7 Moments of Healthy Masculinity in Pop Culture We Could All Learn From
Pop culture is full of examples of toxic masculinity — violence, jealousy, bad parenting, and so on. It’s hard to watch a single movie or episode of TV without seeing a guy set a bad example for the younger generation of men, and frankly, it’s the protagonist nearly as often as the villain.
Culturally speaking, we haven’t reached a point in the stories we tell where men are allowed to be people first and foremost. We end up with movies and TV shows where men have to be strong at all costs, fight and save the day. Those guys who stumble, cry, or put others first are often characterized as weak and laughable, the butts of a giant cultural joke about gender.
But through all the bad, there’s still some good that takes the form of lessons about how to be a good man in our cultural narrative, like diamonds of progressive masculinity in the rough of regressive, chest-thumping machismo.
While these men aren’t perfect, they give us glimpses of what a broader vision of being a man could be. But who are they, exactly? Here, we shine a light on seven pop culture moments that teach us about what masculinity could be.
And, of course, spoilers below. You’ve been warned.
1. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
Healthy Masculinity Moment: George foregoing his trip to Europe to keep the Savings & Loan afloat
It’s a Good Example Of: Using your life to help others
Runners Up: Atticus fighting against racism in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), Bobby’s level of care for the tenants of the building in “The Florida Project” (2017)
We might recognize the character whose whole life is about helping others as more feminine-coded than masculine — think the robot nanny in “The Jetsons” or Theo’s love interest telephone in “Her” — but some men in pop culture live to serve, spending their lives assisting those around them.
Nowhere does that resonate more than in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 Christmas-themed masterpiece. The movie takes the question of just how much one good-hearted person can impact the world quite seriously, as a little divine intervention allows protagonist George Bailey (James Stewart) to see just what his hometown would be like had he never existed.
It’s a grim vision, a place worsened in so many ways, big and small, but what makes George special isn’t just the massive ripple effect he realizes his presence has had in retrospect, but the actions that make up his day-to-day, along with the moral code that informs them: that helping others is of paramount importance. People deserve to live good lives no matter what economic class they’re born into, and there’s a beauty to self-sacrifice.
2. “Sex Education” (2019)
Healthy Masculinity Moment: Otis helping Adam work on his issues with sex
It’s a Good Example Of: Getting real about sex and sexuality
Runners Up: Chiron reconciling with Kevin in “Moonlight” (2016), the fireside chat between Mike and Scott in “My Own Private Idaho” (1991)
As men aren’t usually taught to have a healthy relationship to sex, that can compound the already important role that sexual desire plays in their psychological makeups.
Being able to talk openly and frankly about sex in a real way that accepts difference, embraces weakness and confronts fear, like Otis Milburn does all throughout “Sex Education,” is the version of masculinity we should strive for.
Rather than using his newfound power to his own advantage, Otis is genuinely trying to help those around him (even when they don’t have any love lost for him, as in Adam’s case). It would have been all too easy for Otis to use Adam’s moment of weakness against him — to belittle him or demonize him or spread rumors — after all of Adam’s bullying.
Instead, conscious of how awkward sex can be, he treats Adam like any of his ‘clients’ — meeting them where they are, and trying his best to work with them on developing a relationship to sex and sexuality that makes sense for them — whatever that may be.
3. “Mulan” (1998)
Healthy Masculinity Moment: The Emperor’s respect for Mulan
It’s a Good Example Of: Men respecting women as people and equals
Runners Up: Kenneth treating Peggy with respect in Season 4 of “Mad Men” (2010), Ashitaka’s treatment of Princess Mononoke in “Princess Mononoke” (1997)
Plenty of TV and movie history focused on stories of romance. It’s the infamous plot where aboy meets a girl, featuring a dramatic arc that ends with a kiss, sex, love, or marriage. As a result, when men treat women well on screen, it’s not necessarily because they respect them as people so much as because they’re wooing them.
While it’s true that “Mulan,” Disney’s 1998 animated classic about a young woman who pretends to be a man in order to save her aging father from compulsory army duty, ends on what feels like a romantic note, this particular moment — when the Emperor and her fellow soldiers bow to Mulan after she’s instrumental in thwarting a Hun attack — is anything but courtship.
Rather, the Emperor recognizes that Mulan’s courage and intelligence were crucial to defeating Shan Yu and his henchmen. Yes, it would have been simpler for the Emperor (and more in line with classical machismo) to celebrate her captain’s role in the fight, washing his hands of the complications of her presence and encouraging the massive crowd in attendance to do the same, but “Mulan” is a movie that’s smart about gender in many ways.
The Emperor’s deference is part of that intelligence — a recognition that things like a person’s name, outfit and private parts aren’t nearly as important as their spirit and their actions.
4. “Stand by Me” (1986)
Healthy Masculinity Moment: Two forest conversations between Chris and Gordie
It’s a Good Example Of: Helping another man grow as a person
Runners Up: Sean never giving up on Will in “Good Will Hunting” (1997), Pacha’s kindness to Cuzco in “The Emperor’s New Groove” (2000)
Teenage boys are ruthless, and tween boys aren’t much better. When it comes to castigating the weak, being part of a group of young boys can feel like running with a wolf pack — even among your so-called friends, you’re constantly on your guard, studying your peers for signs of weakness that you can pounce on.
