Toxic Masculinity or Aspirational Masculinity?
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This blog post is about an essay I read on CNN’s web site entitled “Talking to boys about being a boy” by Elissa Strauss. The date it appeared and I read it was June 10, 2022. You can read it at the CNN web site by searching for it. Unfortunately, it was only up for a few days.
Ms. Strauss argues that all the talk about toxic masculinity is harming boys; they are being given the impression that all masculinity, even all maleness, is toxic. There is no other adjective attached to “masculinity” these days. The gist is that “toxic masculinity” has become one word, not two. This harms boys because they grow up with the impression that being masculine, and perhaps even just being male, is a bad thing, always, unconditionally.
Ms. Strauss appeals to a book by one Don McPherson entitled “You Throw Like a Girl: The Blind Spot of Masculinity.” I have not read it. Ms. Strauss reports that Mr. McPherson has suggested the term “aspirational masculinity” not as an alternative to toxic masculinity but as a way of holding on to masculinity as potentially a good thing.
As my faithful readers here know, this has been a theme I have raised and “talked about” here numerous times before. That is, that masculinity is not in and of itself bad and we need to find ways to affirm masculinity while continuing to condemn toxic masculinity.
Aspirational masculinity is a clunky term; I doubt it will catch on—especially among boys! May I suggest “healthy masculinity” to describe maleness that is directed toward positive goals, even with a degree of aggressiveness typical of maleness? (I am not saying of “all males” but only typical of most males who desire to express themselves outwardly in risky adventures involving their bodies.)
I today’s popular culture and even in much education, boys are often treated either as sinister, potential predators, or as effeminate. The problem is that the so-called effeminate boys are often really quite masculine but direct their masculinity in positive, constructive ways.
Let’s take two U.S. presidents mentioned prominently in Kristin Du Mez’s book “Jesus and John Wayne”—Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter. One could get the impression that Carter was not very masculine while Roosevelt typified masculinity. But why? Carter was a solder, a successful farmer, and man’s man in many ways, and still today, in his very old age, a hard worker for Habitat for Humanity, climbing on roofs, hammering nails, aggressively building future homes for people who cannot afford housing. Why is he treated as effeminate? Why can his way of being be called “constructive masculinity?”
The upshot of Ms. Strauss’s essay is that boys need to be told that it is okay to be boys and that being masculine is not in and of itself a bad thing. That is the impression they are being given by too many critics of masculinity.
I will go out on a limb and take my lumps for saying here that we need to stop treating boys and men as all toxic, as all potential rapists, as all violent. I was told by a feminist student that “Men are violent.” When I asked “All men?” She would not answer. Her silence meant “yes.” Maybe that was her life experience, but we educators, social workers, influencers of culture, need to stop it, stop projecting onto all boys and men the evil characters of some, yes, too many, men.
Ms. Strauss and Mr. McPherson argue that we need to find a way to affirm boys as boys and not treat them as defective girls. Why? For me it is not so much a matter of building or protecting their self-esteem as it is a matter of a problem we are already experiencing in American society of boys resentfully dropping out or just not knowing who or what they are or their place in society. That was affirmed by a female character in the movie “The Intern” in which Robert DeNiro played a constructively masculine character.