What our most popular stories about men tell us about modern masculinity
Gosh, I just love this article. I am feeling the complexity and the grief of a culture whose left its men longing for a deeper purpose than the vast majority of 9 to 5 jobs we are all expected to take part in can offer. The level of competition and hyper efficiency leaves many of us wondering if this (looks around) is really what we want to be working towards... simultaneously incredible technical achievements bound by golden handcuffs and environmental separation.
I enjoyed this piece, and you've pointed to some side avenues that would be good to explore. In "The Last of Us," it's worth mentioning that Joel is stunted by his own unprocessed grief. He wears layers of armor that hinder his relationships as well as his own growth. This stifling of emotions and inability to be vulnerable is a problematic aspect of masculinity that you touched on in this piece but didn't mention in relation to the stories and characters you've reviewed here. I think it's important to mention, because I imagine we will watch Joel wrestle with this, and hopefully it will come through as another lesson for men — armor protects us, but it is heavy and it gets in the way; men need to learn when to wear it and when it's safe to remove.
Another thing I observe in myself and other men that has both a light and shadow side is the impulse towards playfulness. This is one aspect of masculinity that entertainment culture perverts into bumbling or ineptitude. The shadow side of it can manifest as bullying or victimizing kinds of practical jokes. But there's a wonderful healthy playfulness that happens between fathers and kids or between sports teammates or amongst coworkers (especially blue collar workers) that is uniquely male.
As a final word here, I feel like I frequently see pro athletes modeling healthy masculinity — embracing their teammates, gracefully deflecting or sharing plaudits, expressing excitement or appreciation unabashedly (often with tears), etc.
As a gay man reading this I was wondering about the amazing experiences you've created for the men in your retreats and their relationship to men's internalized and societal homophobia.
It sounds like you created a safe space that's counter to mainstream society where men can be vulnerable and nurturing towards one another? Embracing the feminine traits to explore and embrace their masculinity?
Personally I struggle to connect with straight men and generally my interactions with them leave me wanting more depth, and I get the impression most straight women can relate. It perplexes how men can be homophobic. I struggle to see how you can be afraid of what you already embody physically, emotionally, and intellectually. A friend and I sometimes joke that we see sports as elaborate rules/rituals just to create a space where men can actually justify safely touching one another. And still it's more violent that not.
I would love if you could expand on this article and your experience to explore men's homophobia and its relationship to achieving fulfilling male identities.
Men as heroes. How many of them have died in Ukraine fighting for their country and their loved ones.
One of the best pieces of writing I’ve encountered in a long time. It takes real talent to identify and articulate exactly what it is in different works of film, literature and art that captivates us and draws us in, to pick up on the deeper themes, and you did that expertly here.
Beautiful Alex, such a timely exploration.
I do think that those on the edge of men's work, such as yourself, are sensing some very interesting possibilities emerging out of the ashes as 'the next level of evolution' for masculinity.
I deeply appreciate your perspectives, so thanks for making the effort to write them down. I know my version of them only too well, but through a metaphysical lens, which you haven't touched on in this post (for good reason as that would make things even more complex). I am not entirely sure what is being asked of us as we travel these chaotic and uncertain times. I myself continue to be drawn to recapitulation as i continue to forge the best possible version of myself.
I really like the discussion you have here Alexander. One point from my side would be -- perhaps the exit to finding masculinity/femininity and the good but ultimately idiosyncratic way of these goes through not observance of popular culture and their portrayal, but through the strong skepticism. The sought for the self, and the position of this self in a society, it’s role, impact, vulnerability and strength, it’s completeness should not come from outside. Typologies and categories are simplifications, are defined and constrained by something other. With this skeptical point of view, I am then able to assess, discuss, and accept or reject whatever it is that is/is not suitable that hits my filter. And in my belief, it should be the individual who decides what is good/correct and true for himself than any other entity, ideology, class or power.
I’m saying this, because there I get a slight feeling of an assumption that the masculinity of men is tied to the portrayals in pop-culture. If this assumption holds true for them, I think both men and women should first start with that, reject it and find and define their version of themselves then to have a discussion with whatever the culture is trying to push down.
