Men’s razor company Gillette released an ad in early 2019 that encouraged men to embrace a healthier masculinity by attacking some elements of toxic masculinity, including bullying, harassment ,and “boys will be boys” fighting. It created a storm of controversy as those who perceived the ad as an attack on manhood pushed back.
But “toxic masculinity” does not mean all masculinity is toxic. Originally coined by the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980s and ’90s, it refers to a common male stereotype that promotes aggressive behavior, dominance over others, and stunted emotions. Social science studies have shown that these behaviors are harmful not only to their relationships with women but also to the men themselves, partly contributing to health risks including depression, substance abuse, higher risks of coronary and pulmonary diseases, and suicidal tendencies.
I was surprised by the amount of pushback to the Gillette ad. Was it the attack on the “boys will be boys” line that triggered the anger? Were people reacting to the feeling that men aren’t allowed to be “real” men anymore?
But surely we are not left with just two options: either “real,” hypermasculine men who behave badly or emasculated, effeminate men. Is a man who is loving, kind, and joyful, gentle and peace-loving, faithful and good-hearted, patient and able to control his anger not a “real” man? According to social tests, most men would label most of those attributes as more feminine than masculine. But that’s a problem—because I just listed the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Since the fruit of the Spirit is what God wants and expects all Christ followers, men and women, to exhibit in their lives, it must be how God intends “real” men to be, as well. The problem lies not with the Spirit, but with our culture’s stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. We have accepted a lie about masculinity for so long—”boys will be boys”—that we think it is truth.
Social scientists explain our culture’s “Boy Code” with four major themes: no sissy stuff, be a sturdy oak, be a big wheel, and give them hell (My Brother’s Keeper: What the Social Sciences Do (and Don’t) Tell Us About Masculinity, pp. 97-100). “No sissy stuff” means boys must avoid anything remotely close to being feminine— from girls’ toys to vulnerable states such as crying, showing distress, or asking for help—lest they become targets for shaming.
This leads, therefore, to being a sturdy oak. Boys are expected to be stoic and self-reliant. If you can’t get yourself out of trouble, then you should at least “take it like a man.” The problem is that it trains boys and men to be emotionally constipated. They don’t know how to express their emotions in healthy ways or how to deal with them besides suppressing them, causing long-term psychological and emotional issues. The only emotion that boys are often allowed to express freely is anger.
This, in turn, leads to the call to “give them hell.” Violence is often portrayed as a natural solution to problems and conflicts. Popular media, including video games, constantly portray and encourage this. “Boys will be boys” gives boys the message that it’s okay for them to lose their temper and act violently. Does this contribute partly to domestic violence later in life?
Finally, boys are told they need to become a big wheel, a success, the alpha male in your tribe/gang, gaining status and honor among your peers. The typical route to this for young men is through success in sports, in attracting girls, or both. Later in life it often means getting a high-paying job or one that gets you fame, fortune, and followers. Of course, not every boy/man can be an alpha male. Boys/men are therefore constantly competing to outdo one another in gaining status and honor. Their manhood is wrapped up in pursuit of success and a life that revolves around performance rather than grace. In this scheme, failure can be far more terrifying than it is. What happens when you inevitably grow older and weaker? And those who have disabilities, those in a lower economic class, and those in a marginalized ethnic group face even greater barriers to “real” manhood.
There was probably a “boy code” or “man code” back in Jesus’ first-century world, too. But how does Jesus square up with our modern stereotypes of masculinity? Although Jesus is a role model for Christian men and women alike, the fact that he was male might give some insight into how a Christian man should behave.
Did Jesus avoid all things “sissy”? Jesus certainly wasn’t afraid to show vulnerable emotions. He wept openly in public (Luke 19:41; John 11:33-36). He was comfortable in the company of women, allowing them to follow him in his travels. In fact, he even received financial support from women (Luke 8:1-3). Some of his parables—about baking with yeast (Matt. 13:33), looking for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and virgins at a wedding (Matt. 25:1-13)—indicate a familiarity with women’s everyday life. Jesus even praised Mary for bucking the traditionally women’s role of preparing and serving food when she chose instead to sit and learn at the feet of Jesus among the male disciples (Luke 10:38-42). He welcomed little children when most men didn’t have time for them (Mark 10:13-16).
Jesus never seemed obsessed with fame and success. In fact, he taught his male disciples, who were jockeying for status and honor, that true greatness lies in humility and service (Matt. 18:1-4; 20:20-28; Mark 9:33-35; 10:35-45; Luke 9:46-48). Jesus never married, which was an important step to gaining first-century alpha-male status. Of course, dying a criminal’s shameful death by crucifixion destroyed whatever chance Jesus had of being a “big wheel.”
In a violent and vengeful era, Jesus taught people to “turn the other cheek,” to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:38-48), and to put away the sword (John 18:11). Many think that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was a display of “manly” anger and violence. However, Mark’s account shows that Jesus actually went into the temple and “looked around at everything” the day before (Mark 11:11), returning the next day to drive out the money changers and merchants (11:12-17). He reflected overnight on what he saw in the temple and decided on a plan of action. It was not, as often imagined, a spur-of-the-moment violent rage. Rather, it was a calculated public protest. This is not to say Jesus never lost his temper, but we cannot use this one instance as license for a man to fly off the handle.
Jesus did not seem to fit easily into either his ancient culture’s or our modern culture’s “boy/man code” of honor. Instead of shaping our boys according to our culture’s “boy code,” we should be diligently shaping them according to the fruit of the Spirit, which we know from Scripture is God’s will for us. That is our spiritual goal: to be Christ-like men and women.
- How have you understood the term “toxic masculinity”? In what context have you heard it being used?
- How have you experienced or observed elements of the “boy code” in your life?
- Why do you think many men identify most of the attributes in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) as feminine traits?
- How is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple often portrayed in what you read or hear? How does Mark’s account challenge or reinforce that?
- Who are some male characters in the Bible that we can point to as examples, albeit imperfect, of Christ-like masculinity?