Icons of Mature Masculinity: Tom Magnum

This is the first in an occasional series of posts looking at characters from popular culture who exemplify the ideals of  mature masculinity. If you have ideas for characters who would work for this series email me at dean@deanabbott.com or tweet me @deanabbott.

Magnum-PI Tom Magnum is not what he seems. On the surface, he’s a happy-go-lucky overgrown boy who lounges around all day in Hawaiian shirts and board shorts. He’s constantly bumming money from his friends. He only drives a Ferrari because his boss owns it. He hangs out too much at the King Kamehameha club. He lives in someone else’s guesthouse. Based solely on appearances, he’s not the kind of guy you can count on or who even deserves your respect.

And yet.

People seek him out constantly to solve their problems. Ostensibly, this is because he works as a private investigator whose job it is to solve people’s problems. But, something deeper is going on. People come to him for help because of what Magnum is beneath his layabout exterior.

They come to him because of his character, and that character, exhibited over hundreds of episodes, is the reason that Tom Magnum is an icon of mature masculinity.

In spite of his carefree style, Magnum is a man who cares about others enormously. He is motivated to risk his welfare consistently by both a deep sense of concern for those who cross his path and an irresistible sense of duty.

His concern for others and his commitment to duty, do not, however, make him a “nice” guy. Tom Magnum is kind. He’s respectful. He’s fun. But, he won’t be pushed around, and if you push him far enough, he’ll push back with lethal force.

In the three decades since the show was on the air, this kind of masculinity has largely disappeared from our culture. Men who could hold together the gentle traits of humor, kindness, and caring along with an inflexible commitment to self-respect, duty and accountability have largely vanished. This is why its helpful to look back at characters in popular culture who embody this mix of traits.

Where our culture once taught men to integrate our aggression and concern for others into our personalities, it now splits them between two distinct sets of men. On the one hand, we have the bros, the stereotypical frat-boy loudmouths, obsessed with sex, sports and entertainment. These guys are all aggression. They take risks. They may never shirk from a fight. But, none of these qualities have been disciplined. These young men remain unformed by any process that would direct all that raw masculine energy toward duty, toward worthy pursuits, toward building and protecting civilization.

On the other hand, we have “nice” guys. Guys who never raise a fuss. Men without principle, without pride, without passion. These men, such as they are, are blown by the winds of social opinion. They may be gentle, but that gentleness serves no higher purpose than to make themselves inoffensive, even when important principles are at stake. Their sight is fixed more of gaining the approval of friends than on ruling their own lives. They are more fixated on the crowd than on the crown.

Tom Magnum is one of the now rare characters that helps show us what a mature, integrated man looks like. In some ways, the entire run of the series is the story of how this man struggles with these two sides of his nature and finally comes to peace because of his relationships with others.

Throughout the arc of the show, Magnum displays not just his concern for those in trouble, but loyalty to his brothers-in-arms. Magnum and his friends, Rick and TC, were in soldiers together in Vietnam. Higgins is a WWII vet. When the show opens, Magnum and his buddies have relocated to Hawaii. They, along with Higgins, serve as the protectors of paradise. The relationships between them, forged in war, buoy up their strength to carry out the duties required to keep safe so fragile a place.

But, as much as the show is about friendship, there are more important relationships in Magnum’s life. Midway through the series, we find out that Magnum is married. While in Vietnam he married a woman whom he believed was killed in a bombing. Later, we discover he has a daughter, Lily.

In the final scene of the series, we see Magnum dressed once again in his naval uniform walking along the beach with his young daughter at his side. He has returned to the steady work of a naval officer. Gone are the Ferrari, the Hawaiian shirts, the indolent hours. At the end of the show, we see that he has finally fully integrated both his gentleness and his warrior side as he puts them to service aiding and protecting this one little life for whom he is responsible. It is in this final scene, more than in any of the gunfights or chases or romances, that Magnum provides the clearest picture of what a man ought to strive for: gentleness, protectiveness, loyalty, responsibility.

If our popular culture were healthy, we’d see more examples of this kind of manliness on television. Without these images to show them an ideal, men suffer. So do women. Everybody wanders around trying to figure out what to do, how to be. This is why is so important to meditate on the examples we do have. Magnum is one of them. Any man would do well to look beyond the show’s tropes to examine the character of its hero, and to ask himself when in a tough spot, “What Would Magnum Do?”

And then go and do likewise.

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