The term “masculinity” is one that has seemed to control many lives of men in the world, without there being any realistic expectation of a man being masculine. Men strive to acquire, or at least appear to have, this vague yet strict protocol of becoming masculine. Even at a young age kids are taught by their father “be tough like a man” and “don’t cry like a girl”, so what else are young boys going to do other than listen to their role model on what they are “supposed” to do/act. Oxford defines masculinity as “The state or fact of being masculine; the assemblage of qualities regarded as characteristic of men; maleness, manliness” Well that doesn’t help anyone, what man/men is the guiding example? In order to answer this question, it is important to look at the historical context behind masculinity, and how the olden template has translated and evolved throughout the years to see how it is affecting us today. To kick off the historical unraveling, the spotlight will be put on the 7th century poem, Beowulf.
Throughout the entire adventure Beowulf goes on, he sought out three things; honor, status, and respect. Most of the time he accomplishes this by defeating monsters that terrorize the near by lands (Grendal, Grendal’s mother, dragon, etc.). More specifically, killing said creatures without hesitation. “If a man’s brave enough, Fate, when on the fence, will often spare him.” (Headley, 2021). In this quote, Beowulf is saying that when someone is about to die, fate will favor the brave man more than the timid. This is Beowulf’s philosophy throughout the poem. No matter the foe, Beowulf managed to conquer anything standing in his way without a second thought. What did Beowulf receive as a reward for his labor? Beowulf was given gifts, armor, weapons, and jewelry. I mean he was given his own crown to a whole kingdom for his bravery. All these material things are nice and all, but it is not what Beowulf was given. In fact he received something you can’t even hold in your hands through these items; honor, status, and respect. “In epic poetry, the more flashier scenes are when they gain armor and weapons. The armor is more than protection. It symbolized a form of social status and measurement on the hero’s masculinity. The better the armor, the better the warrior, the better the man.” (Doran, 2019). This shows that the author(s) of Beowulf wanted to show its readers the true meaning of masculinity which is; if you are brave and conquer your enemies with no hesitation, then you will receive boundless honor, status, and respect. This sentiment is “nobel” at best, but Beowulf, in the same story, shows how this can quickly snowball into greed and can negatively affect others.
Towards the end of a poem, a thief steals some gold from the massive treasure the dragon was guarding. Ambitious Beowulf takes this opportunity to take this vast treasure for himself. Keep in mind at this point in the book, Beowulf has a whole kingdom he rules, so this enormous treasure is almost useless to add to his wealth. Rather, Beowulf wants this treasure as his ultimate symbol of the status he has built up over the years. “One man slipped down this slope, he alone deciding, but we rest are roped to him;” (Headley, 2021) This quote was said by Beowulf’s close friend Wiglaf after Beowulf’s dramatic death by the dragon’s poison. Wiglaf says that if a man does what he wants without considering others, then people will get hurt because of it. This is an apt quote because Beowulf died trying to achieve nothing but more personal status. “The ring-collector was too proud to bring a war-band,/ to march an army against the firmament-flier./ His plan would be his pyre-he imagined the dragon/ a dimwit, clocking neither her courage nor her grit./ I mean, he had, for years, been up in it,/ persevering through pain and danger,/ countless grim battles since he’d saved/ Hrothgar and Heorot…” (Headley, 2021).
Since Beowulf decided to fight this dragon all by himself (kind of), then he left his whole kingdom to fall to the surrounding lands by proxy. All the families in the Kingdom of Hygelac are now doomed to perish, and Beowulf won’t even be able to enjoy his victory. He selfishly gave all the glory to himself and let his loved ones down because of it. This is a perfect example of how toxic masculinity affected men back in the day, and not only that but how young men were expected to act all the time. Beowulf was the shining example of masculinity for men back in the day. Now that you see how masculinity hurt others back in the day, it is also important to see how masculinity can cripple the man himself. The perfect example for this is the book The Green Knight.
In The Green Knight, the main character, Gawain, sets out on his mission for honor by playing the Green Knight’s (Sir Bertilak) game. “Oh, Greatest Of Kings, indulge me in this friendly Christmas game. Let whichever of your knights is boldest of blood and wildest of heart step forth, take up arms, and try with honor to land a blow against me. Whomsoever nicks me shall lay claim to this, my arm. It’s glory and riches shall be thine. But thy champ must bind himself to this. SHould he land a blow, then one year and Yuletide hence, he must seek me out yonder, to the Green Chapel six nights to the North. He shall find me there, and bend the knee, and let me strike him in return. Be it a scratch on the cheek, or a cut on the throat, I will return what was given to me, and then in trust and friendship we shall part. Who, then, who is willing to engage with me?” (Lowrey)
The end result of their game is that Gawain essentially has to get his head cut off by Sir Bertilak in the Green Chapel. This game leaves Gawain with three glaring problems. Why didn’t he just scratch the Green Knight to appease his game? Then why was Gawain the one who got to play the game? Gawain is definitely not the “boldest of blood and wildest of heart.” Finally, why finish the game at all? Gawain can just not hold up his end of the bargain. Well, these two questions can be answered with two words. Ego and masculinity is the answer.
