The world is changing, and as a society we are re-examining gender roles. There have been lots of conversations about masculinity and the place it has in our modern world. The term toxic masculinity has often come up as people question how some powerful men have abused their positions. Some people have conflated toxic masculinity with the concept of masculinity itself, but that isn’t the complete story. Masculinity does not have to be a negative thing, as positive masculinity demonstrates.
What is positive masculinity and how does it differ from toxic masculinity? If you need an example, then look no further than Cress Williams’ portrayal of Jefferson Pierce on The CW’s Black Lightning. Jefferson is a great example of what happens when a man uses their power to improve their community.
For starters Jefferson Pierce is a hero, and I’m not just talking about when he fights crime as Black Lightning. As principal of Garfield High, Jefferson Pierce uses his position to advocate for at risk children. The pilot episode of Black Lightning states that Garfield High has a graduation rate of over 90 percent and that there had been no violent incidents at the school for seven years. That’s strong leadership and throughout the series we see it in action.
For example, in the episode “Black Jesus,” Jefferson discovered that a student named Bernard Lewis had become addicted to the Green Light drug. The school board wanted to expel Bernard, but Jefferson personally advocated for the boy, risking his job in the process. He knew that if Bernard was expelled he would lose his scholarships and could get further ensnared into the world of drugs and gangs. Pierce cared about Bernard, referring to him as a good kid who had made a mistake. He didn’t want Bernard’s bad decision to define him and he worked with the boy’s father to make sure he was put in a good treatment program. Another principal may have expelled Bernard or assumed it was the parents’ problem, but Jefferson goes above and beyond for all his students.
One of Jefferson’s greatest talents is defusing conflict. When fights have erupted in the halls of Garfield High, Jefferson works on defusing the situation instead of searching for punitive solutions. Pay close attention to a scene from the season two episode “Translucent Freak.” Two teenagers have begun fighting, and Jefferson appeals to them to mend fences and return to class. Look at how the students react to Pierce and it’s apparent how much they respect him.
Mike Lowry, who had recently replaced Pierce as principal of Garfield High, enters the scene and undoes Jefferson’s progress. The situation had been successfully defused by Jefferson’s mediation, but Lowry was more interested in expelling the students. Pierce appealed on their behalf, “If you give that kid another chance, he will become a person that we can all be proud of. But you throw him out on the street, odds are he’s going to become someone to be feared.”
One of Jefferson’s most inspiring moments came in the season one episode “Sins of the Father: Book of Redemption.” When Jefferson learned that a young boy named Malik was selling drugs to support his grandmother, he reacted with concern and compassion, inviting Malik to attend his weekly mentoring program on Saturday morning. The student was initially apprehensive, but his face lit up as his session with Jefferson progressed. Jefferson could’ve called the police or turned Malik in to social services, but he knew the boy needed more. Malik needed a role model to take a special interest in him and Jefferson recognized that. He didn’t want to “kick the can down the road” or tell himself that it wasn’t his problem.
Based on that scene, we can assume that Jefferson devotes every single Saturday to an extracurricular mentoring program. Consider the implications of that for a minute. After giving his all at Garfield High five days a week, Jefferson gives up his free time on weekends to make sure the young people in his community get the guidance they need. During that episode, Black Lightning was still in the middle of a long conflict with Tobias Whale and the 100, but he stopped what he was doing because Malik needed a role model. I’d argue that this was one of the most important scenes of the entire series and a perfect example of positive masculinity in action.
Jefferson is a positive role model, but he’s far from perfect. Throughout the series he’s made mistakes (including some big ones throughout this season), lost his temper and done things he regrets. The reason he’s an example of positive masculinity is because of how he handles those setbacks. When Jefferson fails, he apologizes and he rethinks his actions. It takes a big man to admit their mistakes, and the way you handle failure is an important part of being a leader.
We can see this in how Jefferson interacts with his family. Jefferson hasn’t always made the right decisions for Anissa and Jennifer, but he’s learned from his mistakes and has never stopped growing as a father. Jefferson empowers the people in his life, helping them become the best version of who they are. That’s one of the cornerstones of positive masculinity.
The final ingredient is, of course, Cress Williams himself, whose portrayal as Jefferson Pierce is one of the most underrated performances on network television. As an actor, Williams puts his heart and soul in every scene.
During a 2019 interview, I asked Cress to give his thoughts about Jefferson’s status as a television role model. Without missing a beat, Cress replied “I'm so honored. It's an honor to play him, but it's also so needed because he's such a good representation of a father. He's also a good representation of how to be a member of a community. You can't isolate yourself. You have to be an active member and pitch in wherever you can. And in this day and age, it's sorely needed.”
Black Lightning is entering the home stretch of its final season, and things are going rough for Jefferson. The death of Bill Henderson, Jennifer’s surprising transformation and last week’s enraging embezzlement accusation have left their mark on Jefferson. Yet, over the last few seasons of Black Lightning, we’ve seen Jefferson overcome unfathomable adversity. The smart money is on Pierce beating the odds again, and in doing so, teaching the rest of us an important thing about being a positive male force in today’s world.
Black Lightning airs Mondays at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. CST) on The CW. For more on the small screen's most electrifying hero, be sure to visit our official Black Lightning page.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.