Real Masculinity isn't toxic
15 July 2018
By Elizabeth Henderson
Masculinity. It’s not a term of art and it’s certainly not a term of science. Masculinity is a cultural concept humans have come up with to describe the characteristics associated with being male, or held up as an idealised version of manhood to which to aspire, as in the classical writings of Ancient Rome and Greece.
Masculinity is subjective, a product of culture and individual perspectives. Since it’s not a precise term, the attributes of masculinity are not precise either.
But typically they might include things like assertiveness, competitiveness, physical strength, leadership, courage, stoicism and protectiveness, for example.
Someone once told me if you want to identify your greatest weaknesses, identify your greatest strengths and then consider their extremes.
The previous list of attributes, in their extremities, could be expressed as aggressiveness, combativeness, violence, dominance, recklessness, callousness and being controlling. But these are not ideals or virtues to be aspired to. They’re not even truly “masculine” because, in these extremities, emotion overtakes rationality.
A few weeks ago, Australians were horrified when a young woman, Eurydice Dixon, was raped and murdered in a Carlton park in Melbourne. A man has been charged, reportedly a complete stranger who committed a random attack. Last week we reeled again when Larissa Beilby, a 16-year-old girl from Brisbane, was found murdered, her body hidden in a barrel. A man known to her has been charged. And most recently two children, Jack and Jennifer Edwards, were hunted down and murdered by their own father — a crime so vile it beggars belief.
When crimes like this happen we frequently hear claims by commentators that this is a problem of “toxic masculinity”. What does this mean? What characteristics of masculinity have the killers in these instances demonstrated?
Certainly not courage, protectiveness, leadership or rationality. In murdering his children, Jack and Jennifer Edwards’ father showed none of the qualities of a good father or a good man. He was a predator, not a protector. He was irrational, not rational. He was self-obsessed, not self-sacrificing. He did not demonstrate self-control or stoicism. Far from being able to control his emotions and impulses, he acted as though possessed by them.
Toxic, absolutely. Toxic aggression, sure. But toxic masculinity? That should be a contradiction in terms.
Meanwhile, true masculinity has been on display right in front of us with no mention of the word.
For over two weeks the world followed the story of 12 teenage boys, a football team, and their young coach trapped in a flooded labyrinth of caves in northern Thailand. They were discovered by two British men, considered to be the best cave divers in the world, assisted by Thai Navy SEALs and a host of other cave divers who travelled to Thailand to help. Most were there as volunteers and worked to rescue the boys.
The rescue was no job for the faint hearted. It’s a nightmare just looking at the diagrams of the several kilometres of narrow, serpentine, submerged passageways through which the boys, who couldn’t even swim, had to be shepherded out.
It was an incredibly dangerous job. Sgt Major Saman Gunan, a retired Thai Navy SEAL, lost his life in the rescue effort, running out of oxygen in one of the narrowest parts of the flooded passage. He was also a volunteer. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. And he lost everything. So why did he do it?
We all know the answer. We know it in the same way we understand the notion of masculinity and where it came from.
Without assertiveness, competitiveness and physical strength there would be no expert cave divers. And without leadership, courage, stoicism and protectiveness, there would be no rescue.
Without masculinity those boys would not have survived.
It’s one thing to regard “masculine” and “feminine” as outdated stereotypes of male and female or to reject the idea that “masculine” attributes are exclusive by-products of being male. I agree.
But those who shout “toxic masculinity” whenever a man commits an act of evil violence are actually doing the opposite. They’re just like the classicists and traditionalists in thinking that masculine equals male — the only difference is they regard masculinity as a vice instead of a virtue.
The true attributes of masculinity aren’t about murdering innocents, but about saving and protecting them. And the true attributes of masculinity will always have a place in our world because we need them.
This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 13 July 2018.