By Dan Miller
Dan Miller is a 42-year-old father of two boys. Married for 12 years, he lives near Chicago and loves his job as a union organizer. With the Weinstein crisis ever widening, he says, and a sexual predator in the White House—and as the father of boys—“I can’t help but think about how it’s affecting them and what I can do about it.” He was an athlete in high school and part of what he calls jock culture, which he sees as related to toxic masculinity. He says he wrote this essay as a letter to other fathers raising sons.
The ravages of toxic masculinity are now on full display. So is an unprecedented level of fighting against it. We should be at the forefront of the fight back. There’s much work to do. I am the father of boys ages 11 and 7. This moment is pushing me to try and raise them into men who reject toxic masculinity. Not to mention motivation to overcome my own struggles with it.
I have a question: If we are against toxic masculinity, what are we for? What type of masculinity are we after? Is that the right question? I don’t want to raise my boys only in opposition to something, but to strive for a vision of what it means to be a good person, and a good man.
If you’re like me and came up in jock culture you might have had a father who taught you boys don’t cry or talk about their feelings, a coach who yelled at your team to take off your skirts and toughen up, friends who called you a sissy for taking piano lessons or a fag when you did something not considered “manly.” You may have been bullied and/or bullied others.
Even if you weren’t in jock culture, this may have happened to you, or worse. Maybe you were physically or sexually abused. If you were, chances are overwhelming that it was another man who did it to you, if you get my point.
Maybe you endured some or all these things and were able to overcome them and grow into a man who doesn’t give a shit about traditional masculinity and are living your truth. If so, I say: You Go! Maybe you still harbor the pain and are subjecting others to it. If you’re like me, probably somewhere in between. There seems to be less bullying masculinity in my sons’ peer culture than there was in mine, a result, I believe, of the success of the women’s and gay rights movements. But we’re still raising too many boys who become harassers and abusers, and too few who stand up to their peers to make harassment and abuse socially unacceptable. I know I’ve failed to call it out more times than I’d like to admit. And it’s an emergency that’s harming the women we love. I like to smoke cigars, watch football, lift weights, wrestle with my sons, drink beers with the guys and complain about our wives, and countless other “manly” activities. I also like to prance around the house in my underwear belting out show tunes. But these are just things I like to do.
Sometimes I lash out in anger when I’m actually feeling shame, sadness, fear or hurt because vulnerability isn’t “manly.” Sometimes I interrupt women coworkers in meetings and get called out. But I do more housework in a week than I saw my dad do in a year, and I’ll bet you do too. I’m into how strong my wife is and want to support her in achieving her goals, and same with my buddies. I hug and kiss my sons every day and tell them I love them. I try to be in touch with my feelings and I’ve been to therapy to talk about them. Credit feminism for all that.
Is there anything positive to be salvaged from traditional masculinity? My dad may have modeled not crying, but he also taught me a man keeps his word and is always there for those who rely on him. He was accepting of his lesbian sister when I was growing up in the 1980s. I learned by watching.
Do we need to label traits and teach what’s masculine and feminine? Shouldn’t we be beyond that? Is no masculinity the opposite of toxic masculinity? There’s nothing especially male about integrity or reliability for instance, but I’m a man so that’s part of how I understand those traits. Watching my dad display those positive social traits was important somehow.
Can I raise my boys to live their truth, spread love and positivity, solidarity and caring, and stand for justice?
Maybe one or both is gay. In that case they need to know their straight dad is proud of their courage to be who they are. But let’s assume they’re straight, as is most likely the case statistically speaking. Then they’ll be like me: straight, white, men.
I like who I am and I want them to like who they are. Maybe they’ll be straight men who don’t connect with traditional masculinity. I remember the lightbulb that went off at 12 years old when I would sneak to stay up late and watch Saturday Night Live. The “Lyle the Effeminate Heterosexual” skit was the first time I realized that wanting to sleep with only women is what made you straight and nothing else. Watching it now might be cringe inducing but then it was an important insight.
My hope is that my boys become men who are confident enough in their masculinity—however they live it—that they’re not threatened by the power of women, LGBTQ people, or people of color. That they learn from what the experiences of trans and genderqueer people teach us about gender. That they stand for love and caring, and against harassment and abuse. Not just that they’re against it and don’t harass and abuse, but that they actively call it out. That they respect the women they are friends with and the women they have as romantic partners. And that they have fun! Can we please remember not to forget about the fun when we talk about sex?!?!?!
What is that a definition of? What is that called? Healthy masculinity? Positive masculinity? Loving masculinity? Humanity? What do you think?