You Have to be Carefully Taught: On Beautiful Masculinity

Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
a beautiful model of male mentorship
The other day, while shooting the breeze with a friend, she mentioned: 

"There's a correlation, you know, between these frequent mass murder shootings and the recent sex scandals."

 "What's that?" I asked.

"Well, think about it: from my research, the shootings and even these sex scandals revolve around men.  Men who are trained in toxic masculinity.  Who are told that to be a true man, you can't feel, can't emote, can't want, can't cry.  Yet, they still have those needs.  So what do they do?  They explode: either with physical or sexual violence.  They're trying to connect, and if they can't, they destroy.  They're trying to communicate, but they haven't been taught how.

"The question I have," she continued, "is what do we do about that?  How do we counteract toxic masculinity in our culture?"

"Well," I replied, thinking of my own theatrical sons, as well as my educational fathers, "it's really a matter of 'you have to be carefully taught.'"

From Generation to Generation

From high school through grad school, I had a number of wonderful male mentors.  Male mentors who took me seriously, who challenged me intellectually, who went the extra mile and pushed me to go the extra mile, too.

In high school, my best friend and I were the editors-in-chief of everything (quelle surprise!), which meant long Saturday afternoons at one of our teacher's houses, going through all the poetry submissions, or early Saturday mornings going over yearbook layouts with another teacher who brought donuts.  In college, my theatre professor would open the doors of his home to some of the upper classmen, where he and his wife and his growing number of children would chat with us about theatre and life over some of the heartiest farm bacon I've ever had.  In grad school, my professor was kind enough to set aside whole hours not only to talk about verse drama, and the future of my career, but also to listen to my life woes and offer sage advice.

I value these men who gave so much time and encouragement to me, and who certainly shaped my own life and outlook on teaching, mentoring, and basic human kindness.  And, in retrospect, it was important to me as a young woman to have these prevalent examples of kindly, wise, strong, and yet never domineering men in my life.  Without knowing what I was doing, I was seeking out foster fathers: stepping stones between my own father and someone who might father my children.

A Whole New World

Something else I also learned from my family and from these men was the beauty and innocence of touch.   
Most of you shuddered at that word, didn't you?  Thinking that right now this story would go off into a really dark place.  Thinking that I've got something suppressed.  But that's not the case.  My theatrical mentors rarely touched me, to be honest, but they also weren't afraid to pat me on the back, or to give me a hug at graduation.  Since they were largely theatrical mentors, they also facilitated safe spaces to touch others on the stage, to make bold yet respectful choices regarding my own body and my fellow actors'.  To ask for permissions as necessary.  And then they pushed me to create that same safe space as a director for my actors, even when we were doing challenging and potentially scary plays.

They taught me by example that touch is just touch.  That it is not automatically sexual.  That it is a way we communicate.  That it is vital.  That it is comfort.  That it can be safe.  They taught me that opening up a home is a beautiful thing, and not an automatic invitation to predatory behavior.  The amount of adult I felt when one of my high school mentors invited us into his well-appointed home, his wife out gardening in the back: the opportunity to see another way to live, another way to run a home was remarkable.  I remember thinking clearly, one night as an English professor and his wife showed me around their home stuffed full of shelves, before I babysat their kids, "I could live like this.  I could live happily in academia forever."  (And in fact, for ten years after college, I did.)

Paying It Forward

I fell into teaching, and therefore into mentoring, by accident.  After college, I was fairly lost until a teaching position opened up for K-8 at a local Catholic school.  Against all reason, they hired me to teach music and art, and at the end of the year we parted ways.  I spent the following year substitute teaching, and quickly learned that I preferred teaching high school over middle school students.  So when a position to teach theology at a local Catholic high school opened up (on the proviso that I also run the drama program), I took it.

I must have only been 25 when, in my fourth year of teaching, one of my male students started hanging out in my classroom after school.  The priest scandal had just broken in Boston, and I was teaching theology.  We were all on high alert regarding proper relationships.  Fortunately, my classroom happened to be in a large trailer that had a wall of windows overlooking the parking lot, which helped a lot when I was the only adult in the room rehearsing a passel of kids.

As it was still autumn, our school plays hadn't yet begun.  So, this student - my first "theatrical son" whom we'll call Robin - began hanging out in my room while I ostensibly attempted to grade papers.  At first he asked whether he could wait there to watch for his Mom's car to pick him up.  I agreed, since it is truly depressing to wait in the gym for the same purpose, and since he was a fairly quiet student who'd been good enough to tech Brigadoon the previous year.

One afternoon waiting in my room turned into two, and then several times a week thereafter.  So I put him to work cleaning my boards, since this appeared to be a regular thing.  After a little bit of time, Robin started to ask me questions about what I thought about this or that life question, and since I hate grading with a passion, I'd answer him.  Within a month, he stopped doing chores around my classroom, and just came in to talk about life without apology.

