Manhood And Toxic Masculinity

Manhood And Toxic Masculinity August 19, 2020

Tibor Végh: Boxing Children / Wikimedia Commons

In the shot story, “Manhood,” the former student and friend of C.S. Lewis, John Wain, writes of a youth whose father wants him to grow up to be a strong man, a youth who is being pushed by his father into all kinds of exercises and sports in order to attain his father’s ideal of manhood. The father, Mr Willison, felt he had to do this so that his son, Rob, could be better than he,  that is, to have all the advantages he did not have while he was growing up:

“Now look,” said Mr Willison again. “When I was a boy, it was study, study, study all the time, with the fear of unemployment and insecurity in everybody’s mind. I was never even given a bicycle. I never boxed, I never rowed, I never did anything to develop my physique. It was just work, work, work, pass this exam, get that certificate. Well, I did it and now I’m qualified and in a secure job. But you know as well as I do that they let me down. Nobody encouraged me to build myself up.”[1]

Rob does not want to let his father down, and yet, he is being pushed beyond his capabilities. His father is constantly having him trained, from extreme bike riding to boxing. When Rob was not able to make it into any of his school’s sports teams, he lies to his father, telling him he has taken up boxing, making his father proud. The school had no boxing team. Rob, however, knew one day he would have to pretend to have a fight- but when the time comes, he makes up another lie, saying he is not well, claiming appendicitis:

Mr Willison ran up the stairs. “What is it?” he panted. “D’you want something?”

“I think I’ve got appendicitis,” said Rob. He lay squinting among the  pillows, his face suddenly narrow and crafty. [2]

Because his son was going to miss the fight, Mr Willison calls Mr Granger, whom Rob had indicated was his trainer. It was then he learned the truth. There was no boxing team. The school frowned on boxing. His son had been lying to appease him.

One of the lessons one can get out of “Manhood” is the way people create an ideal version of manhood, of masculinity, which they try to impart on the next generation. It isn’t real, but to appease their parents, many children will try to conform to that ideal, and when they cannot, they will still try to appear to do so by lying. The reality is that the ideal itself is the lie. It takes a lie to continue a lie. There is no one universal “masculinity” which is to be enforced upon all men; to try to make one leads to toxic masculinity, to a destructive vision of manhood which relies upon lies and violence in order to reproduce itself in the world. And in the modern world, this toxic masculinity is seen in the way masculinity is reduced to a few qualities, such as strength (and muscles), revealing itself in someone who “takes charge” over others, or at least, by someone who is capable of taking all that can be unleashed at them without complaint. Those who are not so strong, those who are not so aggressive and “take charge” are treated as less than manly. This leads to would-be men fighting against each other, trying to show themselves to be stronger than each other, and indeed, to have men fighting anyone who comes in their path who would undermine their “authority.”

“There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12 RSV). There is a way which seems to be right about manhood by so many people, but its end is also death, because it does not allow men to be themselves. It forces men to conform to false expectations. When those expectations are not met, suffering will follow: either with the man who does not conform, who feels as if they are a failure, or those around such a man, who try to meet those expectations by taking it out on those around them to prove their supposed strength, or likely, both. To try to conform to what seems “right” about manhood, to create a false vision of masculinity which envisions man as strong (“body builder”), incapable of showing emotions (“men do not cry”), as being in control (especially of their spouse), indeed, to be all concerned about making money (for the man alone must provide for the family), might seem right to some, because it is an ideology which has been perpetuated through various social constructs, but because so many men do not meet its criteria, it is clear it fails to represent the truth.

Scripture, of course, undermines the ideology which has led to modern toxic masculinity. It promotes wisdom over strength, compassion over dominance, self-giving love over avarice. “A wise man is mightier than a strong man, and a man of knowledge than he who has strength;  for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov. 24:5-6 RSV). Men are to show kindness to their families, instead of being domineering. “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Col. 3:19 RSV). “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21 RSV).

Masculinity, when reduced to a few, questionable qualities, undermines all those men who do not possess them. They are forced either to try to pretend to have them, and lie to themselves and the world (like Rob in the story, “Manhood”), or suffer various indignities by those who follow such an ideological vision of the masculine. Toxic masculinity has become an increasing problem because the ideology behind it has been exposed, but instead of accepting it, ideologues double down and try to reify their ideology. They become caricatures of the manhood they describe.

Manhood, masculinity, doesn’t have to be reduced to a few qualities. Such reductionistic representations of masculinity (and likewise, femininity) will always cause pain and confusion. If we want to get rid of toxic masculinity, and the problems associated with it, we must realize that masculinity itself is empty, that is, it has no specific qualities but rather, is capable of being expressed in a full range of possibilities. Each man should be free to express themselves as this wish (so long as they do so respecting other potentialities, other ways of manifesting the masculine, and, of course, so long as their expression is filled with compassion and is not one which harms others). For the Christian, that means they should be able to express themselves in and with the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23 RSV). This is far from the image of masculinity which has been reinforced by patriarchal systems, and so far from the image which creates the toxicity which destroys lives, both of the man and of those around him.

The story of “Manhood” shows us, in its own fashion, the pains and sorrows which come out of the lies which are used to promote a vision of manhood which has never been, and can never be, true. The ideological vision of manhood which has come down to us, though not true, tries to make reality meet its claims by force, by training the next generation to meet its criteria. Rob’s mother was not happy with Rob being involved with boxing, but his father promoted it as a way to make Rob a true man:

“That’s where you’re wrong, Grace,” said Mr Willison sternly. “There is a law. The unalterable law of nature that says that the young males of the species indulge in manly trials of strength. Think of all the other lads who are going into the ring tonight. D’you think their mothers are sitting about crying and kicking up a fuss? No – they’re proud to have strong, masculine sons who can stand up in the ring and take a few punches.” [3]

When we think being a man is about giving and receiving punches, we should not be surprised with the violence and destruction which comes in its wake. True masculinity is strong, but its strength lies in the spirit, not physical strength and feats of endurance. Of course, some men will have such qualities, but it is not what makes them men, nor should it be expected of all men. Likewise, those who have such qualities should not be encouraged to think they exist for the sake of proving their superiority over others. For once again, if that is what they believe, they will act on it, causing pain and sorrow to themselves (as those qualities are impermanent) and on others around them (as they try to prove their superiority through the violence indicated by their ideology).

True masculinity lies in and with every man; not all of them are physically strong, not all of them are brave, not all of them have iron constitutions. To get to the heart of masculinity we must move beyond all such expectations. We must stop lying to ourselves by trying to create an ideological image of the masculine. Only then can we begin to solve the problem so many men and boys face today. For then they will not feel bad for failing to meet some false ideal.  Only when we can stop lying to ourselves and lying to the next generation, can we begin to accept men who do not fit such ideological expectations, freeing them from abusive qualities, and truly allowing them to come together in harmony with everyone else. Only then can they also learn to accept women likewise cannot be reduced to ideological qualities about femininity, allowing them to appreciate and accept women as women instead of things which must be objectified in order to fit in their ideological perspective.


[1] John Wain, “Manhood” in Death of the Hind Legs and Other Stories (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970), 61

[2] John Wain, “Manhood,” 66.

[3] John Wain, “Manhood,” 66.


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