presidency is predicated upon racist stereotypes and archetypes, perhaps it should be no surprise that Trump so eagerly draws from the stereotype of the impotent Asian man, too. Trump relishes the chance to show himself to be more virile than Kim Jong Un, thereby affirming himself as the world’s “alpha male”.
Some might suggest that the solution here is that Asian men should seek to win that contest of dick-waving over archetypes of white manhood (as Trump styles himself to be). When Trump touts his supposed masculine potency by proclaiming how his “nuclear button” is big, they would have Kim Jong Un simply proclaim his button to be even bigger and better; or, that Kim turn the tables and emasculate Trump in return.
And so, we see how the game of toxic masculinity is intended to be played: one’s own masculine potency can only be affirmed if another’s is denied. Under toxic masculinity, one person can only be masculine if another person is emasculated. It doesn’t matter the size of one’s dick, only that it is bigger than someone else’s.
Historically, certain groups — including Asian men — have been cast into the role of the feminized in order to portray white men as the masculine norm. But repositioning those traditionally feminized groups at the top of the (hetero-)masculine pile does little to subvert the larger, damaging logic of toxic masculinity, which hurts men (and particularly men of colour) just as much as it perpetuates misogyny against women and non-binary folk. Liberation cannot be found when men are endlessly pitted against one another to prove their masculine identity through the narrow, violently toxic, and explicitly cisheteronormative lens of conventional masculinity. We cannot work together to overturn patriarchy’s game of toxic masculinity when we we are endlessly expected to tear each other apart. In validating the focus on whose rockets are bigger between Trump and Kim, we lose sight of the backdrop against which this contest is being played out: nuclear fuckin’ war.
In his book, Eng suggests instead that Asian Americans must “queer” Asian American masculinity: that is, we must reject the narrow and destructive confines of toxic masculinity and instead embrace a more radical solution. We must construct an Asian American masculinity outside of toxic masculinity that both affirms Asian American cishet male identity while remaining compatible with feminism and queer identity. Toxic masculinity has deeply wounded Asian American men, and in seeking a better way forward, we must leave no room in our Movement for misogyny.
The time has come to reject the toxic masculinity that hurts all of us. It literally doesn’t matter whose rockets are bigger, and whose “button” works better; and determining those things certainly don’t make anyone more meaningfully masculine. Let’s instead acknowledge that no one can win in a game of international dick-waving when the stakes are a war that could get all of us killed.