On Writing: Healthy Masculinity

Healthy Masculinity.jpgHealthy masculinity versus toxic masculinity is a topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately. In the last ten years, the publishing industry has focused a great deal on strong girls, and I’m so very grateful. I’m seeing evidence of this feminist push every day in my classroom. I have THE BEST strong girls as students this year. Girls with dreams and voices and determination.

But our world needs healthy men, too. And I’m growing more and more concerned at what we feed our boys–through media, movies, games, TV, advertising, and literature.

The hardest part of this process is realizing that my idea of masculinity has been formed by toxic messages around me. And that I need to change my own ideas on masculinity.

A moment that woke me up was my general lukewarm feelings towards the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I couldn’t put my finger on why this movie didn’t thrill me like Harry Potter did.

Then I watched this video:

The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander

After watching the video about Newt’s version of masculinity, I learned that Newt wasn’t the type of hero I was accustomed to in film–and yet he was one that embodied many of the traits I wanted in a man. And I suddenly realized that something was wrong with my ideas of masculinity. And it was disorienting. I needed to rewire my brain.

My very first celebrity crush was Han Solo. I watched Star Wars for the first time in 2nd grade. So I was seven years old when Han Solo became the epitome of crushworthy. I know I’m not alone in my crush on Harrison Ford. But that crush gives me a sick feeling these days.

Because this video shook me to my core:

Predatory Romance in Harrison Ford Movies

I’d had a crush on a man who didn’t value consent. Who didn’t listen to women when they said no. Who trapped and coerced women. This wasn’t the kind of man I wanted in real life. I wanted one who listened to me and respected me.

With this new awareness, toxic masculinity was appearing to me everywhere. It unnerves me that my male students are likely absorbing these messages about masculinity each and every day.

What is toxic masculinity? The social construct that defines masculinity as unemotional, violent, sexually aggressive, the lesser capable parent, and more. Any traditionally feminine traits are emasculating. Men cannot: be emotional, show sympathy, need help, like cute things, and more.

I suddenly realized there were ways that, in my very classroom, I was unconsciously feeding my students this toxic masculinity without realizing it. Every year while teaching Shakespeare, I criticize Romeo for how he goes on and on about his emotions. I chastise how moody he is, swinging from depression to bliss and back again. However, in doing so, am I further sending the message to my male students that it is not okay to share how they are feeling? Am I telling them to bottle up their emotions because no one wants to hear them?

I needed to educate myself and do self reflection. So I have been. And it’s made me appreciate so many things about the men in my life.

I love that my boyfriend prefers going to art museums with me than spending his Sundays watching football. I love that he is comfortable talking about how he’s feeling, things that are bothering him, and his dreams for the future. I love that he’s a good listener. And I love that we’ve discussed the possibility of him being a stay-at-home dad. None of these things make him any less of a man to me.

I love watching my younger brother and his wife. He freely expresses how much he loves her. He dresses up as Disney characters because it makes her happy. He frequently plans and cooks dinner. None of these things make him any less of a man.

As a writer, every single thing I experience feeds my writing. How has media shaped my perceptions of the ideal man? I don’t want my subconscious to create toxic men in my books. And so I’m trying to rewire my brain with healthy examples of masculinity.

So in addition to creating strong girl characters in my stories, I will now be very conscious of the male characters I create as well. I want to fuel a new vision of masculinity:

  • Men who show emotion: love, sadness, fear, compassion, and giddy joy.
  • Male/female friendship and companionship.
  • Men who appreciate romance and the slow process of getting to know someone.
  • Men solving problems diplomatically and in non-violent ways.
  • Men who compromise.
  • Men who enjoy childcare and parenthood… and excel at it.
  • Men who ask for help, work as part of a team, and consult others for advice.

I am still learning, growing, and developing my understanding of this topic. It’s going to be a process, but awareness is the first step.

I’d love to do some follow-up posts on books, movies, TV shows that have great examples of healthy masculinity. Comment below with anything you think I should check out!

Here are some additional sources that helped inform me on the topic:

What is Toxic Masculinity?

The Unfulfilled Potential of Video Games

Male Protagonist Bingo: A Study in Cliches

We Need Better Male Literary Heroes



7 comments on “On Writing: Healthy Masculinity

  1. speak766 says:

    You’re right – toxic masculinity is a serious problem and I think that’s becoming more and more apparent as we see stories about men in positions of power abusing that power. But it’s not just people with power – everyone is fed these messages that men must be aggressive and forceful and dominating. And women end up paying the price. Thank you for being aware that how you teach your students can shape their views of masculinity. It is so important to have strong teachers who instill good values. Wish you all the best – speak766

    • wordyhughes says:

      Thank you! I take my role as teacher seriously, and realize my influence, my words are being absorbed. I’m even thinking of doing a lesson on Tybalt and Romeo this year… and toxic vs healthy masculinity. Because Tybalt is a perfect example of toxic.

  2. Caroline says:

    Very insightful! I like this post a lot.

    Husband is very much someone who doesn’t always fall into those “traditional male stereotypes” either and I love him for it. It was funny when I worked at the electrical contractor because when we’d tell people he was a nurse and I was in construction – that always got funny looks.

    I pose a question to you though: You said (initially) you weren’t as drawn to the “Fantastic Beasts” movie as you were with the other HP films until you were made aware of the masculine traits that Newt was showing (and also not showing). But – you initially had to be made aware of this. Do you worry about going TOO far and making the male characters unappealing culturally? There’s a reason we all love Han Solo and Indiana Jones (characters not actor – maybe). Right? I mean, the more I think about the description of toxic the more I have to ponder the layers. You have Homer Simpson (nothing like Han Solo and probably not attractive to anyone but is in pop culture) who is by this definition (in many ways) toxic: violent towards his son/ others, the lesser parent (most times), and an overall idiot. BUT he loves Marge and shows her through thoughtful gestures and opens up to be emotional. So – is he toxic?

    Maybe – where’s the line? It doesn’t seem like it’s too black and white and when I first started reading your post and typing this 🙂

    I like this post. It got me thinking.

    • wordyhughes says:

      These traits become toxic when they are the only traits being reinforced and validated as male. Chocolate isn’t bad, eating only chocolate is toxic. As writers, we want flawed characters. But the problem becomes when the same traits and characteristics are repeated in characters to create a standard, in this case a standard of maleness. Having a character prone to violence is a valid flaw, but having ALL MALES jump to violence in media, film and literature creates an unhealthy message. Same with the lesser parent stereotype. Once, it’s a flaw. Having it continually be how fathers are portrayed is toxic.

      And I think Han Solo is still a lovable character, but I think he could have been lovable without being predatory. He could have still been a scoundrel, and yet still asked for Leia’s consent in kissing her. I’m not okay with movies continuing to send the message that “No” means “Yes.” That needs to change. Boys shouldn’t grow up absorbing these messages because it leads to confusion and trouble when they’re men.

  3. […] (fellow blogger/writer/we went to grad school together) Lauren wrote this really amazing post on Healthy Masculinity. You should read her post, but to give mine some context I’ll give you a snap […]

  4. […] Links to Posts Published this Month: A Court of Mist and Fury (December Read) Ready Player One (December Read) The Westing Game (December Read) A Court of Wings and Ruin When Dimple Met Rishi On Writing: Healthy Masculinity […]

  5. therandomblogofirreverentthoughts says:

    Thank you x 1000 for bringing some much needed balance to the discussion.

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