Episode 64

For the Love of Men: From Toxic to a More Mindful Masculinity, by Liz Plank

Published on: 7th December, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today’s book is really important to me - during this whole project I’ve been in conversation with my guy friends, asking them what their fears and hesitations are in relation to “breaking down patriarchy.” As I hope listeners have felt throughout this project, I am very, very invested in creating a world that works for all human beings, and that includes my husband, son, brother, brothers-in-law, and nephews, just as much as it does the girls and women in my family. I want the whole human family to be free and to have tools to flourish. So periodically I check in with the men in my life to find out how they’re reacting to this educational project, and in response I got an email from one of  my college friends (a man) who wrote the following:

 

“I hope you’ll also consider all the negatives of being male. 

 

Higher crime rate

Higher imprisonment

Higher suicide rate

Higher homicide rate

Higher drug use rate

Lower college attendance

Lower high school graduation rate

 

I don’t know if those are related to patriarchy but sometimes the word patriarchy implies that men ‘have it easier’ and in all categories men also seem to be the ‘winners’. I heard some of these while listening to Jordan Peterson whom I sometimes agree with.” :)

 

So to my friend, thank you thank you for asking all of this - it’s a really important conversation to me, and we only got to address some of it in The Gender Knot by Allan Johnson, so I’ve been really excited to read and discuss today’s book,  For the Love of Men: From Toxic to a More Mindful Masculinity, by Liz Plank. 

 

And I’m also so excited to talk about this book with my dear friend and mom of three boys, Jenny DeGraaff. Welcome, Jenny!

 

Jenny: Response

 

Amy: 

Jenny and I met in 2008, when our oldest kids were in first grade together in Spanish Immersion school in CA, and we discovered that her three boys lined up exactly with my three girls, and our kids became fast friends, having tons of play dates and doing summer swim team together, and Jenny, I would reference your family as the model of “how to raise boys right,” because they are all so smart, so respectful and mature, so funny, and they seem so healthy and balanced and such good friends with each other. I had my boy last, and whenever I get scared thinking “how do I do this??” I just think “I’ll just ask Jenny and do whatever she’s doing.” So could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about who you are, where you’re from, etc?

 

Jenny: Bio I’m the youngest of four, and I grew up in West Virginia and Nebraska. My mom was a nurse and my dad was in academic medicine. My dad was Jewish, but not really religious, and my mom was Catholic. I did go to church when I was little, but religion wasn’t a big part of my upbringing. My parents were fairly traditional in their roles, I suppose, with my dad as the main breadwinner and my mom doing most of the household duties. But even though my dad worked all the time, he was super involved, coaching my brothers’ baseball teams and never missing a band concert.  He also did pitch in with some of the housework, partly due to insomnia - I would wake up to piles of folded laundry and reorganized cabinets. 

Education was always really important in our household. Both of my parents were so smart - I always went to my dad for homework help but realized later in life that I should have been going to my mom. She went to the top nursing school out of high school, but went back to get her bachelor’s degree while I was in high school. The dining room table was completely covered with books - she was one of those students who read every suggested resource in the footnotes. 

I became interested in languages in high school, and went on to be a German major in college. Not exactly opening the door to a lot of career options, but it did lead me to my first teaching job, high school English in Austria. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I returned to the states, but fortunately my sister had just had her first baby and needed a nanny, so I moved to California. (That baby is now a 25 year old med student!) I took care of her for about a year, and decided that I wanted to continue pursuing some combination of teaching and languages. I found the perfect program at Stanford, a Master’s in Education with a focus on Language, Literacy, and Culture. Realizing that Spanish is a little more practical than German, I spent a summer cramming to learn Spanish, and then started teaching 3rd grade in a predominantly Spanish speaking community. I’ve been in education ever since, from facilitating an online teacher credentialing course to my current gig, teaching science to 3rd-5th graders.

My other big job over the past 20 years has been mom to 3 wonderful boys, one in college and one heading there very soon.

In my free time, I love cooking, playing tennis, watching movies, and family road trips. I also spend a lot of time watching animal videos. I claim I’m finding clips to show my students, but I just love them.

 

Amy: What interested you in doing an episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy?

 

Jenny: I’m so honored to be asked, truly. I feel like you are providing such a necessary and valuable resource for all of us. When I started listening to the podcast, I was struck by how uninformed I was. I’m well-educated and I went to highly-regarded schools, but I hadn’t read any of these essential texts. That made me pretty mad, and sad, and embarrassed, frankly.

As a teacher of young children, and as a mom of boys, I definitely feel a duty to help change the narrative. In an early episode, you talked about Gerda Lerner and this idea that the absence of women’s history being the biggest obstacle to intellectual growth, because over the centuries women have had to keep reinventing the wheel. We need to make sure that all young people, girls AND boys, can learn about women’s history, contributions, their thoughts - because a society without patriarchy benefits everyone.

