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How to Be a Man: Update Your Ideas of Masculinity

In the new book "For The Love of Men: A New Vision For A Mindful Masculinity," journalist Liz Plank explores the myriad ways traditionally masculine notions harm men — and how we can all move forward productively.

While it describes a set of regressive “tough guys” behaviors and beliefs such as burying emotion, acting aggressively, and devaluing women that should be eliminated, the term “toxic masculinity” exists on the presumption that masculinity is, well, toxic. This naturally puts men on the defensive. And a conversation about how to move forward can’t be very productive if it begins with an attack. This is why journalist and author Liz Plank worked to remove the phrase almost entirely from her new book For the Love of Men: A New Vision for a Mindful Masculinity.

“Often, when we have this conversation, we’re approaching men with what they’re doing wrong,” she says. “I think we need to approach them for what they can do right. Masculinity is actually the solution, not the problem.”

In For The Love of Men: A New Vision For A Mindful Masculinity, Plank, who also has a Masters in global gender politics, explores the myriad ways traditionally masculine ideals stymie men — and how we can all move forward productively. Through a series of interviews with men across the world and an armload of scientific data, Plank argues that traditional forms of masculinity (which she refers to as “idealized masculinity”) create emotionally repressed men, who in turn harm their health, their relationships, and, in the worst cases, others. Men are not the problem, Plank argues. Rather, the issue lies in the culture that taught — and continues to teach — men to be silent in order to be strong.

Plank sympathizes for men who feel attacked. “No one likes to be told that they’re doing something wrong,” she says. “No one likes to be told that they need to change. And the older you are, the more set in your ways, the harder it is to change behaviors and attitudes. I think that we have to have empathy for, that, yes, men need to change, but that change might be hard.”

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Fatherly spoke to Plank about her book, the health outcomes associated with idealized masculinity, why countries with more gender equality have better health outcomes for men and women, and why we should be empathetic towards men who struggle to find their place in the shifting world of gender expression.

You don’t use the phrase “toxic masculinity” much in your book very often.  

I actually try to use the term as little as possible. I tried to take it out of the book entirely a few days before it was out to print. I know that we need a name, a definition of what the problem is in order to have a solution to it. But I also think that, although people who are well versed in gender dynamics and stereotypes will understand what it means, the people who really do need to learn about masculinity are turned off by that term. I prefer “idealized masculinity.” 

Often, when we have this conversation, we’re approaching men with what they’re doing wrong. I think we need to approach them for what they can do right. Masculinity is actually the solution, not the problem. Being a man is not bad. It’s the collective idea, and ideals and definitions of what it means to be a man that we actually need to upgrade and heal, and to ask men how they want to define masculinity and what it means to them.

There are a lot of health problems that result from old-school, idealized notions of masculinity. Suicide rates. Heart attacks. General risk-taking to appear “manly.”

There’s a chapter in my book called, “If the Patriarchy Is So Great, Why Is It Making You Die?” And there, I lay out a lot of the different ways that patriarchal notions of manhood and masculinity are directly tied to some of the biggest reasons, really, that men die more than women almost all over the world.

One of the ways its the clearest is the extremely high suicide rates of men, globally, and the fact that especially in a place like the United States, where gun violence is obviously at higher rates than any other industrialized country, two-thirds of the deaths, annually, are men. Eighty-five percent of those deaths are men killing themselves. When we talk about gun violence and do have a gender approach to this, we’re examining gender-based violence and it’s violence against women. We need to tackle that, but we also need to tackle men’s violence against men and against themselves.

Very often, when a man goes out to do a mass shooting, they also end up killing themselves. Those are suicidal men. We need to tackle and approach that as a mental health crisis and a health epidemic — and a male health epidemic. 

I see the crisis, really, in everything. I also talk about risk-taking. Men are less likely to wear seatbelts, to go to the doctor, to recycle — we all associate recycling, and caring for our planet, with femininity. [Men] are not just taking risks on themselves and their bodies – but they’re also more likely to take a risk on the planet. All of these things are genuinely killing us.

