By Kjersti McDonald
In a time where we’re more and more talking about gender in terms of its construct, it feels weird to write about masculine stereotypes and consider what “positive” masculinity looks like. Normally I would tend to steer clear of drawing broad conclusions relating to gender, but considering concepts like “femininity” and “masculinity” are social constructs relating to gender – and considering there is a hyper-awareness of the concept of “toxic masculinity” – it only makes sense to explore the light or positive side of the “masculine” archetype.
Through my only very recent study of the Tarot, I’ve been able to dig deeper into various archetypes – like the fool, the emperor, the devil, the high priestess, etc. – and really explore the light and shadow sides of an archetype. How that archetype manifests when it is serving us or hurting us. I’ve begun to appreciate the practice of “channeling” an archetype that can serve me in a moment (think of the Greek channeling Ares as they go off to war.) And I think it’s this exploration that nudged me in the direction of researching what “non-toxic” masculinity means, if it exists. I realized that, of course, it does, but it has historically been stifled by our culture’s patriarchal norms.
First, I want to define toxic masculinity. If someone reading this is feeling their skin crawl at the use of that phrase, let me specify that the term “toxic masculinity” refers to a type of masculinity and does NOT posit that masculinity is inherently toxic. Think of masculinity as a burger and the word “toxic” as cheese. I can say “cheese burgers are bad,” but still think burgers themselves are good. Maybe I prefer veggie burgers (non-toxic masculinity) instead? Think of the word “toxic” as a descriptor of one iteration of masculinity.
Let me also be clear that toxic masculinity isn’t limited to men – women and non-binary people can certainly exhibit traits of toxic masculinity. I do think it’s fair to say it’s much more commonly seen in men, as they are often the most aggressively groomed and pressured by society to conform to these stereotypes.
So what is toxic masculinity? Essentially, it is a stereotype or ideal that society has crafted over a long period of patriarchal rule and subjugation, which projects the “right” way to be a man or masculine. Some of the common manifestations of toxic masculinity include (but are certainly not limited to): pressure to have physical strength and prowess; violence and aggression; repressed emotions; domination and competitiveness; entitlement to sex; inability to admit fault; and generally an aversion to being seen as vulnerable.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time unpacking all of these traits because I think most of us have seen them in action, whether it was a guy aggressively flirting with you at a bar and angrily calling you a “stupid bitch” for refusing his advances or a super macho explosion of exhaust from an unnecessary monster truck with truck nuts (sorry, had to go there).
But how does “non-toxic” masculinity manifest? Is it possible for folks who identify as masculine to continue to present as such without those toxic qualities? I think it very much is.
I think many of those toxic masculine traits were borne out of an over-exaggeration or abuse of proclivities that came from what was once seen as natural gender roles in certain civilizations. Some of these roles that would traditionally be considered masculine include protecting, providing food, and competing for reproductive partners. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that many modern societies have moved away from (or are starting to move away from) assigning these roles based on the sexual organs we’re born with. I also believe we’ve evolved scientifically and socially to allow more fluidity and nuance in the ascription of these roles and stereotypes.
That said, it was helpful for me to think of examples of non-toxic masculinity present in pop culture. Some of the examples that I found and thought of include: both Sirius Black and Professor Lupin from Harry Potter; Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings; Patrick Stewart; Evan (the boyfriend) from Atypical; Kristoff from Frozen; Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender; Fred Rogers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood; Terry Crews; Karamo Brown from Queer Eye.
The kind of traits I see present in these masculine people include:
- Empathy: When competitiveness and emotional repression go unchecked, they easily turn into callousness toward the experiences of others. Toxic masculinity can manifest as insensitivity, and a pride in not being “soft.” True non-toxic masculinity means empathizing with the experiences of others and channeling the protector archetype to care for those who need it.
- Emotional Intelligence: Attention to one’s mental health and recognition of unhealthy thinking patterns can do wonders for channeling non-toxic masculinity. Crying when you feel like it. A willingness to acknowledge your emotions and express them in healthy ways. Not shying away from those hard and often messy conversations with your partner, friends, coworkers, therapist, family.
- Investing in Relationships: Demonstrating an investment in maintaining and doing work in relationships – and not just romantic partnerships – demonstrates consideration and appreciation for those you are in relationships with and is a perfect way to channel non-toxic masculinity. Think of it as providing the nutrients to your support networks.
- Self-awareness: A person who moves through the world oblivious to their consequences could very well be exhibiting toxic masculinity. This may be because boys and men are often afforded the benefit of the doubt and are given more room to act from a place of entitlement. “Boys will be boys.” Exhibiting self-awareness can look like: creating space for other people to shine, recognizing a mistake and apologizing, accepting boundaries that have been put in place by people you know, committing to improvement and personal growth.
While I’m at it, I’d like to list all the things you can do and still be masculine: bake, be a stay-at-home dad, acts of kindness for your partner, physical affection with your friends, therapy, singing, theatre, crying, work for a woman/femme, lose to a woman/femme, like pink, drink sweet cocktails. None of these things have anything to do with masculinity. There may be a masculine aesthetic – that’s the point of archetypes, common themes and such. But you can be masculine and like feminine things and that’s OK. You can lean more toward masculine than feminine, and hold both. The KEY is parsing out those more negative traits that come from a place of learned insecurity and ultimately, fear.
I don’t have all the answers regarding what it means to exhibit non-toxic masculinity and course-correcting toxic masculinity. What I do know is that I know lots of really good men and masculine people who have demonstrated to me that we all are capable of holding opposing truths. That sometimes we are good at projecting the best of our learned behaviors, and sometimes, we revert to the worst of them. I think a bit of awareness and willingness to just think about and seek out the positive traits that can serve a “masculine” persona is a great first step in bucking the patriarchal systems that oppress men, women and non-binary people, masculine and feminine alike.