Healthy Masculinity Does Not Equal “Nice Guy”

As I’ve been working on this project, I’ve had a nebulous fear that every time I say “healthy masculinity,” people are going to mistake it for something else , and I’ve just recently realized that something else is “nice guy.” Then, as I began working on this post, I realized that “nice guy” in turn has two separate but related implications that I want to unpack. There’s the nice guy aesthetic, and then there’s Nice Guys TM.

To me, “nice guy” provokes a very specific image. It is of a cisgender heterosexual man wearing a powder blue buttoned shirt. He might be wearing slacks or jeans, but if they are the latter then they are very clean and pressed jeans, not something worn for manual labor. He might work as an accountant or software engineer, or editor or any number of other jobs, but its definitely something that requires him to wear a tie. You would not know how to describe his hair because it is cut in a style so simple the eye slides right off of it. He’s clean shaven. He drives a car, not a motorcycle. He drinks coffee and beer, but not too much of either, and he definitely doesn’t smoke. If he’s been married for more than a year or two he has kids. If not, he plans on having them soon.

In other cultures the image of a nice guy might vary, but I suspect they all have one; a hodgepodge of fashion, career, and lifestyle choices that are guaranteed to be inoffensive. Ultimately though, it is not a proof of inner character. It’s an aesthetic. And, while it’s also perfectly fine. Some people who fit the nice guy aesthetic are secretly rather immature or even outright manipulative jerks underneath, but others are as wholesome and nice under the surface as they seem to be at first. That shouldn’t be surprising. Basic human decency doesn’t come with any particular fashion sense.

What I do have a problem with is the Nice Guy TM; the above image, but with a morose look on his face because some guy with tattoos and probably a motorcycle is getting all the girls. You most likely have heard plenty of “nice guys finish last” spiels, and I certainly hope you have heard some of the awesome smackdowns that are out there. Here are a few good ones, including one by Ginny.

Because of all those great preexisting commentaries, I don’t want to go into all the issues with the Nice Guy TM. Plenty of people have covered that already. Instead, I want to point out an unspoken assumption. There is this idea that with the correct gender expression comes a range of benefits and entitlements. This idea appears twice in the Nice Guy TM spiel. There’s the idea that because the speaker fits the nice guy aesthetic, he is entitled to girls, and then there’s the idea that the hypothetical bad boy is winning girls by virtue of his more edgy gender expression.

There are a number of ways that our culture encourages people to expect rewards or punishments based on their gender expression, and all of them are shitty. You aren’t entitled to a job or a relationship or anything else based on your hobbies, appearance and lifestyle choices. If you are doing what feels right and makes you happy, that should be reward enough; if not, try making a change.*

That’s the issue I have with many people who I have seen talk about reforming masculinity. Often they end up essentially arguing for everyone to solve the problem by putting on the Nice Guy Aesthetic, and that’s not going to work. It’s just another rigid gender role. In my last post I went into what I meant by healthy masculinity, but to recap; I mean an attitude towards masculinity that embraces a diversity of expression. It includes everyone who performs masculinity, whether men, women or non-binary, and it allows everyone to perform it in their own way, as well as validating those who don’t identify as masculine at all. I call this healthy masculinity because it is incompatible with the gatekeeper attitude that enforces and underpins toxic masculinity.

The nice guy aesthetic is compatible with healthy masculinity, it just isn’t inherently any more compatible than a tattooed motorcycle rider aesthetic, or a cowboy aesthetic, or a dapper steampunk gent aesthetic. Whinging that “nice guys finish last,” on the other hand, needs to go.

*I realize that some people do live in circumstances where their most comfortable gender expression would be highly stigmatized and might result in serious bullying or loss of a job that they need to survive. If this is you, I’m so sorry, and I hope you don’t mistake my earlier statement for judgment on your situation. There’s a difference between compromising your gender expression to survive and feeling entitled to certain things based solely on that expression.

Defining Healthy Masculinity (Or Not)

So, this year I want to talk about healthy masculinity, and I should explain what I mean by that.

By healthy, I mean something that is generally good for you and the people around you; something that encourages you to take care of yourself and treat others respectfully and responsibly. I mean it to contrast toxic masculinity, which encompasses the attitudes that encourage people to abuse themselves and others in the name of seeming more masculine. That part of the definition, I think, is fairly straightforward.

Masculinity, on the other hand, is anything but.

If you look throughout history and across different cultures, our conceptions of what is and isn’t masculine have changed drastically. Nowadays the association between male homosexuality and effeminacy is widespread, but this wasn’t the case for the Ancient Greeks or Japanese military, while in Norse culture men on the penetrating end of homosexuality weren’t emasculated, but those on the receiving end were. These days, Western male fashion is supposed to be very understated and dressed down, but go back a couple of centuries and men were decked out in frills and tights and had long flowing curls.

cavalier-man-2

Aw yiss. Check out my manly lace.

Often when a word has a meaning that changes over time or depending on context, many people try to pin it down. They want it to find an objective meaning that lies beneath all the alterations, and throw out everything else. I used to be one of those people. Now, I think that some concepts are most useful when they are allowed to evolve and adapt to the needs of the current time; concepts like marriage, gender, grammar, art, language, even values like honor and justice. If there is some objective underpinning behind those concepts, it does not need defending, and if not, why fabricate one? And I definitely think masculinity is one of those concepts.

