Profiles in Positive Masculinity: DeRay Mckesson

I think that these profiles have been a little celebrity-heavy lately, and one of my goals is to focus on an attainable idea of positive masculinity. The problem being, of course, that it is hard to find non-celebrities who are people everyone knows about, or who I can describe in a brief blog post if they aren’t widely known.

One person who came to mind is DeRay Mckesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement who has been on TV a lot but was a community activist first, and only became something of a celebrity because of the political situation in the United States. A community organizer even as a teenager, he ended up being a school administrator, before quitting his job to move to St. Louis. He had been spending all of his free time working with people in Ferguson, MO, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

First, here’s a manly image of Mckesson, one of many times he was arrested in Ferguson (and Baton Rouge, and other places):

Mckesson didn’t start the Black Lives Matter movement (three women were the originators: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi), but he did quit his job to move to the Ferguson area full-time as an activist and leader. He brought to the Ferguson movement a lot of skill with social media and communication, and rose to a position of visibility. He is one of the go-to voices and faces of BLM in the media because of what he has written and what he has risked.

I like what I know of his story, because what he has done is something that anyone could potentially do. Mckesson is not (to my knowledge) a world-class athlete; didn’t come from a prominent, wealthy family; he isn’t a celebrity in some other area who is lending his face and name to BLM. He didn’t strike it rich or have a particular string of luck – I mean, he is partly well-known because of how often he’s been arrested, and that’s not something anyone enjoys. He’s also not some kind of Everyman, but in his passion and commitment I think we can see the best of ourselves.

Black Lives Matter, and I support that movement, because I see it as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, which has been ongoing for generations now. DeRay Mckesson’s words and actions also matter, and the relationships he has built matter, and his arrests matter. His struggle matters and his suffering matters, and through him, we are able to get a window into a whole movement. Anyone who gives themselves to a cause can matter in these ways, and one thing he does is show us that. Anyone can fight for what’s right, and one doesn’t have to hurt anyone, or threaten to hurt, or have a lot of political clout.

For showing us what commitment to a nonviolent struggle, and integrity, and eloquence can do, even for those who don’t come into the world with any particular advantage, DeRay Mckesson is our Profile in Positive Masculinity.

Positive Masculinity Moment: No Means No in Kenya

This cool video came up in my Twitter feed, and I thought, hey, that’s positive masculinity right there:

The group is what the video shows – here’s a link to the full website for No Means No in Kenya. If you have time, check out the other things that Ujamaa does.

What I like about this program is that it is addressing both boys and girls, in somewhat different ways, but with the same basic idea: fight for yourself and fight for other people. I like the excitement on the little boys’ faces when they think of themselves as potentially heroic.

I think that fighting is probably part of masculinity, but it’s like with the Mouse Guard: it’s not what you fight, but what (or whom) you fight for. I know that was a leap from No Means No in Kenya, but I like Mouse Guard.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Edit: I got some good critiques on this profile that are worth thinking about. I’m going to leave it up, as I think the conversation itself is good to have. If you want to read where I’m seeing these critiques, check out this thread on Reddit

Sometimes you have to just turn masculinity up to 11, and when you do, you create Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I’d go ahead and say that there can be no reasonable measure of masculinity, no masculinity scale, that doesn’t at least include The Rock, and I imagine he’d be at or near the top of any of them. But what about his masculinity is positive, in light of the other men we’ve looked at?

I’m pretty sure there is no photo in which Dwayne Johnson does not look masculine, so here is a photo of Dwayne Johnson from his Wikipedia page:

Dwayne Johnson 2, 2013.jpg

He looks a little bit tired, and I can’t blame him. One thing about The Rock that you pretty much can’t question is that he works his ass off. If you follow him on social media, you will find that he is up at like 4:30am every morning to go work out like a maniac, despite not going to bed until around midnight a lot of the time. It’s hard to hate a guy for succeeding when he keeps a schedule like that, day in and day out.

There is even a Rock Clock app he’s developed that helps you set goals, and you can sync the app to The Rock’s own alarm clock and try to get up when he does. Good luck with that, by the way. Project Rock is what he’s calling his foray into being a motivational professional, and while I find these kinds of things to be irreducibly hokey, it seems like Johnson is excited about helping people achieve their goals, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For a superstar, he seems to be very engaged with his fanbase. It’s one of the reasons he has nearly 100 million followers on Instagram. He set the Guiness World Record for selfies at the opening of San Andreas, taking over 100 in just 3 minutes with his fans. He also founded the Dwayne Johnson Rock Foundation, a charity working with terminally ill children, and made the largest-ever donation from an alumnus to the University of Miami athletics department. He was granted a noble title by the Samoan government for his, and his family’s, contributions to that country.