Thank you for this. I think it’s impossible to over-estimate the father wound as a central force in the development of the positive, healthy masculine. As a culture, and perhaps due to the lingering influence of Freud’s ‘devouring mother’ in our cultural DNA, we focus heavily on the feminine. Both good and bad. But my sense is even the devouring mother - if you want to call it that - is an overreaction to the absent or passive father. We have to face this passivity and work as men to find a way to the active, activated state that Robert Bly spoke of - which is different to the violence implicit in the misogyny that young boys and men cling to when the activated male is absent from their family and/or teachers, mentors.
The Banshees of Inisherin example is a good one in that we see a world without fathers, a king-less kingdom if you will. The only fathers in the whole movie - cop and priest - are pedophiles - who also happen to occupy positions of authority. The kingdom is rotten because it has no king, only bad men abusing power. This is our world - this is what we have to fix. We have to encourage boys towards sovereignty. But this is only possible if we reintegrate older men - fathers and father figures - into their formative experiences.
Interesting topic. The subject is entirely loaded, and so many questions arose for me. My thoughts differ with most positions, but I can appreciate a well-written article when I see one; congratulations.
Great read Alexander! It's interesting to see video games become a medium for such powerful and positive stories of masculinity.
The TLOU video game had a much darker storyline for Bill & Frank, and one that some gamers totally overlooked due to its subtlety, closer to the Banshees of Inshirin story of folly and stubbornness. I'm glad the showrunners took a chance to give them a happier ending in this rendition.
By the way, you have Bill and Frank's names flipped — Bill was the doomsday prepper played by Nick Offerman.
Really good read, I loved the nuance and balance you brought to the topic of masculinity
Amazing summary of the culture war over masculinity right now. Brilliant!
I do some work for a men/boys charity in schools in the UK and there is massive confusion. On one hand we do some great work raising the awareness of social norms, stereotypes and inequalities, but on the other hand, boys say things like 'I feel embarrassed to be a man', 'I don't know how to be' etc, and it's hard to know how to respond without projecting my own conditioning. This vacuum is being filled by people like Tate and every other rightwing rent-a-gob.
I think your retreat work is possibly one of the best interventions in this space because it goes deep on that awareness. Without that work, men don't know what they don't know. It allows the individual to discover their own sense of masculinity, the great stuff that no doubt other men have instilled in them, but also question the problematic aspects that they would rather be free from.
Thank you. Well said.
Men need a purpose - women traditionally had a purpose (babies/family/home) but it has been skewed now into what was the preserve of men. As a woman, I find it very frustrating that a woman can't be allowed to "just" be a mother but has to be a breadwinner/provider/protector too. I suspect most "normal" people would be happy to go back to men providing/protecting and women caring for the family and home. Sounds old fashioned and patronizing but it's not. Men clearly have a need to provide and protect and to be recognised and respected for doing so. When women do it all and robots do the rest nobody is satisfied. Bring manufacturing back, bring fathers back, insist they take responsibility for their families, give men a purpose again.
Interesting piece. I like reading about how movies and games portray sexual roles, but I really have some trouble getting a handle on this subject. I am a 62-year-old man, but I have always considered this label to be descriptive and not prescriptive. I was raised by a feminist mom and so I understood from an early age that any discussion of “how a man should behave” is likely to be loaded with societal expectations that are based on historical normative behavior and shouldn’t have a direct bearing on my own behavior. I am a free person with agency, after all, and can make my own decisions about how to behave, how to treat other people, and how to make the most of what skills, characteristics, interests, and relationships I actually have. Masculinity is an abstraction that seems, to me, to add confusion.
In other words, I can observe the world and the effects I have on it and then make my own decisions about how to be the person I want to be. I know, the media we consume does inform, subconsciously or consciously, the way in which we think about ourselves and our actions, but ever since I was about 10 I have understood that this is not desirable, due to all sorts of myths and distortions about how one “should” act. Now, any discussion of the proper role of a “man” or of a “woman” just sounds like embracing the need to define yourself in the context of an abstract societally-defined identity, as opposed to defining yourself by who you actually are.
Alexander, I can see how the work you do is helpful for people who have not managed to get free of the gender-role-expectation trap that society sets, but it feels to me like really getting free of this trap has been helpful for me.