Joss Whedon, Role Models, and Toxic Masculinity

I could say that becoming a father has made me more keenly aware of what a huge problem toxic masculinity is in our society. I could also say that it’s hard not to think about it given that our current president is the poster boy. But the reality is that it’s something I’ve battled with my entire life.

Here’s a tiny piece of why toxic masculinity is a problem.

It’s important to point out that there are a lot of reasons why the allegations against Joss Whedon are troublesome, but I’m going to focus on the thread that has hit closest to home to me. Because I think there are a lot of people like me – males of a certain age and with certain limited social skills – who are reacting to this theoretical news in a very specific way.

Calling Joss Whedon a role model might be overstating it, but for many of us he meant a lot. It’s not just that we connected with his work, it’s that he seemed like us: a sensitive nerd who didn’t fit the ideals of what a “real” man should be. This is a guy who would cry while writing scenes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is a guy who loved musicals. This is a guy who had kind of this quiet lisp when he talked and chose his words very carefully. And he found success doing something he loved.

I’m not going to say that’s unusual in a general sense, but it is in specifics. Bill Gates is certainly not boiling over with testosterone and he’s made a comfortable life for himself doing what he loves. But I don’t know that many people feel a creative and emotional connection to Gates’ creations. That component made Whedon different.

For that matter, the fact that Whedon seemingly wore his emotions on his sleeve made him different. Someone like Gates, for example, or even Zuckerberg seemed in control of their emotions. Whedon was a big ugly mess of feelings and he told us it was okay to be like that. He told us you could be happy without being a “real” man.

It would be easy to dismiss his importance to a certain segment of the population. And it’s easy to dismiss how meaningful that is. If you haven’t noticed what a problem men are in this country then you aren’t paying attention.

There’s a Twitter thread by a woman who paints faces for children. In the thread, she talks about how a little boy asked for a butterfly, but his parents wouldn’t let him get it because it wasn’t something a boy should get. They made him get a skull.

It’s a fucking butterfly. He’s a little boy.

Whedon should never have been framed as a feminist icon or even a champion of feminism. I don’t know that any man should ever be placed on a pedestal for being a feminist; that would be like celebrating people for not shitting themselves over the course of a day – it should be expected.

Whedon was a gateway figure, though, an easily accessible, unoffensive man who seemed to think that women should be treated just like men and went out of his way to make shows about them. At the very least, he was sending a better message into the TV world than the creators who had come before. He wasn’t so much improving anything for women, but he was trying to elevate men.

One of the key components in leveling the playing field is removing all the assholes from said field and the only way that’s going to happen is if we stop making more. We need to bring an end to “boys will be boys” and all the macho bullshit that has been fed to them their entire lives. And we need to make sure that those kids who are trying to be better don’t give up.

That’s what Whedon was. He told us that being emotional was a virtue. He told us to embrace who we really were and to treat others with respect. He told us that you could be a great man without being guided by your dick.

It was nice while it lasted.