 

Amy: Before we start reading, let’s learn a little bit about the author.

 

Jenny:

Elizabeth Plank was born March 19, 1987, and she grew up in  Montreal. She attended McGill University, majoring in women's studies and international development, and working as a community counselor for people with developmental disabilities. She received the Sheila Finestone Award, a prize given to an outstanding undergraduate student studying in the field of Women's Studies.

Plank received a Master's degree at the London School of Economics, and began writing articles about gender and human rights for the Huffington Post. While working as a research assistant for Behavioral Economics professor Paul Dolan, she launched a Change.org petition that collected more than 55,000 signatures, and succeeded in reversing a decision requiring female boxers to wear skirts while competing at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

In 2013, Plank began her media career in New York City, serving as a correspondent and co-creator of the weekly video series "Flip the Script", which covered issues like feminism, homophobia and racism. Plank also served as a correspondent for the MSNBC live web show Krystal Clear.

Plank was recruited to cover the 2016 election for Vox Media, where she wrote, hosted, produced and starred in several critically acclaimed series about politics. She used her platform to elevate issues of gender equality, disability rights, transphobia and racial justice while interviewing political figures such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Senator Cory Booker, Stacey Abrams and presidential candidate, Andrew Yang. In 2016, she produced and hosted 2016ish, an award-winning series about the presidential election, and gave a TedxTalk that inspired her first book, For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity, published in October 2019, which is of course the book we’re discussing today. 

She sits on the board of Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation non-profit organization that unites girls to change the world and has spoken alongside Meghan Markle, Michelle Obama, and Priyanka Chopra at their annual summits.

 

Amy: Ok, one last thing before we start: The book title says “From Toxic to a More Mindful Masculinity.” That’s a phrase people use a lot - “toxic masculinity,” and I want to address it right off the bat.  Toxic masculinity doesn’t mean that all masculinity is toxic  - it’s describing a version of masculinity that is toxic for the men and boys that grow up in it. Toxic masculinity hurts boys and men, and then of course as a secondary issue, the resulting behaviors hurt other people as well, because “hurt people hurt people.” So Liz Plank’s whole goal is to reclaim “masculinity” in a healthier way. But not because she thinks men are toxic. Precisely the opposite - she thinks men are wonderful and she loves men (she devotes a whole chapter to her amazing dad) - she sees a certain version of masculinity harming boys and men, and she wants that to stop.  

 

So we’re going to trade off chapters, and I chose chapter 2, so I’ll start.

 

Amy: Chapter Two: Manhood is Never Fully Earned and Needs to Be Renewed Over and Over Again

 

Plank says she “became obsessed with a study that found that when male subjects were in the presence of women, they ate 93 percent more pizza” than when they weren’t with women. 

Gender is a “performance,” just like Setareh and I talked about on our episode on Bad Feminist, Just as women experience pressures to “perform” their gender in certain ways, so do men. The pizza example is funny, but there are much more serious ones:

 

[A study at the University of South Florida] made one group of men braid hair while a control group braided rope. The group that was given the traumatizing task of braiding human hair were more likely to want to hit a punching bag over making a puzzle and were likely to punch the bag harder. “The most liberal, non-homophobic men in our studies were just as uncomfortable  braiding hair as sthose who hold very traditional beliefs about gender roles,” researchers said. “Men’s anxiety about violating the male gender role is almost like a classically conditioned response. People have no control over it.” The authors explained that being aggressive is a “manhood-restoring tactic” and that “women are not the main punishers of gender role violations.” (42)

So who are the main punishes of gender-role violations? Other men are the punishers, ridiculing other men if they do anything “girly,” because as we’ve mentioned before, the worst thing a man can be in a patriarchal society is be perceived as feminine.

 

“...when men are told they score lower on masculinity tests [whether or not it’s true], they are more willing to ‘act aggressively, harass women and belittle other men.” (43)

So I suppose some people might say “see, here’s data that proves if you make men do traditionally female work like nurturing (braiding their daughters’ hair), it will make them more aggressive. So you shouldn’t make them do that because it’s unnatural! And it’s Feminism that is making men aggressive because it’s emasculating them! 

 

But I would say that we decide as a society what masculinity means. You could take some of my cattle-ranching male relatives and traumatize them by making them wear skirts (and they might feel like they need to chop wood afterward to restore their manhood).... But if those men had been born in Fiji, or Indonesia, or Scotland, wearing a skirt would be seen as very masculine. In Scandinavia taking paternity leave falls within the realm of what is considered masculine - there was an ad campaign that said “paternity leave - take it like a man”, and it was really successful, so now men are looked down on if they don’t! 

