The Old Guard and Non-Toxic Masculinity
I’ve wanted to talk about this for ages and was inspired by this excellent post about Joe and non-toxic masculinity and a wonderful anon who indulged me! (Like, months ago! Sorry for the delay) Started writing this before Tales Through Time came out but now I feel like it’s a bit more relevant / important to discuss. I’ll be talking almost exclusively about the movie canon, as it subverts a lot of male action hero tropes. I’m going to have sections for each of the main men in TOG (sans Lykon because he is not on screen long enough for me to be able to closely examine his character).
First, some brief background and theory:
Of the most famous and well-known theorizers of masculinity (among subjects like race and racism, Blackness, whiteness, and feminism), bell hooks says that masculinity is different from maleness. She defines masculinity as more of a performance of patriarchal dominance, with socially constructed ideals of how a man should behave in relation to himself and others / what it means to be a man. Maleness she defines as simply male identity. So, one can love maleness and men without loving masculinity. But, and this is my addition, masculinity is not always toxic masculinity.
A short spiel on toxic-masculinity: as said above, hooks argues that masculinity is a performance, and in essence, a survival strategy for being a man in a patriarchal society. It is toxic because it not only harms others as it dominates and oppresses, but it prevents men from being their authentic selves (often with severe negative impacts on their mental health, self-esteem, and relationships).
Non-toxic masculinity, then, is the embodiment of traditionally (socially constructed) masculine characteristics and behaviours, minus the harmful ideals that patriarchy demands. (A disclaimer: There’s certainly a lot to say about this topic and a lot to unpack about whether masculinity is always harmful and to whom, but this post is about TOG not a university paper, so I’ll pack it up)
Once again, I’m going to point to this post that talks specifically about Joe and non-toxic masculinity because op really hit all the points.
Op talked about how Joe shows vulnerability and I think that’s a really important point when trying to understand his relationship to masculinity. I’m going to talk about Joe’s relationship to his emotions and the way he displays them.
To start, when he’s mocked for his relationship with Nicky, he doesn’t respond in anger (different from the comics so let’s only focus on Marwan’s lovely Joe) but instead launches into possibly the most romantic and heartfelt speech I’ve ever heard onscreen. So much has been said about this scene, so I’ll keep it short, but I think it’s important to examine Joe’s relationship to anger and aggression as it’s something that merits a lot of discourse. From the limited amount of screentime he has in the movie, it does seem that Joe is a little quick to anger sometimes, but his anger is never irrational or uncontrollable. Anger and aggression are associated with toxic masculinity because they are used as forms of power or oppression, and are often hyperbolic. Joe’s anger, when he does get angry in the movie, comes from a place of hurt or pain. Also betrayal, protectiveness, and fear.
The anger and aggression that toxic masculinity permeates comes from a place of not being in-tune with one’s emotions, not being allowed to feel what one wants to or should feel. Joe is clearly extremely in-tune with his emotions and, importantly, it shows through not only his anger at Booker’s deep betrayal, but his tears and his laughter. I’ve seen many people refer to Joe as wearing his heart on his sleeve, and I think that would be correct! He’s not guarded because he has no reason to be. He is very open in the ways that he loves, and he has a lot of love (see; bear hugs, winking, grinning, laughing, soft touches to Andy and Nicky, cracking jokes in tense times).
Finally, looking at Joe, he does clearly embody a lot of traditionally masculine characteristics. He’s tall and muscular, has a beard, speaks loudly and openly, (the post above talked about his body language and the way he takes up space), and he fights both hand-to-hand and with weapons. He is all of these things, but none of these characteristics exist at the expense of himself or his team. If anything, some of these characteristics make his bond stronger with his team (see; fighting the good fight and protecting Andy after she loses her immortality). So, while Joe embodies many things that would be associated as masculine, in no way is he toxic.
(Although I don’t get involved in discourse, it is important to mention that many of Joe’s traits (like his anger or physical appearance) often get twisted by racial bias. To focus only on the “angry” side of Joe’s emotions is a complete disservice to his character and all his wonderful complexities that Gina and Marwan worked incredibly hard to portray)
Similar to Joe, Nicky also embodies a number of traditionally masculine characteristics, those being his appearance, the fact that he fights (hand-to-hand and with weapons), and the fact that he is also rather outspoken about his opinions. I don’t want to simply compare him to Joe, since they’re both separate characters (and I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that they’re opposites to each other), but I will say that Nicky is different from Joe in the sense that he is rather reserved, at least, in relation to Joe and his open emotions.
Nicky is reserved, but not in an unhealthy way. He’s not bottled up. He clearly understands his emotions as well as Joe, he just has a slightly different way of showing them. Mostly, Nicky shows his emotions by doing, which is also quite a traditionally masculine trait (I mean, if we’re thinking in oldschool societal binaries, men are usually expected to do while women are expected to withhold or submit). He shows his love and support through actions. Interestingly, though, the way he chooses to do this manifests as a role that is (arguably) not traditionally masculine. He’s the self-appointed caregiver.
