The Toxic Masculinity Thing

Just what is “toxic masculinity”? Which destructive and antisocial behaviors are presented as “manly” and are excused with the adage “boys will be boys”? Is critiquing these behaviors tantamount to attacking manhood itself? How can we go about critiquing said behaviors without seeming to attack manhood itself? Plenty of us have been scrambling for answers to these questions since Gillette aired its now infamous commercial “The Best Men Can Be” and set off a hailstorm of controversy.

I hadn’t planned to address this issue in my blog, directly at least, until a scene from the most recent episode of Masterpiece Theatre’s Victoria started me thinking about where toxic masculinity might come from, and how difficult it might be to root out.

Victoria showcases the stories not only of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert but a cross- section of people, nobles and commoners and servants, powerful and powerless, whose lives orbit and/or intersect with theirs. New to this season is Sophie, Duchess of Monmouth. A loving and devoted mother, Sophie worries about how much time she’s spending away from her children while she’s attending the Queen and is desperate for any kind of contact with them. Toward the end of the episode, we see her reunite with her little boy, and we hear him declare how happy he is to have the chance to spend some time with her at last. Then her husband appears and puts an end to the tender scene. He sends the boy away and tells Sophie that her “mollycoddling” will render their son unfit to be the next Duke. The time has come, in short, for the mother to step back from her active role in raising the boy and let men take over.

Examples of this once-common idea in action can be found everywhere, from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (in which a drunk and dissolute father seeks to instruct his tiny son in the “art” of ignoring and looking down on women, including his mother) to the 1950s big-screen potboiler Home From the Hill (in which Robert Mitchum plays a father who decides that too much time with and guidance from his wife has made their teenage son “weak,” and advises her to take up a hobby because “from here on out, that boy’s mine”) to Sharon Shinn’s underrated fantasy series The Twelve Houses (in which, when asked whether her two sons provide any consolation, an abused wife says her sons belong to their father, adding that they’ve had no interest in her since they could first hold a sword). Emotional ties between mothers and sons must be severed, or at least gravely loosed, as soon as possible so the boys can move into exclusively masculine spheres. A boy can only “become a man” if he is separated from women. If interactions with Mom are not reduced or even eliminated — well, you know what happens to “Mama’s boys.” At best, they turn into “sissies.” At worst, they turn into Norman Bates.

As I think about this supposed necessity of driving a wedge between mother and son — and by extension, any other female mentor and any space/environment perceived as “feminine” — I can’t help wondering, is this where it starts? Or how it has started for hundreds of years, the ripple effects of which we still feel today? Healthy interactions with the mother and/or other female elders could surely do as much as anything to help boys grow into young men who see women as people with minds and hearts and ideas that matter. Yet when those interactions are cut off in the name of “becoming a man,” should it surprise us when boys grow into young men who view women as a puzzling separate species? Not quite human, or perhaps a little less than human?

Times have changed. The idea that it’s imperative for the growing boy to be separated from the company of women and girls so that he can become a “proper man” is no longer as commonly accepted as it once was. Children’s and middle-grade stories frequently model strong friendships between boys and girls; even when the protagonist is a boy, like, say, Harry Potter, the female friend gets to be part of the action rather than cheering the hero on from the sidelines. The concept of “No Girls Allowed” has gone out of fashion, at least in the stories we tell about childhood. That’s progress, to be sure, even though descriptions of healthy and functional mother-son relationships remain practically non-existent in pop culture. Plenty of parents are raising their boys to view girls as potential friends and partners in adventure rather than as alien incomprehensible creatures. So I do have some hope for future generations.

But the past casts a very long shadow, still affecting the ways in which we view ourselves and each other. If I had to give toxic masculinity a nutshell definition, I’d say it’s a belief that simply being a cisgender male makes you more important, more valuable, and worthier of respect than those who are not. And progress notwithstanding, the world still offers plenty of choice tidbits to feed this idea.

When convicted rapists serve little or no jail time, and when judges and commentators fret over what will become of man-boys like Brock Turner and the Steubenville, Ohio rapists while expressing no concern at all for the fates of their victims, the message is clear: A boy’s or man’s future is worth far more than that of a woman or girl.

When people circle the proverbial wagons to protect powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, and R. Kelly from any consequences of their treating women and girls like sexual appliances even though they’re fully aware of the extent of these men’s reprehensible behavior — and thus make it possible for those men to get away with this behavior for years, even decades — what does that say but, The powerful man is more valuable and more deserving of protection than the women he’s exploiting?

