On ‘toxic masculinity’

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Is masculinity “toxic”?

The American Psychological Society apparently thinks so. They issued a long report about it recently. I tried to read it, but I barely made it through the first sentence — “Western culture defines specific characteristics to fit the patriarchal ideal masculine construct . . .” — before I knew I’d be taking a wine break very soon.

I did manage to read the second paragraph, where I saw: “The socialization of the male characteristics mentioned above also onsets at an early age, making it a prime time-period for prevention intervention.” (Characteristics listed? Toughness, stoicism, self-sufficiency, etc.)

OK, I’m no psych scholar, but that seems to clearly say that early childhood is the best time to intervene to prevent boys from developing male “characteristics.”

In the meantime, Gillette released a probably well-intentioned ad about men and the #metoo movement. A lot of it was laudible — violence against women is bad, men need to step up, etc. Nobody disagrees with that, and I was glad to see them speaking out.

But the ad met with a lot of resistance, not because of its anti-violence-against-women message, but because it seemed to paint men with broad brushstrokes. (Or razor strokes, as it were.)  Because hey, if you want to sell a lot of men’s razors, try implying that vast majorities of your target market are sexual predators.

I initially thought the ad would be a little more pro-average-guy than it turned out to be. The still screenshot showed a bunch of men grilling. I like men grilling. But nope, they turned out to be the bad guys, monotonously chanting “Boys will be boys will be boys will be boys . . .” This disappointed me, as did the word salad at the beginning that hit hard on “bullying”, “the #metoo movement,” and “masculinity.”

I just didn’t think that last word deserved to be lumped in with the other two.

Here is my take: I like masculinity. I think it is among God’s most wonderful inventions. I like men’s strength. I like men’s protectiveness. I like their different-ness from me and from femininity in general. I like the way the two play off of each other. I like the way men love deeply, and yet theirs remains a distinctly masculine kind of love.

I don’t think men need to be what society (or the “patriarchal ideal masculine construct”) decrees that they be. I think men should be what they are. Men are strong. Men are protective. Men are, yes, sometimes aggressive. None of these things are socially conditioned. Masculinity and femininity spring from the way we were created, from our natural physical and neurological makeup.  Men’s bodies have, on the whole, a higher percentage of muscle than women’s bodies do. Just as women’s brains have more interconnectivity between the hemispheres. These and myriad other differences in our physiology give us men and women different — and complementary — gifts.

These are tendencies, not stereotypes. Masculinity isn’t about John Wayne riding into the sunset, any more than femininity is about weak women dropping hankies and fainting. Our individual mileage varies. There are as many unique expressions of masculinity as there are men.  Some men are stronger and/or more sensitive and/or more protective than others. Same with women. But our bodies and brains are fundamentally different, and that leads to certain predictable variations.

I don’t believe masculinity is “toxic.” Masculinity is raw material, just as femininity is. Men can use their gifts for good or for evil, just as women can. (But try using the term “toxic femininity” in polite company and see what happens.) For millennia, the goal of society has been to channel those instincts, not to suppress them. Where would we be without masculine strength and aggressiveness channeled toward the protection of society?

But today, there seems to be a movement to neutralize masculinity entirely. I have been saying for a long time that feminism — while laudable and important in many ways — made a fundamental mistake early on in assuming that “it’s better to be a man.” Women are often deemed “equal” to the extent that we usurp male characteristics and excel in traditionally male domains. It makes sense that the next step would be to say that men themselves are no good at being men and need to become more like women.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Of course, nobody wants to see men using their gifts in ways that abuse women. But I don’t think the answer is to neutralize or eradicate masculinity. Male strength put to a noble purpose is (pardon the expression) a truly beautiful sight.

The deepest answer is transformation. It is holiness. The message of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is simply that our creation as masculine and feminine is fundamentally good, and that only in becoming transformed by the grace of Christ can each become the awesome, beautiful forces he intended them to be.

Holiness is often perceived as strictly feminine. It is not. Male holiness is strong. It is masculine. I’ve never liked the images of Jesus as some kind of First Century Sensitive Hippie. He was a strong man — a carpenter. He knocked over tables and drove money changers out with whips. St. Joseph, his foster-father, the man who formed his masculine nature, was likewise a true man. He protected Mary through a socially-unsanctioned pregnancy, and the infant Jesus from a murderous king. I often turn to him as protector as well. (Joseph, not the murderous king.)

But a world that doesn’t understand holiness, apparently has no idea what to do with masculinity. Or femininity.

