Men have started taking classes to unlearn “toxic masculinity.” But nothing about true masculinity is “toxic”—in fact, it’s something that should be promoted, not stifled.
According to its liberal critics, toxic masculinity can consist of wearing long beards, choosing a male doctor, or having large muscles. They say that society pressures men into certain behaviors, and that men should do whatever they want and they’ll still be masculine.
True, some of the “problematic” qualities that critics of toxic masculinity target are universally considered bad things, such as sexual aggression or violence. But these things aren’t in fact qualities of real masculinity in any case. True masculinity, or “positive masculinity,” is not rage or lust. Real men cry too. Remember, there’s an entire “guy-cry” genre that counts on male tear ducts for its box office success—think Rudy, Field of Dreams, or the countless reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Real masculinity involves confidence, strength, and responsibility. It doesn’t involve alpha-male posturing, but it is a distinct quality present in great fathers, husbands, and leaders. Masculinity helps to uphold the family and society itself. You might not like their aesthetic choices, but men with big beards and big trucks saved thousands after a deadly hurricane struck Texas, precisely the kind of men whom third-wave feminists categorically deride.
History also provides role models of positive masculinity. Men like Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill serve as strong examples of real masculinity in action. While some critics would scoff at their strenuous lifestyles and brash personalities as mere machismo, it’s those lifestyles and personalities that brought America and Britain through wars and crises.
Teddy Roosevelt defined masculinity for the early twentieth century. He hunted, went to war, and promoted outdoor recreation. He wasn’t always the man with the big stick, however. As a young man, he was sickly and asthmatic, told to stay indoors by his doctors. Instead, he began hiking and took up boxing. Rather than resigning himself to weakness, he became one of the most vigorous exercisers in the nation.
Thanks to his self-cure, Roosevelt went on to become an accomplished civil servant, only to leave his cushy Washington job and lead a regiment called the “Rough Riders” to victory in the Spanish-American War. He then capitalized on his fame as a war hero to eventually serve two terms as President. And all of it was possible because he decided to get in shape, study war, and volunteer to go fight—all behavior that some today would label as “toxic.”
Churchill isn’t the icon of masculinity Roosevelt is, but he was no less a man. He was a sickly child as well, and did poorly at school for most of his life. But when he joined the British military, he turned himself around. During the Boer War, he was captured by the enemy, but he broke free and escaped from his train. In India, he decided to improve by immersing himself in the works of Plato, Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin, among others.
His military experience and self-teaching paid off—both for Britain and for Churchill. He led the nation to victory against the Axis powers in World War II, and later received a Nobel Prize in literature for his body of work, including a staggering thirty-one published volumes of nonfiction.
Maybe if Slate magazine had been around in Churchill’s day, he would have realized that “achievement and competition” were just toxic values being forced on him by his parents and society. According to the author of Why Men Can’t Feel, boys are encouraged “to be competitive, focus on external success, rely on their intellect, withstand physical pain, and repress their vulnerable emotions.” This idea is shockingly prevalent—somehow the notion of “toxic masculinity” has grown into criticizing all efforts to improve our male children. If we can’t encourage boys to succeed, focus on strength, focus on smarts, or learn how to handle their emotions, what are we supposed to teach them?
Today’s crusaders against toxic masculinity would probably tell children like Roosevelt that it was okay to be sickly, and that he should just stick to improving his bug collection. They would tell kids like Churchill that a desire for excellence in war and even literature is a product of “gender roles.” But both men overcame adversity, going on to achieve great military and intellectual victories and to serve as role models for their countries and for future generations. Thank God they hadn’t heard that strength and success are bad for men.