In today’s thoughts on positive masculinity, we’re going to highlight some fictional characters who provide different ways to examine positive masculinity and toxic masculinity, along with the actors who portray them who live essentially decent lives. Now, the actors we’re going to feature are all human and currently alive. They have flaws and it’s possible that one day we’ll see their name in the headlines connected to some sort of scandal. This post is not to put these celebrities (or their characters) on a pedestal, but to provide role models you can discuss with your kids in relationship to how to be a good person. If you (or your kids) don’t like these specific role models, I hope that the points I make help you put things into words for your kids in other situations.
Steve Rogers—Chris Evans, Marvel Cinematic Universe (Captain America)
We’re going to start with Steve Rogers, the World War I-era kid who isn’t fit enough to qualify for the Army in a time that the US needed all the soldiers it could get. We’re specifically not talking about Captain America. It’s not healthy for anyone to compare themselves to unreachable goals, and those unreachable goals are a core challenge of toxic masculinity. So, we have a scrawny kid (who may or may not be a Polio survivor, based on his emaciated frame and other physical features common to Polio survivors) who desperately wants to serve his country. Normally, the drive to be part of the military is portrayed as a matter of machismo, proving that you’re “man enough” to be a soldier. For Rogers, however, it’s clear his motivation is to be of service.
Think back to the first Captain America movie, before he became a Super Soldier. There’s a scene that skirts the line between heartwarming and heartbreaking, and has callbacks as late in the MCU as Avengers Endgame. You probably know the line: “I can do this all day.” The first time Rogers delivers this line, he’s fighting someone much bigger and fightier than himself. It’s clear that he’s not saying this because he’s proving that he’s a “man,” though. Rogers, who can’t see a wrong go without justice, is standing up in a way that clearly says “Some things are worth fighting for,” and clearly not saying “Might is right.”
This humble desire to be of service is the hallmark of Rogers’ journey through the MCU. Whether it’s breaking from the country he loves to fight for freedom from opression in Civil War, or giving his shield to the Falcon in recognition that even heroes have to retire sometime, Rogers always demonstrates that he recognizes that teamwork, freedom, and doing the right thing no matter the cost are the hallmarks of being a good person.
The actor who portrays Steve Rogers in the MCU is almost as well known as his character. Chris Evans is also an almost unblemished representative of Hollywood positive masculinity. I say “almost” because of his famous mishap with a share of his camera roll on Instagram, which included an image of a penis. His initial response was a now-famous tweet saying, “Now that I have your attention…. VOTE Nov 3rd!!!” More importantly, his ongoing response to this incident is demonstrative of healthy masculine behavior. He never blames anyone else for the incident. He takes responsibility for it without deflecting or downplaying the event. “These things happen,” sounded to a lot of critics like downplaying, and drew some ire. But realistically, we have to remember that all humans make mistakes, and while puritans might be disgusted by the details of this accident, it’s fair to recognize that many people have things on their phones that (when taken out of context) could seem compromising, and that that doesn’t make one a bad role model.
On the specifically positive side, Evans is known throughout Hollywood as “the nicest guy.” Even his ex-girlfriend only has praise for him, and that says a LOT when we’re talking about how toxic Hollywood culture can be towards women. He’s also been known to visit various children’s hospitals both as himself and dressed as Captain America (fully decked out, shield and all) sometimes alone and sometimes with other co-stars. Little acts of service like this are a great way to show young men that they can make a big impact just by showing up, because you don’t have to be throwing a tank, jumping on a bomb, or being hit with an energy beam to show your strength. You just have to be present when people need you, and that can make all the difference in the world.
Obi-Wan Kenobi—Ewan McGregor, Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III
Obi-Wan might not seem like an obvious fit for this list, so we’ll go over the good and the bad. Obi-Wan was the first apprentice of Qui Gon Jin who basically gave up on training Obi-Wan as a priority in order to train Anakin, despite the explicit sanction of the Jedi Counsel. Right away, we see Obi-Wan implicated in a situation that is breaking the rules which he’s agreed to live by, but he does it out of loyalty to his master, not rebellion or direct dissent with the Counsel. After his master’s death, and his own knighting as a Jedi, Obi-Wan goes on to train Anakin with a flimsy you’re-going-to-do-it-anyhow handwave from the counsel. So, we see that Obi-Wan still respects the rules, looks for permission before acting, and then moves forward after getting permission. No my-way-or-the-highway bravado, no anarchy. He sees what he interprets as the best path, and he takes the steps to make it happen.
