Enough With The Tough Guy

As a young man growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I was heavily influenced by the movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson - the tough guys.  These were the Hollywood heroes of my generation that took center stage to become the cultural icons of cool for young boys like me to look up to.  They all generally played the same character over and over with minor variations.  They were typically lone-wolf types who play by their own rules, take charge, show no fear, take no prisoners, make some quips, and solve all their problems with violence, aggression, and/or domination, often in an effort to save the helpless girl, who in these stories often exists only as a thing to be saved.  But even when I was young enough and impressionable enough to go along with these stories, I still felt that something was missing, some pertinent piece of the puzzle.  For as much as these heroes got the job done, they almost never showed their feelings, or exhibited kindness, compassion, vulnerability, empathy, or gentleness - qualities that, to these macho dudes, were decidedly feminine, and therefore associated with weakness.  I wasn’t able to understand this, let alone articulate it, as a boy, but now, as a 37-year old man, I can see that these characters, and the actors playing them, were not necessarily demonstrating what a real, healthy, and balanced man looks like.    

The show-no-feelings tough guy has been around for a long, long time - John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Clint Eastwood, just to name a few - and has, of course, existed long before the dawn of cinema - although the advent of movies has certainly elevated this archetype and given it a cultural prominence it may not have otherwise had.  These days, it seems to me that the unchallenged acceptance of our tough guy role models has become a danger to our growth and evolution, a stumbling block in our understanding of what a man can and should be.  I feel that it is time to move on from this outdated model, to update it, and allow it to evolve. In order to do that, we need to heal it, and embrace a different understanding of what it means to be a man, and in particular, a healthy man.  And so, to these heroes of my youth, I wish to say, “Thank you, but your services will no longer be required.”  

I don’t mean to imply that tough guys are inherently bad, or that there is no place for them in society. There are certain times and places when we may benefit from having a tough guy around.  But having them exist as the standard by which all men are judged, or holding them up as the pinnacle of masculinity, seems to no longer be serving us, if in fact it ever did. In creating this standard, we have collectively warped our views and understanding of what an ideal man is, in particular to our young boys, who grow up thinking this is what is they should aspire to, or what is expected of them.  For example, how many boys are told not to cry growing up?  All of them?  I know I was.  “Be tough.  Suck it up.” Why is that?  Because Rambo never cried?  A truly healthy man can be tough sometimes, and cry at other times.  He doesn’t have to be all tough all the time.  He doesn’t always have to suppress his feelings.  But the tough guy doesn’t want to relinquish his control, his power, his impenetrable facade, and so he asserts his dominance whenever and wherever he can.  This is most clearly seen right now in the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, a man whom, I feel, represents many, if not most, of the distorted and imbalanced qualities of the masculine principle.  He is not quite the action hero of yesteryear, he is acting more the villain of those movies.  So why is he so popular?  And what does his political and cultural relevance here in 2016 tell us?        

For starters, he is highlighting and presenting to us in no uncertain terms much of what still needs to be healed in the collective, particularly in the masculine, showing us these issues in a clear and often painfully ugly light.  For example, look at his treatment of women.  If you have a distorted masculine principle, it will consequently have a distorted view of the feminine.  With this understanding, it makes sense that Trump has owned, or co-owned, 3 different beauty pageants.  It makes sense that he’s been married 3 times, cheated on one of his wives, and that his current wife is a former model who also happens to be 24 years younger than him.  It makes sense that he has been known to lash out at women who are in positions of power.  The tough guy prefers a woman who is quiet, pretty, loyal, submissive, and ideally wants to sleep with him - not an authority figure.  The only time is it acceptable to have a woman in authority is if she has limited authority, with a man still overseeing her. This is but one example of the old, outdated model of the male-female dynamic.

His popularity also shows us why the tough guy has been revered by so many for so long: He'll save us! People often want someone to come in and save the day, cleaning up their mess for them.  I certainly understand why, it is much easier than taking care of our problems ourselves.  Perhaps this explains, at least in part, the current popularity of superhero movies, as well as the expectancy that many Christians have around the second coming of Christ.  We sit around waiting, and hoping, that someone will come and make it all better.  Unfortunately, this is not the way the world works.  We all must do our own work, clean up our own messes, and save ourselves, so to speak.  As the Buddha said, "No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path."  This is the only way to really learn the lessons we need to grow, and to change, ensuring that we won't need to be saved again in 5 minutes or 5 years from now.  Until we take this responsibility for ourselves, we are stuck in our smallness, giving away our power, waiting for an external savior, and delaying the inevitable processes that we all must face which will help us to truly evolve into our own saviors.  We manifest our own inner tough guy, so to speak.  This is the well-kept secret that the tough guys and authority figures of this world don't want you to know. We are all latent superheroes, or sleeping Christs, with the potential to awaken, and save ourselves.  