That’s visible throughout much of “Stand by Me,” Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age classic about a group of boys in 1950s Oregon on a hunt for a dead body. But it’s two moments utterly detached from that quest that show us a beautiful vision of male friendship as Chris and Gordie, deep in the a forest, get real about their lives and their aspirations.
Self-appointed leader Chris’s willingness to cry in front of Gordie when talking about the unfairness of life is a deeply touching moment, and his later appraisal of Gordie’s skills, helping him see a writerly talent in himself he hadn’t yet become fully conscious of, is what sets Gordie’s future in motion.
Chris reassuring him that he isn’t a failure as a son, but rather that he’s a talented storyteller with a unique gift, is a personal leap forward for him that might never have come without that moment of honesty as a youth.
5. “Call Me by Your Name” (2017)
Healthy Masculinity Moment: Elio’s father talking about love and loss on the sofa
It’s a Good Example Of: Involved, loving, tender fatherhood
Runners Up: The fireside convo between Elsie and her dad in “Eighth Grade” (2018), Sandy taking in Ryan in Season 1 of “The O.C.” (2003)
“Call Me by Your Name” is a fascinating study into male love, as leads Elio and Oliver spend the movie falling for each other in and around a gorgeous villa in 1980s Italy.
But as heady as the passion is between the Italian teen and the American grad student, perhaps the most beautiful moment in the movie comes not from flirtation or romance, but from fatherly love. It’s Sam, Elio’s father, who takes the time to speak with his son about love, heartbreak and sexuality, all from his perspective as a man in his 50s.
Film and TV are bursting with examples of terrible fathers, whether physically absent, emotionally absent or all too present in their violence and cruelty.
RELATED: How to Be a Better Father
Elio’s father in “Call Me by Your Name” shows us a vision of a deeply intelligent man whose kind and measured approach to life has allowed his children to experience a culturally rich and beautiful life. He understands the depth of feeling, the importance of sharing your truest self and the necessity of being willing to talk to your children about their pain, even if they aren’t yet capable of being active participants in the conversation.
It would have been all too easy for Sam to skip this conversation, but his willingness to press on and fully engage in it makes it a rare example of truly loving fatherhood.
6. “Parks & Recreation” (2012)
Healthy Masculinity Moment: Andy playing with Diane’s daughters in “How a Bill Becomes a Law”
It’s a Good Example Of: Men being secure enough in their masculinity to seem weak or effeminate
Runners Up: Mr. Rogers mourning the death of his childhood dog in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (1970), Rogelio crying with his wife in “Jane the Virgin” (2018)
Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson in “Parks and Recreation” is one of contemporary television’s most traditionally masculine characters, portrayed as an over-the-top hodgepodge of traits gesturing towards a stodgy American manhood that’d feel cartoonish in anyone else’s hands.
Offerman’s real life exterior (woodworking, scotch, mustache) gives the role a deep believability, with his progressive views on masculinity helping to express a surprising amount of comfort with gender role reversals.
During the show’s fourth season, in the process of fixing a pothole, Ron and Andy (Chris Pratt) meet Diane (Lucy Lawless), Ron’s girlfriend, and her daughters. While Ron is initially put off by the girls’ princess-themed playfulness, Andy jumps right in and is quickly covered in makeup, looking distinctly effeminate, immediately referring to himself as a princess. Though Ron scoffs at this display, he’s eventually roped into it, begrudgingly allowing the girls to make him up in over-the-top pink and turquoise face paint.
Though he gets embarrassed when Diane laughs at his new look, his willingness to play along (as well as Andy’s excitement to take part) is an incredible example of progressive masculinity. And when Diane turns the tables by asking him out for dinner later in the episode, he’s not too proud to accept with a smile. Small wonder that (spoiler alert!) Diane ends up marrying him in the next season.
7. “Magic Mike XXL” (2015)
Healthy Masculinity Moment: Richie’s stripper friends supporting his creative transformation
It’s a Good Example Of: Group male bonding and support
Runners Up: Basically the whole of “Queer Eye” (2018), the prisoners banding together in “Paddington 2” (2017)
Most of the examples on this list have described healthy masculinity in one-on-one situations. Even characters like George Bailey and Coach Taylor, two people all for helping everyone they met, often extended that help to one person at a time.
The underlying implication here is that healthy masculinity is rare to begin with, but trying to enact it with more than one or two men present can seem impossible. Surely a third or a fourth guy in the mix will scoff at the supposed weakness or effeminacy on display and ruin the whole project, no?
But there’s something beautiful about a group of men coming together and opening up in front of one another, growing as a result.
“Magic Mike XXL” is a fantastic example of that dynamic, as Mike and his fellow strippers go on a road trip that sees them baring their souls to each other as much as they’re baring their bodies to the paying customers. It’s hard to believe that the scene where Richie uses a water bottle as a makeshift penis while sensually stripping in front of an innocent cashier could feel heartwarming instead of skeezy, but it does.
The pure ecstatic energy of seeing all his stripper buddies glory in their friend’s new and fresh routine — as they’re in the process of deciding to reimagine their stripper personas in ways that are more true to themselves than stock male stripper characters — is a real and broadly applicable lesson in what being a man can be.
There are far, far more ways to be a man than just donning the same old handful of outfits, trying to be something you aren’t.
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