Crafting a Healthy Masculinity: Part 1

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man sketch (cropped so that facebook won’t just show an image of a penis.)

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man sketch (cropped so that facebook won’t just show an image of a penis.)

Before I begin: I'm discussing gender here, and I want to say off the top – as far as I'm concerned, trans men and cis men are men; trans women and cis women are women. Nonbinary individuals are invited to hang out near whichever camp they want. Having been assigned the gender I identify as at birth, I'm not going to discuss whether one needs dysphoria to be transgender. I understand that it is a discussion, I'm not involved and am undereducated on the issue.

Ergo, what I'm saying here, I feel, applies to masculinity as a whole. Other people are free to disagree with me, but I see a niche and (because I'm a struggling writer with delusions of being something like a public intellectual) I'm going to try to write something into that niche. If the conversation continues and blossoms, then great. I enjoy hearing from other viewpoints.

I also wish to acknowledge that, despite not really recalling many particular incidents, I'm reasonably certain that I engaged in a number of shitty behaviors when I was younger (and probably still do. Life is a process.) I don't remember fourth grade, either, but am certain that I went to school for it. I bring this up not as a mea culpa, but as an acknowledgment that I'm not speaking from a position of virtuous ideological purity, but as someone who's knee-deep in the muck with everyone else.

A great deal has been made of toxic masculinity in the wake of the various sexual assault scandals in the media recently, commonly called the “Me Too” movement. Of course, this isn't a new object of discussion: patriarchy is a well-documented phenomenon, and while it's always been something that feminism discusses, my own consciousness of it is colored by the fact that I find myself peripherally associated with nerd culture. I had largely disengaged with it before “Gamergate” happened, but I couldn't avoid seeing it (if you want a deeper analysis of this, I would recommend looking at the essay “The Blind All-Seeing Eye of Gamergate” by Dr. Elizabeth Sandifer, published in Neoreaction a Basilisk.)

A lot of objections to analysis of toxic masculinity seem to be based on a broad misunderstanding of the term. Masculinity, itself, is not toxic. What we see in our culture is a toxic manifestation of masculinity. Just as a photon can be a particle of visible light, necessary to see, or an invisible and lethal gamma ray, masculinity can come across on various wavelengths. Saying that accusations of toxic masculinity is calling masculinity itself toxic is like accusing someone alarmed by a damaging level of radiation of wanting to live in darkness.

Much has been written about toxic masculinity, much of it by much better scholars than me. What I would like to do in this piece, and subsequent pieces under similar headings, is analyze non-toxic manifestations of masculinity, discuss their functioning, and – as much as possible, without oversimplifying – present guidelines so that we can follow them in the future. There are, of course, pitfalls here and I want to acknowledge them at the beginning: just about everything we do has unintended consequences, and the suggestions that I make here will no doubt be liable to have them, too. Moreover, any behavior can be twisted into a toxic manifestation: you have to have the self-awareness to try to recognize that when it happens, and to accept the criticism when it comes up.

To begin, the problem at the start of this project seems to largely be one of terminology and definitions. We shouldn't try to create a “non-toxic masculinity” – because that is defining itself solely in relation to what it's against, defining a sort of masculinity simply by subtracting the bad parts of toxic masculinity, ignoring the possibility that some of the bad parts (certainly not all) can be rehabilitated by examining and fixing the motivations behind them. It also ignores the fact that there are some things that have no doubt been eclipsed and superseded entirely by the toxic elements, having been completely removed and thus no longer existing in contemporary constructions of masculinity that would be beneficial to recover. We would just be left with a weakened, anemic version of masculinity, which is not a desirable outcome: just as those who identify with femininity want to be free to revel in it and find joy in it, those who identify with masculinity should be free to do the same.

So let us speak, instead, of a “healthy masculinity.”

The temptation here is to outline a list of virtues that are evinced by male characters and men in general. I feel that this is a misstep for three reasons: first, due to the fact that masculinity and femininity often have contrasting definitions (they're constructed in a dichotomous fashion, and I'm going to just go ahead and say that dichotomous thinking has caused far more problems than it's ever solved). Second, I personally believe that there are good and bad manifestations of each behavior or trait – bravery and wrath can be the same thing; arrogance and confidence can be the same thing; greed and prudence can be the same thing – so outlining a list of “virtues” doesn't only encourage the helpful behavior, but also gives license to engage in a harmful manifestation of that behavior.

