Towards a Positive Masculinity
Something has to fill the void that toxic attitudes leave behind
Watch the news on any given day and you’ll eventually hear a story about a woman being brutalised. Or killed. The perpetrators are almost always men. By no means representative of men in general, but men all the same.
It’s tempting to write them off as the worst of our gender, the lowest of the low, and we wouldn’t be wrong to condemn them as such. Their actions are not the result of their “maleness” — or so the arguments go — but because they are uniquely violent individuals. But even if this was the main reason, it cannot be the only reason.
The cultural attitudes that surround men are also a significant factor.
Let’s get something out of the way before I continue. Yes, most men are good. I have never subscribed to the idea that men are somehow born oppressors — quite frankly, it’s an absurd distortion of what most feminists actually believe. But all men, every single one of us, have been surrounded by a whirlwind of foul, social attitudes ever since we were brought into the world.
And these attitudes are all too familiar. Just look over the following list and see if you recognise any of these sayings:
- “Treat them mean, keep them keen.”
- “Real men don’t cry.”
- “Don’t take no for an answer.”
- “Keep your woman in line.”
- “Men cheat. It’s in their nature.”
This is the kind of received wisdom men are taught all over the world. You might have read something like it on some noxious website. You might have overhead it said between strangers. Heck, you might have even heard it from co-workers, relatives or friends. Even when these retrograde beliefs get pushed to the margins, they still tend to endure.
But different men react to these truisms in different ways. In 2018, the Jesuit Social Services’ Men’s Project released a study of 1000 Australian men aged 18–30. This study, titled “The Man Box”, investigated the behaviour of these men and their attitude to manhood.
The results were generally heartening. A majority of the participants disagreed with statements like “men should use violence to get respect if necessary” and “a man who talks a lot about his worries, fears, and problems shouldn’t really get respect.”
However, a significantly higher number of these participants agreed that these messages were reinforced by society as whole.
Additionally, men who had engaged in bullying or sexual harassment within the last month were far more likely to agree with these statements. They were far more likely to conform to a rigid, traditional notion of manhood.
But so were men who had experienced verbal and physical bullying in the last month. And twice as many participants who agreed with traditional masculine ideals reported recent suicidal thoughts in comparison to those who didn’t.
So while some men are able to resist these harmful, social attitudes, other men are much less fortunate. They suffer in silence. Or they inflict suffering on others. Or they endure pain and inflict it in equal measure.
These attitudes make life worse for everyone. They hurt men and fuel the behaviours that hurt women. At its most extreme, the idea that men should dominate women results in domestic abuse and murder.
So what then, is to be done?
Addressing the Problem
In my home country, Australia, the discourse surrounding these attitudes and behaviours is steadily improving. Over the last decade, we have seen much more visible discussions about sexual harassment and male suicide.
In my opinion this is an unambiguously good thing. On its own, however, it may be insufficient.
The term “toxic masculinity” is often used to describe restrictive beliefs about manhood. It can be a controversial term. I know more than a few blokes who get their back up when they hear it. But as a catch-all for the toxic attitudes surrounding men it can be quite useful.
And if traditional masculinity asks that men inflict violence and suffer silently then denouncing it is a no-brainer. The only problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a vision of positive masculinity set to replace it.
Young men are thrown into a system that demands they compete and undervalues empathy. They are pressured to attain good grades and material success. And for a long time, traditional masculinity has been the only model taught to achieve that success. To compete. To dominate. To shut off their feelings if it helps them win. The media lionises wealth and power. The business world actively rewards ruthlessness. We talk about how wrong it is to exploit and bully others, but these behaviours are fully consistent with society’s vision of success.
With such contradictory messaging, is it any wonder why so many young men grow up angry and confused?
To make life better for men and women we need to expand our definition of success. We need to value moral courage more than popularity, co-operation more than competition and compassion more than toughness.
We need a vision of masculinity that will help young men grow into who they want to be.
A Better Way
Nobody can build their identity from a purely negative vision. We can tell boys what not to do over and over again, but without giving them an ideal to work towards, they will find themselves hopelessly lost on the journey to manhood.
They need a map to guide their way.