We have lived in a patriarchy for a long time, and many feminists will readily tell you what a terrible thing that is, how it needs to be destroyed, torn down, replaced, etc. and I’m not here to necessarily disagree with them.  Many heinous things have happened, and continue to happen, to women under the rule of the tough guy, but we have entered the dawning of a new era where this paradigm will be changing. If you look around, it has already begun.  Women are finding their voices once again, reclaiming their power, stepping up, and speaking out - slowly, albeit surely.  As this process unfolds, we are collectively becoming ever more aware of the injustices we have and continue to perpetuate on our women, and there is, of course, still a long way to go.  (Does anyone want to talk about the fact that 1 in 4 women will be sexual abused in her lifetime?  No?  Okay, I’ll wait.  But we’ll have to eventually…)  With all that said, I don’t think a patriarchy is an inherently bad thing.  I don’t think all men are power hungry monsters.  I do, however, think that this version of the patriarchy we are living in has become grossly distorted, imbalanced, and generally very unhealthy to most, if not all, of us.       

Many feminists will argue that we should have a matriarchy instead (I even walked by a woman on the street recently wearing a t-shirt that said “Matriarchy Now”, a clear sign of the uprising of the suppressed feminine), and while I can see the merits of that argument, I think a matriarchy could also become distorted in time.  I think our best bet to create the highest and most evolved society is to work together.  We don’t need dad in charge, and we don’t need mom in charge.  We need mom and dad working together.  This will allow us to have the best of both worlds, sharing in our strengths, while allowing the masculine and feminine to find a unity and a harmony, and to do the jobs that are best suited to them, restoring balance to our very imbalanced world.  

At this moment in history, we have an extraordinary opportunity to learn, to evolve, to grow, to forgive, and to begin to create a healthy partnership between the masculine and feminine.  To do this, at a very basic level, we need to talk about our issues, because as we are silent on them, we are complicit in perpetuating them.  I am delighted that we have a woman running for president against Tough Guy Trump, as this drags so many of these issues out into the spotlight, making them unavoidable, and easier to start a conversation around.  We don't have to do it in an abstract way - we have real world examples to work with and learn from.  I encourage you all to take advantage of this opportunity, as uncomfortable as it can be.  Growth is seldom, if ever, comfortable, so let's not let that stop us.  

The higher truth, that, to me, is frequently missing from this dialogue, is that we all have an inner masculine and inner feminine principle.  We are all a dynamic mix of male and female on the inside, regardless of our biological body-type.  This is easy to see out-pictured in the world.  We all know women who present more masculine sides, and men who appear softer and more feminine, and all variations in between.  Everyone has some combination of these two energies dancing within them.  It is a universal principle.  But we get fooled by our body types, and our inherited social roles. We respond to peer pressure, and the way people treat us.  We become, not who we are, but who we think we’re supposed to be, and in doing so, we do not always honor both aspects of our nature. Subsequently, we are unable to work with our own inner male-female dynamics, and unable to find a healthy expression of it.  This is where we must start.  This is where we must always start, with the self.  The world only changes as individuals change.  So, while we can learn from the example of Trump of other tough guys, our efforts will be in vein if we are focused on changing them.  As Buckminster Fuller so famously said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."  We are to become that new model.

So what does a healthy man look like?     

There is no one way a healthy man should be.  The beauty of men, and of all people, is in their individual and unique expressions.  But the masculine is best represented as it exhibits strength, protectiveness, generosity, dynamism, and taking action.  The negative expression is what we have been witnessing for a long time now: violence, control, aggression, and domination (see: all action movies).

The positive aspects of the feminine are seen in its openness, receptivity, nurturing, support, and balance.  It’s negative expression can be chaotic, unappeasable, and manipulative.  

A healthy man will have both aspects of the masculine and feminine expressed as and through him, in different ways, in different times, and in different situations.  He should be capable of being strong and nurturing, protective and open, sometimes taking action, and sometimes yielding.  It should go without saying by now, that the reverse is true, and a healthy woman will also have both aspects represented in her.  Whoever you are, and however you identify through your gender or sexuality, you still have these two principles within you.  But for now, I wanted to keep my focus on “traditional” men, or what I’ve been calling the “tough guy”, as they are the ones that are seeming to have a hard time letting go of the old paradigm, allowing the feminine principle to truly rise up and step forward in all of her beauty and power, taking her place as an equal partner to the masculine.  It will happen in time, I have no doubt.  But we’ve got a lot of work to do, and some of it may be messy. But that's okay.  We can start just by becoming aware of our own masculine and feminine sides, and taking responsibility for the ways in which we express them.  We can strive to find our own healthy balance, whatever that may look like, and lead by example.  When enough of us do this, the world will change, effortlessly.