Third, and possibly most importantly (though related to the first point,) is the fact that for a very, very long time masculinity was positioned as the default, so all virtues were masculine and all vices were, to some extent or another, feminine. This is another outgrowth of dichotomous thinking, as all dichotomies were constructed in a gendered fashion. Ergo, if I were to list off a collection of “masculine” virtues, I would be reproducing the basic logic that undergirds the issue in question.

A better course of action might be to think less of abstracted virtues and vices, or as essentialist traits (“boys will be boys”, “it's a guy thing”, et cetera,) and think more about gender as a methodology: a way of systemically and consciously engaging with the world around us. This would mean that a Healthy Masculinity would not necessarily have a slate of “masculine virtues” but, rather, typically masculine ways of doing each virtue. This is a very Judith Butler point, but I’m using a different term than she did (“performance”) mostly because I haven’t finished reading Gender Trouble yet.

Judith Butler.

Judith Butler.

As one of my compulsory (or, rather, compulsive) asides, gender is one of the last strongholds of essentialism (the belief that there is some sort of “preordained” nature of a thing – as if there were certain traits that had more than a statistical correlation to left-handedness, blondeness, or Christian-ness) in the humanities and social sciences. The reason that so many people misunderstand post-modernism is that it is predicated upon anti-essentialism (nothing inherently means anything, and thus the majority of culture is the product of negotiation upon precedent recognized from the start as arbitrary.) The reason that many philosophers and critical theorists are so ardently anti-essentialist is that essentialism is at the root of many of the great atrocities of the Modern period: the racism that underpinned slavery; the nationalism that brought us two world wars; the anti-semitism, homophobia, ableism and xenophobia that underpinned the holocaust; et cetera. I bring this up not to make the claim that holding strongly on to your love of the small town where you grew up makes you a genocidal fascist, but to explain the skepticism that many academics have for essentialist thinking. This isn't really the focus of my essay, so I'll just reference this great piece called “When Nothing is Cool” and be done with it.

I bring this up, though, because gender is the last place where a lot of discourse still hews to essentialist norms. It's concern with what someone is, with what someone does being considered to inevitably and unquestioningly follow on from that.

This, however is a non-question. Focusing on identity as a static and unchanging thing is a mistake, because ideally we all grow and change over the course of our lives, and how we interact with our respective gender is going to inevitably change over the course of our lives. The most important question is, as I referenced above, one of methodology: how do we go about doing this gender, and how do we go about doing that in a healthy fashion?

So, I want to dodge the issue of essentialism vs. non-essentialism entirely, because it requires a discussion of the ontology of gender, and I don't have time for that. My personal feeling on the matter is that gender is neither a dichotomy nor a spectrum but a space, and different points within that space represent valid expressions of gender, and so “masculine” and “feminine” become umbrella terms that encompass much of the gender-space, and it is my feeling that we move through this space as we need to over the course of our lives. So this series, from my perspective, is going to be an exploration about how to move through that space responsibly.

But this is beside the point: for now, let us operate under a simple maxim – what someone is is what they do. So let's figure out how to do masculinity in a healthy fashion.

Cultural Models

When I begin grappling with a problem, I generally start by working out expressions in the culture that deal with the same thing and work from there (I have a background in pop culture studies; it's inevitable.) The following examples are incomplete and imperfect, but they can serve as a starting point.

Special Agent Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks)

Kyle Maclachlan as David Cooper.

Kyle Maclachlan as David Cooper.

As my previous piece made clear, I greatly love the character of Dale Cooper from David Lynch's Twin Peaks, largely because he shows that a character can be both good and interesting. As a person who leads a largely rules-oriented life, Cooper nonetheless shows a tolerance for failing and personal foible, but holds himself to a high standard. He does his best to enjoy life, but does not allow this to distract him from attempting to solve the murder that called him to Twin Peaks, and in the meantime does his best to help people around the town (notably Audrey Horne, who has something of a precocious crush on him – at one point, she propositions him, and he lets her down gently in a scene that feels like an artifact from a future writer.)

Major Garland Briggs (Twin Peaks)


Bobby Briggs (specifically in Twin Peaks: the Return.)