Role models play a vital role here. A role model gives young men something to strive for. Something to affirm.
I thought long and hard about my own personal heroes. Civil rights legends like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, conservationists like David Attenborough and Steve Irwin and activists like Eugene Debs. I thought about why I admired them. What made them so much more impressive than the common celebrity?
It wasn’t money. It wasn’t fame. And it certainly wasn’t their sexual prowess. It was their ability to make a positive impact on the world.
This is what I believe should be the model for young men. It is so much more noble than traditional ideals of masculinity. We realise this when we ask ourselves what’s truly important. What matters more:
- Being the head of the household, or being a loving father?
- Making millions, or making your community a better place?
- Acting tough to get respect, or inspiring others to follow your lead?
The answers to these questions are obvious. But men are pressured every day to choose the wrong answer. For young men to make the right choice, they need a set of guiding principles.
The Tenets of Positive Masculinity
Positive masculinity is not a rejection of strength. By cultivating strength, men improve their own lives and become more able to help others. But strength on its own — strength without compassion — is ultimately destructive.
Positive masculinity is more than just strength. It is more than just courage. It is a set of principles that can be followed to help men lead healthier, more meaningful lives. Drawing from the example of good role models, it can be boiled down to the five following tenets.
Positive masculinity is emotionally expressive. Men are frequently told to repress their emotions, often to their detriment. But the idea that ignoring your emotions somehow makes you strong is ludicrous. Dr. King made speeches that alternated between joy, despair and outrage. David Attenborough has openly admitted to crying over dead animals. I can’t imagine anyone calling either of these men weak. Far from it. Part of what makes these men so impressive is their ability to express their feelings with eloquence and vulnerability. Which brings us to the next point…
Positive masculinity finds strength in vulnerability. When a man expresses his hopes and fears he is making himself vulnerable. He risks exposing himself to ridicule. But this also allows him to forge genuine connections. It’s no coincidence that the most inspirational people share their stories with a nakedness and honesty that resonates with others. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily have to go this far. Making yourself vulnerable merely requires that you express your personality, your passions and your unique sense of humour. It takes a courageous man to do this and put his ego on the line.
Positive masculinity is expansive. It is based on the idea that men are not just fighters and hunters. They are also healers, teachers and artists. This allows for a broad definition of masculinity without being too vague. By supporting others, sharing their experiences or mastering a craft men can make a positive impact on the world. The sense of empowerment and self-worth that follows from this can be immense.
Positive masculinity stresses compassion. Great men don’t spend their time trashing people who don’t conform to society’s norms. In fact, great men are often defined by their capacity for compassion. They are moved by the plight of their fellow humans and spurred to help them in some way. Sometimes, this just means treating people less fortunate than you with kindness and respect. Not ridiculing them in order to win the approval of the group.
Positive masculinity centres moral courage. The most heroic male figures were willing to raise a little hell when the situation called for it. William Lloyd Garrison was a 19th-century journalist who spent his whole life agitating against slavery. He faced jail time and a price on his head for his efforts. The labour activist Eugene Debs led a nationwide strike against wage cuts and was met with a similar pushback. For both men, doing the right thing was worth enduring the sneers and threats of their fellows. While traditional masculinity teaches men to conform to society’s expectations, positive masculinity teaches men to stand up against exploitation and cruelty.
I hope that I have done a decent job of explaining positive masculinity. The concept is meant to give men something better than what traditional masculinity offers. A higher purpose, as corny as that might sound.
I didn’t invent this concept. It was something that became clear to me when I looked at the men who made this world a better place. They all had the following qualities in common:
- Emotional expressiveness
- The willingness to make themselves vulnerable
- A sense of self-worth that extends beyond traditional roles
- Moral courage
These qualities are in no way specific to men. Women, as well as queer, trans and non-binary people, can all find value in them. Positive masculinity is not meant to be exclusive.
But its principles are meant to help young men navigate the world. It took me almost thirty years to work out the kind of man I wanted to be. And I was fortunate enough to know some truly wonderful men like my father and my friends. Most men are not so lucky.
I am not so arrogant to think my advice can change the world overnight. But by sharing what I’ve learned I hope that I can help just a few people.
That alone would make it worthwhile.