I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Not all masculinity is toxic.
I’ve been seeing a lot of men suggesting that manhood is under attack. That everything to do with men is considered toxic. That the only “non-toxic” form of manhood is some sort of feminized masculinity, stripped of everything that traditionally made men, men.
While I don’t think that traditional manhood was perfect, I don’t think it was necessarily and inherently toxic, either. Somewhere in the 1970s, the good parts of the traditional man seemed to fall largely by the wayside in favor of the ultraviolence depicted in movies like “Death Wish” and “Escape from New York.” Even attempts at criticism, like “Falling Down” and “A Clockwork Orange,” seemed to feed the emerging spirit that manhood was about destroying anything we couldn’t get fairly.
“Real men,” I was told growing up, “don’t eat quiche.” That was the beginning of the current battle between the Liberated Man and the Traditional Man, and somewhere in the last few decades the “traditional man” model went from problematic to completely toxic.
Once upon a time, men had dens, where we read books, smoked, and enjoyed the silence; now we have “man caves” where we watch sports and party.
I bring up man caves because this was used in a recent conversation as something that is routinely called “toxic.” Man caves are not inherently toxic. I’ll say it again: Man caves are not inherently toxic.
If you want to have a room in your house dedicated to watching sports, playing video games, and otherwise hanging out with your guy friends, go for it. Knock yourself out. Equip it with a full bar and a 70-inch 4K TV and an ultra-bass sound system. Have fun.
There are a few aspects of society’s embrace of the “man cave” that are problematic. One is the anti-intellectualism implied in the transition from dens to man caves. Along with that, the “man cave” model tends to depict men as children, with their beleaguered spouses taking care of the mature parts of the household while the men party. When the men are done partying, who cleans up?
And then there’s the matter of “real men.” A man can certainly have a space devoted to his personal entertainment. So can anyone, for that matter. But when there’s the suggestion that “real men” have man caves, or “real men” are in full control of their households, or “real men” know how to put women in their places… that’s the toxic man box closing around us.
My personal space is a cluttered corner of one of the rooms of the house. I can watch the street outside. There is no TV, but there is a turntable. In warm weather, I prefer to sit outside, on the porch table that I can see right now. This is where I feel comfortable: It makes me neither a lesser man nor a greater man for not having a “man cave.”
As Jed Diamond writes for GMP, the Man Box is a complex set of qualities about what makes a “real man”; my example here is mostly about “rigid masculine gender roles.” A man cave isn’t toxic; what’s toxic is telling other men that if they don’t have a man cave, they’re not real men.
For me, the key elements of masculine toxicity are:
1. Defining and enforcing a rigid concept of “masculinity”;
2. Building this concept in a way that leads to emotional suppression of men, including ourselves;
3. Treating anyone who isn’t a “real man” as lesser beings not deserving of respect or even control over their own bodies;
4. Acting like men have a birthright entitlement to live fully according to this definition.
Nowhere in there does it say, “Don’t build a man cave in your basement, if you have the resources.”
Nowhere does it say, “You have to cry at Lifetime Movies or you’re part of the problem.” Indeed: I’d say men who insist that “real men always show genuine emotions” are still defining and enforcing a rigid concept of “masculinity,” they’re just shifting the parameters.
Nowhere does it say, “If you open doors for women, you’re a patronizing, overbearing patriarchalist.” It does suggest, though, that you might want to reflect on why you do that. Is it because you’re truly a gentleman, and you fully respect women? Or is it because you think it’s part of the social contract between men and women, and that later you’ll expect a woman to “pay up” by having sex with you?
Feminism is not a single voice. For instance, one thing that feminists have struggled with is the matter of consensual sex work. Enough feminists have distanced themselves from consensual sex workers that there’s a term for it (SWERF). To add yet another layer, the radical rap group Consolidated! mansplained from the SWERF viewpoint in “No Answer for a Dancer.”
So it stands to reason that, as we continue to struggle with developing healthier views of masculinity, there will be disagreements about which aspects of manhood are in need of remedy and which are part of healthy personal expression. We gain nothing by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and we gain only a heavy sense of futility in deciding that simply being a man, at all, is a terrible thing.
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