“My father was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness. He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice, or untruthfulness. As we grew older he made us understand […] that what was wrong in a woman could not be right in a man.”
Theodore Roosevelt loved his father. To Teddy (an impressionable child), his father was the embodiment of ideal masculinity; he shaped Teddy’s views on strength, courage, adventure, and honor — but also on tenderness, kindness, and love. About his father, Teddy once wrote, “My father got me breath, he got me lungs, strength, life. I could breathe, I could sleep when he had me in his arms.”
At age 19, Teddy lost his father, but Theodore would never forget the legacy left behind by the father who “combined the strength, courage, will, and energy of the strongest man with the tenderness, cleanness, and purity of a woman.”
Teddy Roosevelt would take on many identities: a fashionable young man, a courageous horseman and hunter, a fierce and opinionated politician, a forlorn widower, and an impassioned president, to name a few. But the common thread among them is the embodiment of traditional masculinity passed down from his father. If ever there were two more masculine father-son characters, history has scarcely made them known.
Teddy and his father are important because they represent a positive, sublime side of masculinity that is rarely discussed these days; from their ceaseless energy and strength of character emerges a picture of the masculine as full of honor, justice, virtue, adventure, tenderness, love, and most of all a fiery relentlessness — to remove all barriers and stop at nothing for what matters most.
Despite wanting to embody those same healthy traits, I sometimes struggle to embrace my masculinity. Something in me is ashamed to feel masculine; to identify as competitive, or strong, or protective, or courageous. As if by being proud of my masculine traits, I would somehow be rejecting the feminine, and thereby contributing to a culture of hyper-masculinity.
This is silly, I know — why do masculine traits need to be mutually exclusive to feminine traits? The answer is simple: they don’t. But something about the way I was taught key concepts for understanding gender identity and culture left me stepping on eggshells in my search for identity as a man.
When I was young, I was bullied for how I dressed. Apparently it wasn’t masculine enough for my male classmates, so they’d call me gay slurs. Turns out this is pretty common, and when I got older I was taught language to describe the phenomenon: “toxic masculinity”.
Around the same time, I learned that it was okay to be feminine, even if you’re a man. I stopped worrying about crossing my legs, calling things cute, singing, or being excited (how being excited somehow became gendered, frankly, I can’t tell you). I consider this a wonderful and life-changing transformation.
But something insidious happened, too: I implicitly started feeling ashamed of my masculinity — the thing I thought was the source of that bullying. I began to think of masculinity as toxic, and started rejecting the people and feelings associated with it — I subtly avoided brotherhood with other men, I looked down on fraternities, I didn’t “hit the gym” or play sports.
There is such a thing as “toxic” masculinity, where warped views of what it means to be masculine can produce undesirable outcomes for everyone, like my bullying. But masculinity isn’t toxic. It’s okay to be competitive, or strong, or protective, or courageous.
In fact, these traits are precisely the ones that are so magnificent when channelled well. Theodore Roosevelt shows us as much: the strength to lead others through war and peace; the instinct to protect the weak and denounce evil, that led to his famous square deal and campaign against corruption; the competitive spirit he showed, that drove him to strenuously work himself until he grew out of his crippling asthma; the courage to take the presidency, even after his former president and friend was assassinated. These are the traits for which Roosevelt earned his famously masculine reputation. These traits are valuable.
Masculinity is valuable.
These days, when I think of masculinity, I think of Teddy and his father. To me, being masculine means having equal parts strength and tenderness, courage and love, fiery relentlessness and tempered wisdom. It means learning from the friends, brothers, and fathers I respect most. Sometimes, it means singing your heart out to Moana out of love for your daughters (thanks Jeff, for that lesson).
It might not mean the same things to you, but that doesn’t make it less worthy. Be proud of your masculinity. Embrace it. And help others embrace it. Maybe together we can set a truly remarkable standard for what it means to “be a man”.