Eventually, I realized Robin was adopting me.  That he was a Lost Boy, looking for a Mother.  That I was to him what my professors were to me.  And I'm thrilled and teary to say that he's since grown into a fine young man, who's teaching and mentoring theatrical children of his own.

Opening Houses, Opening Hearts

Did I touch my students?  Yes, I did.  Hugs at their successes.  Teaching young men and women how to hold a frame in a waltz.  Smacking Robin upside the head when after a bitter break-up, he started verbally objectifying the girls in the class.  My family's house hosted cast parties, and we all went over to have cast parties at students' houses, too.  Because one of the things I found important as a theatre teacher was to try to mend relationships between the students adopting me and their real parents.  Mary Poppins, if you will.  A lot of Mary Poppins.

Like my own professors, as the adult I was hyperaware of having multiple students around if I was stuck being the only adult at rehearsal.  I valued those huge windows that anyone could see in when there were one-on-one sessions with students who needed to run their latest life crisis past me.  When I was moved to another classroom without those windows, a teacher buddy and I always let each other know if a student needed a one-on-one, and we'd leave the door slightly ajar and keep an ear out for each other.

As students grew into young adults in college, and still communicating with their parents in the days before cell phones, I did give the occasional ride in my car to get a student to rehearsal.  And once, as I was out for a late-night drive to clear my head, I stopped and made a female theatre student of mine who was wandering around in the freezing cold at 11 PM get into my car so I could drive her the two miles home, rules be damned, because I wasn't leaving my student out in the cold.  And besides, I told her mom.

Childproofing for Teenagers

It's interesting: as the teenager and young woman, all I knew from my male mentors was that I was safe.  I didn't give much thought to this teacher's wife gardening in the back yard while my best friend, our teacher and myself sat around his dining table and discussed poetry.  I didn't give much thought to the fact that there were three of us at yearbook camp with our male teacher, or that we all had separate places to sleep.  Things were set up in a safe way, and these were safe men.

As the mentor, though, I was constantly aware of childproofing the relationship.  When we decided to give upper body "tattoos" to the fairies for A Midsummer Night's Dream, I handed off the job to my sister who's an artist.  However, when several male actors needed to have special make-up - including malaria - for South Pacific, it actually was safer to have me help them out in the crowded dressing room than hand it off to the randy, giggling, star-struck tween girls.  There was a lot of communication with parents: bringing them backstage, bringing them into the process.  Transparency was key.  Being an example was key.  As was one more element, because as the saying goes...

It Takes a Village

Ultimately, if you want to change the culture, you need to be the example you want to see in the culture.  Without saying a word, or shaming me, or making me feel like a legal threat to them, my male mentors invited me not into their private dressing rooms, or offices, or what not...instead, they truly invited me into their lives.  They invited me into their society, and let me have a place at the table.  There was safety, because their own lives were full of family, colleagues, and interesting people full of interesting ideas.

This wasn't Mike Pence's pejorative rule that promotes an "old boy's network," but instead these good men exampled right relation and community.  They expected me to be able to hold my own as a student among adults.  They lived lives that had nothing to hide and could be examined.  They may not have asked a village to raise me but instead they gave me a world.  All without saying a word.  No mansplaining to be found.  (Although a lot of Socratic questioning!)

As news keeps pouring out, as it did during the priest scandals, of men abusing their positions of power, of pedophilia and assault, of mentors like Israel Horovitz, Charlie Rose, and Dustin Hoffman abusing the very women they were ostensibly raising up, my heart is filled not only with anger but with blind rage.  As I find "good men" tsking and supporting the other side of misogyny that is the Mike Pence rule which has kept me from many a job myself, I find myself scowling and hating and unhelpfully generalizing about men.

Therefore, I write this all to remind me, to paraphrase Samwise Gamgee, that there are good men in this world, and they're worth fighting for.  But even more, I think they're worth raising: in spirits, in expectation, in accountability, in kindness.

And Blogs To Go Before I Sleep

I have considerably more to write about this topic of toxic masculinity.  And I will be writing it in the days to come.  But I wanted to begin with what we're aiming for, rather than what we're destroying.  Because any revolution - be it sexual or civil - is no good, since it must inevitably revolve to where the mess began.  But to work towards something, to know what you're fighting for: that is the way to do some good in this world.  And by God, I think it's worth doing.

UP NEXT: Defining "Toxic Masculinity"


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  1. Perseverance of the Saints (aka once saved always saved) is taught in scripture, and was commented on at length by the great reformers, who were, by the way, Europeans, not Americans. There's nothing uniquely American about it. I have no idea how you were able to come up with such a statement. Rest of the article is fabulous, by the way.


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