When, in the midst and in the aftermath of the excruciating (whichever side you’re on) Brett Kavanaugh hearings, talking heads warn mothers to worry that their sons will face false accusations of sexual assault, yet can’t find it in their hearts to give even a passing mention of the dangers daughters face in a world where Brock Turners and R. Kellys still lurk, it’s hard not to hear, Mothers, put your sons first. Daughters come a distant second. (This TED Talk offers a disturbing example of what can happen when mothers internalize this “boys are better” message.)

The problem of toxic masculinity (or any other toxicity that results from someone taking a hand they were dealt at birth as a badge of honor and importance) is too entrenched to be solved by one ad or even an awesome classic R&B hit by the Four Tops. There’s no quick fix. The problem will recede bit by bit, as long-term abusers of women are finally called to account, and as more parents and other mentors help their sons grow into men who view others as just as valuable as themselves.

It’s in our hands.



A Woman Goes On a Journey

“She suffered the woman to take her arm and stroll with her as if casually along the battlement toward he inner stairs, careful, Ista noted, to take the outside place between Ista and the drop. Content you, woman. I do not desire the stones.

I desire the road.

(Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls, p. 3)

This past year, I revisited Paladin of Souls on audiobook, and it didn’t take me long to remember why I love it so. Not only does it feature engaging prose and plotline, but in gods-haunted protagonist Ista, author Lois McMaster Bujold presents us with a type of female hero for which I have a distinct soft spot: the wandering woman, who breaks free of a sheltered, often confining existence to seek knowledge and experience in the wider world.

For Leo Tolstoy, “A man goes on a journey” is one of two foundational plot drivers (the other being “A stranger comes to town”). “Man” in the time Tolstoy was writing may have served as the generic for “person,” but for centuries, in history and literature, going on journeys has been the province and privilege of men. From Sir Francis Drake to Charles Darwin to Buzz Aldrin, men have been the ones to travel and make world-changing discoveries. They’ve been the explorers, the innovators, loosely bound (if at all) to a stabilizing home port maintained by women. While Odysseus’ adventures take him from the Cyclops’ cave to Circe’s island to the halls of the Underworld, Penelope sits at home, weaving, doing what she can to fend off the forces of chaos so that on his return he will find things much as he left them.

Where journeying is concerned, coming-of-age stories are frequently drawn along gender lines: while a boy’s transition into manhood involves facing the perils of the outside world, a girl’s transition into womanhood involves embracing, or at least accustoming herself to the realistic and often mundane responsibilities of home. When a boy, like, say, Star Wars‘ Luke Skywalker, leaves home, he rarely looks back. Yet Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz ends where she began, at home, her expectations appropriately pared down to size. The other iconic female voyager of children’s literature, Alice, never truly leaves home at all; like Dorothy in the classic 1939 Oz film, she dreams her whole adventure, and in the end, she wakes up.

For many readers, the most challenging yet satisfying aspect of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is its ending: the title character, having come through one difficult adventure, strikes out for parts unknown rather than succumb to another God-fearing middle-aged woman’s efforts to “civilize” him. Huck Finn may strike us as masculinity incarnate, the embodiment of boys’ and men’s desire for freedom and perpetual adventure, change, and surprise; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s dramatic poem “Ulysses” offers another literary example with a more mature protagonist, one who has come home after much hard voyaging and finds he can’t stomach the stillness. Yet where are the female Huck Finns, the girls and women who choose freedom over security, surprise over stability? The impulse toward adventure has always been the element I’ve coveted most in male protagonists’ stories, yet the scarcity of equivalent stories about girls makes me wonder if exploration and discovery are considered things girls just aren’t meant to care about, even today.

That’s why Ista’s story thrills me to my core.

She isn’t really a female Huck Finn; she bears a closer resemblance to Tennyson’s Ulysses, an older protagonist who actively resists the life of constricting stability she’s presented with. And unlike Dorothy’s and Alice’s travels, her story doesn’t end with a promise of safe and secure normalcy ever after. She has discovered she’s the only one with the gods-given power to save her country from enemy invaders who use daemons as weapons, and in the end, she’s prepared to set out for those distant parts where her help is still needed. Her narrative doesn’t chastise her for her desire for the road. Rather, it affirms it.

Paladin of Souls may be my favorite fantasy story with a female protagonist inclined to travel, but it isn’t quite the only one. Rosemary Kierstein’s Steerswoman series features a female buddy pair, Rowan and Bel, who travel together, confronting and curing the evil magics wrought by wizards (steerswomen’s natural enemies). The recent highly successful Disney animated feature Moana presents audiences with a title character destined to be chief of her people; in leaving her island to cure the curse that afflicts it, she sets both herself and her people free to be the voyagers they were meant to be, and the final shot of her sailing with the breeze in her hair is a thing of beauty. These stories stand apart from those of Alice and Dorothy and all those early heroines whose journeys had to end at home. Even if the wanderers do go home, they won’t stay there. Home is a port, not a destination.