Garland Briggs, played by Don S. Davis

Garland Briggs, played by Don S. Davis

While Cooper is a younger man, Major Briggs seems to be an iteration of the same general masculine archetype as an older man. He has a son in high school, and projects a rather stiff, socially awkward persona, but very obviously cares deeply about his son (Bobby Briggs, played by Dana Ashbrook,) and wants him to be happy without engaging in the implicit emotional violence that is so often attached to characters with his background (the “stern military father” is a stock character, and while Briggs has a stern countenance, he is not a domineering presence.) The early discussion between him and his son, in which he tries to comfort Bobby by recounting a dream that boiled down to “my only wish in life is for you to be happy.” Perhaps the greatest testament to Briggs as a person is the change in his son – in the first season, Bobby was both your stereotypical high school jock stock character and a cocaine dealer in the employ of a brutal rapist and career criminal. In the reboot series, Bobby is an emotionally open and caring deputy of the small-town sheriff's department in the same town he grew up in: he feels free to laugh and cry and emote in front of his coworkers.

Side Note: While Cooper and Briggs are, I feel, good examples of Healthy Masculinity, there are deep problems with the show in regard to gender. Actress Sherilyn Fenn called out sexism and favoritism on the set of the reboot, and due to the scattered nature of the direction on the original series's flawed second season, there were major issues there (see: the fact that they did a “beauty contest” arc, which was tonally inconsistent with a show that began with finding a dead teenager wrapped in plastic.)

Max Rockatansky (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky in  Mad Max: Fury Road  (2015).

Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

While the previous examples are of people who live in a fairly stable (if Lynchian) iteration of our world, the setting of Mad Max: Fury Road is a brutal post-apocalyptic wasteland (the art book for the film specifically mentions that “any leather you see was probably human skin,” at one point.) The title character has a hazy backstory – the Mad Max films tend to rely on a mythic repetition of motifs for continuity, rather than a tight adherence to causality between films – but what is established is that, at the start of the film, he is essentially feral. He travels around the wasteland, just trying to coexist with the haunting memories that linger after what happened before, and is captured by the War Boys and their god-king, Immortan Joe, who are the most naked and blatant allegory for toxic masculinity I've seen in film. They reduce him to a resource that they can use for the advancement of their empire (a child is even shown collecting his hair as he is shaved, presumably so it can be woven into rope.) After a series of events, he is freed and in the same location as a group of women fleeing from this place, and he attempts to commandeer their vehicle – he does so by force, but the whole movie hinges on the lowest common denominator of decent behavior on his part: he is engaged in a fight and wastes three bullets to shoot the ground next to his opponent's head, rather than spending one bullet to kill her (i.e., he shows a willingness to take steps to reduce violence, rather than simply escalate endlessly.) This leads to the rest of the movie, where he basically functions as that opponent's sidekick and supporting character.

His willingness to step back and support a female character (Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa,) out of recognition for her skill and knowledge, his willingness to protect those who can't (the various “wives” of Immortan Joe who are fleeing him,) and his willingness to work with those who formerly victimized him but are attempting to change themselves (Nicholas Hoult's Nux,) all indicate something about how healthy masculinity might function – and are a major difference between this latest film and the original trilogy of Mad Max films, which had a far less nuanced take on gender.

Nux the Warboy (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and Capable (Riley Keogh) in  Mad Max: Fury Road  (2015)

Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and Capable (Riley Keogh) in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Nux from the same movie deserves an honorable mention – his role in the plot shows someone recovering from toxic masculinity, but his handling within the movie dissatisfied me, because one aspect of toxic masculinity that I find pernicious, if only because I find it so rarely treated is something that can be called “martyr culture,” (side note: I will probably treat martyr culture extensively in another piece) which is too broad and complex a subtopic to be treated here. This being said, Nux could not be expected to escape that culture, as all of the war boys are chronically ill and expected to die in the line of duty – even calling attention to the fact that they shout “Witness me!” before they make their final attack, and are decried (“Mediocre!” when they survive; also used if the death wasn't glorious enough) – means that the manner of his sacrifice is worth noting. He whispers “witness me” in a manner that doesn't make his death into a hypermasculine spectacle, but asks, not commands but asks, that those he saves remember him: one of the escapees, Capable, with whom he saw the beginnings of a romantic relationship makes a gesture that had been established previously to mean that the maker of the gesture shares in the recipient's grief. She saw him, and grieved for him.

Uncle Iroh (Avatar: the Last Airbender)

Uncle Iroh shedding tears on the anniversary of his son’s death. Image links to a piece on  the Escapist  by Henry Werhane, which analyzes him as a masculine role model

Uncle Iroh shedding tears on the anniversary of his son’s death. Image links to a piece on the Escapist by Henry Werhane, which analyzes him as a masculine role model

Uncle Iroh is a character from the American children's TV show Avatar: the Last Airbender, and is the uncle of the deuteragonist, Prince Zuko. While Iroh is canonically one of the strongest fighters in the show, he spends most of his time drinking tea, playing a board game, organizing musical performances among the crew of the ship they're on, and giving (often ignored) advice to his nephew. As the show goes on, it becomes clear that Iroh, formerly a crown prince and general, abandoned his status after the death of his son. After that, when his nephew was exiled, Iroh went with him, feeling that his nephew would need guidance. Over the course of the whole series, Iroh does his best to persuade Zuko to let go of anger and attempt to enjoy life to some small measure. It is clear, from the show, that while Iroh will fight to save the world and do the right thing, all he really wants out of life is to run a tea shop and play pai-sho.

