Column, Opinions

Embracing “Positive Masculinity”: Navigating Society’s Ever-Changing Expectations of Men

Discussing masculinity has become increasingly difficult. Terms such as “fragile” and “toxic” commonly precede masculinity. Criticisms of traditional masculinity have merit, but they often lack a proposed alternative. As a result, it is unclear to men what women, other men, and society expect of them.

The first question to ask is why masculinity is worth talking about in the first place. With our conceptions of gender constantly shifting, would we be better off scrapping the concept entirely and starting from square one?

I don’t think so.

While gender norms and our perception of masculinity have certainly evolved, the truth is that every human being is a composition of masculine and feminine traits. Men tend to skew toward masculine traits while women skew toward feminine traits due to both nature and nurture. 

This is not binding—you can be a feminine guy or a masculine girl if that is what you want. Nothing is stopping you. But in our pursuit of gender equality, it would be naive and idealistic to ignore the differing social expectations that both men and women exist within.

I talked to a variety of BC students—both friends and strangers—to get their take on whether or not the concept of masculinity should continue to exist:

“I think it’s just inherent in how people are,” Lindsay Meier, MCAS ’26, said. “I think [masculinity] can change how it surfaces in relationships … but I think that it’s always going to be there.”

“I think we should still use the language of masculinity and femininity because it’s the language that we have now,” Maureen Kelly, GMCAS ’24, said. “Maybe, at some point, those words and concepts will become obsolete. But it’s not something I think we can ignore.”

“I don’t think we should start from scratch,” Pepper Green, CSOM ’26, said. “But I think there needs to be a clear shift in how we view not just masculinity but femininity and how they intersect.”

These students all agree that voiding masculinity as a concept is not the solution. The issue is that the concept of masculinity means many different things to many different people.

Often, men find themselves walking a tightrope, attempting to balance the appropriate amount of masculinity. Men are encouraged to be vulnerable, but only in the proper context and in the right amounts. 

Let’s give an example. A common saying now is that it is “okay for men to cry.” And I believe that it is. Nevertheless, there are much stricter societal bounds for when and how it is okay for a man to cry.

If a girl received a terrible grade on an exam and started crying, little challenge would be posed to her feminine merit—she might simply be seen as emotional or over-achieving. A guy, however, would immediately invalidate his masculinity in the eyes of both men and women by crying in this situation. This perception is rooted in gender norms that equate masculinity with toughness and stoicism.

I am not telling men to start crying whenever they want. Instead, I am pointing out that society still has different expectations between male and female emotional expression.

There isn’t one group to blame for these impossible paradoxes of masculinity. The issue is that the conversation is always so negative—avoid this, avoid that. Instead of solely critiquing failures of male behavior in the context of “toxic masculinity,” we need to demonstrate a positive example of masculinity for young men.

I was blessed enough to have this example growing up. When I think of positive masculinity, I think of my dad. My dad is by no means a macho guy. He is not a thrill seeker, is very risk-averse, and didn’t let me do some of the things the other “cool” dads let their kids do.

As I matured, I saw my father as an exemplary model of masculinity, demonstrating profound respect for women not just in words but in deeds. He doesn’t ingenuously post about women’s rights online—he actively respects my mom and sister, includes many women on his professional team, and has never made a sexist joke. This conduct, while it might seem basic, deeply shaped how I view masculinity.

When I was around ten, I made a disrespectful comment to my mom. My mom was successful in her career before retiring when I was around five years old to spend more time with our family. It was a difficult decision, but it made sense for them then. I remember I said something like, “Thank you, Dad, specifically, because you are the one working to pay for this.” He made me apologize immediately. I will never forget him saying, “If your mother continued her career, she would have been as successful, if not more successful than I am now.” 

He taught me a critical lesson about positive masculinity: Act in accordance with your good intentions. It is not enough to say you believe something. You must act on it. 

“Masculinity is something that has been installed in our mind since we’ve been so young,” Curtis Idemudia, MCAS ’26, said.

As Idemudia emphasizes, conceptions of masculinity take shape at such a young age. As future fathers, we must lead by action. I owe that lesson to my dad. 

Balancing emotional stoicism and emotional expression is the second aspect of positive masculinity. Stoicism is “the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.” This can, however, lead to men internalizing anger, guilt, and other negative emotions. When this internalization happens in extremes, men can lash out in violence and commit terrible acts. Men must become comfortable lightening emotional burdens through their friends, family, and therapy.

On the other hand, healthy emotional stoicism is valuable. Learning to respond to anger, despair, and other negative emotions with grace and control is a necessity for men as they face life’s inevitable challenges. As a result, positive masculinity should balance emotional restraint with appropriate outlets for emotional expression.

The last aspect of positive masculinity is respect.

“I think my son would have to be a gentleman,” Hanna Hoffman, CSOM ’26, said. “And honestly, I would want that to look like the traditional model.”

Hoffman’s point shows the value of including aspects of traditional masculine stereotypes in our present-day outline of positive masculinity. If we abandon the traditional model of masculinity, we will also abandon expectations of courtesy and respect.

Respect in positive masculinity is a maxim. It isn’t selective to specific groups of people or situational. It is something men should bring to every interaction. To bring respect to any situation is easier said than done—I often fail to do so myself. But it is these instances of failure in which I fall short of what is expected of me as a man. 

So, in my opinion, positive masculinity has the following three characteristics:

  1. It is not enough to say you are virtuous. You must act in accordance with your virtues.
  2. Exhibit emotional control, but express your emotions through the proper outlets.
  3. Live with respect as a maxim.

These traits are not mutually exclusive with femininity. I believe associating these positive characteristics with masculinity can be beneficial to both men and women.

“What makes a good man and good woman really isn’t that different,” says Drew Keenan, MCAS ’25. “You really should just be a good person.”

Addressing and discussing gender expectations in 2024 can be challenging because people fear offending others. Avoiding the conversation, however, does not help. By offering a version of “positive masculinity,” I hope to encourage men and women to start a conversation and hold themselves and others to that standard. If we do, the world will undoubtedly be a better place.

March 24, 2024