Yet there’s still a key difference between these female wanderers and the Huck Finns of the fictional world. The boys’ journeys are flights from the constraints of civilization and its rules. Shunning society and embracing freedom are still coded as very male. For Ista, Rowan, Bel, and Moana, traveling is (or in Ista’s case, becomes) tied to responsibility. Their wanderings are the means by which they do good in their worlds.

It would be nice if, just once in a while, we met with a female lead who embraces the traveling lifestyle for its own sake. For now, however, I’ll take my lady voyagers any way I can get them.


Things I Loved in 2018, Part 3


I’ll get the disappointing news out of the way first: 2018 was regrettably low on female heroes, at least of the blockbuster variety. 2016 gave us Moana, Zootopia, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as standout female-hero stories. In 2017 came the one-two punch of Wonder Woman and Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. Yet what I’ll remember most about 2018 are the many interesting and competent female characters who could have been the central heroes of their own stories but instead had to settle for facilitating the achievements of male heroes — Nakia, Okoye, Shuri (Black Panther), Domino (Deadpool 2), Mera, Atlanna (Aquaman), Art3mis (Ready Player One), Spider-Gwen, Peni Parker (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), and Hope (Ant-Man and the Wasp). In the popular Avengers: Infinity War, female characters were even more painfully shortchanged; only Gamora got substantial screen time, and she turned out to be more victim than hero. The closest I saw to a heroic female lead in an action-adventure film was Elastigirl in The Incredibles 2, yet while I liked the movie quite a bit, certain plot wrinkles and thematic elements kept me from embracing it with my whole heart. I wonder how much of an accident it is that despite Elastigirl’s central role, the character that everyone remembers most fondly is Jack-Jack.

Then there was Star Wars. After giving us female heroes for three movies in a row, the franchise offered Solo: A Star Wars Story, which was apparently made to appease that segment of Star Wars fandom that has been railing against “SJWs” for ruining the series with too much heroic female representation. If that’s what it takes to shut these guys up, I’m okay with it.

Yet despite the dearth of heroic female leads in the hot-ticket genres and franchises, female characters managed to flourish in more realistic films: slices of life (e.g. Eighth Grade, Tully), dramas focusing on social issues (e.g. The Hate U Give, Leave No Trace), anti-hero stories (e.g. Widows, Can You Forgive Me?), and Oscar front-runners (e.g. A Star Is Born). The female protagonists in such stories may not have been heroes; rather, they were complicated, messy women, prone to mistakes big and small, doing their best to power through difficult situations. The most outstanding example, for me, was The Favourite, a take on All About Eve set in the court of the erratic Queen Anne, featuring three complex and outrageously unpredictable female leads. Fans of stories that center on female anti-heroes should eat this one up like double-dark chocolate mousse. We need characters like this, women who are allowed to be deeply flawed and, dare I say it, “unlikable” in the way that male characters have always been free to be. Like A Star Is Born, The Favourite is an Oscar front-runner, and although I’m not all that excited about the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper film, it does my heart good to see two female-centered films ahead in the race. (The Golden Globes awarded their top prizes to a pair of guy-centric movies, but hey, they’re the Globes.)

Yet as gratifying as it is to see these complicated ladies on the big screen, I can’t help wishing I could have my female heroes, too. Hopefully I don’t ask too much. Captain Marvel had better be good, darn it.

Without further delay, my awards for this year:

Best Proof that the Historical Drama Remains a Thriving and Relevant Genre: Colette, a story of a woman’s fight for creative agency set in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century France. This movie, despite amazing performances by Keira Knightley and Dominic West, hasn’t generated the kind of talk it would need to be a factor in the Oscar race, but it should help filmmakers see how much woman-centered history they could tap into.

Best Use of Comic Scrip On Screen: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Best Scene-Stealing Supporting Player: Shuri, as played by Letitia Wright, in Black Panther. Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death and Akata Witch, is currently writing a series of comics with Shuri as the protagonist. Hopefully this series sill find its way to the big screen within the next couple of years.

Best Musical Number: “A Place Called Slaughter Race,” from Ralph Breaks the Internet.

Character I Didn’t Expect to Love, But Did:  the desperate, courageous mother played by Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place.

Movie I Didn’t Expect to Love, But Did: A Quiet Place.

Movie I Would Have Loved More If It Hadn’t Been for That Post-Credits Scene: Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Movies I Hope I’ll Love But Still Need to See: Annihilation, Leave No Trace, The Hate U Give.