Growing Up Manly

Boys, I suppose, are burdened by the expectation that they act like a man (“Stop crying! Be a man!”) and grow up to be a man. If a boy is fortunate, there may be a male figure in his life who can serve as a positive role model, a man who displays what it means to be manly in the ideal way that Western Mother Culture says men should be manly: stoic, decisive, vigorous and valorous.

When Boomers’ grandfathers were boys—in addition to men they might have known (if they were lucky)—they were provided with heroic and romantic male role models on the silent screen; many more role models were provided to our fathers as “talkies” became a major part of American life, something in which we Boomer Boys became immersed, often via Saturday matinees: role models like cowboys Hopalong Cassidy, the Cisco Kid, and Lash Larue; space heroes like Flash Gordon, and mythical heroes like Robin Hood and Sir Lancelot.

TV solidified Boomer boys’ perceptions of manly heroism via the exploits of Marshall Dillon, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Joe Friday, and Perry Mason, and by absorbing the characteristics of father roles like Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best), John Stone (The Donna Reed Show), and Ward Cleaver (Leave It to Beaver). According to Gender Roles in 1950s America, TV shows were influential in reinforcing changes in gender roles which influenced how Boomer Boys came to think of the roles they should play when they became men:

The years that followed WWII ushered in a new age of prosperity in the United States, and large numbers of returning soldiers married quickly and began families in the suburban areas of the country. Because women were expected to stay home and care for the children, men became the sole providers for the family. Being the sole provider for the family gave men a significant amount of power in their homes and contributed to feelings of male superiority. After all, it was the man’s ability to have a career and ‘climb the corporate ladder’ that kept the family from sliding into poverty. As head of the household, men were expected to be strong, masculine, and good decision makers, which served as a natural counter-balance for the feminine and maternal role of women. In the rapidly growing world of television and advertising, men were often depicted as capable, assertive, and intelligent; ideas that tended to be expressed by juxtaposing them with women, who were frequently portrayed as being the opposite.

Except for people with the sensitivity and awareness of a rock, we know today that masculinity—our default definition of which is the set of characteristics associated with the behaviors and roles of men and boys—is not irreversibly-dictated by genetics since those characteristics of masculinity presented in 1950’s movies and TV—stoic, decisive, vigorous and valorous—can be and are often demonstrated by those humans who have two X chromosomes. We non-rock-like Americans have recognized and admired those characteristics in the lives of both men and women who we know personally, as well as in women and men we encounter in our newsfeeds, in our electronic entertainment media, and in the books we read.

Unfortunately, there remains a kind of masculinity that is more than problematic because it is lethal, is arguably the driving force in shaping the history of civilization, and is comprised of attributes that in total comprise what was first called Toxic Masculinity in the 1980s, attributes that are clear evidence of some men’s “need to aggressively compete and dominate others” (T. Kupers quoted in Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere).

As Americans, we encounter reports and/or blatant manifestations of Toxic Masculinity on a daily basis. Typical is this recent New York Times headline: Coronovirus Safety Runs Into a Stubborn Barrier: Masculinity, which is followed by the assertion that “When political leaders suggest basic precautions appear unmanly, men are less likely to follow health and safety advice, experts say.” Or this from The Detroit News: Plans to kidnap Whitmer, overthrow government spoiled, officials say. And of course, the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates have certainly provided firsthand evidence of Toxic Masculinity (see: ‘Mr. Vice President, I’m Speaking.’ What Research Says About Men Interrupting Women—And How to Stop It)

As we grew up Boomers, public expressions of Toxic Masculinity were almost always hidden under a now annihilated veneer of civility that hid the shame of it, except for the glimpses we post-WW II offspring were occasionally spoon-fed: film clips of Hitler, Mussolini, and various Soviet leaders. Unfortunately, for too many of us who grew up Boomer, we did not learn about the attributes of Toxic Masculinity from a film clip of Hitler pontificating to a militant mass of stalwart supporters; we learned about Toxic Masculinity firsthand behind closed doors—as have children of all generations from time immemorial—from fathers.

