Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Neil deGrasse Tyson

I thought it would be interesting to use, as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s manly picture, an image that he brought up while being interviewed by Joe Rogan (as well as in other instances) from his time as a heavyweight college wrestler:

…in part because I don’t necessarily think of Tyson as…swole. But there you have it. He was an undefeated wrestler and team captain in high school, and went on to wrestle as an undergraduate at Harvard. On the list of astrophysicists you wouldn’t want to fight, Tyson is probably at the top. He may also be the only name on that list.

But it’s been a while since he last wrestled. Obviously, I need to look at Tyson as a scientist, educator and public figure, and for the purposes of this profile, I’ll be looking at the second two.

He founded the Department of Astrophysics at the Museum of Natural History in NYC in 1997, and has had his position as director of the Hayden Planetarium since 1996. He visited the Planetarium as a kid, and that visit was a big part of what got him initially interested in astronomy and astrophysics. Neil deGrasse Tyson is gifted with an amazing voice and eloquent mind, and he was an excellent choice to take over as the personality behind the remake of Cosmos, following in Carl Sagan’s footsteps. He is an effective communicator and educator, with that combination of presence and his enthusiasm for what he has to teach that makes a person compelling.

Tyson has become a public figure primarily through debates over science and religion over the course of the past decade or so. I’ve watched him in debates a number of times, and one thing that stands out to me is that he doesn’t take crap from anyone. He isn’t acerbic or self-absorbed or unnecessarily harsh; he is direct and clear and uncompromising. He is able to acknowledge and speak about what some might call the spirituality of science without leaving room for anything he feels lacks sufficient evidence to justify belief. That is, he can talk about the numinous without having to refer to the divine, nor even leave grey area where others might want to reference god or the supernatural. For Tyson, the natural is more than enough.

For being uncompromising while remaining gracious, for serving as an example of more than one kind of strength, and for being someone who has become a public figure because of his intelligence, eloquence, and integrity, Neil deGrasse Tyson is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Aziz Ansari

It seems appropriate, having just binge-watched Master of None Season 2 (which I cannot recommend enough), that I should present the second requested Profile in Positive Masculinity: Aziz Ansari. First, a manly picture of Aziz:

Image result for aziz ansari

Complete with pocket squerr.

I first found out who Aziz Ansari was while falling in love with Parks and Recreation, a show that featured another masculine phronemos, Nick Offerman. (And yeah, there’s a decent chance Chris Pratt will show up in one of these too someday) Like the other main characters in Parks and Rec, Ansari plays an exaggerated version of himself: a perennially stylish hype-man who works incredibly hard at goofy projects throughout the series. Somewhat like his character Tom Haverford, Ansari wears many hats: author, stand-up comedian, actor, director and producer. He even does occasional charity work…

When I think of Aziz Ansari, I think of style. He is a very fashion-conscious person, which despite being a fat slob myself, I respect. He puts a lot of thought into how he comes across, and always seems deliberate in what he says and does. He’s also highly creative and hardworking – amidst his work on television and in film, he has remained active in stand-up for the past decade and a half, releasing multiple comedy specials and headlining more than one tour. But what stays with me is his intentionality.

Master of None is one of the few shows I’ve ever seen that doesn’t address masculinity by vapidly playing to stereotypes. His character, Dev, is not plagued by insecurities about his masculinity. Humorously, he’s the sort of person who would be uninterested in the conversation I’m trying to have through these blog posts. He never questions himself in that way, nor does he do anything to make himself more masculine. He’s a small-statured guy with an enormous best friend Arnold, and the two of them are more interested in brunch than working out. They have this great un-self-conscious friendship. Neither one of them seems to have any trouble meeting or talking to women – rather, then issues that come up for them are in maintaining relationships, understanding themselves, and understanding others. Regular human stuff.

So many other story-lines are driven by male anxieties – anxieties around (ahem) size, strength, sexuality, how others perceive them, daddy issues and so on. These stereotypical anxieties drive a lot of character actions and relationships, and a common crutch for humor; a cheap shortcut to get the attention of viewers, and star-writer-director Ansari has none of it. One can only assume that, since Master of None originates primarily in his mind, it reflects a lot of what Aziz Ansari is about. And perhaps for this lack of masculine anxiety, more than anything else, Aziz Ansari is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Common

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
 – Jay Z, Moment of Clarity

It was rightly pointed out to me on Facebook that this series would have to address hip-hop. I don’t think there’s a doubt that it is the musical genre that is most concerned with demonstrations of masculinity, and there has always been plenty of hip-hop that…ain’t feminist. Even positive hip-hop can include problematic lyrics. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, but I have been a fan for longer than my adult life. It wasn’t hard to think of someone I’d like to take a closer look at in terms of positive masculinity: Common.