St. JPII wrote extensively about the New Feminism. I never understood why he didn’t also introduce a “New Masculinism.”

I think somebody needs to pick up where he left off.  Soon.

COMING UP: Five Hispanic-American saints perhaps you didn’t know

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The American continent has had its share of saints in the last five centuries. People will find St. Juan Diego, St. Rose of Lima or St. Martin de Porres among the saints who enjoy greater popular devotion. Yet September, named Hispanic Heritage Month, invites a deeper reflection on the lives of lesser-known saints who have deeply impacted different Latin-American countries through their Catholic faith and work, and whose example has the power to impact people anywhere around the world. Here are just a few perhaps you didn’t know.

St. Toribio de Mogrovejo
1538-1606
Peru

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Toribio was a pious young man and an outstanding law student. As a professor, his great reputation reached the ears of King Philip II, who eventually nominated him for the vacant Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, even though Toribio was not even a priest. The Pope accepted the king’s request despite the future saint’s protests. So, before the formal announcement, he was ordained a priest, and a few months later, a bishop. He walked across his archdiocese evangelizing the natives and is said to have baptized nearly half a million people, including St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He learned the local dialects, produced a trilingual catechism, fought for the rights of the natives, and made evangelization a major theme of his episcopacy. Moreover, he worked devotedly for an archdiocesan reform after realizing that diocesan priests were involved in impurities and scandals. He predicted the date and hour of his death and is buried in the cathedral of Lima, Peru.

St. Mariana of Jesus Paredes
1618-1645
Ecuador

St. Mariana was born in Quito, modern-day Ecuador, and not only became the country’s first saint, but was also declared a national heroine by the Republic of Ecuador. As a little girl, Mariana showed a profound love for God and practiced long hours of prayer and mortification. She tried joining a religious order on two occasions, but various circumstances would not permit it. This led Mariana to realize that God was calling her to holiness in the world. She built a room next to her sister’s house and devoted herself to prayer and penance, living miraculously only off the Eucharist. She was known to possess the gifts of counsel and prophecy. In 1645, earthquakes and epidemics broke out in Quito, and she offered her life and sufferings for their end. They stopped after she made her offering. On the day of her death, a lily is said to have bloomed from the blood that was drawn out and poured in a flowerpot, earning her the title of “The Lily of Quito.”

St. Theresa of Los Andes
1900-1920
Chile

St. Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes was Chile’s first saint and the first Discalced Carmelite to be canonized outside of Europe. Born as Juana, the future saint was known to struggle with her temperament as a child. She was proud, selfish and stubborn. She became deeply attracted to God at the age six, and her extraordinary intelligence allowed her to understand the seriousness of receiving First Communion. Juana changed her life and became a completely different person by the age of 10, practicing mortification and deep prayer. At age 14, she decided to become a Discalced Carmelite and received the name of Theresa of Jesus. Deeply in love with Christ, the young and humble religious told her confessor that Jesus told her she would die soon, something she accepted with joy and faith. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contracted typhus and died at the age of 19. Although she was 6 months short of finishing her novitiate, she was able to profess vows “in danger of death.” Around 100,000 pilgrims visit her shrine in Los Andes annually.

St. Laura Montoya
1874-1949
Colombia

After Laura’s father died in war when she was only a child, she was forced to live with different family members in a state of poverty. This reality kept her from receiving formal education during her childhood. What no one expected is that one day she would become Colombia’s first saint. Her aunt enrolled her in a school at the age of 16, so she would become a teacher and make a living for herself. She learned quickly and became a great writer, educator and leader. She was a pious woman and wished to devote herself to the evangelization of the natives. As she prepared to write Pope Pius X for help, she received the pope’s new Encyclical Lacrymabili Statu, on the deplorable condition of Indians in America. Laura saw it as a confirmation from God and founded the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart and St. Catherine of Siena, working for the evangelization of natives and fighting or their behalf to be seen as children of God.

St. Manuel Morales
1898-1926
Mexico

Manuel was a layman and one of many martyrs from Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s. He joined the seminary as a teen but had to abandon this dream in order to support his family financially. He became a baker, married and had three children. This change, however, did not prevent him from bearing witness to the faith publicly. He became the president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was being threatened by the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Morales and two other leaders from the organization were taken prisoners as they discussed how to free a friend priest from imprisonment through legal means. They were beaten, tortured and then killed for not renouncing to their faith. Before the firing squad, the priest begged the soldiers to forgive Morales because he had a family. Morales responded, “I am dying for God, and God will take care of my children.” His last words were, “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”