by Justin Rosario
Recently, there’s been a couple of ridiculous articles from right wing sites giving toxic masculinity credit for the acts of heroism we’ve seen coming out of Houston. The idea behind them is push back on the notion that toxic masculinity is, in fact, toxic by conflating it with regular, healthy masculinity.
This conflation is part and parcel of the alt-right’s persecution complex in which men, specifically white men, are under attack from all side by minorities, women, The Gay, and whatever other boogeymen Steve Bannon and George Will can whip up this week. It’s garbage, of course, but it makes right wingers feel better about being assholes and that’s the point.
The difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity is not that hard to grasp. I’m masculine and I enjoy it. I like the extra muscle mass and bone density that comes with being a man. I like being able to easily move the furniture in my house without spending time at the gym. I like my facial hair and the way it makes my kids giggle when I rub it on their bellies. I like knowing that whenever a dog barks at my kids, they stand behind me because they know that no matter how big the dog is, I’m a lot bigger. I like that being a man has allowed me to be the donor father for my best friend Maria and her partner Jenny.
Toxic masculinity, on the other hand, tells me I’m not allowed to cry when I’m sad or talk about my feelings. It tells me my first urge to solve a problem should be to punch someone or throw something. Toxic masculinity tells me that I’m supposed to fuck anything with a pulse and ridicule men that are weaker than I am. Toxic masculinity tells me that being a father means being distant and cold instead of being a warm and loving caregiver. Toxic masculinity tells me that keeping house is women’s work and that it’s not really work at the same time.
Unfortunately, as a child of the 70’s and 80’s, toxic masculinity was how I was raised. I’ve lost more than one uncle to addiction because they didn’t know how to cope with stress. Drugs and alcoholism were constant companions growing up. Physical abuse was not uncommon and instead of working through our differences, members of my family just stopped talking to each other for literally years on end.
Fortunately, I had a few things going in my favor. I learned very early on that I was strong enough to be truly dangerous. I had anger issues stemming from an ugly divorce and after I hospitalized a classmate in the 4th or 5th grade (nothing permanent), I understood fully and completely, what I was capable of. That made me extremely reluctant to resort to physical force and thank goodness for that. Being 6’2″ and not at all scrawny as an adult makes any use of force on my part potentially lethal.
I was also a latchkey elementary school kid that was unsupervised until 6 or 7 PM most nights so I learned early on how to cook, sew, and clean for myself. That made housework less onerous to me down the road. A lot of men in my generation grew up (as the did the generations before) with mom doing all the housework so they continue to view it as “women’s work.” I’ll circle back to that later.
And then came 1983’s “Mr. Mom” starring the insanely talented Michael Keaton. I’m going to be completely honest here: I can recall almost none of the details. I don’t remember how it ends. I don’t remember who else besides Teri Garr was in it. I don’t remember much of it at all. I do remember thinking, “I can do that and it looks like fun!” It left a deep impression. Michael Keaton kept house, raised his kids and made it seem perfectly normal without losing an ounce of his manhood. A few years later, he went on to play Batman, possibly one of the most masculine characters in pop culture that didn’t escape from an exploding planet in a rocket ship.
Clearly, one could change diapers and cook dinner while still being manly. It was a lesson I never forgot.
Fast forward 25 years and my best friend Maria asked me to be her sperm donor. There’s a whole story behind this but the bottom line is that my then-girlfriend Debra agreed to let me be the donor as long as we had kids of our own (we had decided to be child free until then). Two years later, when Debbie was pregnant with our first, we decided, for a variety of reasons, that one of us would be a stay-at-home parent and I was more than happy to volunteer.
Since then, I’ve had my masculinity challenged from every angle. My in-laws complained for years that I should “get a job” as if raising a family isn’t work. My conservative friends said the same and then got extremely hostile when I asked them if they think their own mothers or grandmothers were moochers (their word, not mine) for not working outside the home. I’ve had complete strangers comment on how cute it is that I “babysit” my own children. I’ve had a variety of administrative assistants look at me funny when I list “homemaker” or “stay-at-home” parent on forms. More recently, I’ve been called a “cuck” and a “beta male” by the alt-right, as if angry virgins were qualified to comment on what defines a man.
Normally, this constant challenge to my “manliness” would bring the toxicity to the surface. Overcompensation by way of extramarital affairs or “manly” drinking is all the rage among alpha males, grunt grunt. Yet all of that nonsense only confirmed my own sense of being a man. I still suffer from some of the effects of toxic masculinity; I still can’t cry when I’m hurting and I still resist asking for help when I need it but I can shower my children with affection and watch “My Little Pony” unironically.
If I had never seen “Mr. Mom” and if Maria had never asked me to be her baby daddy, I might very well have been trapped in the confines of my upbringing. I might be drinking too much because I’m unhappy with my career. I might be trying to cheat on Debbie because that’s what men are “supposed” to do. Maybe I’d run out and buy a sports car to make myself feel macho now that I’m past my physical prime. There’s any number of self-destructive behaviors toxic masculinity would have me engage in to reassure myself that I’m still a man’s man.
But today, all I need to know I’m the being the best man that I can be is to read a bedtime story to my daughter and have her fall asleep happy while I rub her belly. That simple pleasure beats toxic masculinity any day of the week.