In Praise of Tender Masculinity, the New Non-Toxic Way to Be a Man

Our favorite book and movie characters exemplify tenderness, the antidote to machismo

Media representations of masculinity tend to play in two notes: On the left we have Nice Guys and on the right we have Macho Men. Both play into ideas of toxic masculinity in their own ways. Macho Men are emotionally distant, but it’s okay because they’re buff and men don’t have feelings anyway. Whether it’s an action hero like Die Hard’s John McClane, or a tortured bad boy like The Breakfast Club’s Bender or Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, we are conditioned to see their anger issues as passion and their repressed emotions as something romantic for women to “fix.” Nice Guys are seen as an antidote, but more often than not, their niceness is performative and in direct relation to their feelings towards a crush. Think of Laurie in Little Women, who grows as a character through the help of Jo, but once she turns him down weaponizes all that character growth as leverage to get in her pants. Or Tom from 500 Days of Summer: He’s a charming underdog, but it’s not exactly “nice” of him to resent Summer for not meeting his romantic expectations despite her clear communication of her boundaries. In an era where toxic masculinity is utterly overwhelming, we are all desperate for a healthier and more nuanced role.

Enter Tender Masculinity.

In an era where toxic masculinity is utterly overwhelming, we are all desperate for a healthier and more nuanced role.

While we have mental imagery of Macho Men (buff, distant) and Nice Guys (nerdy, brooding), the characters that embody Tender Masculinity are multi-layered and come from all backgrounds.

Here is a checklist on how to spot a Tender Man:

  • Is he invested in all of his relationships, not just romantic ones?
  • Does he express his emotions in a healthy way?
  • Is self-awareness a concept he’s comfortable with?
  • Does he commit to personal growth?
  • Are boundaries something he is aware of and respects?
  • Is he unafraid of male intimacy — for instance, can he express affection for male friends without making a gay joke?

The best thing about Tender Masculinity is that it’s not only a necessary antidote to our media portrayals of men — it’s also already here. There aren’t a lot of Tender Man characters yet, and we’d love to see more, but a few books and movies are promoting this low-swagger, high-emotion ideal. These are the fully-realized male characters we need to celebrate and see more of.

A dramatic moment between bosom pals Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) in the movie “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”

Samwise Gamgee — Lord of the Rings

There are many heroes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and many are driven by masculine ideals like duty, honor, glory, or a sense of destiny. But Sam is the indisputable — though somewhat reluctant — hero who tops them all, driven by his love for his friend Frodo. Sam is a devoted friend, who does most of the emotional labor throughout the books. He brings us many moments of Tender Masculinity; following Frodo (even when he’s pressured not to) because he won’t let his friend suffer alone, recognizing and validating the burden of the One Ring, and being able to give a good dose of tough love when necessary. His emotional vulnerability is what makes him relatable, and it’s what makes him powerful. That ring would have never seen its fiery end without Sam in the picture.

Mahershala Ali, as Juan, emotes in this screenshot from “Moonlight”

Juan, Little/Black/Chiron, and Kevin—Moonlight

Moonlight is a breathtaking story for many reasons, one of those being its examination of toxic masculinity and the importance of tenderness. Tender Masculinity is not an identity of perfection; it is true to the human condition in that it is always a work in progress, a journey. The men of Moonlight all have difficult backgrounds, and at times succumb to the pressure of society’s poisonous expectations of men, but the moments of beauty in the film are when they embrace tenderness. Moonlight takes us through the life of our hero in three major periods: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. During these periods, we explore his relationship with Juan, his father figure, and his complex feelings for his friend — and eventual lover — Kevin. When we see Juan teach Little how to swim, we’re shown the power in tenderness between men. We’re shown an important alternative to how the media often portrays masculinity, especially black masculinity. We’re shown the value of male friendships that we too often ignore.

Kyle Valenti knows something you don’t (it’s how to be a Tender Man) in “Roswell”

Kyle Valenti — Roswell

Kyle Valenti is a high school jock, a type of character usually portrayed as either a cool Macho Man or a bullying meathead who keeps our misfit Nice Guy hero away from the girl of his dreams. In the pilot of Roswell, we naturally expect that Kyle, our heroine Liz’s sporty main squeeze, will step in with all the fury of the spurned jock when she leaves him behind for the mysterious world surrounding social outcast Max. When we see Max get beat up by Kyle’s fellow football players, we assume Kyle told them to. But in fact, Kyle is livid when he finds out what his bros did. He apologizes to Max, and then approaches Liz and expresses his need for more open communication in their relationship.