For showing how epic victory can come from epic dedication and hard work (and freak genes as a third-generation professional wrestler), for remaining connected to fans even when he is a multi-millionaire movie star, and for wanting to use what he’s achieved to inspire others, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

P.S. He’s Also Problematic

I tend to focus on the positives when presenting these profiles, but it’s been pointed out that this is still a one-sided way of presenting each of these people. My goal is to be pithy, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the other side of the proverbial coin.

In The Rock’s case, there are two problematic things that were pointed out, both of which I was aware of if I had thought the issue through and written about it. One is that The Rock presents an unattainable physicality. There’s almost no doubt he is augmenting himself with at least a plethora of supplements, and maybe more. If he really does get 4.5 hours of sleep a night, he has a one-way ticket to early stage dementia and a host of other problems related to a lack of sleep.

He also has a long history of smack-talk from his wrestling days, including using “hermaphrodite” as an insult. Clearly, that’s a bigoted thing to say as an insult. Now we’d maybe call it intersex-phobic. If anyone can find an instance of him apologizing for using that kind of language, let me know, because he certainly should. 

I still think we can learn about positive masculinity from Dwayne Johnson, but that hardly means he’s perfect.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Demetrius Johnson

Image result for demetrius johnson

Above is a manly picture of Demetrius Jonson, the first and so far only Flyweight Champion of the UFC. At only 5’3”, he fights at 125 pounds, but I can say with confidence that for 99.99% of the people reading this, “Mighty Mouse” would knock you unconscious, or choke you unconscious, without breaking a sweat.

In fact, that number may very well be 100%. Demetrius Johnson is near the top, if not at the top, of most lists of greatest fighters, pound-for-pound (meaning comparing all weight classes) of all time. (He is at the top of the official UFC rankings and also Sherdog’s #1 in the world) He is a master of multiple martial arts, and a master of combining those martial arts with blinding speed and near-perfect technique. Here’s a highlight reel that gives you an idea:

So, what kind of person would you expect to be a fighting machine? Some kind of alpha-male dude-bro maybe. Someone with a chip on his shoulder and a criminal record who lives a life of excess and thrill-seeking behavior.

In stark contrast, here is what Demetrius Johnson does when he’s between training camps or in recovery:

https://www.twitch.tv/mightymouseufc125

Yup, that’s a Twitch stream. This master of world-class ass-kicking is a gaming nerd. He’s also seemingly quite a family man, with his wife, Destiny, and two small children. He had a tough upbringing, born premature and raised in an abusive household, but he has also worked hard to overcome that beginning, and has seemingly reached the pinnacle of his chosen endeavor. Which, again, is fighting other men in a cage.

For comparison, I think of Jon Jones, the current Light Heavyweight Champion of the UFC and another incredibly talented martial artist. He’s up there next to Johnson on the pound-for-pound lists. But in contrast to Johnson, Jones has had multiple issues with illegal drugs, banned performance-enhancing substances, a hit-and-run accident, and a lot of behavior that has hurt himself and those around him. Meanwhile, Johnson hangs out with his family and plays video games and is a clean fighter who lives a clean life.

For his toughness (he has fought with multiple broken limbs over the course of his career), devotion to his family, enjoyment of hobbies that are not usually associated with a fighter’s life, as well as avoiding the many moral pitfalls that come with fame in an ultra-masculine environment, Demetrius Johnson is this week’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity So Far

Manly Men We’ve Covered So Far

We’ve had nine Profiles in Positive Masculinity so far, and I continue to enjoy the little bits of research. I think it’s very worthwhile to be constructive with regard to masculinity – not instead of deconstructive, but rather, to have something worthwhile left over. Popular culture continues not to really offer a positive alternative to toxic masculinity on the one hand and…nothing on the other hand, except agreement that toxic masculinity is bad.

Here is the list of scions of positive masculinity that I have discussed so far, with links in case you missed any and are curious. I’ve gotten some feedback, including encouragement as well as challenge, which has been helpful as I organize my thoughts and choose whom to profile. And don’t worry, we have plenty more coming!