Instead of living a happy life with his girlfriend, Essel, in Camelot, Gawain decided it was a good choice to honor the game and go to be struck down permanently. In the book, Gawain goes to Sir Bertilak and runs away back to Camelot to reap his reward. His whole life flashes before him and Gawain realizes that he would have lived his whole life miserably because he did not honor his side of the agreement. Since this life he saw flash before his eyes were unappealing, Gawain chooses to honor his original agreement and die. It is also important to realize Gawain would not be considered a man by Medieval standards.
Did I show signs of fear when our positions were reversed?
I’m not so confident as thee.”
The author of The Green Knight was trying to convince their readers that if you don’t honor your agreements then you will live your whole life in misery, but if you do the honorable thing then you are a man. This idea is misguided from the truth. The minute Gawain decided to seek out glory by playing the game is when his miserable fate was sealed. “In silent montage, we see what kind of honor playing political games and giving into ambition provides him. He becomes king and marries a woman he doesn’t love. Meanwhile, the woman he does love, Essel, is abandoned after Gawain steals their son from her. In the end, he lives a life of feigned honor, hidden behind the false security and protection the green sash gives him. Unlike his uncle, he does not offer Camelot a golden age: There is only death and ignominy from such a cautious self-serving path. And in 20 years’ time or so, he still will lose his head.” (Crow, 2021) He made the wrong choice from the start, not because he did or didn’t honor his agreement. This toxic idea of masculinity has clearly shown to hurt the person that decides to pursue it. Toxic masculinity did not die in the Medieval era, it is alive and well in today’s society.
It is important to understand the origins of “toxic masculinity” before talking about it. “The label toxic masculinity tended to be applied to marginalized men. Terry Kupers’ research on men in prisons argued “toxic masculinity involves the need to aggressively compete and dominate others and encompasses the most problematic proclivities in men.…Toxic masculinity also includes a strong measure of the male proclivities that lead to resistance in psychotherapy” (Harrington). The idea of toxic masculinity has completely changed since the original meaning. Nowadays, toxic masculinity follows along the same lines what we saw happen to Beowulf and Gawain. It is a type of masculinity that is either self destructive, as in Gawain’s case, or outwardly destructive to others, Beowulf. The book When Men Dance seeks to answer why this is the case. “Although postmodern femenist theory has greatly expanded our understandings of multiple subject positions, as well as the notion of diverse femininities or ways of being female for girls and women, it appears that contemporary masculinity has become even more narrow, or like a gender straightjacket” (Fisher & Shay). The idea of what masculinity looks like is out there, and it shouldn’t be changed. Rather than change what masculinity looks like, recognize that it is there, but give men different outlets on what it means to be a man. The impossible standard all men are held to can be crippling to someone if they aren’t a part of the status quo. At the same time, the standard men are held to can be extremely damaging when not held in check. Beowulf and Gawain would have lived much better lives had it not been for society’s masculine standard, a standard that has lived on since the 7th century.
Crow, D. (2021, July 30). The green knight ending explained. Den of Geek. Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/the-green-knight-ending-explained/
Discover the story of Englishmore than 600,000 words, over a thousand years. Home : Oxford English Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/114566?redirectedFrom=masculinity#eid
Doran, M. (2019, April 26). Beowulf: Symbol of Masculinity. Michael Doran. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://michaeldoran.rutgerscamdenenglish.com/2019/03/27/beowulf-symbol-of-masculinity/
Fisher, J., & Shay, A. (n.d.). When men dance:choreographing masculinities across Borders. Google Books. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=fIEh_Dsv9oQC&oi=fnd&pg=PA57&dq=contemporary%2Bmasculinity%2Bscholarly%2Barticles&ots=wvFSF0HSie&sig=iS39mSm90ig3CkZatPl32yqc_J0#v=onepage&q=contemporary%20masculinity%20scholarly%20articles&f=false
Harrington, C. (n.d.). What is “toxic masculinity” and why does it matter? Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1097184X20943254
Headley, D. M. (2021). Beowulf: A new translation. Scribe.
Lowrey, David (2021) The Green Knight, A24 Ley