Afraid of Affection

How toxic masculinity stigmatizes intimacy between men

Hassan Merali // Contrubutor
Lou Papa // Illustrator

A recent Twitter post commenting on a picture of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, caught my eye. “Does this look like an appropriate father [and] son interaction to you?” writes John Cardillo, a retired New York cop and Trump stan on Twitter. Below his caption was a black and white photo of Hunter and Joe Biden holding each other, Hunter looking at the camera while Joe kissed him on the cheek.

The intended message is clear: it’s wrong for a father and son to be expressing affection this way. Initial reactions were predictable; some rejected the ridiculous idea that it’s not okay for fathers and sons to hold or kiss one another on the cheek. Others pointed out the obvious cognitive dissonance necessary for a supporter of Donald Trump to express outrage over inappropriate behaviour from a father when Mr. Trump has publicly sexualized his daughter on multiple occasions.

To be clear, at the heart of the issue, it’s not about these two men being father and son. Nothing would have been said if the picture were of two women doing the same thing, whether those two women were mother and daughter or unrelated.

Fathers don’t stop loving their sons as they grow up or feel less inclined to express their love physically—the way they do changes. Even if they personally think that not kissing their son on the cheek is ridiculous, men feel protective and avoid doing so lest their son’s peers think less of him.

I’m not saying the familial relationship doesn’t come into play—there is more acceptance for this display of affection because of the close relationship between father and son. But the underlying attitude of this caption is that there’s something fundamentally wrong about two men embracing intimately and kissing on the cheek.

This very North American concept is relatively new. In the 19th century, when society was more gender-segregated and men were more likely to work side-by-side in physical labour, it was common to show affection with your guy friends in ways that might look strange to us today. The pathologizing of homosexuality changed our conception of it as something a person was, not an act they did. The rampant homophobia followed by a number of societal trends brought us to the touch-averse male friendships of the mid-20th century that this tweet seems to harken back to. Modern generations of men are generally more progressive, but these mid-20th century attitudes are still embedded deep within our cultural consciousness.

Our society propagates a version of masculinity that goes beyond stoicism. It is one that stigmatizes intimacy between men to the point of policing physical touch: kissing, stroking, hugging beyond a rough embrace with slaps on the back, and touching beyond fist bumps and high fives are all taboo in male relationships. This toxic version of masculinity is one that rejects any and all things considered feminine. In its eyes, feminine traits are considered weak—the inference being that renouncing everything associated with femininity makes one masculine.

This toxic version of masculinity—one that stigmatizes men expressing emotion as feminine and, therefore undesirable—is one I’ve written about before. Earlier this year, when my grandfather died, I wrote how men are still expected to feel and show little to no emotion and how that expectation crippled my ability to deal with my father’s death at a young age. While not uncommon, the expectation of growing physically distant from your father in a way you never do with your mother is almost universal for North American men. When a baby is born, nobody refuses to kiss it on the cheek if it’s a boy, and the same is mostly true through toddlerhood and childhood. Only when boys start entering into pre-pubescence and begin to transition into men does our society deem it inappropriate to be kissed on the cheek by other men.

This is where the father and son aspect of the relationship starts to be influenced by societal pressures around male relationships. Nothing else changes in the relationship, but in prepubescent males, society sees the beginnings of a man. Fathers don’t stop loving their sons as they grow up or feel less inclined to express their love physically—the way they do changes. Even if they personally think that not kissing their son on the cheek is ridiculous, men feel protective and avoid doing so lest their son’s peers think less of him.

Avoiding expressions of affection should no longer be seen as stoic or manly, because every time a father kisses his son on the cheek, real strength shines through: a father doing what he feels is right and best for his son—letting him know he is loved.

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