Masculinity is hard to define. More and more, we see displays of the damage toxic masculinity can cause if left unchecked. Many of our favorite games and shows promote these sort of ideas, even subtly. Although many of the games don’t outright state that “you must be stoic and physically powerful to be a real man,” this reading is still easily felt. The First Person Shooter genre is the largest offender in this case, with many action games following suit. But, I think masculinity can, and should, manifest in other ways: emotional strength, love, and bravery. These attributes could be considered “soft masculinity” as a counter to more aggressive, “hard masculinity”. Since the geeky areas on the Internet are still in love with Steven Universe, I’d like to use that show as an example of displaying masculinity in other ways.
If you aren’t familiar with the show, here are a few posts about it to catch up! In the show, characters are given the space to have solid identities without being glued to stereotypical gender tropes; the shining example being Steven. His defining characteristic is his love and appreciation for everything, which he inherited from his late mother Rose along with her magical powers. These powers include the ability to heal and various shields. Abilities such as these are often considered feminine and unfit for a growing boy. I strongly disagree with this sentiment, as emotional strength is wildly important for developing children and well-adjusted adults. This emotional strength comes in handy for Steven as it provides him with courage when he isn’t physically tough enough to handle a foe, or a situation is frightening in general.
Similarly, Steven’s father Greg exhibits strength without delving into toxic masculinity. Since he is simply a human with no special powers, he is usually outmatched with the threats that face Steven and the Crystal Gems. Because of this, he is often scared when Gem-related threats appear in the city. Despite his fear, he has been shown to jump in action to protect Steven and help others, even saving him from drowning once. He is no slouch with emotional strength either, often being vocal about how much he loves Steven and Rose. He also was sure of himself enough to call out other men for objectifying women. (This might not seem like traditional strength, but anyone who’s experienced “bro-culture” knows that how difficult it can be to call out problematic behavior in friends/colleagues.) In the same vein, he knows that it is good for Steven’s growth to stay with the Gems despite them wanting to spend quality time together. But he trusts them, and knows that they will keep him safe.
The series has many female characters that embody typically “positive masculine” traits. Steven’s mother Rose embodies the powerful and mysterious parental figure. Garnet, usually in the leader role, is physically strong and a proficient fighter. Amethyst fills the slot of team party animal and her fighting style is more erratic. Pearl is often the team strategist, a role often regulated to a nerdy guy. (However, this trope seems to be less stereotyped and can go various ways.) In a way, this series subverts and swaps gender roles, but no one is stripped of their gender identity because of their personality traits. This shows that masculinity and femininity are complex for sure, and that “being a man” can manifest in ways that are not toxic.
The recently released tie-in game, Attack the Light, reinforces the shows motifs through play. Without getting too deep into it—I should really do a review—Attack the Light is a dungeon crawling RPG with the player performing various touch screen gestures for attacks. It follows the tone of the show really well, with an original plot. The battles feature all three Crystal Gems with Steven as support. He is absolutely critical to success, as he is in control of the items and support. Additionally, his available moves include providing a shield and healing (by way of giving “good jobs” to the gems or playing his ukulele). Steven isn’t a damage-dealer; that is the Gems’ job, but he isn’t any less important. There is often a stereotype that providing support and healing isn’t a “manly” role, but I can’t imagine why not. In any group, such as family or sports teams, supporting other members is a high priority.
From a fan’s perspective, I think it is important to pay attention to and appreciate the use of soft, non-toxic masculinity. Occasionally when a series like this comes up, it is met with the “compliment” of “it’s nice that a non-masculine show can appeal to male fans!” I strongly disagree with this concept as it undermines the idea of there being multiple routes to strong masculinity. Additionally, the Gems, who are coded as women, represent good examples of non-stereotypically feminine girls. When people are shocked that guys like this show, or are happy that they can like a “non-masculine” show, it shows how deeply ingrained toxic masculinity is in our culture. In a way, they are ignoring all the ways the show can be a good example of masculine strength.
In summary, I do admit that it can be hard to pin down what exactly masculinity and femininity mean, especially on an individual rather than group perspective. While I can’t comment on femininity, I think it’s important to enforce that masculinity isn’t a monolithic ideal. More so, masculinity that is built on hurting and marginalizing others isn’t positive or helpful to anyone. Characters like Steven really show the width of personality and strength that characters can have, and show that they can be masculine without being tough guys.