Wrestling with Toxic Masculinity

I went to see Moulin Rouge on Broadway with Boy George as Harold Zidler yesterday, and then came home and watched the movie Iron Claw. I am having flashbacks to the 1980s and much like the movie Iron Claw, I am wrestling with experiences and programming around masculinity and just how toxic and wild the ride has been. I remember passionately declaring I did not like Boy George, not because I didn’t like Boy George, but because my life would be made a living hell by those around me if I didn’t. I find it to be therapeutic to sort through these emotions, gather my memories and feelings, and write them down to potentially rewire much of the programming I received in the 1970s and 1980s.

I wasn’t into wrestling and I didn’t have a domineering father. I had a series of boyfriends and stepfathers to contend with, and never knew my dad, so I think the masculine signals and programming I received were a mix of jumbled noise from television, movies, and the world around me. I remember when Culture Club rose to popularity, and despite the songs being catchy and ubiquitous, you knew as a young teenage man in a rural area that you could not signal any affection for the music or fashion, otherwise your life would be made miserable. I was straight, I couldn’t imagine what this would do to your reality if you actually were queer. It fucked me up so badly for a period of time I thought maybe I was actually gay.

I can say, looking confidently back from the age of 50, that the 1980s were a fucked up period of programming for young men. I am sure that every decade meets this definition, but damn the 1980s were brutal. I can see now how my fear of retribution by the kids around me manifested itself into a performance of hatred for Boy George. How confusing and reinforcing of self-hatred. I can see now how fear manifested itself into masculine confusion and toxicity in these moments, and resulted in WWE style performances in the hallways, lunchroom, and on the playground. I was skinny and weak, so never participated in physical performances, but it surely fed my love of knives, guns, and made my brain a rich environment for toxic masculine programming in the 1980s. I can’t tell if things would have been better or worse for me if I had grown up with more muscles.

I absolutely loved Moulin Rouge. The music and spectacle was soul nourishing. I loved to be able to see Boy George, and experience them singing “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”—even just the little bit they did. It is healing to be in New York City in 2024 experiencing Broadway musicals, despite the programming I received in 1984. I am confident in my sexuality at 50, and have wrestled with the majority of my masculinity issues. My wrestling was more about Boy George than it was about the Iron Claw, but the grip of toxic masculinity was the same I’d say. I purposefully write these stories on my blog knowing that male elders from my childhood occasionally accidentally read my blog, but I regularly shed tears thinking about the personal hell they live in because of the iron claw they are in the grip of. I don’t know how to help them see the sadness and misery they’ve signed themselves up for each day through regular reinforcement of their fears, anxieties, and insecurities.

Really, the antidote I feel is theater. Not in all the classic ways in which homophobic people will poke and make fun of plays and musicals. It is just the dancing, music, and nourishing joy they bring to you. People being themselves while pretending to be others. People explore very difficult as well as joyful subjects through song and dance. It really does a lot to reverse the programming and bring down the walls we put up. I know that many people on Facebook snicker every time I post a photo of the playbill and theater, as if I am bragging or flaunting my privilege. No, I am sincerely sharing my love of the theater and signaling the healing that is occurring in my life. I am sorry that you still live in such a rigid, deficient, and hard-done-by reality, that my theater joy doesn’t translate. It really is the answer that troubles us, and should be prescribed to every high schooler in the country, and then maybe, just maybe, someday we can do away with toxic masculinity, and our children can grow up more confident, loved, and able to love others.