In seeking a manly image of Common, I had way too many to choose from, but so many shots were from photo-shoots or from a public, red-carpet event. I wanted something that at least seemed candid, so here you go:

Related image

There he is looking vaguely annoyed that someone was taking a picture of him.

I was excited to find that Spotify had Common’s albums all the way back to Can I Borrow A Dollar, from 1992, so I had a listen. I was 12 when this came out, so I hadn’t heard it before. But the funk-backed, clever lyrics are immediately recognizable. (Interestingly, only 5 of the 13 tracks are marked as Explicit.) He name-drops the villain of Super Mario Bros., so the nerdiness is there too. “Heidi Ho” is pretty awful, but you’ve gotta start somewhere. I think at this stage, Common was still “underground” – he hadn’t made it big, at any rate. His next album, 1994’s Resurrection, includes the first Common song I remember hearing: “I Used To Love H.E.R.” A long way from “Heidi Ho” already. His first big album, as I understand it, was One Day It’ll All Make Sense. And here we clearly have a rapper coming into his full powers. A little less fast-talking for its own sake, smarter lyrics, and deeper funk beats. 20 years old, and it holds up in my opinion.

Anyway, this isn’t a Common music retrospective. I’m under-qualified, though the “research” would be fun. Rather, this is profiles in positive masculinity. Now, Common has been involved in his share of stupid nonsense. He had a beef with Ice Cube in the 90s and more recently with Drake, though shots exchanged never went beyond diss tracks. But for me, Common stands out in general as a positive voice in hip-hop. I don’t think he went down either easy path in the genre: becoming primarily a safe rapper who avoids controversial topics, or a hard rapper who turns machismo up to 11. He seems to be someone who tries to contribute to the world through his music, who is aware of his potential to be a role-model, while still remaining relevant in a music genre that for some people is (wrongly) synonymous with misogyny.

He speaks out about racism, injustice and inequality, avoids most of the pit-falls of his genre, and at the same time has remained a significant figure in music for 20 years. He’s brains-over-brawn, though not without brawn, and I think a person could listen to his music and learn something. If he was harder, or softer, he would probably be more successful, but in listening through a few tracks each of his last 25 years of albums, he’s remained true to himself to an amazing degree. Intelligent, socially conscious, and plenty of funk.

Outside of his music and acting, he has also been an activist for some time. He has worked on behalf of PETA, of HIV/AIDS awareness and testing, and founded the Common Ground Foundation to help youth in poverty, among other things. 10 years ago he pledged not to use anti-gay lyrics anymore, which is progressive for hip-hop (and frankly for 2007, though things were turning).

It’s hard to remain relevant in pop music for 20 years. Who else from 20 years ago is still rapping and hitting the Billboard 100 in 2015? Even harder than remaining relevant for 20 years is remaining positive for that long. Using one’s art to try and make the world a better place. In a genre that is, let’s be honest, known for exhibiting many aspects of toxic masculinity, Common has shown both excellence and character, and he is today’s profile in positive masculinity.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Jimmy Carter

Similar to my profile of Justin Trudeau, this is not about who James Earl Carter Jr. was as President of the United States. I’m more interested in someone who can maintain their integrity, even having risen to the highest position in the most powerful nation on Earth. (Or at least one of the two most powerful, since we’re talking about the 70s.) Before we go on, though, we need a manly picture of former President Carter:

Image result for jimmy carter building a house

The way that we structure power in most societies rewards toxicity – aggression, deception, tribalism and so on. Politics is, and always has been, rife with controversy and corruption because there are a lot of harmful behaviors that are rewarded. Normally, political leaders are judged on a different moral scale when compared to the rest of us. We expect a certain background radiation of scandal and abuse of power. When we find hypocrisy, we think “Well, of course, this person is a politician.” What this means is that it is all that much more difficult, I think, to be a genuinely decent person who rises to power in a modern society. You are competing with people who will have advantages over you. It’s like being in a boxing match where everyone else can hit below the belt. If you become a champion under those circumstances, that is noteworthy on its own.