Right. Men’s lifespans are so much shorter than women’s. And that’s clearly not solely because of biology. 

Because women have two X chromosomes, if one chromosome is a little screwed up, we have a backup. That can explain why, for example, autism seems to impact more men than women. But that biological difference does not explain the seven or eight-year difference in life expectancy of men and women. 

When I went to Iceland to report for the book on what it was like to be a man in Iceland, what I found was that men in Iceland were happier and lived longer than men in all of Europe. Iceland is the most feminist country on earth. It’s a very good place to be a woman. But it’s also a very good place to be a man. It has, as I said, the smallest difference in gendered life expectancy. Men literally benefit from living in a more gender-equal society.

There are studies that show that, in more gender-equal societies, there’s less of a huge gap in suicides between men and women in economic recessions in countries where more women work. So in countries like Austria and Sweden, when there were recessions across Europe, there wasn’t as much of a spike in male suicides as there were in other European countries. Feminism can be an antidote to male suicide; gender equality can be an antidote to a whole host of ailments that affect men.

There’s a real reactionary response to modern American feminism. There seems to be a resentment that something is “being taken away” from men when women stand up and occupy different gender roles. Where does that come from? Is there a way to have these conversations, as you say, make men feel like they’re not ‘the problem’ as individuals, but the culture that surrounds us is the problem?

No one likes to be told that they’re doing something wrong. No one likes to be told that they need to change. And the older you are, the more set in your ways, the harder it is to change behaviors and attitudes. I think that we have to have empathy for, that, yes, men need to change, but that change might be hard. 

We always focus on impact, and not on intention. I totally understand the reasoning behind that. But I also think that we need to be compassionate with men who are living in a very different society now than it was even a few years ago. These are men who were taught all this crap and who were told, through different kinds of socialization which they had no control over [how to be a man.] The toys they were given, the stories they were told and the education they received — how they were raised was not something they chose.

We need to have empathy for that. 

The rules have changed really quickly. Whereas when we talk about feminism — feminism has been, at least, an ideology that has existed for over 100 years in this country. It’s easier to accept those tenets and live by them when the ideology is so widespread and talked about. 

A lot of women still don’t identify with feminism, because identifying with feminism, for some women, means, “I’m a victim,” or “I can’t wear lipstick,” or “I can’t be nurturing,” and all of the behaviors and attitudes we associate with women. Obviously, that’s not true. We don’t call it toxic femininity. We don’t say being a woman, being nurturing, or being kind is wrong. We’re just saying: You were taught you could only be one way, and we want you to have the freedom to be any way that you want in the world. I think that we really need to approach the conversation the same way with men.

It was best explained to me by a psychologist who worked on the APA guidelines for male patients. He said gender is like a swiss army knife. It’s not about taking away the tools. It’s about expanding the tools. It’s about giving men more ways to express themselves so that they just don’t have one way of expressing themselves. So that they can feel anger. They can be aggressive, and competitive. There are many instances in our lives where that makes sense. But if that’s the only way you’ve been told you can express yourself in the world? Then it’s going to come out that way, always, or it’s not going to come out at all until the day you take a gun and you turn it on yourself.

We need to have a conversation about freedom. Women are oppressed in our society. I also think it’s helpful for us to examine how that same system that oppresses women can also be oppressive to men. If we are so interested in freeing women from that system, why not free everybody from that system?

I saw a study that said that, when boys are infants, we’re already limiting their emotional vocabulary through the way we play with them: we don’t play doctor and we don’t play games where we ask them how toys feel. Another study showed that mothers are more likely to use emotional words with their daughters than their sons. How can men express their emotions if we don’t even give them the tools to say how they feel from an early age?

