Troy Maxson and Toxic Masculinity

“Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples…Patriarchy as a system has denied males access to full emotional well-being, which is not the same as feeling rewarded, successful, or powerful, because of one’s capacity to assert control over others. To truly address male pain and male crisis we must as a nation be willing to expose the harsh reality that patriarchy has damaged men in the past and continues to damage them in the present.” 

—bell hooks

Ijust saw the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. It was brilliant and thought-provoking — everything I imagined it would be. I definitely recommend seeing it, especially since learning Denzel Washington, director and producer, is contracted to do film adaptations of the other nine plays of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. The moving performances of Viola Davis and Denzel Washington certainly permits consideration for any number of awards and national notoriety.

Fences focuses on the family of Troy Maxson (played by Washington), a black, middle-aged trash collector who struggles to keep his family afloat. Maxson was once a phenomenal Negro League baseball player, but because of the color of his skin (and arguably his age at the time) he was not able to ascend to the Major Leagues. Troy’s resentment of this stifles his relationship with his family, perhaps because his denied access to the MLB creates the financial instability that burdens him. A viewer can’t help but notice that the resentment Troy holds about his past adversely and directly impacts his interaction with his wife, who he never calls by name, and youngest son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo).

Troy and Cory constantly argue about responsibility. Troy wants to put a fence up behind the house and thinks Cory is totally negligent of this responsibility and his other chores around the house. Cory plays high school football and works a small job. Cory is being scouted for college football and Troy discourages this, wanting him to take more hours at work. The scolding Troy gives Cory is an outward sign of the fear the father has given his past failures — but this should not be an excuse for the disrespect the father yields. After the scolding, Cory asks his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?”

In a monologue, made famous by James Earl Jones, Troy responds:

Troy: Liked you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Wanna stand up in my face and ask a damn fool-ass question like that. Talking about liking somebody…straighten up, goddammit! I asked you a question…what law is there say I got to like you?

Cory: None.

Troy: Well, all right then! Don’t you eat every day? (Pause.) Answer me when I talk to you! Don’t you eat every day?

Cory: Yeah.

Troy: Nigger, as long as you in my house, you put that sir on the end of it when you talk to me!

Cory: Yes…sir.

Troy: You eat every day.

Cory: Yessir!

Troy: Got a roof over your head.

Cory: Yessir!

Troy: Got clothes on your back.

Cory: Yessir.

Troy: Why you think that is?

Cory: Cause of you.

Troy: Ah, hell I know it’s ’cause of me…but why do you think that is?

Cory (hesitant): Cause you like me.

Troy: Like you? I go out of here every morning…bust my butt…putting up with them crackers every day…cause I like you? You about the biggest fool I ever saw. (Pause.) It’s my job. It’s my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house…sleep your behind on my bedclothes…fill your belly up with my food…cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ’cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you! Let’s get this straight right here…before it go along any further…I ain’t got to like you. Mr. Rand don’t give me my money come payday cause he likes me. He gives me cause he owe me. I done give you everything I had to give you. I gave you your life! Me and your mama worked that out between us. And liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain. Don’t you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you. You understand what I’m saying, boy?

Cory: Yessir.

Troy: Then get the hell out of my face, and get on down to that A&P.

Troy’s antagonistic approach to his son’s questions concerned me in my viewing, as it first did when I saw Jones’ portrayal of Troy. Throughout Troy’s tirade, I heard people in the audience whispering, “I know that’s right.” Cheering Troy on. I’m led to assume that these cheerleaders find Troy’s response the response of “a real man”, or of a man who takes pride in his work and in taking care of his family. This finding is incomplete and troubles me for we’ve been made to believe that antagonism and (black) manhood and fatherhood are synonymous.

To be sure, Cory did not feel loved in the play or film by his father. Troy’s talk of responsibility was really a cover up for his inability to emotionally respond to and embrace his son. Troy was unable to love Cory. He was unable to love and remain faithful to his wife, Rose (played by Davis). His inability to love is a product of toxic masculinity — “responsibility” masks this.

Toxic masculinity is the violence, stress, trauma, and outward aggression demonstrated by the desire to align oneself with societal conceptions of manhood or masculinity. This desire is enhanced by the suffocating fear that one will never be good or man enough or that one can be easily emasculated — so toxic masculinity does everything in its power to be the strongest. Sadly, our society does not talk enough about how toxic masculinity harms folks everywhere and invades every sector of our lives. Toxic masculinity is somewhere in the cause of heightened suicide rates in men. Toxic, fragile masculinity is at the root of rape culture. Toxic masculinity is at the root of cishet men’s homophobic and domestic violence. Toxic masculinity bore the strange fruit that swung from trees across Southern town squares and forests. Toxic masculinity over-polices, shoots, and kills unarmed black people. Trump’s arrogance and entitlement are a result of unchecked toxic masculinity. High blood pressure and depression are symptoms of toxic masculinity and we have failed to acknowledge this. This toxicity pervades our lives and we have not tackled it head on.

Troy touts that his manhood is bound to how he takes care of his family and his hard work ethic, but these things negate the compassion necessary to take care of and love wholly his son and wife. We have to recognize that Troy’s anger about his past should not warrant the violence he causes in the Maxson household. Troy’s toxicity places a fence that blocks him from those he is responsible to love. That barrier is crossed posthumously in the film, for Troy kicks Cory of “his” house and dies years later.

Before Troy’s funeral, Cory returns as a corporal in the Marines. He doesn’t believe Troy is worthy of a farewell, recalling the pain of living with his father to his mother, “Papa was like a shadow that followed you everywhere…I’ve got to find a way to get rid of that shadow, Mama.” Troy’s violence haunts Cory.

I have not seen much honest conversation about how toxic masculinity infiltrates the lives of families everywhere, though Wilson’s Fences is a perfect demonstration of this. Men are not taught how poisonous it is to make “being a real man” one’s only mission. Patriarchy and capitalism alike have convinced us that we are machines, not (hu)men, whose sole mission is to provide, to violently defend, to be strong at all costs. We are taught to not be emotionally intelligent or communicative. Men are not taught to cry. We are taught to ignore our emotional and psychological well-being. Men are taught to “be a real (stereotypical) man” even when that is antithetical to who we honestly are. We have been dishonest about how our desires to be “real men” are futile so often, creating this regressive trial where we’ll always come up short and guilty.

To be more whole, more loving persons, we have to unlearn the unhealthy behavior toxic masculinity creates. We will not be able to cross the barriers to love those near and dear to us if we cannot address the ways our investment in patriarchy destroys us and them. Until we all change, we will continue to infirm and violate our communities. It is time to change. Time to divest. Time to tear down the fences.

By Anthony Boynton

Anthony Boynton is a writer, doctoral student of English at the University of Kansas, and aspiring public intellectual. He writes and teaches about race, gender, politics, and pop culture.