When I was a young boy, and even through my teen years, I had plenty of strong male role models to look up to. There were cowboys, detectives, fighter pilots, and firemen on TV. I had my favorite pro athletes to cheer for. And in real life, God blessed me with teachers, coaches, and scout leaders who taught me about being a man along with their lessons in geometry, water polo, or knot tying. I was fortunate to have so many men to emulate and follow and their lessons are still with me as a man today.
But when I look around at our society and culture today, and watch who today’s boys and young men have to model, I see very few positive, male role models to mold our next generations of men. Where are the heroes for today’s boys to look up to? Who’s inspiring and teaching them to become strong, responsible men in the world?
Heroes on the Screen
When I was a boy growing up in the seventies and early eighties, there were plenty of real men all around me. Like any generation since the invention of the movie camera and the television, I found many of my role models through TV and movies. Today’s children are no different than I was, only I think I had more quality heroes to watch on my TV and movie screens.
I started out watching reruns of the Lone Ranger, a quiet but strong defender of moral justice, who had a faithful best friend by his side. Then there were crime solving detectives like Steve McQueen as Bullit, Starsky and Hutch, and Jim Rockford. But my favorite TV heroes were probably LA firemen paramedics Roy DeSoto and Johnny Gage in Emergency. Plus, suave and cool Dr. Brackett on Emergency was played by an actor named Robert Fuller, so you know I was a fan of his. These were some of the men I wanted to grow up to be. These were the TV role models that helped define masculinity for me as I was growing up.
But what appealed to me in these men? What did I as a young boy want to emulate in them?
On the surface, but a strong draw for sure, almost all of my heroes drove hot cars! I grew up in the decades of the muscle car, so most of my boyhood heroes drove around in big, loud, powerful Detroit muscle cars. As a boy, and let’s be honest, even well past when I had my first driver’s license, I pictured myself chasing bad guys (or maybe even running from the Sheriff myself) in any number of classic muscle cars.
Starsky and Hutch somehow worked undercover in their big, not-so-subtle red Ford Grand Torino. The Duke boys had their iconic General Lee, a ’69 Dodge Charger. And speaking of Chargers, who can forget the classic chase scene of Steve McQueen being pursued endlessly in his ’68 Mustang GT by a couple of anonymous but tenacious bad guys in a big black Charger? Even Batman and Robin (who I never really looked up to, given their tights and capes and the fact that I never saw either one with a girl) still protected Gotham from the seats of a menacing, black hot rod with mag wheels and flames shooting out the back.
Besides what these guys drove, I think I also looked up to what they did for a living, or at least how they lived their lives. These men spent their lives (in 30 minute chunks on my TV set) rescuing people and putting out fires, solving mysteries and chasing down criminals, fighting corruption, and defending whole communities. Most of them had a partner or best friend to count on. Even the Lone Ranger was never alone.
But mostly, these men were men. They had courage, strength, resolve, and talent. They could all take a punch and throw them even better. They could handle a 400 horsepower car through the turns and were just as good handling the curves of a beautiful woman. But these guys were also the good guys. They lived by a code. Even supposed criminal types like the Dukes of Hazard and the Bandit, still had a moral code they lived by that included defending the defenseless and fighting against corruption.
I didn’t know it at the time, sitting on my living room floor in front a big wooden TV set, but the Lone Ranger lived by a set of beliefs and principles that guided his every action and decision. The creators of the Lone Ranger character actually wrote a strict moral code for the character to follow. In fact, the men who played the Lone Ranger and Tonto, took their responsibilities as role models so serious, they even strove to live by this code in their own personal lives off-screen. Some of the beliefs of the Lone Ranger were;
These core beliefs came through the TV screen into my impressionable young mind. As far as I knew, this was just how good men acted. This was what it meant to be a real man. To act any other way would make you a bad guy, and I knew exactly what happened to all the bad guys.
To have a friend, a man must be one.
A man should make the most of what equipment he has.
And belief in my Creator, my country, my fellow man.