The dedication for my novel, Myers, reads…

Dedicated to two very singular people who unwittingly inspired some of what follows…

One of those two (no longer as of this posting) anonymous people to whom the novel is “dedicated” is my father. During the winter of 2001, my summary of The Innocents (then still a screenplay, which became a novel that was rewritten and retitled Myers), was published in Writers Showcase:

The Crucible of World War II produced a generation of heroes who understood manhood as a stoic duty that demanded complete intolerance of weakness. Many returned from battle eager to raise sons who would be prepared to bear the responsibilities of a hard world. Drill instructors had forged warrior personas by replacing personal will with unquestioned obedience, the denial of which threatened pain and humiliation or worse. Many veterans returned from the war believing their sons would benefit from the same demanding discipline that they had followed on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific; unfortunately, unyielding expectations communicated through clenched teeth or china-rattling shouts, often reinforced with untempered smacks from calloused hands, or worse, a father’s disdain applied to the soft underbelly of a child’s’ ego, spawned a cadre of boys in the 1950s who were terrified of their fathers.

Shortly after self-publishing The Innocents as a novel in the summer of 2014, while undertaking the massive archeological dig that was required before I could put my mothers’ home on the market (Lois passed in October of that year), I encountered a hidden, handwritten log she had compiled from 1958 to 1961. In it was paragraph after paragraph that testified to the daily application of Toxic Masculinity in our home that led her—during those years and without anyone’s knowing it—to repeatedly contemplate suicide. As testimony to the power of a child’s subconscious mind to observe and remember what we come to “forget” (see: Memmmries), what I read in her journal pages were descriptions of things eerily similar to what I had recorded in The Innocents with the assumption that what I had written had been the product of my novelist’s imagination.

The Toxic Masculinity of fathers was not the only origin of traumas to which some of us—both boys and girls—were exposed, but my non-scientific sample of one tells me it was far more prevalent than many of us might suppose. As a former teacher and principal, I can testify that many (most?) of the behaviorally-challenged students with whom I have dealt over the years had issues that often could be traced to parent-generated trauma.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder … is a psychological disorder that can develop in response to prolonged, repeated experience of interpersonal trauma … C-PTSD … is associated with chronic sexual, psychological, narcissistic (child) abuse and physical abuse or neglect, chronic intimate partner violence, victims of prolonged workplace or school bullying … (and is) … a psychological disorder that can develop in response to prolonged, repeated experience of interpersonal trauma in a context in which the individual has little or no chance of escape.

Is it possible that some Americans—who have suffered prolonged and repeated childhood trauma behind closed doors—are being revisited by unwanted and debilitating memories that were generated during their childhood when they had little or no chance to emotionally escape the Toxic Masculinity to which, it seems, our country is being subjected on a daily basis? As one of that “cadre of boys in the 1950s who were terrified of their fathers,” I can respond in the affirmative.

(The featured photo accompanying this post is a copyright-free picture published by Pixabay under Creative Commons Public Domain deed CCO.)

2 thoughts on “Growing Up Manly

  1. Jeff, We were classmates in school, suffering abuse of differing types, but with similar end results. “Toxic Masculinity” was rampant in the 1950s and 1960s. Males towed the line, or were accused of being sissies, or mamas’ boys. Thank you for exposing this for what it was, and, unfortunately, still is, e.g., recent events in Michigan. I was not a victim of physical abuse at home, but my father was big on mental and emotional abuse. My mother also suffered in silence, but only to an extent. It took me years of therapy to uncover that my mother’s relationship with her husband (my father) was so toxic for her that she ended up using my sister and me as sounding boards. Therapists term that as “emotional incest.” To a certain extent, both my parents were “playing the same tapes in their heads” that characterized their upbringings. Civil rights movements in general led to the Feminist Movement, which led to males being freer to be themselves. I watch in awe as my son and stepson raise very young males as caring hands-on Dads who impart the quality of being being respectful of and caring of others. I have great hope for the mental health of young people. Thanks again, Jeff.

    1. Thanks for your input, Mike. I too am encouraged when I learn of or observe young fathers who are raising sons to be respectful and caring, and am glad to know that you see this within your own family.

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