I know, “toxic masculinity” carries a whole lot of annoying baggage. Like many concepts that are suddenly ubiquitous in our hyper partisan world, the phrase became politicized and distorted before many people had a chance to fully comprehend what it actually means. As a result some think it accuses all forms of masculinity of being bad. That’s why they consider it an attack on the very concept of manliness itself. But if you ever wanted to know why that’s total bullshit The Last of Us just provided another perfect counterexample with its incredible sixth episode. Pedro Pascal’s Joel exemplifies the strength and power of non-toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity has a formal definition, but thanks to its endless political connotations it can mean something different to everyone. At its core, though, is the notion that certain stereotypical male behaviors are actively harmful to everyone. That especially refers to the ideas that boys and men must avoid showing emotion, making genuine connections with others, and letting themselves appear vulnerable in any way.
Those attitudes often result in destructive behavior. If you’ve ever seen a person start a fight because someone accidentally spilled a drink on them, you probably know what toxic masculinity looks like in its simplest form. The Last of Us also showed why those traits aren’t even limited to just men. Melanie Lynskey’s Kathleen and her insatiable desire for vengeance highlighted just how much damage you can do when you deny your humanity, which is at the heart of toxic masculinity. But the concept also manifests in far subtler—and far worse—ways that are harder to see. Like when someone in need refuses to ask for help.
Masculinity itself is not inherently toxic, any more than being a man is. There are traditional aspects of manliness that have tremendous value to both society and the individual. And Pedro Pascal’s incredible performance in The Last of Us‘ sixth episode showed just how true that is.
No one can walk away from this episode or show saying Joel is not masculine. Not in good faith, at least. He’s tough, protective, skilled, and strong. He embodies many of the most common traits associated with masculinity. However, a big part of his strength comes from characteristics not traditionally considered “manly.” He can recognize and admit both his limits and his feelings. Joel doesn’t adhere to the toxic notion he can never show weakness, and that’s one of his greatest strengths. If he couldn’t, he’d be putting Ellie at far greater risk, like a captain who refuses to admit his boat has sprung a leak. It was good for both of them that he told her about his hearing problems.
Joel’s willingness to open up is why he turned to Tommy during a heartbreaking moment of vulnerability. Joel knew his brother could keep Ellie safe far better than himself. His age means he’s slowing down and not the man he once was. But Joel’s physical ailments aren’t even his biggest problem. He is also struggling to deal with his past and fear of failure. He carries an unimaginable amount of pain and guilt for the deaths of his daughter and Tess. (Just as he does for all of the terrible things he did in the name of keeping his loved ones safe.) And after so much loss he can barely handle the thought of failing Ellie, an innocent, lost kid who has nothing in a dying world besides him. His nightmares follow him everywhere.
Joel knows he is breaking down physically, but he knows the real issue is that he is already a broken man emotionally. Pretending otherwise in the name of manliness would only endanger Ellie. Asking Tommy to watch her, and being completely honest about why he needed his brother’s help, was the bravest thing Joel could do. Allowing himself to look weak and scared took courage, the core concept behind much of what we associate with masculinity. The best of us put our loved ones’ needs ahead of our own, even at great risk to ourselves.
Joel also did exactly that when he listened to Ellie and responded to her actual needs and not what he assumed she needed. In a vacuum he was probably right that Tommy would make for a better escort. But people don’t live in vacuums. We form emotional connections with the people we love. And with that love comes trust. Sometimes feeling safer is what keeps us going. It can be far more important and helpful than how well that person can hear or how fast they can run. Joel showing up in that stable and giving Ellie the option of going with either him or Tommy was non-toxic masculinity at its best. You can “be a man” by simply being there the way someone most needs you to be. Even/especially if it scares the shit out of you. What could be braver and more “manly” than that?
Non-toxic masculinity doesn’t prevent you from protecting the weak, caring for your family, and standing up against others. It actually makes you stronger for all the reasons toxic masculinity makes you weak. Toxic masculinity leads to you refusing to ask for help when you need it most. It drives you to do harmful things that endanger the very people you want to protect. There’s nothing brave in pretending you aren’t vulnerable. We’re all vulnerable, and we all have problems and shortcomings, even the most masculine among us.
Lying to yourself, closing yourself off emotionally, and putting the people you care about at risk have never been masculine traits. But they sure are toxic.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.