Robotman (Doom Patrol; specifically Grant Morrison's run)

Doom Patrol is just like that — both characters are technically featured here. Owned by Vertigo, drawn by Richard case.

Doom Patrol is just like that — both characters are technically featured here. Owned by Vertigo, drawn by Richard case.

Off the top, I haven't had a chance to watch the Doom Patrol TV series, and while I have been enjoying Gerard Way's new run, Doom Patrol, for me, will always be the Grant Morrison run. While all of the characters are given attention and the story lines are full of high weirdness, the emotional core of the comic is the relationship between Robotman (Cliff Steele) and Crazy Jane, a young woman who has 64 alternate personalities, each possessing a different superpower (and a creator-owned character, hence her non-appearance in other iterations of the series). The two meet in an asylum, and do their best to help each other after being released. This eventually culminates in a storyline where Robotman descends into Crazy Jane's subconscious, which takes the form of a vast, bombed-out subway system. It was established before this storyline that Jane was a rape survivor, and some of her personalities had developed into fearsome shapes as a means of protecting her from future abuse, and they impeded Robotman's progress, objecting to his presence because he was a man. His response wasn't to fight: he stripped himself of his (somewhat unnecessary) clothes, revealing an “unequipped” body, and explained that he wasn't a man, not anymore.

In short, he had a goal, and approached it without pride: he wasn't about to let something like shame keep himself from saving his friend. He also wasn't about to use violence against her: it would have been easy to write this as a fist fight, but that would have been moving in the opposite direction they needed to: this was a storyline about reconciliation, and pride is often toxic to such efforts.

Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood)

Fred Rogers. Anything else I add would be superfluous.

Fred Rogers. Anything else I add would be superfluous.

Many of my examples come from nerd culture (if only because it is very obvious how much nerd culture needs to adopt a healthy model of masculinity) but I wish to offer one final example of healthy masculinity that everyone can get behind. Fred Rogers is a shining example for every person, and while he can be an example for everyone, I think that it is especially important for men to think of him as someone to emulate.

There are many things to discuss in regard to Fred Rogers – he is an exemplar of hospitality (is there anything more hospitable and welcoming than “won't you be my neighbor?” as a request?) and patience, he shares what knowledge he has and serves as a model for how to go about learning more. The consistent mode of patience and openness that he displayed, both on screen and (apparently) in his everyday life are a model to be emulated.

Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, but never pushed his faith on anyone, and was even part of an organization that specifically welcomed the LGBT community. Even to someone who isn't a person of faith, there is something inspiring about a clergyman who consistently shares the message that “God loves you just the way you are.”

LeVar Burton (Reading Rainbow)

LeVar Burton’s current headshot.

LeVar Burton’s current headshot.

While I saw him more as Geordi LaForge on Star Trek, I feel that Reading Rainbow is one of the most important television programs ever made, very much complementary to Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. LeVar Burton was an accomplished actor, having received his start on the miniseries Roots. I may be repeating a myth by reporting this, but I'm given to understand that he insisted on giving precedence to Reading Rainbow in his filming schedule. While Star Trek paid better, he felt that he had a mission in Reading Rainbow that the other show didn't satisfy: he wanted to encourage children to read, and so he used his platform to promote that agenda. If this is so, then he is an excellent example of healthy masculinity as I'm beginning to define it.

The Takeaway

It seems to me that the best models of masculinity in our culture are best summed up by the word “avuncular”, which is an adjective that indicates the relationship between an uncle and a niece or nephew. While there are many examples of evil uncles in culture, even being a trope mentioned in early structuralist writing on fairy tales, and we all have family members with whom we have difficult relationships, the word itself indicates a certain pattern of behavior. I believe this pattern of behavior is something which can serve as a starting point for a methodology of approaching the expressions of masculinity.

Specifically, it means that the highest and best expressions of masculinity are those that feature a person using the power that they have available, within existing moral constraints, to benefit others.

There is more to say on this subject, but I believe that this is a good place to stop for the moment.