21st Century Masculinity Under Scrutiny: Musings on the Aqua Velva Man


You know what? I still use Aqua Velva! I guess the symbols of masculine strength and female attraction have a long half life with us Boomers.


What that means is that advertising mavens have been working on the male psyche with subliminal messaging for a good 60 years.


What makes us buy, believe, vote, worship, follow, and find meaning have been the subjects of Wall Street marketers’ research since the early 1900's. How to use hidden urges and frustrations now spans every waking aspect of modern living. When Freud met the Aqua Velva man, he got under the skin, not on top.


Our decision trees are now rooted in professional messaging machines that infiltrate the psyche of every mortal, especially men.


In a rapid ten years, we have seen the makings of masculinity span the brutally honest expose of Mad Mento the #MeToo movement and the ubiquitous use of the tag “toxic masculinity.”


What is a boy to do?


With no societal wide initiation rites – save the selection of your favorite NFL team – an adolescent boy is prey to the panoply of identity formation schemas sans any volitional choices. The Kavanaugh hearings took no prisoners on either side and laid bare all the good, bad, and ugly of male behavior, with mercy and forgiveness on vacation for all parties.


The theory of cognitive dissonance has taken root in the underbelly of American life. Men will go the distance to remain congruent with the nouveau, social media, entertainment and sports definitions of manhood. Add to this identity stew the classic Stanley Milgram study in clinical psychology about obedience: how far one will go to inflict pain and obey authority. This should be mandatory reading in our current arena of identity politics.


America is begging for a new Aqua Velva man; one with balance, literacy, culture and compassion. Seen one anywhere?


“The central problem of every society is to define appropriate roles for its men.”

- Margaret Mead


One possible remedy of “toxic masculinity” is to review and reflect on the time tested narratives of archetypes and how they inspire character and personality.


In the waking hours, every man seeks a self-affirming definition of his manhoodand the consequent behavior that validates his sense of purpose and integrity. The question is, where does that internal dialogue originate?


Scholars may say that the late psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung would be able to afford the most insightful treatise on those inner voices by way of his study of archetypes. He was a student of myth and legend and more pointedly his discovery of the “collective unconscious,” an aspect that crosses all times and cultures. It was his belief that the collective unconscious stored all the wisdom and imprinting of the human race. In the cranial box is stored all the instincts and experiences that came before the development of language skills. He called them archetypes.


Did Jung shed any light on the distinction between sacred masculinity and toxic masculinity?


The aforementioned brand appears to have permeated our entire culture with mythic level portrayals of the maturation process from the youth, lover, wanderer to the king, wise man and mystic. The wise man and mystic just do not make the news cycle. My wife and daughter always ask me why men are portrayed as buffoons in so many commercials, especially sports commercials. The Aqua Velva man was well-behaved.


Our movies are packed with archetypes, good, bad and ugly. The Oscar-nominated movie On The Basis of Sexgives us a glimpse akin to Mad Men’s male role models that formed many of the psyches of the now-“Boomers.” Those archetypes chime in during adolescent years with as much certainty as the sun and the moon. We join a club, fraternity, gang, church, football team, Marines, or a political party – all in search of fulfilling the unconscious urges of those subterranean archetypes. Some of our career decisions aren’t consciously volitional and result in echoing the inner voice that drives them. Some conflict with that voice. It may be that conflict is the source of the toxic male, and he is most likely simply angry with himself.


Then there are the males who are highly influenced by the women in their life who help them align with their compatible archetype. That would be Lynne Cheney in the Oscar-nominated Vice, where she brought a laser focus to the life of her husband Dick as she shouted:

“Stand up straight and get some courage and make something of yourself.”


Plato was the first philosopher to refer to what we now call archetypes, calling them “Forms.” He observed two realities, the sense world we live in and the non-physical world where Forms exist, which are the blueprints for our character. As the philosopher Heraclitus declared, “character is destiny,” with the implication that destiny or fate is not predetermined, but influenced by our inner character. I would say that both Lynne Cheney and Abagail Adams saw the true character of their men and made it manifest in their storied political careers.


Jung maintained that archetypes are the forms the instincts assume. In that case, what forms are the instincts of the stereotypical bully, and serial sexual harasser? Where does the “boys will be boys” choir get its tunes? When the American Psychological Association received some blow-back about it bias against masculinity, whose form of masculinity are they using as a benchmark?


