Thanks to the #MeToo movement, toxic masculinity has been brought to the forefront of the American psyche. It exposed the deep patterns of abuse within American male culture, revealing why so many young people have a reasonable distrust and distain for male authority. Our traditional understandings of masculinity and expectations of men are being re-evaluated.
However, with more awareness and critique of how we socialize boys into their masculinity has also brought about more confusion. Several critics believe the inherent identity of men is under attack, as part of a political agenda to weaken and feminize them. But this common misunderstanding illustrates the same fundamental problem we’ve had for over half a century: men have had no positive masculine identity given to them by modern society. We have a cultural void where the only message of what masculinity actually is says it’s “not anything feminine.”
"[B]oys typically define their masculinity predominantly in negative terms–as not feminine, not female, not like mother... this may be the source of boys' tendency to devalue the feminine in general, a pattern not paralleled by girls' views of masculinity. Research suggests that young boys' forceful contempt for anything feminine is a means of assuring themselves that they are truly masculine (Chodorow, 1989; Kantrowitz & Kalb, 1998)." –Julia T. Woods
The craving for identity —to be known— drives us to fill the void with something, anything. The lowest common denominator of frustration, emotional stuntedness, irresponsibility, and abuse has filled it with toxicity.
But the masculine identity isn’t what needs to be eradicated; it just needs to grow up. If perpetually juvenile and toxic masculinity isn’t what we want, what kind of masculinity do we want? Hopefully, this conversation contributes to our wider culture by defining “holistic masculinity” clearly as a positive, inclusive and mature development of masculine identify for anyone who self-identifies as male.
Rather than division and separation, holistic masculinity inclusively accepts both masculine and feminine sides of oneself in order to integrate growth in one focused direction towards greater moral character, agency of power and inner vitality. A holistic male has experienced suffering, knows his own power intimately and uses it to protect and nurture the vulnerable around him. He is guided by an inner fire that has no substitute. It helps lead him to truth, decipher wisdom and discover joys beyond circumstance. This kind of maturity cannot be bought or faked by mimicking another’s behavior or appearance. It has to be entered into — by going to the place only you can go within yourself — where you learn to distinguish your false self (what you do, what you have and how others think of you) from your True Self.
Here is where we need help from one another. Most of us can’t find the doorway into knowing ourselves at this level. We need to be invited into it or initiated by someone who already has a positive identity of holistic masculinity of their own.
“[B]oys who lack a strong, personal relationship with an adult male, masculine gender can be elusive and difficult to grasp (Ingrassia, 1995; Tyre, 2008).”–Julia T. Wood
A young boy is invited into holistic masculinity when older, wiser, adult males who already embody the essence of maturity initiate the boy into training for the next phase of life. Even though it’s not a common experience for most American males, we have small glimpses of this kind of “initiation training” in stories everywhere, like the classic archetypes in Rocky, Creed, The Karate Kid, or Star Wars. While we rightly reject healthy masculinity can be reduced to exclusive traits to categorize into masculine or feminine, stereotypes to coerce or conform ourselves to, or scripts to blindly follow today, we also recognize maturity involves coming to terms with the whole of you, which includes your gendered identity. These stories all have a universal pattern underneath about how a immature child becomes a mature adult. They’re invitations for anyone who self-identifies as masculine to begin the transition where boy becomes man.
Every journey starts with a call, an awakening of the deep longing within for a more holistic and mature posture or way of being in the world.
This call leads the boy to an adult man, who in turn, teaches him how he can learn who he is, how to earn and accept the boy’s holistic masculine identity. With the guidance of this wise elder, he begins a new journey as a boy to finally return home as a man. The boy faces struggle, fully enters into it, experiences pain and loss and emerges with a transformed sense of self, along with the maturity to contribute real value back to his larger community.
He becomes a man.
A simple example can be seen in The Empire Strikes Back where the boy asks his teacher, “What’s in [the darkness] there?” The teacher replies with a mysterious wisdom, “Only what you take with you.”
Immaturity cannot comprehend what the teacher means when he says, “Your weapons, you will not need them,” —until— it has been fundamentally transformed into maturity. Immaturity simply has no reference for maturity. It’s blind to anything but itself.
This may be the single greatest root connected to so many of our collective problems. We can trace most of them back the scarcity of maturity. In every area of life, we need more wise elders who can teach us from their own experience, to grow beyond a world that resolves around our false self.
Ancient civilizations had symbolic rituals that led boys into this kind of mature manhood, which we’ll explore more in later posts. They called this men’s initiation process rites of passage. I think we can find creative ways to adapt them for our modern contexts. Until then…
Toxic masculinity won’t die without a fight, but as it inevitability does die, I hope holistic masculinity will rise from the ashes.