The very term "toxic masculinity" has become so charged that it is an effective conversation-ender. What does this term mean, though? Surely, the mention of this term conjures up images of frontline military men, competitive violent athletics, and fraternity culture at American universities. I happen to believe that toxic masculinity refers to something that is problematic. However, I also think that it is important to be measured in one's critiques.
In high school, I played on the football team. In this environment, I was encouraged to manifest my masculinity. There was nothing wrong with this, but some of my teammates took their masculinity to absurd degrees. Some would run off the field after a big play, and then clash helmets with several teammates on the sideline in celebration. At the time, I found it amusing and laughed. Some of my teammates would scarcely seem different off the field than on it.
It became ugly, though. Fights broke out seemingly for no reason off the field. One time, several of the more senior players grabbed a freshman who was changing and threw him in a trash can, then moved it to the showers and turned the cold water on. Another time, a fight broke out on the curb in the parking lot of our school just when my dad arrived to pick me up, and he ran in to break them up. None of this was funny. It was a real dark side to the countless hours of great work we did as a team.
Violence and excess came to characterize how some of my teammates sought to prove their masculine worthiness. However, they did not invent these practices. They inherited them from others, including professional athletes they idolized and other cultural figures they admired like rappers.
There exist much healthier ideals of what a masculine figure could be. Regarding a better masculine ideal, I would like to discuss the great demigod Achilleus, as depicted in Homer's Iliad. Achilleus, or Achilles as he is often known, is said to be the finest warrior among the Achaeans. He is swift on his feet and wields incredible physical strength. At a turning point in the Iliad, Achilleus's close friend, Patroklos, is slain in battle by Hektor, greatest among the Trojans.
This practically drives Achilleus mad, as he nearly tears out his hair and screams at the news of his beloved companion's death. Achilleus soon confronts Hektor in battle, and can hardly contain his rage. Hektor attempts to forge a gentlemen's agreement with Achilleus, that whoever should defeat the other, they must return the body to their loved ones and not desecrate it. Achilleus refuses, telling Hektor that "there are no trustworthy oaths between men and lions" (Homer 464, Book 22). Hektor lays dead soon after, having succumbed to the spear of Achilleus.
Achilleus returns to the Achaean camp with Hektor's body, and drags it around with his chariot. Priam, king of the Trojans and heartbroken father of Hektor, makes a seemingly suicidal journey in the night to the Achaean camp with the hopes of retrieving his son Hektor's corpse. He approaches Achilleus in the night, and immediately drops down to kiss the hands of his son's killer.
Priam pleads: "Honor the gods, Achilleus, and take pity upon me remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful; I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children" (Homer 510, Book 24). After this, they both weep for those they have lost, and Achilleus returns Hektor to his grieving father, defying all conventions of war at the time. Achilleus could have ended the war, with the opposing king in his custody. Instead, Achilleus is able to see his own father in the heartbroken Priam, and is moved to gentleness towards Hektor by thinking of his own loss of his friend Patroklos.
On the battlefield, Achilleus is a lion among men. His rage makes him a force of divine destruction. By the end of the Iliad, though, he learns something valuable about what it is to be human. His actions on the battlefield and their consequences are much clearer to him, and he learns restraint. He is also in touch with his emotions, and this does not take away from his excellence as a leader and warrior. To the contrary, it makes him a more complete man.
I find the figure of Achilleus at the end of Homer's Iliad to be among the finest exemplars of masculinity. Furthermore, it is my view that if this type of healthier, more well-rounded form of masculinity is elevated in American culture, we would all fare better.
As I have grown into a young adult, I have increasingly realized something important. One does not need to be a strictly "masculine" nor "feminine" person. Those who know me best would find it difficult to place me in either of these camps. I played sports my whole life and still enjoy lifting and exercising, but I also often sing and dance to love songs by the Beatles. I love to study the history of World War 1 and am quite assertive at times. On the other hand, I am deeply in touch with my emotions and love cooking. I enjoy playing poker but write a blog. I could go on.
My point is that masculinity is not an all-or-nothing proposition. In fact, I find the most rewarding path to be one of manifesting both masculinity and femininity at different times, and I think that this advice can be applied for men and women alike. I know what it is like to feel boxed in by expectations of strict masculine behavior, and it is no fun. We should not foist expectations like these upon anyone, especially young people still finding their ways to adulthood.