Heroes on the Field
As any real American boy, I also played sports and looked up to my favorite athletes. I grew up outside of Philadelphia and played little league football and baseball. So when I played baseball I imagined myself throwing, catching, and hitting like Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Greg Luzinski, or Larry Bowa. On the football field I tried to throw like Ron Jaworski and tackle like Bill Bergey. One of my greatest childhood memories was getting to meet Eagles linebacker Bill Bergey at my little league football awards banquet. I was all of 98 pounds (in full gear and helmet) and only nine years old at the time. When I put my little hand into his and looked up at the smiling face coming through his big dark beard, he looked like a giant. Heck, to most full-grown NFL quarterbacks he was a giant. But to me he was a larger than life man of a man, taking a night off to hand a little boy in the suburbs his wooden plaque, and another example of someone I wanted to grow up to be.
Now before you complain that my impressions of my boyhood heroes were worldly and simplistic, let me explain something. I didn’t become a true Christian until I was an adult. So when I grew up with these childhood role models, I didn’t yet know all that the Bible teaches about authentic, Biblical manhood. I hadn’t yet learned very much about great Biblical heroes such as David, Moses, Joseph, Paul, Peter, the Sons of Thunder James and John, or even Jesus. My juvenile mind was judging these men on the screen and the ball field based only on what my natural male instincts valued. But even without a Biblical foundation, I was still drawn to honorable character traits and authentically masculine images of men. I think most boys are until it’s driven out of them. The man that I am now better understands what a real man is, by even as a boy I still instinctively knew what I wanted to be some day.
Heroes in Real Life
Of course, even better than my imaginary heroes on TV and in movies, I had a few real-life heroes to look up to. My grandfather and great-uncle fought in World War II but never needed to talk much about what they went through there. I didn’t learn until I was much older that my uncle never wore shorts or a short sleeve shirt, even in Southern California, because of the horrible scars he ended up with from when his Navy ship was sunk and engulfed in fire. All I remembered was how nice he always was to me. My dad taught me about sacrifice and providing for your family, being calm and steady in the midst of life’s storms, and how to show patience and strength at the same time. And he also drove a lot of awesome muscle cars in his day. I also had men as teachers whom I looked up to, a water polo coach that cared more about developing character in his young players than winning every game, and three great scoutmasters who committed their time to me and helped transform me from a little boy into a capable and respectable man.
But where are these role models for boys today? Where are the real men for them to look up to, to help form them into adult men capable of defending themselves and others, ready to fight evil, able to survive in this world, and guided by principles and values larger than themselves? Where are their examples to show them how to one day become good and Godly husbands and fathers, leaders in their communities, and defenders of what’s right? Where are today’s heroes for the next generation of men?
I look around today and I don’t see many male images I want my sons to emulate. On TV and in movies we have weak, stupid fathers, hen-pecked by their dominant but all wise and knowing wives. We see bumbling idiot Homer Simpson characters botching their jobs, failing their families, getting smacked between the legs or over the head, and becoming the brunt of most jokes. We see plenty of supposed males, so effeminate and metro sexual that they are almost indistinguishable from girls. Or on the other end of the gender distortion perspective, you have cartoon caricatures of what we’re supposed to accept as real men like professional wrestlers, narcissistic self-indulged body builders, idiot sexist violent racist rappers, and overpaid arrogant selfish professional athletes.
I almost can’t watch TV anymore without getting frustrated or depressed. I’ve seen young boys dancing and singing in basketball uniforms who’ve never even shot a basket for real. There are so many effeminate, lisping male hair stylists, clothing designers, interior decorators, models, and dancers on screen that it makes me feel like a GEICO caveman in comparison.
So how are today’s boys ever going to become men with role models like these? I worry that they won’t, but my goal is to help inspire some changes so that more will. I hope to encourage more men to become positive male role models to their sons or grandsons, their students, their communities, and even as a standard for their daughters to see. With God's help, we can be heroes as men once again.