What Masculinity Looked Like

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Masculinity is a freighted word. I can’t conjure those five syllables without calling to mind certain classic images of maleness. It’s like there’s a memory chip in my brain that serves up the same old picture, even when I change the search terms. The same phenomenon is true, I think, for all kinds of deep-seated bias, whether directed at others or enacted in the private space of our brains. It’s unnerving to realize that, despite all the reading and thinking I’ve done on this subject, my conception of what it means to be masculine, to be a man, feels hard-wired.

That’s not to say I can’t work around my internal wiring—I try very hard to do just that. But when I think about masculinity, I have to anticipate my brain’s automatic response and then purposefully sidestep it to find a subtler, more evolved conception. This exercise has become almost routine for me, ever since I hit middle age and my understanding of masculinity has undergone such change. It’s not just midlife that occasioned this re-examination, though; it’s also a social climate in which “masculinity is toxic” and “masculinity crisis” top the list of search results in Google. Masculinity, as a construct, as an identity, is undergoing massive revision, leaving men of all ages and backgrounds to ponder what exactly we do with this gender we inherited.

Starting at the Beginning

Like many men, I looked to my father as the example for how a man ought to behave—what masculinity looks like in action. A member of the “greatest generation,” he had the classic credentials of his time. He grew up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II, attended college on the GI Bill, and lived, as French philosopher Paul Ricoeur said, a life worth recounting. After the war, my father became a Presbyterian minister. Every Sunday he donned a black robe and stepped into the pulpit to preach the Gospel to his congregation. During the week, he counseled married couples, visited dying parishioners at the hospital, performed weddings and funerals, and baptized infants. In addition to that pastoral side, he had an abundance of masculine puissance: He boxed competitively in the Army and, for many years after that, lifted weights and pounded away at a heavy bag to stay fit. He was a strikingly handsome man with coal-black hair, a square jaw, and powerful, broad shoulders. Photos of him from the 1950s look like Clark Kent ready to dash into a phone booth.

Those are the images of my father—and to a large extent those images inform the hard-wired understanding of masculinity I referred to earlier. What is unavailable to me, ever since his death at 88, is an understanding of his personal sense of masculinity or, rather, how he viewed himself as a man and how he thought others viewed him. I can conclude certain things based on his behavior: He was a loving and protective husband, courageous in the face of a threat, tender and attentive toward his five children, and occasionally given to flashes of temper. He saw himself as responsible for our family’s well being and bore that burden proudly—though at times with visible difficulty when, for example, my mother died of cancer in 1969. After my mother’s death, his demeanor turned the slightest bit grim, as if his teeth were more often on edge than not. His natural tendency toward intensity combined with the trauma of losing his wife, I believe, colored his outward expression of masculinity. Consequently, as a boy, I came to view maleness as something that smolders inside a person, or strains against restraints like a dog on a leash. Masculinity does, I believe, have an animalistic quality to it that, without the civilizing effect of parenting, education, and acculturation, can go off the rails in some spectacular ways—occurrences of which show up in the news with frightening regularity.

The Masculine Dialectic

In my father, I saw a man of extraordinary physical and intellectual power who embraced the concept of Christian forbearance, even while keeping one eye open for the next crusade to undertake. As I’ve written in a previous post, I am drawn to the idea that good men are a dialectic of action and forbearance, aggression and tenderness. If there is any validity to that archetype, I wonder how my father’s sense of coiled tension came across to women. More generally, I’m curious how that characteristic informs women’s reaction to men, even when men think they’re on their best behavior. There are obvious parallels here with race relations and the notion of implicit bias. It is in the no-man’s land between the signals one person sends and what others actually receive that so much conflict is engendered. The challenge for many men, particularly those just beginning their testosterone-fueled journey through life, is not just to honor the restraints of civility and compassion, but to look beyond oneself and anticipate how maleness in the context of 21st-century society is construed by others. It’s a challenging exercise in empathy—a skill too many of us never developed to its full potential.

I don’t know to what extent my father comprehended the effect of his masculine identity on others, particularly those in a less dominant social role. The context in which he functioned—and his role as a minister, for which compassion and tenderness were critical, as were, paradoxically, traditional leadership characteristics—made for an entirely different setting in which to “perform” masculinity (as sociologists would say). I ask myself all the time how his combination of traditional masculinity and pastoral compassion was met by colleagues, congregants, friends, enemies, even strangers. More specifically and intriguingly, I imagine how he came across to women in all those categories, and as a husband or boyfriend. Did women find his brand of masculinity comforting? Alluring? Unsettling? Threatening? Did his physical appeal complicate his role as a counselor to married couples, to single women?

This isn’t idle speculation for me. As I re-evaluate what it means to be a man in 2019, I’m forced to examine the archetype of masculinity that so insistently enters my mind—neither to validate nor discredit it, but to fully understand its effects and implications. After all, as men, we navigate through a gazillion potential reactions to our masculine selves, just as women deal with a range of responses—some appropriate, some execrable—to their feminine identities. Arguably, men haven’t invested enough effort in comprehending how our expression of maleness is interpreted by women. As long as men were the unquestioned rulers of the world, there was no practical urgency to do so. But, thankfully, times have changed. If we’re ever going to push “masculinity is toxic” off the top Google search results, we need to make that investment. For me, the process begins where I did: by studying the complicated man whose identity so influenced my understanding of manhood.