He noted that I write a gentle masculinity into my male characters and that he really liked it. It took me aback. I was just writing a male character. I've been thinking about the comment for a long while now, and I have some things to say.
This gentleness in my male characters is not really something that I consciously write. I'm not trying to make a statement with it. I'm just writing male characters. It strikes me as odd that there'd be anything unusual about the way I write them, until I think about it.
A significant amount of writing featuring male protagonists are especially one dimensional - the heroic archetype; automatons of destiny. They kill people by the score, feeling nothing for the lives cut short. They do not doubt their actions as being anything other than true and righteous. They are never affected by the horror of what they have experienced in their lives. They never hurt. Their losses are usually just treated as affronts to their masculinity, rather than deeply felt tragedies.
These one-dimensional portrayals of men in fiction are as damaging as the idiotic one-dimensional portrayals of women, the animated lampshade in the story. It paints an untrue picture of when men are, and what masculinity means.
Perhaps I am indescribably fortunate with the men in my life. They are kind, gentle, loving, sometimes weirdly awkward, people, and none of that impacts their masculinity. I watch my friend with his new child, or my father with baby cousins, my uncle and his fantastic hugs and bright laughs... these are all men, engaging in soft, loving behaviours, and they're not any less manly for it.
In spite of what some people would want us to believe.
Many men are actually wonderful, whole humans, who love and laugh and cuddle. They hug, they hurt, they weep, they feel, they yearn. They're not archetypes. They're people.
The more a writer treats they're characters - of whatever gender - as people, the more compelling they are. For men, that includes acknowledging and representing their gentler side. Trust me, most men have one.
I'm now going to gush about The Last of Us again, because they do this so, so well.
But Sonia! you object. Joel from The Last of Us is the pinnacle of toxic masculine behaviours. I mean, he tortures people, for God's sake!
I agree. Joel is a walking poster-child for toxic masculinity most of the way through that game. But that is part of the beauty of this game and his character. When you see him, twenty years before the main game begins, he's a single father, whose interactions with his daughter melt the heart. It's the loss of that, and the horrors of trying to survive in a zombie apocalypse that create a cold, hard monster; the horrific beast toxicus masculinus. Throughout the game, you see Joel's hard shell slowly come apart to expose his gentler side.
There isn't much gentleness in dealing with the threats he faces, certainly. But with Ellie? By the end, uncaring Joel is gone, replaced by surrogate father Joel, and you bet he loves that sassy little girl he wound up travelling across the country with. He loves her enough to destroy the entire Fireflies operation to save her life.
It's not that Joel is a kick-arse dude that has me gushing about his character. It's his development from loving father, to (almost) heartless bastard, to loving father. It's the loving father figure that has captured people's hearts.
It's also important to note that Joel becoming that horrific, violent man is itself a direct result of everything he had been through. It was an emotional response, an armour he created for himself in an effort to protect his own heart from hurt. He didn't start out that way.
Joel suffers for the shit he's been through. He has nightmares. Part of that, you learn later, is a direct result of the things he's had to do to survive. It's affected him. And that's important to developing real, compelling characters.
Masculinity isn't unfeeling destruction. It isn't lust only, screw the mushy stuff. Men are not automatons to destiny.
Reading men as caricatures of (toxic) masculinity is dull. It would behoove any writer to remember that men are people, humans, with human feelings, and capacity for empathy and affection. To ignore the gentler side of men is a mistake.