A few months ago, a friend from high school who once laughed at my copies of Full Frontal Feminism and The Beauty Myth surprised me by asking how healthy masculinity would be defined.
If we say toxic masculinity is defining manhood through superiority to women, violence, and near non-existent displays of emotion beyond rage, then what’s the healthier alternative? I admit for a moment his question stumped me.
But then, while thinking of my some of my favorite male characters, I found the answer. Here are a few characters I think display healthy and positive masculinity:
1. Barry Allen from The Flash
The fastest man alive cries and that is kind of awesome. Not because I enjoy seeing him in pain, but because in The Flash, you see a guy, the hero of the story who expresses and constantly confronts his pain. Barry has many fears but being vulnerable with the people he loves isn’t one of them. He’s never shy about caring, about guilt, or about telling people (except Iris in the beginning) what they mean to him. He’s even the romantic, sensitive, more domestically capable one in his romantic relationship and that’s never treated as a joke but as a natural part of his personality. I would kill for a hundred Barry Allens.
2. Steven Universe
There’s so much to much to love here I don’t know where to start. At fourteen currently, the youngest crystal gem is not quite man just yet, but his journey to manhood shown on Steven universe is a thing of marvel. Steven is a sensitive, unapologetically emotive, and not entirely gender conforming boy. He loves an adventure a much as the next magical boy but he’s more inclined to try and help or reform his enemies than going straight to fighting them. The show even subverts the ‘can I be as great a hero as my father’ trope by making the person Steven is trying to live up to his mother Rose. Fantasy can allow us to imagine a better world, in Steven Universe, we catch a glimpse of a world where a boy like Steven would never be ostracized.
3. Mister Rogers
So, Fred Rogers was an actual person but after watching but now more than ever I think we can all learn a lot from the kind of man Mister Rogers was. If Won’t You Be My Neighbor is any indication the real-life Fred Rogers was as teddy bearish as the tv counterpart a lot of us grew up with. In his sweater-clad radical kindness, Mister Rogers sweet and earnest approach to dealing with children proved that men could be as nurturing as women. He went beyond validating emotions and celebrated them. The phrase ‘good isn’t soft’ might have been invented to describe Fred Rogers as he reminds us all of the strength in calmly but firmly sticking to your beliefs.
4. Prince T’Challa
We can unpack the efficiency (not to mention rationality) of determining a leader through a brutal fight to the death on a waterfall another time, but a few kinks aside in Black Panther T’Challa’s depiction of masculinity is pretty healthy. He’s a leader that has no problem being advised by women from his elders to his baby sister. The general of his army and his right-hand person is a formidable woman. And despite his flaws, there’s something to be said for a character who can show compassion and when confronted with his own wrongdoing will do whatever it takes to make things right. I’m pretty sure we all know most of his problems could’ve been avoided if T’Challa had just listened to Nakia about opening up to the world in the beginning, but no one’s perfect.
5. Jake Peralta
At first glance when we meet him Jake from Brooklynn Nine-Nine is set up to be the kind of obnoxious dude-bro who camps out in Reddit threads, but as seasons go on is shown to be a feminist dream. Jake doesn’t always like to be serious, but in this lighthearted show as the resident straight, white guy he regularly acknowledges his privilege. We see him reject the boys will be boys reasoning of a disgruntled parent. Despite being incredibly competitive he’s not remotely threatened by his romantic partner being smarter than him. And not a fan of violence, but he punches his childhood hero for calling his boss a homophobic slur. Jake is a breath of fresh air.
6. Terry Jeffords
I can’t bring up the 99 without talking about Terry. This giant of a man is a gem that set the useless husband trope we’re used to in sitcoms on fire and threw it out the window. Terry Jeffords unapologetically loves his children and takes as active a role in parenting them as his wife. Terry never expresses disappointment in having had all girls. Furthermore, there are no cliched jokes about him hating his home life as he seems to genuinely enjoy his role as a husband and father. Arguably the Sargent is (obsession with yogurt aside) the most well-adjusted person is the on the police force.
7. Newt Scamander
I’ve only seen the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but while watching the movie one of the things I was blown away by was Newt. The fantasy and action genre is dominated by male heroes whose staying power is defined by their ability to fight. While Newt seems to be no slouch as a duelist, what stands out about him is his ability to care. About his creatures in a way that borders on parental. And about the misunderstood as we see when he immediately gets that Credence is a victim and not the monster the wizard government writes him off as. His quiet confidence and empathy show that anyone can be a hero.
Back to the question. If we define toxic masculinity through violence, sex, and misogyny positive masculinity is allowing boys and men a full range of interests and expression. It’s empathy, diplomacy, and sincerity. It’s not framing showing emotion as a woman thing, but a human thing.
After decades of heroes who border on emotionless and are quick to be violent and aggressive, it’s reflecting in our stories that there are a million different ways to approach being a man.
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World's okayest weirdo who enjoys writing about pop-culture by moonlight and covering local government by daylight.