Toxic Masculinity: Healthy Man or Toxic Boy?

Let’s take a look at the men in romance novels and see which ones emulate toxic masculinity and some who show us otherwise.

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Romance novels are wonderful for exploring all sides of that weird thing we call love. Unfortunately, this means novels also romanticize negative and self-destructive aspects of the human dynamic such as toxic masculinity. Let’s take a look at some characters that reach healthy masculinity, along with some that don’t.

Hardin Scott – After by Anna Todd

From a Bad Boy to a Healthy Man

Hardin Scott
Image Source: Aviron Pictures/Popsugar

Hardin Scott is our example of your typical bad boy. He uses aggression and violence to get what he wants and focuses primarily on serving his sexual urges. Hardin’s toxic behavior is shown most clearly when he makes a bet to take Tessa’s virginity, something that will feed his ego, but can cause damage to them both. Hardin was the resulting child of an affair that his mother had and his stepfather Ken had a feeling he knew about it.

Ken was the prime example in Hardin’s life of toxic masculinity as he did not deal with these things in a healthy way. He instead took it out on Hardin and his mother by abusing them both. This led to Hardin’s own substance abuse and increased violence as a teenager.

It’s not all bad, however, as Hardin begins to grow and develop through the series he turns to embrace more healthy masculinity. Through his character growth in the series he eventually sought help, regularly attended therapy, became sober, and faced the emotions he had locked away. This resulted in him becoming a successful writer and mental health advocate.

Edward Cullen – Twilight Trilogy by Stephenie Meyer

Dangerous Hunger and Outdated Chivalry

Edward Cullen, Toxic Masculinity
Image Source: Dawn Images

Now there’s a name most people may know, even if you’ve never seen the movies or read the books. Edward Cullen, the sparkling vampire heartthrob, has some violent tendencies, but he’s also a vampire so… Let’s take those with a grain of salt as most men don’t want to drink their partner’s blood. That aside, Edward is toxic for other reasons and most of those reasons revolve around the denial of his emotions.

Due to either his upbringing or apprehension of his status as a vampire, Edward stifles himself and for a majority of the series runs away from his emotions. Now, again, this is partially due to his concern about his level of control around Bella. Romantic, right? Eh… Not really. Sure it is somewhat chivalrous for him to be so concerned for Bella’s well-being, but how does one process that in a healthy way? By running off to Alaska, of course!

… Yeah don’t do that. Slowly, but surely, Edward returns and faces his emotions and works toward safe interactions with Bella. While he still remains a reserved individual, Edward eventually gains a healthier mentality for both himself and his relationship with Bella.

Joe Goldberg – You by Caroline Kepnes

From Protector to Murderer

Joe Goldberg, Toxic Masculinity
Image Source: Netflix Adaptation of You

This one will get into much more toxic territory as Joe is an example of an extreme case of toxic masculinity gone even more wrong. Joe’s life started with their parents in a dysfunctional relationship and with abuse to himself and his mother from his father. Joe’s mother frequently cheated on his father due to the abuse, and his father tortured Joe to try and get him to admit it.

Because of all of this abuse, Joe’s mother acquired a gun and promised to kill Joe’s father in the near future. However, when push came to shove, it ended up being Joe who pulled the trigger on his own father. Now, that is plenty of trauma alone to have a deep root cause for toxic masculinity. From this and his eventual mentorship by another abusive man, Joe was turned into a very dangerous man who did not get the help he needed before he went too far.

Joe took his action to heart and became a sociopathic version of a protector. Any time he found a girl he might fall in love with, he would stalk them obsessively and work to know everything he could about them. This alone is crossing several lines of privacy. Joe’s thought process is that if he does this they can never hurt him. This character takes this thought process a step further unfortunately as anyone who Joe sees as an obstacle is soon removed as one through any means including kidnap and murder. Joe is definitely high in the toxic category.

Rochester – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

The Spoiled Noble Boy

Image via IMDb – Jane Eyre Adaptation

Here we move on to a more classic example of toxic masculinity. Rochester is a male of noble standing in the Victorian Era, which was a very patriarchal time. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Rochester believed he was entitled to anything he wanted, including women. At first, his ego has him trying to manipulate Jane into being jealous and pursuing him. When this angle fails Rochester exhibits anger and pursues her further, internally pitying himself.

The entitlement is what further drives Rochester’s toxicity as he further pursues Jane and even proposes to her. Just as they were to be married it is revealed that Rochester was already married to another woman named Bertha. He shows his anger again and becomes even more self-pitying in his efforts to convince Jane that his wife is crazy and begins showing how selfish he was in leaving them both in the lurch for these decisions he made. Rochester exhibits textbook toxic masculinity that hurts his life and the lives of those around him.

Heathcliff – Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

The Boy Left Behind

Heathcliff, Toxic Masculinity
Image Source: Prime Video

Once more from the Victorian Era, we have a man who ends up becoming a wealthy noble, though this one was not born as such. Heathcliff was mysteriously into the Earnshaw’s as a child when he was found alone in a remote village. At first, Heathcliff could not even speak the same language as his siblings, causing an early divide. Over time, however, Heathcliff connected deeply with his adopted sister Catherine even to the point where he fell in love with her. Catherine betrayed him however and eventually leaves the Heights to marry another man even after admitting she loves Heathcliff in return.

All of this is plenty to give Heathcliff a fairly turbulent psychological state, which causes aspects of toxic masculinity to show through in his actions. Manipulation, violence, and several forms of abuse were only a few of the methods Heathcliff took after vowing revenge on everyone at the Heights. Catherine’s betrayal was not only wrong that had been committed against him, but it was also closer to the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Upon his return to Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff was a wealthy nobleman with the power to flex as he took his revenge. By the end of the book, he has taken his revenge and more. He accomplished his goal when he owns the Wuthering Heights and the Grange after nearly all his enemies have been killed or driven out. Some were even driven mad. Pain caused the toxic lessons he had been exposed to grow into something much worse.

Christian Grey – 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James

To Fall a Boy and Rise a Man

Christian Grey
Image Source: Prime Video

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day let’s end this with a good one, or at least more specifically a healthier example– Christian Grey. Now it might be surprising to hear but Christian is an example of trauma turned to healthy masculinity. Christian did not start out this way as he had a very turbulent childhood. Ella, Christian’s mother, was a prostitute who was regularly abused. This abuse also carried over to Christian, which resulted in the eventual death of his mother from an overdose.

Christian spent days with his mother after she had passed, and kept that pain long into his teenage years. This caused violent outbursts and anger from Christian until he was introduced to the world of BDSM. From this unlikely source, Christian found a way to safely control and channel his emotions in a way both he and his partners consented to. This was not an immediate shift, however, as his lust for control was still a bit unbalanced at first.

As the series continues, Christian wrestles with keeping this at a healthy level along with facing the trauma of his past. His desire for control and expression bring a somewhat toxic view to a community whose biggest rules are consent and boundaries. In the end, Christian finds his balance and faces his past, proving these toxic traits to only remain as permanent as he let them. This shift in perspective and mentality makes him a great display of toxic masculinity turned healthy.

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