At the end of last year, 2016, a decent man died. William Christopher, a character actor best known for playing another decent man, Father Mulcahy on MASH. William Christopher’s death was overshadowed by the bigger names who shuffled off this mortal coil last year, but I think that he is very much worthy of a mention.
Father Mulcahy, as you probably know, was a gentle and kindly priest in a bad situation who earnestly tried help people, many of whom had very little use for him, even though it was pretty clear he had no idea how best to do that. He was a character we don’t see a lot of any more – a decent religious person. He wasn’t corrupted or sinister or preachy, he was just…good, in a very human way. Not perfect, just good.
Around the time that William Christopher passed, there were several articles written about dearly departed celebrities and toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is a concept that claims our culture is being slowly poisoned by an idealized Marlboro-esque version of manhood that is unattainable for any actual human males. “Being a real man” in this pervasive, venomous climate is an unachievable goal – always strong, successful in every milieu, never needing help, never showing emotion (other than anger), highly and constantly sexual, immediately and excessively violent. Sexual partners are disposable objects, meant to be used, discarded, and quickly replaced by a new conquest. Any expressed interest in things that are traditionally viewed as “feminine” (childcare, fashion, romance, etc) is emasculating and to be avoided at all costs.
Prince and George Michael were held up as standard-bearers for a redefinition of masculinity that allowed for a more inclusive expression of maleness. Here’s one. https://thinkprogress.org/george-michael-pop-star-and-lgbt-icon-dies-on-christmas-day-958ece709a61#.y2m3fwy7b
And that’s great. I like those guys too. But in terms of conversations about masculinity, perhaps we are in need of some archetypes between the two extremes of genderfluid dudes with eyeliner and hairy chested p–sy grabbers. Because if you look beyond the eyeliner, I’m not totally convinced that Prince and George Michael are anything to write home about in the non-toxic males department, either.
The concept of toxic masculinity involves a not-small element of sexual aggression. You can make a pretty good case that sexual conquest at all costs is the core element, that all the rest of the toxicity grows out of that seed like an apple tree grows from a pip. Thus, I’m not totally convinced that guys like Prince and George Michael, who glorify sex kind of a lot, are necessarily fixing the problem just because they’re wearing a flowing rayon shirt.
Real men are supposed to be always ready, willing and able to have sex at any time, preferably with a long line of disposable, forgettable, meaningless partners. Real men should be willing to cross any line to achieve this goal; regardless of one’s personal beliefs, standards, or values, seizing any and every opportunity for sexual activity outweighs all other concerns. A real man can never really be blamed for sexual peccadilloes, no matter who they hurt, because they really just can’t even help it and real men never say no anyway. Real men are so highly sexual by their very natures that they should be willing to bend the rules of consent to get some – lying, cheating, psychological manipulation, even getting a little physical. Sex is the most important thing in the world to a man. It’s really all they care about. In fact, they need it. They DESERVE it. A man who’s not getting laid is a joke, he’s less than a man. Regardless of your sexual orientation, you can’t be a real man without sex.
George Michael and Prince both were all about sex. 95% of their songs were about sex. Their songs read like a series of letters to a men’s magazine. “Dear Penthouse, I met a girl named Nikki, and I guess you could say she was a sex fiend.” Songs about nymphomaniacal strangers who were then forgotten written by Prince, songs where partners had to be psychologically manipulated into giving it up and then also forgotten written by George Michael, but sex, sex, sex. If an overinflated emphasis on getting freaky is at least partially what toxic masculinity is all about, these guys are not above that, not at all. A change of wardrobe really doesn’t matter much in the final analysis. Toxic is toxic, even when it’s purple.
That’s where Father Mulcahy is different. Because he was a priest, he was celibate. Unlike Hawkeye, in his off hours he focused on other things than getting into the nurses’ uniforms. He attempted to help others and worked at making himself a better person. He usually failed at most of what he tried, but he regrouped and tried harder the next time. Father Mulcahy was a nurturer. He cared for orphans and the dying. He was close with his family and supportive of his friends. He was willing to give up sex forever in order to better care for his fellow human. It’s a concept that feels almost foreign to us now, the idea that guys could ever do that? That men could ever have a higher calling in this world than screwing anything that moved, it feels like an idea that the world has left behind.
Father Mulcahy was actually played by two different actors. In the film version, he was played by Rene Auberjonois (probably best known as Odo on Deep Space 9) before William Christopher took over for the television show. Neither of these guys, while both family men married for an impressive number of decades – since 1963 and 1957, respectively – are what I would call hypermasculine. Or even regularmasculine. They may not wear eyeliner and heels (that I am aware of) but at the same time, neither are brutish Neanderthals communicating in guttural grunts, belches, and the occasional “I’d tap that.”
We have an iconic character in Father Mulcahy that exists totally outside of sexuality, played by two actors who are also not exactly poster boys for stereotypical fart-burp-scratch-spit macho masculinity either. I really like that. It feels…refreshing.
I like believing that people like Father Mulcahy and the actors that portrayed him could possibly exist in the world, that there are some men for whom a long line of sexual conquests is not the defining factor of their masculinity. I want to believe in the existence of decent priests and slightly effeminate men with funny voices who have been married for 50 years. I’m tired of Tinderswiping dudebros being the standard-bearers for all mankind. I’m tired of the cynicism we all feel when any male person does anything seemingly benevolent or self-sacrificing – that they’re just doing it to get laid. I’m tired of half the planet being reduced to a fleet of walking penises that require servicing as often as possible. Because I think real men are so much more and better than animalistic man-children strutting through life on a mission to check items off their sexual bucket lists.
Prince and George Michael are not the non-toxic heroes that I need right now.
Now, you may be in a place where the hero you need is a guy who plays the part of a huge horndog with a perpetually raging hard on so long as he has gender fluidity. That’s cool. But I’ll take Father Mulcahy instead. Because real men are so much more than what toxic masculinity claims that they are.