Michael Forbes, who showed more backbone than the entirety of the US Republican Party

Justin Trudeau, who solved the puzzle of the Trump handshake

Nick Offerman, sawdust-covered oracle of self-reliance

Jimmy Carter, the nonagenarian former US President who will probably die with a hammer in his hand

Common, maintaining his moral compass as a hip-hop artist

Aziz Ansari, comedian, actor, writer, director

Newt Scamander – here I just shared a cool video about one of the heroes of Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them

Neil deGrasse Tyson, science educator and actual heavyweight wrestler

Mister Rogers, who deserves the title “Saint” if anyone ever has

What I’ve Learned So Far

I don’t have a standing theory, or thesis, on what precisely positive masculinity is. Just the strong intuition that if there is toxic masculinity, there must be positive masculinity that exists in contrast to that. It can’t just be rapist dude-bros on the one hand and a silent mass on the other. Right?

So, what is common among these men, in my view? Not to be an exhaustive list, but as I go back over what I’ve written and thought about and learned, these are things that come to the forefront.

Strength

Strength could come in many different forms, but I think that part of positive masculinity is some kind of strength. It could be physical strength, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, or moral strength, like Mister Rogers or Jimmy Carter. Part of this strength is courage, since a person has to be there in the moment in order to bring their strength to bear.

Integrity

Not all of you who have been following along have liked all of my choices, which is not surprising. But I think it is fair to say that each of these men is very much themselves. They have a strong sense of identity, and uphold a particular set of values, and you don’t have to look at them for very long to figure out what they are doing with their lives. Some of them ignore outside pressures to do what they think is right, while others simply have lives that hang together over the long-term.

Creativity/Making

Each of my examples of positive masculinity are makers. Common makes music, Aziz Ansari makes a television show, as did Mister Rogers. I’m not sure Justin Trudeau is a maker in the same sense, but I would argue that some creativity comes through in how he has governed as Prime Minister. Michael Forbes is a farmer; Nick Offerman makes beautiful canoes. And so on.

So then, for now, maybe positive masculinity is being strong, being yourself, and contributing something beautiful or useful (or both) to the world.

We’ll see what the next crop of many folks adds to this list…

What would you list as aspects of positive masculinity? What have you noticed that I missed? Feel free to comment. 

Edit: Had a friend point out something I had missed – an attribute of positive masculinity as I am looking at it. That attribute is a commitment to make the world around them a better place. Each of these men, in their own way, is speaking out and/or taking action to make other people’s lives better. That’s a crucial attribute of positive masculinity, I think, and it definitely goes on the list with strength, integrity and creativity/making.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Mister Rogers

Rev. Fred Rogers is one of the greatest people who has ever lived. Before I get into a few reasons why I believe that, here is a manly picture of Mister Rogers testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications:

No, he isn’t tearing a telephone book in half or bench-pressing a bunch of weight, but do you have the courage to testify before the Senate because of what you believe? The story behind this image, and event, is amazing, as Fred Rogers did a huge amount to sway a Congressional committee and save PBS’s budget. He does this the same way he does everything – through the kind of gentle persistence that lets water cut through stone:

It is an easy thing, to confuse gentleness with weakness. And there was certainly nothing about Fred Rogers that cut a traditionally masculine figure – singing while he changed into loafers on TV; wearing sweaters his mother knitted for him; playing make-believe with puppets. His was a kind of strength you could only see over time – the strength of integrity, of consistency of vision and character.

Not only was Fred Rogers committed to improving the lives of children, he was committed to speak unflinchingly to those children about topics that most parents shy away from with their own kids. He spoke to children about death, and grief, and war, and divorce, in the same voice he spoke about what a postal worker is, or what various characters were up to in the Land of Make-Believe. I challenge anyone, man or woman, to do that, on national television, for decades.

Children sense fear and hesitation. They can often sniff out a fraud much more quickly than adults can, though they probably can’t articulate what it is that they’re seeing. When a child falls to the ground, she will often look up at an adult she trusts before she decides whether to cry or not. She can see, immediately, in the adult’s face if what happened is serious or not. And if the adult is fearful, then the child assumes something bad happened and they cry. If the adult is calm, then the child often just gets up and keeps playing.

Now try doing that with millions of children you can’t even see.

Gentle, constant pressure can leave a deep mark on the world. Fred Rogers ended his life living for the same values that shaped his career from the very beginning. He fought, in his own quiet and relentless way, for a better world. He made his own life about making the lives of others better. He ennobled others; reminded them, reminded us, of our better selves.

His ideas and his convictions are still as radical today as they were when he was alive, when his show was being watched by millions of children. The idea that people are of immeasurable value, in and of themselves, totally apart from how others view them, or how they have been treated, or whether they are good consumers, or good workers – we still do not understand what Mister Rogers understood.

We are still not the people he believed we could be.

For demonstrating, over the course of his life, the power that lies in gentleness and patience, Rev. Fred Rogers is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.