Masculinity, Non-Toxic or Otherwise

I’ve been reading a lot about “toxic masculinity” on the Twitterverse and elsewhere, and I suppose enough comments got under my skin to post something here. The goal is not to flame anyone, denounce anyone, or otherwise have an unseemly flash of temper. I merely wish to share the thoughts of a nearly-50-year-old guy who grew up in a household run by a single mother and more or less taught himself how to be a man.

Where I’m Coming From

Behold my time and place: Suburbia. Chicagoland. The 1970s and ’80s. Generation X. The Land of the Latchkey Kid. An interesting time to grow up as the only boy in a home run by a divorced mother, but that’s how the fates decreed it. I got the honorary (until biology caught up) title of “man of the house,” and was expected to act accordingly.

At first this meant little things, such as dumping the garbage or dragging it out to the curb. Eventually it led to more “important” chores like checking to make sure all the doors were locked, mowing the lawn, shoveling the sidewalk in winter, or cooking on the grill. The rest of the time, I was pretty much left to myself to establish my personality as a man.

I was a bookish kid growing up. Not terribly sportsmanlike (last kid picked for kickball, put on the worst baseball team in little league, etc.), which was a big thing at that time and place. I got along better with the girls because that’s who I spoke with at home. I played make-believe in the Star Wars universe in my yard with the other boys in the neighborhood and in my room. I collected the usual assortment of Legos, Matchbox cars, toy laser guns, and model ships and planes. And while I didn’t consider myself terribly adventurous, by today’s nosy-neighbor standards, I probably would’ve been considered neglected, as I was allowed to ride my bike with my friends around town, to other towns, and sometimes several municipalities (miles) away as long as I was home by dinner time.

Mom was busy working, and I was busy playing or studying or reading science fiction books. Because I took a great deal of teasing while growing up, from the boys and the girls, I didn’t get socialize as much as I reached adolescence. Did I get a lot of lessons on etiquette? What to do with myself on a date? None of that sticks out to me, so either I got the lessons and didn’t listen or I just didn’t ask.

In the midst of all this, I was facing a lot of challenges from male peers: challenges to fights or just getting beaten up; insults or shouting of my name just to get me to jump; being followed home (my best friend from that time suggested that I try out for the track team, given the amount of running I did between school and home). So I knew how “boys” behaved, and I wasn’t a fan. I was also a sensitive child, which is a polite adult term for “cried easily.” That just added to the fun for my peers.

On the other hand, I wasn’t particularly gung ho to give up on my masculinity. I played a season in little league. I loved football and war/action movies. I took karate, if only so I’d understand the rudiments of self-defense. I quit when the class got to weapons because I had no interest in handling them.

But still, with Dad 1,000 miles away, what was I supposed to do with myself? How was I supposed to behave? I was in the learning disabilities class for six years thanks to some muscular development issues (hypothyroidism), which caused me to miss a year’s worth of growth in my infancy. So: small, weak, clumsy, emotional, and lacking a live-in role model. What to do with myself?

What I Fashioned for Myself

In the real world, my mother would point out men that she admired as being “gentlemen.” I suppose I learned how to stand up straight watching them, at any rate. I was no good with tools or math, either, which was limiting the scope of my future activities. I had some teachers I admired. I learned how to say, “Yes, sir,” and do what I was told.

The rest of my male persona was conjured out of books, movies, and TV shows. Through a combination of my mother’s tastes and my own, I fashioned a male identity out of strong, not necessarily macho, actors: Harrison Ford, Charlton Heston, Tom Selleck, Alan Alda, William Shatner, Mark Hamill, what have you.

In the fiction I read–again, mostly science fiction–I tended to read about men who used their minds to solve problems. Violence was an option, but not always the first one. And I picked up a bit of space and engineering lingo along the way, which would eventually serve me in my later choice of career. I didn’t learn a lot about romance, but I suspect that many of the writers I was reading weren’t all that sharp on it, either, which was why it rarely appeared in their books.

Did I have any concept of what “a man” was, or what he was supposed to do with himself? Bit by bit, yes. However, I didn’t have “Be a man” beaten into me, figuratively or literally, I was just expected to grow up and assume some sort of masculine identity.

I acquired what behaviors seemed to suit me best without requiring a lot of acting: Look someone in the eye when you’re talking to them. Stand up straight. Minimize your arm movements. Try to stay cool under pressure, especially if you think someone is trying to get a rise out of you. Tell the truth. Keep your word. Take your job seriously and do it right. Don’t laugh at your own jokes (if you can help it). Admit your mistakes and take the consequences. Put your brain to good use. Don’t kick another man when he’s down. Stand up (verbally) for what you believe in. Don’t take advantage of a lady. If you have nothing useful to contribute, shut up. If you find something you want, do the work, and go after it. Don’t cheat. Pay your own way, take care of your own debts. Treat others with respect. There were also a lot of unspoken things I had to pick up on my own as well, such as how to walk, what colors of clothing to wear, or how to shake hands. However, I learned them because I wanted to be a man.

I thought I could handle those, but I still had and have to work at them. Even now.

I didn’t feel the need to prove myself by trying to beat up every guy who challenged me or attempt to pick up any girl who interested me. I was never particularly skilled at either one, and so didn’t learn much about the skills for them. Twenty-five years ago, that’s probably as good as my single mother could have hoped for. Again, I was making it all up as I went along. I have fashioned myself into the kind of man I can face in the mirror without too much embarrassment. That much I got right.

What gets under my skin lately is hearing that any perceived masculine trait is labeled “toxic.” My hard-learned emotional restraint is a case in point: restraint was necessary in my youth because even female peers would laugh at a guy who cried easily. And there are other behaviors like fear and emotional agitation that I had to learn to suppress because they undermine any leader leader, regardless of gender. And it thrilled me very little to know that thinking of myself as a protector of women and children is now called “benign sexism.” <Insert eye roll here.>

So okay, I’m not a muscular movie star type, but neither am I especially weak in how I present myself. I set about fashioning the personality of a nerdy guy who takes his career seriously and shapes his life as he sees fit. If that’s considered “toxic,” then I say that the folks declaring that poisonous need to re-evaluate the traits they denounce as evil. There are many paths to masculinity, and most of them do not require malice, violence, or dysfunction of any kind.

Bottom line: it took me this long to get this far, don’t take away what I’ve got now.

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