In his relationship with Anakin, as co-apprentice and then master, we see more examples of role model-worthy traits. He stands by his student, but he isn’t blind to his flaws (mostly). He knows his student is in love with Padme, though he shouldn’t be fostering that while training to be a Jedi, and he recognizes that the heart isn’t something that can always be controlled. Most importantly he does two critical things. He sees Anakin as a person who has faced a lot of hardship and is doing his best. He also believes in the essential goodness of Anakin. He is mistaken, in the end, but what makes it so sad when Anakin betrays him is that he deeply, truly, felt a connection with another man and felt empowered to live in that platonic space with him. Ultimately, when his choice is to do the right thing and take down the person he cares most about, he does it. It’s hard, and traumatic, but he does the good thing instead of the easy thing.
We are going to ignore the version of Obi-Wan who is portrayed by another actor, because in many ways they are completely different characters with the same name.
Ewan McGregor portrays the young version of Obi-Wan, and it is one of his most recognizable roles he’s played. He’s also fairly famous for his breakup with his wife after he was caught cheating on her with a woman he went on to be in a relationship with. Again, humans make mistakes, and being a celebrity doesn’t exempt you from that. I’m not saying that what he did was okay, or defending that. I am just pointing out that he is also a really good role model for vulnerability, affection, and chasing one’s dreams. We’re going to explore that through his series Long Way Up.
In Long Way Up, Ewan and his friend Charlie are pushing their limits with a followup series to Long Way Around and Long Way Down, this time going from the farthest southern tip of Chile to Los Angeles on electric motorcycles. It’s a great adventure series full of challenges, adventure, and palling around. It also features several things that young men should see more of in their media consumption.
- Emotional vulnerability. When they go through rough terrain, Ewan is open about his anxiety about the safety of his friend who has physical limitations that make the ride dangerous. He’s open with his friend and the camera, demonstrating the reality that men get afraid, too.
- Platonic intimacy. Ewan and Charlie are very close. They like to share deeply personal experiences with each other in a way most media only shows couples being close. They talk to each other about their emotions, and they think of each other’s needs as often as their own.
- Powerful women. I know, we’re talking about men here, but part of nurturing positive masculinity in our kids is recognizing the fundamental diversity of women. After all, there are masculine women, and they play a role in positive masculinity, too. In Long Way Up, Ewan and Charlie have to rely on female engineers to fix their technological problems, female officials and guides to help them navigate the international border crossings, and female scientists, teachers, and other experts to tell them about the cultures, scenery, and lifestyles available throughout South America and Central America.
- Weakness isn’t a failing. Multiple times, men succumb to something toxic masculinity would label as a “weakness” and equate it with “failure.” People get hurt, get elevation sickness, and suffer from extreme weather affects, and every man in the show responds with a natural empathy and compassion that speaks volumes in vein of positive masculinity.
Terry Jeffords—Terry Crews, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Terry Jeffords is a dynamic, loud, and sometimes unpredictable character. He is well-written, well-acted, and well-received. I’m sure there are moments in the show where he isn’t a shining paragon of positive masculinity, but I’m featuring him because of the constant traits he embodies. Jeffords is portrayed as a Lieutenant who has lost his edge, but we learn that it’s not because he’s a “wimp” or “loser,” but because he has two baby daughters and he’s afraid to leave them without a father. He’s also deeply empathetic, with a powerful respect for the lives of others. He looks and acts like a M-A-N; he is ripped, bald, and a Lieutenant of a police precinct. He’s also consistently vulnerable and open about his childhood trauma, eating disorder, and the ups and downs of his romantic life.