In fact, when I look at toxic masculinity, a constant feature is rigid, unyielding gender expressions and roles. Masculinity must be chained to maleness, and maleness must be changed to a positively Victorian concept of gender roles. As a society, we are trying to correct our ideas about women’s roles, but not update our corresponding ideas about men’s roles. Given that old ideas of masculinity were wedded to outdated and oppressive ideas about femininity, it is easy to see how this rigidity harms everyone. It hurts women because it reinforces sexist behavior, it hurts men by creating identity crises and insecurities where none need to exist, and it hurts people who don’t identify as either by erasing their very existence.

So when I imagine a world of healthy masculinity, I don’t have a specific image of what that masculinity would look like. Instead, I see a world where masculinity is acknowledged to be a social construct, and in future generations is constantly evolving to suit the needs of people of all genders.

But for now, what I want to see is masculine people rising up and taking back the definition of masculinity from those rigid gatekeepers. Whatever your gender is, and however you express your own masculinity, I want to see you recognize that masculinity is not some object that someone else rations out. I want the whole concept of revoked and bestowed “man cards” to die a swift yet painful death, and I want this bullshit idea that masculinity has to defend itself against being tainted with femininity to die even quicker. If some aspect of masculinity resonates with you, then that is yours, and nobody can take it from you. Whether you’re a knitting stay-at-home mom who also loves cars, sports, video games and Clint Eastwood, a person unsure of their gender but drawn to a butch aesthetic, or a classically masculine hetero cis man who doesn’t like how his culture has been associated with sexism and gay-bashing, you have a right to whatever part of masculinity feels right to you, and you don’t have to put anyone else down to claim it.

A Year of Healthy Masculinity

Sometimes, I care a lot about a subject, but I’m afraid to talk about it because I’m not sure I fully understand it. Sometimes I get over this fear, and talk about it anyway. When I do that, so long as I acknowledge that I’m still figuring it out, I often find my understanding of it grows. People give me feedback on my ideas, share their own stories, and point out flaws in what I think I know. And sometimes, simply trying to express my thoughts forces me to improve them.

There’s an issue that I care about a lot. It doesn’t have a good name, though the phrase “toxic masculinity” covers part of it. I love masculinity, but I hate patriarchy. Men are granted significant power under the patriarchy, but at the same time, all too often, they are held to ridiculous standards. Toxic masculinity interferes with good relationships, reasonable expectations and self-acceptance. It teaches men that to express a full range of normal human emotions is shameful and worthy of mockery. The patriarchy is the only system I can think of that dehumanizes both the group it oppresses and the group that it privileges.

A huge part of how it does this is with the concept of masculinity. Men are controlled and shamed with masculinity just as women are with femininity. On top of that, in the name of masculinity boys are often encouraged to learn behavior that is demeaning towards others, especially women and boys whose gender expression is more feminine. I hate that, and I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it is possible for masculinity to exist without misogyny or homophobia, and I think when that happens, masculinity will also lose its aspects that are toxic to men.

This is a serious issue, but its difficult to talk about for a number of reasons.

  1. People who bring it up are often just trying to attack feminists.
    I remember when I was a little trans boy, not yet out of the closet, and discovered this thing called men’s rights activists. I was so excited that someone was talking about the ways society was unfair to men and I was sure such a movement would be full of thoughtful, intelligent men who would merge all the best aspects of feminism and maleness. God, was that ever disappointing. So many of these legitimate issues are brought up by men who don’t seem interested in actually solving them, but simply silencing other people who happen to be standing up for other important issues. This has created some knee-jerk responses from feminists, many of whom have defensive, pre-determined responses to anything that smacks of “what about teh menz?” It sucks for everyone.
  2. Some women feel this issue comes under the jurisdiction of feminism, others do not.
    Feminism is about gender equality. Many feminists are fantastic at recognizing the legitimacy of these issues; some of the most intelligent discussions I’ve had about toxic masculinity have been with women. Contrary to the image of the vitriolic feminist, quite a few feminists care about men too. At the same time, many women have been deeply wounded by the way men in their lives have treated them, and the way the misogynistic rules of society have enabled those abuses. Some women need feminism to be a space where its okay for them to be angry about that without worrying whether they have made some man somewhere angry. That’s just one reason why women might object to campaigning on behalf of men, and its a pretty valid one.
  3. When men try to discuss men’s issues under the umbrella of feminism, it can create problems.
    Men are granted a lot of space for their voices in our society, and when they come to the world of feminism, they often expect that same level of attention. Feminism has a lot of important battles to fight on a number of fronts, most of which men shouldn’t lead. Now, I don’t think that masculinity is something that only male-identified people can discuss. But I do think a discussion of how to reform masculinity and deal with men’s issues should include male voices. At the same time, I can’t help but see the point of feminists who say that men have so many platforms to speak on, they should let women lead discussions that fall under feminist umbrellas. Women should feel free to focus on the vast injustices perpetrated against them and should have a space to recover from misogyny, without having to also fix everything for men.

Because of the last two points, I don’t think feminism is the right movement to fix toxic masculinity. Instead, I think there can exist a separate but allied movement that seeks to reform masculinity so its no longer so closely allied with the patriarchy. I want to see a healthy masculinity movement that is not synonymous with either feminists or men, but makes life a better for both.

I just don’t know how to make that movement.

So I’m going to dive in and talk about it. For the next year, all of my posts on this blogs will centerĀ  around the topic of healthy masculinity; how to recognize it, how to create it, and how to defend it against toxic masculinity. Hopefully by the end of it, I will have some good groundwork laid.

Thanks for reading, and here’s hoping I find something helpful in the coming year. Stay awesome, peoples.