Medcalf: Rethinking masculinity for the next generation

·4 min read

When I asked James Chadwick, a local therapist, about the consequences of men failing to address our collective emotional intelligence and challenges with vulnerability, he paused.

"It's really scary," said Chadwick, a licensed independent clinical social worker who specializes in sexuality and relationships at the Sexual Wellness Institute and Radiant Living Therapy in Plymouth.

Every day, men come into his office and seek help to understand who they are now and to view masculinity as something that's unlike the version many of us learned through 1990s action movies and the men we knew in our youth. The damage of those toxic views is not difficult to see.

Today, men in their 30s, 40s and 50s have become celebrities by peddling sexism and trafficking in misogyny. They have decided to fuel the false notion that men are under attack. They think about these things on the way back to their cul de sacs, and they pass those ideas to teenagers and men in their 20s.

I don't connect with those dudes.

The men in my circle talk about therapy and growth and generational trauma and a desire to evolve. But I do think I am culpable in what ails the next generation of young men. I think we've failed to address the pitfalls of a problematic definition of masculinity and its impact on those who've turned toughness and apathy into violence and destruction.

I think the young men who occupy our headlines because of shootings and killings believe they have achieved some ultimate level of manliness, a willingness to eliminate another human being and the dominance attached to that. Their philosophies on masculinity are corrupted. We are their teachers.

I know men who live paycheck to paycheck, and I know men with private jets. The bond between them is a constant need to win. Too often, our perception of our value is based on the number of wins we attain. That desire to gain power and to do what so many of us think a real man must do to matter — if left unchecked — is the seed of abuse, mistreatment, the devaluing and objectifying of women, anger and violence. Too many of us pass that on to our sons, nephews, neighbors, the athletes we coach and the young men in our communities. That's dangerous.

I only speak what I know.

During one practice my freshman year on the football team at Minnesota State University, Mankato, I ran down the field, lowered my head and planted my helmet into the chest of a cornerback who tried to tackle me. He flew back. I yelled and I screamed because I had just defeated another man. I felt powerful and unstoppable.

A few weeks later on that same field, I took an awkward hit and shattered my jaw, which was then wired shut for six weeks. I lost 40 pounds and every ounce of muscle I'd worked so hard to attain. I'd felt so powerful only a few days before that incident. And then, I felt weak and irrelevant.

That transition, in just a few weeks, changed me. It damaged my self-confidence and I think, in the years that followed, made me feel as if I could never be that vulnerable again, that helpless, so I fought to make sure I could thrive — alone — even if things fell apart again. I then lived to protect the qualities — perseverance, strength, focus — I believed a man should possess. I know the people around me at the time were affected by that naivety.

I wish I'd known then about the beauty of vulnerability and not being OK and asking for help. Many of Chadwick's clients come to his office after reaching that same juncture in their lives.

"I think at the core of it vulnerability is pretty antithetical to toxic masculinity and this idea that I can't be vulnerable or 'vulnerability is a weakness and people would exploit that, it's my way or the highway,' " Chadwick said. "I absolutely see that working with men of all ages. And it can definitely be more pronounced on the age continuum. I do see that breaking down and shifting with the younger generation, but it's still there."

I commend every person who has committed their energy to ending violence among the population most susceptible to partaking in it: young men. There are mentorship groups and activists. There are politicians pushing for change, especially with our gun laws, and teachers creating curriculums to shape the next generation. There are places of worship doing their part, too. There are therapists and other mental health workers who've also devoted their lives to that demographic.

It is one of the most important efforts of our time.

Altering the perception of masculinity among our young men, I think, would contribute to their cause.

"There is still very pervasive misogyny," Chadwick said. "There is still a lot of violence. There is still a lot of emotional stoicism and either unwillingness, inability or refusal to tap into vulnerability that I think can characterize toxic masculinity."

Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.