WATERVILLE — It’s hard to find much good in the news these days when it comes to men. The release of the “Access Hollywood” tape of Donald Trump’s conversation with Billy Bush; the growing number of allegations that Trump kissed, groped and otherwise assaulted women; and Trump’s lame it’s “just words,” nothing more than “locker room talk” defense have all put contemporary masculinity in the crosshairs.
A number of commentators have highlighted Trump’s “toxic masculinity” and suggested that in its hyper-macho posturing, bullying and lack of empathy for others, it masks an underlying fear and anxiety of not measuring up, of being inadequate, of losing control. Others have noted the “precarious masculinity” of Trump’s white working-class male supporters, and suggest that many men see in Trump and his talk of male dominance and success someone who can restore their lost power and status.
White working-class men are suffering, economically, socially and physically. And so it is understandable that these men would identify with Trump, desperately hoping that he will save them from their despair.
But what about other men, men with power, privilege and prestige, men like Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Pence, Jimmy Fallon, Matt Lauer and Billy Bush, who have happily served, in public and in private, as “beta boys” to Trump’s “alpha male”? Why are they falling all over themselves to serve him, to defend him, to treat him gently, even playfully, to laugh at his crude comments?
The answer to this question takes us back to “toxic masculinity,” and to the fear and shame and self-silencing that those of us who identify as men learn at a very young age that other boys and men will judge us as inadequate, weak, cowardly, “soft” and “feminine” if we don’t suck it up and play along.
Yet, in spite of all the Trump-inspired bad news about men and masculinity, there is, thankfully, some good news, too.
• First of all, it’s good news that so many men spoke up and spoke out in response to the Bush-Trump video. From politicians like President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, to celebrities and media figures, to academics, to a whole host of professional athletes, there has been a chorus of condemnation directed against the notion that the Bush-Trump conversation is typical of “locker room talk,” and and against the assumption that nonconsensual physical contact is acceptable.
In addition, organizations that promote healthy masculinity and work with boys and men to reduce the incidence of sexual assault, like Mentors in Violence Prevention, A Call to Men and Maine’s own Boys to Men, continue their critically important efforts.
• Second, there is mounting evidence that respectful, equitable, nonviolent and emotionally adept forms and expressions of masculinity are not only possible, but also lead to positive outcomes for boys and men, educationally, physically, psychologically and socially.
For example, psychologists Carlos Santos, Niobe Way and their colleagues have found that middle-school boys who resist conventional hypermasculine norms are more engaged in school, remain in closer, more emotionally supportive relationships with their mothers, siblings and friends, and exhibit fewer depressive symptoms than boys who do not resist.
My students and I are finding similar things as we talk to young men at Colby College who embody forms of healthy masculinity – young men like 2012 graduate Eric Barthold, 2014 graduate John Kalin and 2016 graduate Chris Millman, who are leaders in sexual violence prevention and social justice efforts on campus, young men who are scholars and athletes and musicians and mentors to children in the community, young men who resist the pressures to be “beta boys,” and who have the courage to stand up and speak out about misogyny, sexual violence, homophobia and racism on campus.
Talking to these young men is helping us to understand the complex contours of what we have come to think of as healthy masculinities, as well as to chart the developmental and educational conditions and experiences that enable some young men, like our informants, to grow up to be good and just human beings.
The path from boyhood to healthy manhood isn’t easy. It’s full of challenges, pitfalls, stops and starts. Resisting the toxic masculinity of the Trumps of the world can sometimes be very dangerous, and even life-threatening.
But in these difficult days, when masculinity seems to be on trial at every turn, it’s important to know that Trump and his kind don’t speak for all men, and to have faith that better men will prevail in the end.