Studies show that men who make less than their wives show physical signs of stress that are akin to having heart problems and living with obesity and diabetes. There’s a real cardiovascular threat to your health if you don’t meet these standards of masculinity in our society, that actually, most men can’t attain anymore.

Having a wife or a partner that can make money and help you with that income? That’s great. You have two breadwinners! But the fact that more money somehow causes men more stress is a real warning sign that there’s something very wrong with the expectations that we have for men.

The expectations obviously come from men and are reinforced by men. But they’re also reinforced by everybody. 

What do you mean?

I went on a chivalric diet for the book where I just decided that I can’t blame men for putting all of this emphasis on these transactional parts of dating if I am expecting those things, too. If I expect all of these norms to be respected, I’m part of the problem. So I need to walk the walk. 

We need to take a collective approach. Women aren’t actively trying to suppress men. They just grew up in the same society. Being a certain way, somehow, confirms that they are doing the right thing as a woman in these straight partnerships. When in fact, yeah, we see gay couples are far happier than straight couples. They divide chores more equitably, because they divide them based on what people actually like doing, instead of what’s expected. If we just got rid of these archaic ideas of what men should be doing and what women should be doing, we’d all be a lot freer.

What does shame have to do with toxic, or idealized, masculinity?

There’s a lot of male shame in our society, but there’s not a lot of space to talk about it. Women have had more opportunities to talk about shame in regards to motherhood and their bodies, and in regards to the workplace. We’ve had many conversations for women on how shame tends to operate. According to researcher Brene Brown, it’s that women have to be perfect and men have to put on a mask to pretend that they’re strong. 

Is this definition ‘strong’ means not crying, and being stoic, and being silent — and not being vulnerable. Brene Brown has taught us the number one factor or measurement of bravery is a vulnerability. A partner who is vulnerable and shares how he’s actually feeling with you is actually far braver and far stronger than a partner that keeps it bottled up inside, because it’s going to come out, right? 

Right.

When emotion is not communicated or expressed, emotion becomes alcoholism. It becomes drug abuse and domestic violence. It becomes all of these issues that affect men more than women, and can not just destroy a man’s life, but it can destroy a man’s marriage. The most consistent factor that guarantees a marriage lasting longer according to Dr. Gottman — one of the foremost experts on relationships — is if a man accepts his wife’s influence.

If we think about the insults we throw at men: “You’re a pussy, or you’re pussy whipped” — and I’m sorry to use bad terms — but these are the slurs we tell men when we think they’re being controlled by their woman, somehow, and it’s emasculating. It’s the lowest thing you can be as a man. But apparently, it’s the best way to ensure that you stay married and have a healthy relationship. The ideals of masculinity completely correspond with ways to not be happy in your relationship, not be healthy, not live longer. So we really need to ask ourselves whether these definitions serve us.

You mention mindful masculinity as a way forward. Why?

The term mindful masculinity for me is just applying consciousness to the way we do gender. So, a lot of doing gender is completely unconscious. When I was little and I picked the pink toy as opposed to the blue toy or if I wore dresses instead of pants or a boy doesn’t wear a skirt — those things are just the things that you do because that’s what boys do and that’s what girls do.

So, mindful masculinity is just about being more conscious about the ways that we exist in the world, and how we relate to our gender. So it means having a little bit more of a Marie Kondo approach to gender: What serves me? What doesn’t serve me?

Look, as a woman, I love pink. I’m going to keep wearing pink. I love makeup and I’m going to keep wearing it. I don’t feel oppressed by that; I choose to do that. Maybe one day I will choose not to do that and that’s what feminism is. That’s what real, true freedom is. I just want men to have the real choice to engage in both traditional, and nontraditional gender behaviors and attitudes. And not saying one way of doing things is wrong. 

I’m not interested in telling men to be men; I have no clue what it’s like to be a man. But from all of the men I’ve talked to, it seems like, a lot of men want to live their lives differently – they just haven’t gotten the permission to do it yet.