Column: History can tame ‘toxic masculinity’

Mark Naida

Boys may be boys. But can men be men?

That depends on the form their manliness takes.

Feminists are turning their ire on masculine attributes as expressions of patriarchal dominance.

Recently, Anne DeLessio-Parson, a doctoral candidate in sociology and demography at Penn State University, said on a Fox News show that eating meat supports a culture of male supremacy.

It’s not a one-off view of masculinity; DeLessio-Parson expressed a theory common on today’s campuses. Beyond the enjoyment of a good steak, men who wear long beards, see a male doctor or have rippling muscles are also being accused of fueling a culture now labeled as “toxic masculinity.”

This overly male culture, proponents charge, is responsible for everything from rape to mass shootings.

“Toxic masculinity is a form of gendered behavior wherein boys and men are competitive, domineering and aggressive, especially towards women and other men who don’t perform the same type of masculinity,” contends Dr. Mary Celeste Kearney, director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Notre Dame.

“Because of this, it’s linked also to patriarchy, misogyny, sexism and homophobia.”

I’m graduating from college in an age in which masculinity is under siege, yet I find the concept of toxic masculinity utterly foreign to my understanding of what it means to be a man.

Campus feminists suggest there is a single model of manhood — a set of characteristics that combine to make men into monsters — that must be tempered by the adoption of effeminate traits.

“Toxic masculinity can be psychologically damaging because it suggests that boys and men have only a limited emotional range, while other emotions and traits, especially those associated with femininity like being caring, collaborative and talking about feelings are devalued and stifled,” Kearney says.

Rather than emasculating men in the name of conforming them to society’s new norms, universities should teach manhood as it is manifested in our historical heroes.

Odysseus, for example. Homer describes the uber man of 500 BC crying “as a woman weeps, lying over the body of her dear husband.”

Though British Prime Minister Winston Churchill exemplified the hard-nosed “man’s man” of the 1940s and ’50s, he also had a tender side that today’s men could look to emulate.

“I’m a blubberer,” he told his friends whenever he became misty-eyed. A friend remarked that “no man wept more easily.” He wept for love of his wife, Clemmie, for memories of the war and for the deaths of his beloved pets. He also memorized tomes of romantic poetry and recited verses whenever the mood struck him. But all the while he had a scotch in hand and a cigar between his lips.

But the Rudyard Kipling ideal is no longer held up to boys to emulate.

Courses in manliness offered by Brown University, Duke and the University of Wisconsin seek to purge undesirable masculine traits through what amount to group therapy sessions. The courses examine male biases and behaviors to alleviate the effects of misogyny, homophobia and violence.

Instead of training the masculine instincts out of men, the courses should offer alternatives that help men understand that masculinity and sensitivity aren’t incompatible.

Reading about men who are unafraid to display their emotions and who approach women with respect and tenderness has taught me more about the possibilities of expressing masculinity than any re-education program or demonization of male impulses ever could.

If we look back farther and teach men the larger historical context of what masculinity could mean, “toxic masculinity” would cease to be an issue.

Mark Naida is an editorial intern at The Detroit News and a senior at Hillsdale College.