I know holding up Rocky as a model of masculinity has some major flaws. Our culture has grown past many of the masculine stereotypes while the character still remains frozen in the slice of time each story was written. The contrast is stark. But I hope we can see past the flaws of a single segment to see the larger portrait of a man created through all these films. I’m asking you to withhold judgment, like starring past the noise in one of those old hidden 3D pictures in hopes of seeing something you may have never seen in these stories before.
So why Rocky?
My childhood is filled with nostalgia for the Rocky franchise. When I first saw Rocky III, I was around the age of his son in the movie. Rocky’s simple personality reminded me of my own father who was a somewhere between Rocky and the Dude from The Big Lebowski (it’s a rare positive association I have with my father). It’s like I grew up with Rocky, but as I kept growing, the character kept growing too. In ways I often wish my own father would of have been able to do.
As a series of films, Rocky offers a unique arch over the whole of a man’s lifetime. Of course the violence of boxing is a trite (often an abused and toxic) masculine motif, but in this case, I still think it serves as effective grounding for universal challenges— like facing our own fear and pain. Each individual film is a predictably flawed product of its time. But the accumulative results are a perpetual coming of age story, throughout various life stages, following a similar pattern to Richard Rohr’s map of the masculine spiritual journey.
The story of Rocky starts by climbing the first steps into maturity, experiences the connection and loss of a good mentor, and tastes the failure of believing your own myth, becoming blinded by ego. The story continues by reaching the pinnacle of your prime, facing your toughest challenge, and experiencing cost of success that breaks something deep inside. (I-IV) It leads to an inevitable midlife crisis and the mistake of trying to repeat past success by imposing it on a younger generation. He loses everything. From there, Rocky discovers the wisdom and freedom won through acceptance and humiliation (Richard Rohr calls this the "second half of life"). His story finishes in the Creed series, where we see a full transition into masculine spiritual maturity, giving the rest of his life for the benefit of a new generation. (V-VIII)
Throughout these films, we’ve watched this man grow up. We’ve seen the challenges he’s faced, the mistakes he’s made, the losses he’s endured, and the pain he suffered. But we also witness him transform, as he’s shaped by his commitment to keep moving forward through it all.
When the cultural norms settled for loud, flashy, and financially successful masculine ideals, Rocky was uniquely unpretentious. He never came across as being better than us. He wasn’t chasing after fame, he didn’t want your envy. He wanted something real, something that couldn’t be bought, something only he would know in his heart if he achieved it or not. He’s constantly digging for the his own inner vitality, the eye of the tiger.
One thing that keeps me coming back to these Rocky stories is his innate drive to discover what you’re made of— to define and embrace your own masculine identity— to know beyond a shadow of doubt if you do or do not have the integrity and substance of a the kind of person you want to be or not. Does the inner vitality of holistic masculine spiritual maturity run through your heart and veins? The longevity of these stories in our cultural consciousness suggests many of us want to know the same about ourselves too.
This journey towards masculine maturity starts with inclusive male initiation. The basic pattern is threefold: separation, encounter, return (from Richard Rohr’s From Wild Man to Wise Man, summarized below):
One of my favorite scenes from Balboa (VI) shows exactly what positive, secure, loving “father energy” (to quote Rohr), can give to a young man. At first Rocky seems to be sentimental, relationally unresponsive, and completely unaware of his own irrelevance. But he quickly shows us he knows a hard won wisdom his son has yet to experience. Instead he gives his son a gift.
This is an example of that first call to awaken the maturity within.
Moments like this cement in my mind why we need to explore, create, and celebrate more of our own myths for developing holistic masculinity. I believe all young men want, in some form or another, to know how to receive and eventually give masculine acceptance to others who need it.
It’s an encouraging relief to know we don’t have to walk this road completely alone. Others have gone through their own existential suffering and found the treasure with it. They can teach us how to find our own.