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Janie B. Cheaney: Replacing “toxic” with “heroic” masculinity


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: Replacing “toxic” with “heroic” masculinity

Instead of merely criticizing so-called “toxic” traits, we should encourage young men toward heroism

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NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, January 10th, 2024. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.


And I’m Paul Butler. Up next, so-called toxic masculinity.

WORLD Commentator Janie B. Cheaney now explains the difference between toxic and heroic.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: My one grandson may be the most affectionate of our four grandchildren. He was the only one who would get up early in the morning to cuddle with me—just cuddling at first, and later talking things over and making jokes. But he’s also what we used to proudly call “all boy.” One of his favorite events of the year is Rendezvous, when he and his dad and a few of their guy friends go to a remote area to shoot guns and skin small animals. My son-in-law still builds and remodels houses even though he’s only a few years younger than me, and he’s determined his little all-boy will grow up to be a man’s man.

That’s kind of a derogatory term now, isn’t it? About seven years ago Dr. Joel Wong at the University of Indiana defined nine benchmarks of hyper-masculinity for a study on male mental health. They include winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, self-reliance, primacy of work, and power over women.

I know toxic men exist--sadly, even in the church. But for the majority of men, Dr. Wong leaves out some key elements that could modify the picture. For instance, his label “emotional control” probably refers to the “real men don’t cry” cliché. But anger and fear are also emotions–shouldn’t they be controlled? As for “risk-taking,” what great thing is ever undertaken without risk? Instead of “dominance”, a better word for most men might be “competition.” Dr. Wong includes “self-reliance” on his list. But opposed to what—welfare-reliance? And it’s true some men may desire “power over women”, but in the past, well-brought-up boys were taught to use their power in defense of women.

Some writers and academics are beginning to wonder if we’ve overdone the “toxic masculinity” stereotype. Maybe one reason for underachieving young men and suicidal older men that they are seldom valued as men in an information-based, sedentary, air-conditioned, risk-averse culture. In fact they are often mocked and disdained. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, recently tapped to direct an upcoming Star Wars movie, told Jon Stewart in 2015 that she liked “to make men feel uncomfortable” through her films. That discomfort, she added, might make them look into the mirror “and not like the reflection and then say, maybe, there is something wrong with the way I think . . .”

Are women ever told to look in the mirror and not like what they see?

Caitlin Flanigan, on the Atlantic website, writes that it’s time to counter “toxic” with a more positive adjective. Such as “heroic.” We owe a lot to the high-achievers, risk-takers, deep thinkers, bold adventurers, and everyday working stiffs who pull on their boots to do what needs to be done in all kinds of weather.

On the same website, staff writer Ross Andersen posted a touching tribute to “My Father, the Giant,” who toiled for decades as a house-painter, raised two boys, nursed two wives through cancer, doted on his grandchildren, and loved and protected his family. That’s its own kind of heroism, and I hope my grandson grows into a man like that.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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