But what happens after you’ve risen to power? In Jimmy Carter’s case, what happened was that he returned to his peanut farm in Georgia. He wrote books and taught at Emory University. Most interesting to me, though, is that he has spent the last few decades working with Habitat for Humanity, working with his hands to build houses for the poor, and serving as a face for Habitat in the world.

I find it a compelling story, that someone like an ex-President, with so much potential power and influence, would choose to work with his hands. It is easy to see this as a mistake, as a waste of time. Couldn’t someone else build those houses? Why not do something like fundraising, which excites so many other politicians? Or be a highly-paid speaker? Cultivate wealthy friends and establish a philanthropic fund of some sort? Instead, he picked up a hammer and saw.

I like that Jimmy Carter has remained connected to simple things, despite having one of the most complex jobs on Earth for four years. Whatever one might think of his presidency, his life after the presidency says a lot about who he is. Justin Trudeau seems to be a highly effective liberal politician – more effective than Carter was, at least so far, and one who often remains true to his stated values. Nick Offerman is an incredible craftsman who builds genuinely beautiful things in his workshop, and a reflective person who has things to say about life and how to live it. Jimmy Carter just builds basic low-income houses. But of the three, Jimmy Carter is the one that inspires me the most. To rise to power, and then be cast down publicly, and then devote one’s life to helping others says a lot about who Carter is.

Of course it matters how someone uses power, but it also matters how someone reacts to the loss of power. His decisive loss to Reagan ended his political career. So what did he do? Among other things, he picked up a hammer and got to work, on behalf of the most vulnerable people around him. That says a lot. If nothing else, Jimmy Carter is a 92 year old man who builds houses for the poor with his own hands. At that age, I’d be proud to be half that manly. Heck, I’d be proud to be half that manly now.

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Nick Offerman

I am a huge fan of Parks and Recreation. It is a show I’ve watched in its entirety three times through. I have a lot to say on the value of the show, and how it stands out compared to other TV comedies, and even how it relates to my beliefs about God. But that isn’t for this post. This post is yet another profile in positive masculinity, focusing on perhaps the most masculine person I can think of: Nick Offerman.

As with my previous profiles, I’m not going to go through all of Nick Offerman’s life and work, but rather I’m going to highlight a couple of elements of his life and work that I think exemplify positive masculinity. But first, as always, a manly picture – which for Offerman is not hard to find:

Image result for nick offerman manly picture woodworking

Not only is Nick Offerman the ridiculously appropriate narrator for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the audiobook, but he has written a number of books himself – Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, and Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. He is, often intentionally I think, almost a living parody of manliness. Smelling of whisky, flecked with sawdust, robust mustache or full beard, and just wafting androgen wherever he goes. Offerman’s success seems to come from embracing himself. I didn’t realize how similar he and his Parks and Rec character were until after the first time I watched through the series, and wanting to learn more I looked up the various actors and people connected to the show. He reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt, and is one of the only people alive today who could say “Bully!” to describe something positive unironically.

I think of Ron Swanson as one of the best type-castings in TV history, and it’s fun to learn about how much Ron Swanson became like Nick Offerman. The Libertarianism was already present in the character, but he was expanded to include Offerman’s love of woodworking, red meat and Lagavulin whiskey. Scenes in Ron Swanson’s workshop on the show were shot in Nick Offerman’s actual workshop. (This didn’t make it into the show, but he and I share a love of the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings. As if I could love the guy more!)

In an interview with A.V. Club, he even reflects on his relative masculinity, something he also discusses in his books:

I think it’s fascinating that I receive attention for what people perceive to be a level of manliness or machismo, when amongst my family of farmers and paramedics and regular Americans, I’m kind of the sissy in my family. But when I arrive in Los Angeles in the entertainment community, and I use implements like a shovel and a hammer, our society has distanced itself so far from working with its hands that those incredibly pedestrian skills are perceived as somehow being extraordinary. I think the whole thing is kind of sad, honestly, in the same way that our civilization—particularly the consumers of pop culture—has grown so used to an emasculated, bare-chested leading man that something like simply growing a mustache can impress people. [Laughs.]

For such a manly man, Nick Offerman also has a lot of Feminist friends, including of course Amy Poehler. In interviews, he is open in his insistence on the necessity of Feminism. He also insists on the necessity of self-reliance. He’s kind of a Libertarian Feminist, which is not a creature one meets everyday.