Jeffords had an abusive father, and he turned that into being an attentive father. He was bullied by other kids, and became a public servant. He lost his first love, and went on to be a loving partner for his wife. He had a severe weight and eating problem that earned him the nickname “Terry Titties,” and went on to have a healthy relationship with food and his own body. The only downside is that Terry often feels uncomfortable sharing his emotions, even when he’s willing to be open and vulnerable. He addresses this by talking about his emotions in the third person, rather than owning them himself. It’s a great oppurtunity to talk to your kids about how even someone who is so powerful, successful, and healthy can still be so insecure about being open, even when they know that it is safe to be vulnerable. Finally, he is always the first person to jump in to help people with their problems, even if they don’t affect him in any way.
Terry Crews is a wonderful man, who has taken great steps in the world of advocacy and representation. He was a huge name in the #MeToo movement, discussing his own experiences as well as those of people he cares about. After he was sexually assaulted by a talent agent, he doubled down, filed a lawsuit, and continually demanded accountability for the man’s actions. Vitally: He never made it a homophobic incident. He framed it as a situation where consent was required but not given, and that he was looking for accountability, not vengeance. It wasn’t that a “man” had touched him. It was that someone without consent had touched him.
Another important contribution to positive masculinity is Crews’ participation in racial equality talks. He repeatedly maintains that White supremacy (emphasis his) is something that has to be defeated with White people’s participation. He repeatedly demonstrates an understanding of the multifaceted challenges America faces in racial justice issues, and he speaks up. The most notable part is that Crews holds his ground, even when he faces criticism. If his ideas or ideals were far-fetched, unreasonable, or unobtainable, I’d be shaking my head at his being over-zealous, but his points are cogent, coherent, and completely achievable. White people simply have to be part of the transformation of the racial justice landscape, and his many talking points in that vein are generally laudable as well.
Alexander Hamilton—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton is our example of what not to do. Hamilton, as a production, is an example of brutal honesty (and consequences) more than anything. Instead of sugar-coating the deeds of a Founding Father, Miranda tells a fictionalized version of Hamilton, including his flaws, mistakes, and regrets. The production doesn’t celebrate Hamilton’s pride, cheating, or his double-dealing politics. Instead, it shows the growth of a man who learned some hard lessons, including the fact that apologizing or explaining doesn’t remove the consequences of your actions. Hamilton makes big mistakes, faces big consequences, and has a life that is memorable for those things. He also had great successes, but those are bylines and secondary to the story. Most of his successes are only celebrated during the finale, after Hamilton himself has died. Because Hamilton, as a character, is so deeply flawed, it gives us lots of fodder for talking to kids about ambition, pride, arrogance, pretentiousness, and other vices that accompany toxic masculinity. It also has direct and explicit consequences for the actions Hamilton takes that are just bad decisions, like sleeping with another woman or double-dealing in politics.
The creator of Hamilton could not be more different from the titular character of his most lucrative work. Min-Manuel is sweet, emotional, charming, kind, and he dotes on his wife. He’s also massively creative, as he is a celebrated actor, writer, singer, freestyle rap artist, and composer. His list of titles on IMDB is staggering, and he has worked on properties from Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns to Clayton’s Friends in 1996. Perhaps my favorite thing about him, though, is his ability to pierce walls people think are closed. If you had been asked 15 years ago if a middle-aged Puerto Rican guy could play a teenage Alexander Hamilton in a musical composed almost entirely of rap, you probably would have laughed, said, “no,” and never thought about it again. Barriers are meant to be broken, and Miranda is an icon in that regard.
Lin-Manuel is an excellent role model for positive masculinity for kids who share any of those characteristics (or dont’!) and need to see that people who dream big can make it big without dog-eat-dog tactics or severe bravado. He has been open in interviews about how he’s the more sentimental and lovey-dovey person in his marriage, and that his wife is often more practical than his whimsical self. He’s also still star-struck when he meets a new celebrity, and is wonderfully humble in his many appearances and interviews. Finally, he’s a staunch advocate for gay rights, even going so far as to rap about marriage equality while receiving an award for his work.
More Coming Soon
We’re going to cover more examples of both toxic masculinity and positive masculinity, so if there’s something you’d like to see us unpack, let us know in the comments. And don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be celebrities and high profile people. Whether it’s a comic book villain with a complicated relationship with his masculinity or a trans man facing criticism for not acting “like a man”, we want to help people understand the far-reaching implications of toxic masculinity, and we’re interested in the places you see toxic masculinity and positive masculinity.