Nicky is also deeply sympathetic, something that men are encouraged not to be. Toxic masculinity demands that men think competitively, and to disregard others’ emotions, but when Nicky thinks of others he thinks of them as a part of a group or bigger picture. Not in competition with each other, but as a system that works together. He sympathizes with Nile’s fear and loneliness when they first dream of her, already seeing her as part of their group, and this becomes his motivation for finding her right away.
The only times he gets visibly angry in the movie is from a place of protectiveness. He’s protective throughout the movie but not in a way that underestimates the abilities of his teammates or is always aggressive (see; taking a bullet for Andy, helping Nile out of the car when she needs it). I mentioned in some tags recently that, as we’re all extremely aware, action genre tends to associate heroism with male aggression (like, yes, kill the enemy, but what of the people you’re trying to protect? It’s here where toxic masculinity comes into play. When the thing that defines a male character’s strength and heroism is his proficiency to kill/maim). In the two scenes we see Nicky “lash out” (when Merrick stabs Joe and when Nicky tells Joe to “leave it”, if that counts) besides in the middle of battle, it’s very clear his aggression is triggered by a need to protect those he loves, both from immediate physical danger and emotional harm.
(To state the obvious: Joe and Nicky both embody a trait that is almost never seen alongside positive portrayals of masculine men: They’re both gay and in a very healthy and happy relationship. Many posts have been written about their relationship specifically, so I will leave it to them and their wonderful words!)
I think, and I’m leaping ahead here, Booker embodies slightly more of the toxic side of masculinity. It is a little more complicated than that, though, and I’m aware I am still coming at some of these issues very simplistically.
It could be argued that Booker is a selfish character, as a lot of his actions certainly line up with that theory. He goes behind the team’s back and betrays them, puts them all in danger for a cause that only he truly wants. But Booker’s motivation for his betrayal is because he wants to put an end to not only his immortality, but Andy’s. He cares for her. He sees her becoming weary and resentful of the world, so he tries to take matters into his own hands and help.
I think to claim that Booker is selfish is... not entirely inaccurate, but it’s missing so much. I think his “selfishness” comes from a place of internal pain, possibly even self-hatred. He hates that he outlived his children, he is cynical and at the same time pessimistic when it comes to the team’s destiny/purpose. And he attempts to (treat? Stunt?) these feelings with alcohol (*I will not explore his relation to substance abuse in-depth here because it’s really an extremely complicated and sensitive topic and I don’t believe I have the knowledge nor experience to do it justice).
We see Booker cry openly in the movie when he speaks to Nile in the cave, so we can assume he’s not entirely guarded or intent on repressing his emotions. Rather, I think he does things with the intention of helping himself and the others, but the result is always that it makes things worse (see; drinking when he feels down and giving Andy alcohol at the same time, thereby unintentionally enabling her, trying and failing to get the team to stay on track and find Copley because he believes the end result (loss of immortality) will benefit all of them, or at least himself and Andy).
I think he is a victim of his own toxic masculinity. He falls victim to self-hatred and cynicism while still believing he ought to do something himself to actualize something that he believes will put an end to his own (and Andy’s assumed) suffering. But it’s his actions (rash, and motivated by the wrong reasons) that lead to him destroying his closest relationships and, almost ironically, causing more suffering as opposed to less.
Copley embodies some toxic and non-toxic masculine characteristics. I would say his most explicitly non-toxic masculine trait is that he is clearly emotionally vulnerable and open. This is both a good and bad thing. He’s in-tune with his emotions, but he is irresponsible with the power he has and how it hurts people. Copley is complicated because his heart is in the right place but he fails to see how he harms. His complicity (or rather, his culpability) in the harm caused to the immortals relates to toxic masculinity in regards to the power he has over others. Although his motivation for handing the immortals off to Merrick was to do good, to bring the end of disease, he was wrong to appoint himself the gift-giver (see; Nile’s “It wasn’t your gift to give”). I think (and this could be a reach but why else do we analyze things if not to reach a little?), that Copley suffers from a slightly inflated sense of self-importance, which is something that is often encouraged of men.
I think he turns it around in the end, though, by agreeing to work for the team, which is why he embodies a mix of toxic and non-toxic masculine traits. He once thought he knew best, but changed when he realized how much harm he was causing.
All in all, I love the way these male characters are written because their dynamics are so rarely seen in movies in general, let alone big budget action films, and it’s so, so important. We get to see differing types of non-toxic masculinity, prioritizing love and caregiving above violence, as well as some of the damage that can be caused by toxic masculinity to others and the self, while not feminizing or making a joke out of these characters. We get to actually see masculinity and maleness in a positive light, severed from the harmful and normalized images of masculinity we usually see. But above all, we’ve got some really excellent characters with realistic, complex personalities.
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