Usually, the high school jock exits after the first act, but Kyle’s tenderness and surprising emotional maturity made him a character fascinating enough to keep around all the way through to the series finale. On this journey we get to see Kyle become a trustworthy ally, a good friend, a hard worker, a devoted son, and an occasional Buddhist? Kyle Valenti was a surprising character to see on mainstream TV in the early aughts, which is what made him so compelling.

Jared — Son of a Trickster

Son of a Trickster, the first book in an in-progress trilogy from Eden Robinson, introduces us to Jared, a 16-year-old Indigenous boy on the cusp of discovering who he really is. We get a full picture of Jared’s life; his relationship with his family, a girl next door, friends at school, his neighbors, his dog, and his enemies. Each relationship has its ups and downs throughout Jared’s journey, during which he is forced to reexamine his identity, his culture, and his connection to the past. Robinson’s novel examines teen angst, while also dispelling stereotypes and misconceptions of Indigenous communities (and Indigenous men in particular) through Jared’s story. While Jared sometimes emotionally shuts off, or finds himself in hypermasculine situations, Robinson makes clear that he is still just a child who has a tender side as well. There are many examples of this, but to me the most heartbreaking is how Jared reacts to the death of his dog, which comes at a particularly hectic time in his life. To me, this was the turning point in the novel where Jared allows himself to fully feel, to wallow in his sadness, and this newfound tenderness impacts his actions through the remainder of the story. The end of the book makes clear that diving into his emotions and reevaluating his identity are key to tapping into his magic.

Remus Lupin reunites with Sirius Black in the movie version of “Prisoner of Azkaban”

Remus Lupin — Harry Potter

Hogwarts professor and secret werewolf Remus Lupin was the most emotionally mature male in the Harry Potter series, and I will hear no arguments. Though Lupin’s lycanthropy initially makes Harry and his friends suspicious, he is shown to be a father figure, a sincere educator, a good friend, and a public-minded citizen committed to protecting his wider community. His most compelling relationship is with Nymphadora Tonks, his wife and the mother of his son. What makes their relationship refreshing is that it does not fit into a cookie cutter soul-mate narrative; their history together is fraught with trauma and grief, but rather than becoming codependent or distant, Lupin takes time to articulate and work through his complex feelings before marrying Tonks. (We won’t talk about what happens next.) There are a lot of characters in the Harry Potter series who are heroic through a sense of duty, honor, or sometimes even reluctance, but Lupin is heroic through his tender heart.

The guys cheer Richie on in “Magic Mike XXL”

Everybody — Magic Mike XXL

Let me tell you, the real magic of this movie isn’t the well-choreographed thrusting, it’s the celebration of male friendship. In a movie that could be completely cliché, this bro squad does not succumb to the macho stereotypes you may expect. These men are here for each other through thick and thin: relationship problems, supporting healthy sexuality, resisting toxic masculinity, encouraging career goals, and fostering overall personal development. In one of the most GIFable scenes in cinematic history, the friends are reexamining their acts for StripCon (and, yes, rolling on ecstasy). Mike is encouraging the gang to leave behind their cliche personas (fireman, etc.) and develop routines that are representative of themselves. His buddy Big Dick Richie is feeling insecure about coming up with something completely new; he’d rather just stick to his comfort zone instead of putting himself out there. The guys stop at a gas station, and as a way to convince Richie that he is talented at what he does, they challenge him to do a spontaneous number for the incredibly bored gas station employee and give her a reason to smile. While Richie does his improvised routine to a fortuitous Backstreet Boys soundtrack, the rest of his friends are outside cheering him on, genuinely excited to see him gain his confidence back. And Richie succeeds: the woman breaks out in laughter and the boys are re-committed to their vision.

While there are more examples we could list here (all of the men and boys of Stranger Things, for example), there is no ignoring that Tender Masculinity is underrepresented in the stories we tell. It is important that we embrace these stories, because while examining toxic male archetypes in media is necessary, condemning them without offering a healthy alternative just leads to more toxic men in media… and in real life. While the idea of tender masculinity is not new, these stories are becoming more mainstream and embraced. But they’re rare in the grand scheme of things. If we don’t celebrate the ones we have, we risk losing these stories to the same old clichés. Celebrating tender men trickles over into our day-to-day, giving the next generation the male role models they deserve. I look forward to the day when the tender men of fiction are just as common as the Macho Men and Nice Guys we know too well.

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