He wants to inspire people to treat each other better, and he knows that to do that, you need to lift up the experiences of the oppressed and disadvantaged. Here, in his own words:

Honestly, in the case of Nick Offerman, I think his masculinity is unassailable (even without a mustache), and his positivity is immediately apparently in his acting, writing, interviews, etc. I probably should have started with him, but, you know, hindsight and all.

When I thought through these profiles, and talked about the phronemos, the Aristotelian exemplar of wisdom, I hadn’t realized how much I considered Offerman to be a phronemos, not just of positive masculinity, but of wisdom in general. I look forward to reading more of his writings, and learning more from Nick Offerman, today’s profile in positive masculinity.

 

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Justin Trudeau

Image result for justin trudeau yoga

Not hard to find a manly picture of Justin Trudeau. I like this one because it is strong but also flexible and playful, not just flexing in a mirror after being misted with faux-sweat or something.

And as I move on from Michael Forbes to my second Profile in Positive Masculinity, I need to clarify a few things. One is that I’m not a journalist, and I already work 60 hours a week and am a dad, so I don’t have time to do what I’d prefer, which is to go out locally and find unsung heroes of masculinity. I have to work with people who are famous one way or another. Second, I’m not advocating for or against Trudeau’s politics. That isn’t what this profile is about. In fact, I am going to focus on two specific instances of positive masculinity and leave it at that. I don’t know everything about Trudeau’s life, any more than I knew all about Forbes’ life.

And lastly, remember, this is not meant to be flawless masculinity. Just positive masculinity.

The first instance of positive masculinity I want to highlight came during Trudeau’s interview for the Daily Show with Hasan Minhaj. It’s your standard Daily Show interview, and kudos to Trudeau for accepting the interview in the first place, since he had to know they were going to try to get him to say or do something silly. Hasan Minhaj is no Stephen Colbert, though, so the tables in the interview quickly turn.

What’s interesting is the moment that comes at 5:40 of the video posted below. Just…just watch.

See that moment? Hasan Minhaj has come to roast Justin Trudeau, but he gets shut down immediately. There’s a moment where Minhaj is clearly thinking, wait, did shit just get real? And it did not get real. Well, maybe briefly. But what I liked about that moment was just the quiet confidence that Trudeau showed, shutting down even a playful threat without bullying or blustering or threatening in return. He just says, “You might find that a little more difficult than you think.” Maybe I’m just a little jealous of someone who is that self-possessed. Maybe I’m reading reading too much into a situation where Trudeau is surrounded by armed security, sitting in his own capital.

The second moment I wanted to highlight is the moment when Trudeau does something almost no other world leaders seem able to do – he reached a handshake detente with Trump. (And yes, I will regularly present positive masculinity in contrast to Trump)

First, let John Oliver break it down for you with lots of examples of the Patented Trump Yank-and-Pull Handshake.

So, we see that pretty much every time Trump shakes hands with someone, especially another man in a suit, he yanks their hand over towards him, and sometimes leans in aggressively as well, and is probably squeezing as hard as he can as well. It’s clearly something he heard about from someone, as something that real men and strong leaders do. He shakes hands like an asshole, is what I’m saying. Almost invariably.

Forward to the most recent meeting between Trump and Trudeau. Trudeau knows about this handshake move, and he’s come prepared. Here is a video with a little bit of analysis:

He’s prepared for the adolescent power-move. He moves in close immediately, keeps his right hand close to his body, and puts his hand on Trump’s shoulder as a brace. Trump tries to drag on his hand awkwardly a couple of times, then kind of gives up and leaves it in a state of detente.

So, clearly, Justin Trudeau is singular, the Prime Minister of a whole country. Not a goal most of us are going to reach. But all of us have to deal with assholes in our lives. Adolescent jerks who want to awkwardly show dominance, or punk us, or whatever. Stereotypical masculinity has a response to that – escalate. But I think there is a more powerful, positive response as well – what one might call quiet strength, and a little preparation if you see an asshole coming your way.

Man or woman, being self-possessed is compelling. Being at home in your own skin, and being committed to maintaining your dignity without having to fight back or one-up someone.

We can’t all be world leaders, obviously, but we can be a little bit more like Justin Trudeau, today’s profile in positive masculinity.