Achieving, adventuresome, stoic, competitive, physically strong, and morally courageous attributes that were once exclusive to men are no longer true. Those very same traits can as easily be applied to my daughter or any of the women in my life. It is when those traits mask a weakness in the man that they become toxic and a violation of boundaries of behavior.


Clearly, men have been able to function with more autonomy and not at the effect of systematic discrimination, but I am not so sure that contributes to the toxic masculinity that is being bantered about in popular culture.


Therein may lie the culprit; “popular” is the operative word. We are showered with media messaging that is popular, but does it represent the true condition of the American man?


Examples of the male role model infused into popular culture: Chuck Norris, Liam Neeson, Matthew McConaughey, or any number of country music stars are the new John Wayne. Yet, this is all about branding and vicarious identification with males that fit that hidden archetype that is in the drivers seat.


It is unfortunate that the neurotic polarizing behavior in the political arena, spiced with identity politics, that has monetized hatred and division is more at the root cause of what may be defined as toxic. This new round of patterning is a neurological issue and taps into the proverbial “lizard brain” and may not be remedied in our lifetime. Yet, an understanding of how archetypes are being used and abused by the political class may bring us to some sanity and truly make America better again.


The need to understand archetypes is more vital now then ever in history. Our waking hours were once infused with rituals and myths that aided in balancing the soul and the psyche. Most of those rituals – many of them spiritual – have been collapsed and not replaced with any narrative or myth that guides with wisdom and class.


Let’s look to the flip side of the topic, sacred masculinity,and leave the toxic stuff to work itself out.


Any self-examination and exploration of sacred masculinity has been inspired by my daughter who is a psychotherapist and a master at posing the life questions that matter.


Opening the door to any aspect of sacredness will beg for some self disclosure to avoid any academic jargon.


The characteristics of sacred masculinity for me are rooted in a subject-object relationship. Evoking any brand of macho masculinity is greatly dependent upon who and what is in front of me. My sense of self as a man is mediated by being raised and surrounded by supportive and professional women who evoked respect and a protectionist mindset. You might say that the stimulus was the presence of a sacred femininity in my home and the response was a natural budding manhood. Having no man in my developmental years was the genesis of crafting my own sense of manhood, since I had no one to demonstrate for me.


But, yes I did wear Aqua Velva, just to be sure I was getting it right!


My sense of masculinity and its early sacredness – meaning solo decisions guided by a strong Catholic education and prayer as early as 12-years-old – was strictly invented and adventuresome. I was left alone and trusted to do so, leading to a rather solitary life but infused with outdoor adventure. This early autonomy assuredly led to the adopted Lone Ranger/Zorro persona, that fueled the less then conscious backdrop of my life, including being attracted to the symbolic aspects of the United States Marine Corps.


In retrospect, being engulfed in a milieu of four women, unharmed by the Catholic Church and allowed to find my own way, laid the seeds for marriage and fatherhood that hasn’t been tainted by anything I would characterize as toxic.


To have a male archetype – be it the Aqua Velva man, John Wayne, or the Dalai Lama – connotes that you own or have adopted such a role. I have not been drawn to nor magnetized by conventional, rebel, or identifiable subconscious archetypes. My knowledge of myth, legend, and ritual all seem to point to identities that are formed in opposition to something.


As Ralph Waldo Emerson said of his friend Henry David Thoreau:


“He is a genius but can only feel himself in opposition.”


This 19th century quote captures a large swath of the modern day male.


It is the Christian mystics that inspire me along with the Jewish Tales of the Baal Shem Tov. Any passing human on this mortal journey that exhibits even the slightest metaphysical transcendence of the mundane could be my male model of the day. That could be one of the myriad combat veteran survivors or the unemployed father working three jobs to take care of his family. They are my idea of sacred masculinity. They all join me in the holy huddle at some time. No one figure is dominant in the foreground or background. We are elevated by the presence of each other.


It is the attraction to our “better angels” as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently expressed, that guides any questions about being male.


To bring it home, I would add that a man’s vulnerability and strength are not exclusive. Vulnerability, in my world, is a form of raw truth and disclosure without shame. Stumbling and frailty are woven into the human condition. One of my favorite biblical passages is:


“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

-2 Corinthians 12:9


Vulnerability is to engage in thoughtful disclosure, opening the door to a common experience  and necessary interconnections. To be vulnerable is to be masculine. Only a rock is invulnerable in appearance as it too can be crushed.


Lets have a national discussion about the prevalence of sacred masculinity and not feed the wolf of the toxic ones.