“Confused Masculinity” is real

In a previous article I vented many of my pent-up frustrations with the attack on men in our culture. The article wrestled with the recently invented social category, “toxic masculinity,” and how the phrase not only fails to capture the real problem with men, but adds to the confusion.

With this article I want to talk more specifically to men, men who feel as I do that masculinity in general is under siege. I want to investigate the phenomenon of masculinity: what it could be compared with what it often is. 

I begin with some personal experiences and insights:

Every time a new “attack” comes down the media pike I feel a deep urge to double-down on every masculine trait within me as a protest, and more than a protest—as a means of survival. What many women, and some men, don’t realize is that a perceived threat to masculinity can be taken on an unconscious level as a threat to a man’s vitality, literally a man’s ability to survive and thrive in the world. I’m not arguing that this threat is real, per se, but rather the perception is real, which result in real defense mechanisms coming to the fore.

For men like me, just the very phrase “toxic masculinity” is enough to raise deep seated suspicions that I’m under attack on two fronts: (1) that my vitality is under attack, and (2) my individuality is under attack by those who would erase me in order to fit me into yet another impersonal category of existence.

This rise that I experience internally to exaggerate my masculine traits in the face of a threat is a symptom of confused masculinity, not toxic masculinity. There is no ground gained with men suffering from confused masculinity to call it “toxic masculinity.” It only serves to cause untold numbers of men to dig in their heels and fight.

Confused masculinity is a mindset which thinks that a real man is all masculine; likewise, a real woman is all feminine. But the truth is all people have both sides to them. If one understands masculine and feminine in their classic sense—as personality traits—then it is undeniable that we retain both sides to greater or lesser degrees depending on our individual personality. Thus, masculinity is confused when a man thinks that masculinity is the end-all, be-all of his personality. This confusion makes him feel that if he is not emotionally rigid, stoic, logical, and tough at all times then he is not a whole man. The truth is that if a man would retain these qualities when a situation demands it (a solider in battle, a fireman in a burning house), but allow his feminine side it’s due time as well (his emotional, sensitive, poetic, relational side) he would be twice the man he thinks he is.

As an Orthodox Christian I take for my example the great men of the faith who were as emotional as they were tough; men who were not cowards in the face of their emotional suffering, but lived a sort of freedom that only a relationship with their feelings could grant (acknowledged feelings always have this effect). Popular images like King David come to mind. Here was a true manly man, a warrior of warriors, a great king who was just as apt to slay a giant threatening his people as he was to compose psalms crying out to his despairing inner self, “Why art thou downcast, oh my soul?”* This is a truly virtuous masculinity.

A masculinity threatened by emotions is a contradiction in terms, it is a phantom masculinity. Masculinity, by classic definition, is marked by logic and strength. It is neither logical nor a show of strength to be threatened by one’s own emotions.

Confused masculinity is essentially to exaggerate one’s masculine side over and against one’s feminine side. However, to exaggerate one’s feminine side is no better. If a man allows himself to be swallowed up by his emotions the fear is that he will be left vulnerable to attack by others who seek to take advantage of his undefended state. And there is no denying that this is an actual threat, one that men have to take seriously because there are other men (and women) who will indeed take advantage of such an opportunity.

But again, the answer is not to double-down on exclusively masculine traits and defend oneself by destroying others who might threaten him. He should be allowed to be strong on the exterior while remaining a whole man internally; able to be a beast with beasts, and tender in every way with his family and friends. Or, as Christ put it: “Be wise as serpents, and gentle as doves.” 

Blocking one side of the personality would be like a glass of water associating exclusively with its hydrogen side and treating oxygen as a foreign entity. The result would be a glass of pure danger, and not because pure hydrogen is toxic, but because without oxygen it eventually leads to asphyxiation. That is, it suffocates it’s living host. Just as water ceases to be water without both elements, man ceases to be fully man without both his masculine and feminine sides working in harmony. Hydrogen is no less hydrogen when combined with oxygen… Can I stop now? I’m an over-illustrator. It’s one of my masculine propensities.

Thanks for reading.


*Some scholars attribute Psalms 43 to the sons of Korah, not David. However, in the Orthodox monastic tradition all of the Psalms are received as coming from David whether in person or in spirit.


One thought on ““Confused Masculinity” is real

  1. Thank you Eric, I think you’re spot-on. To adress certain problems we need to see the real roots of those problems. You’ve managed to write quite humbly and concise about it in your latest two posts. I’d love to read more from you on this, and related, topics! God bless you! Fr. Mikael, Sweden

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