Healthy Masculinity: What This Dad Learned From a 38-Year-Old Movie

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We hear quite a bit about toxic masculinity these days, but we don’t seem to hear much about healthy masculinity. In fact, we hear the words “toxic” and “masculinity” used together so often that we might think toxic masculinity is the only kind of masculinity.

But healthy masculinity certainly exists, and as parents, regardless of your child’s gender, we should teach them about it. There are differing definitions, but if I had to offer my own, I’d say healthy masculinity is a man’s ability to be honest with himself and others about his strengths, weaknesses, and emotions. It’s having confidence in who you are but also knowing when you need help. It’s treating all people with respect.

If you want to see healthy masculinity in action, look no further than the 1982 cinematic masterpiece Rocky III. No, really. This isn’t the gun-totin’, cold-blooded Sylvester Stallone of the Rambo or Expendables franchises. This is the vulnerable, sensitive, codependent Rocky Balboa. I recently watched the PG-rated Rocky III with my 11-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, and they absolutely loved it.

Let’s explore some of the moments in this fine film that demonstrate healthy masculinity:

(I’d insert a spoiler alert here, but come on. You’ve had 38 years to watch it.)

Rocky cries when Mick dies. Toxic Masculinity 101 says men don’t cry. But when Rocky loses his beloved trainer and father figure Mick, Rocky has no problem openly weeping.

Rocky admits to his wife, Adrian, that he’s scared of failure and struggles with the notion of whether this makes him less of a man. Not only is he admitting to having a perceived weakness, but he’s admitting it to the woman he loves and is looking to her for help. That’s some healthy masculinity.

Rocky is affectionate and patient with his son. In every scene that takes place between him and his boy, Rocky is gentle and nurturing. There’s no “be a man” or “toughen up, kid.” Only love.

Rocky acknowledges that he lost a fight because of the emotional damage caused by Mick’s death. He was physically strong enough to defend his title repeatedly, but physical strength wasn’t sufficient to beat Clubber Lang, and we saw him realize this.

Rocky learns new skills, even though they’re outside his comfort zone. When Apollo Creed—a former rival whom Rocky has no problem befriending—trains him, the goal isn’t to expand the size of Rocky’s biceps but to increase his agility and endurance, which makes Rocky feel awkward and inadequate at first. Still, he sticks with the training.

And the epitome of healthy masculinity: While celebrating their successful partnership, Rocky and Apollo joyously and playfully splash water on and embrace each other in one of the cheesiest slow-motion moments captured on film in the great decade that was the 1980s. You can experience it here (skip to 3:00).

Throughout all of that—with this wide range of emotions on full display—no one would doubt that Rocky is a man. He has all of the non-toxic features of classic masculinity: He’s physically strong and healthy. He’s professionally successful. He’s the world heavyweight champion, for crying out loud.

Contrast that with other characters in the movie who do display toxic masculinity. We have Thunderlips, played by Hulk Hogan, who objectifies women and wants to humiliate Rocky to assert his status as “the ultimate male.” Then we have Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T, whose only emotion is anger (except for one moment when he pities a fool).

Yep, Rocky III has it all. Consider getting ahold of this magnificent movie and watching it with your family. We talk a lot in 2020 about toxic masculinity, but Rocky III knocked it out back in 1982, when no one was looking.

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