 

So there’s lots of proof that our behavior can change based on what society values and what society tells us about what it means to be a man or a woman or whatever identity. And that leads into the next chapter I chose...

 

Amy: Chapter 5: Men Are Slaves to Their Bodies and Their Nether Regions

 

I found myself very skeptical as I read this chapter. Did you, Jenny? Well, I must admit that I’ve been swayed in the past by popular theories. Plank mentions that the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, which was hugely popular in the 90s, perpetuated this idea that biological differences explain how men and women are different. I’m pretty sure I fell for that narrative back then! In this chapter, Plank’s arguments made sense to me - that men can influence their own behavior with their brains, and can’t really explain the bad stuff away by exclusively blaming testosterone.

I have attributed so much of “male behavior” to testosterone!

 

And Erik says that it’s really important for men to understand that having aggressive impulses, or having sexual impulses is not a moral failing, but just a natural occurrence due to chemicals released by the brain. And then given those chemical-induced impulses, a person has to learn how to responsibly and ethically manage those impulses. He has talked to a lot of men who feel guilt and shame around their sexual impulses and their aggressive impulses, and he was concerned that if those men were told that it wasn’t a natural bodily function, then they would feel like there was something wrong with them. 

 

So it’s important to note that Plank says YES, men and women are biologically different, and YES, men and women have different hormonal cocktails in their bodies, and YES, testosterone does influence behavior. And for that matter, women who have high sex drives and are aggressive are also shamed. It’s just that at every step of history we are discovering new things about the ways men are women are truly biologically different, and the ways that we just believe old stories that turn out not to be scientifically true.

 

I did still feel a bit wary of how Plank presented things, but I thought this part was really fascinating:

 

“Very little data actually shows that violence against women has anything to do with testosterone. Sex offenders don’t have higher levels of testosterone than men who aren’t. 

 

“To be clear, there is a link between violence and testosterone, but while scientists have tried to find a causal link, ...their results suggest that testosterone is not the cause of violence, but it can be the result of it. In one study conducted by researchers at Knox College, men who were instructed to hold a gun had levels of testosterone increase one hundred times more than men who were asked to hold a game of Mouse Trap.” And later there’s a study that shows that “testosterone doesn’t make you fight, it’s released when you feel like you need to fight.” (58-59)

So to me that suggests that in certain environments, with certain stories that “being a man means having to fight” boys’ brains would produce more testosterone, and then you just have a chicken-and-egg cycle. This would explain what Malia and I were talking about in our episode a few weeks ago, when we were talking about how men in Scandinavia have much lower rates of violence than men in other countries with super high rates of gender-based violence. They’re all men - what’s different is the stories they tell. And it seems to be the stories that produce the violence.

 

“Chris Eisenegger at the University of Cambridge… concluded that the biggest impact of testosterone is not that it made men more physically aggressive but instead that it motivated men to be more competitive and eager to achieve higher social status. This explains why research shows that men’s testosterone will rise during ...a game of chess, despite there being no physical element required for it, and why there is no testosterone difference between socially dominant but nonaggressive prisoners and physically aggressive prisoners.” (60)

 

“To put it simply, the way men are affected by testosterone depends on social perceptions and norms that we create; its effect is variable and heavily determined by our social environment. Testosterone encourages men to seek status, but the way one’s ranking is defined is entirely up to us and the social norms we agree upon.” (61) 

 

There’s a fascinating chapter on how ISIS and other ultra-violent extremist groups use gendered tactics to recruit and train young men, defining masculinity as dominating through killing. And there’s an amazing man named Usman Raja in the UK who is an ex-cage fighter who now leads a deradicalization program for ISIS recruits. He begins the process of de-indoctrinating these young men by breaking down their assumptions about what it means to be a man, and that leads to the healing process. 

 

Jenny: Ch. 7 - Suppressing emotions

Plank writes about the crisis of depression and mental illness in men. “I call this crisis the great suppression. Men grew up disowning their emotions. It’s a kind of emotional estrangement so pernicious and so embedded in the way we raise them it’s almost invisible until it’s too late. No wonder men weren’t able to manage their feelings: as boys, they had been taught they didn’t have any. Emotional expression and management was a crucial skill that simply hadn’t been properly instilled in men. In fact, boys who show it get reprimanded. Boys don’t cry. Be strong. Don’t let him know it hurt you.”

  • I feel like this style of parenting is going away, but it’s still very prevalent in many parts of our society.
  • Some of her claims - men can’t ask for directions, boys don’t cry, etc are obsolete cliches - however, young men are still conforming to masculine norms because of external pressure, and when men DO suppress their emotions, it can have really devastating and destructive results, from depression to violent aggression

I agree - I think it’s changing, and I see this more with older generations. 

  • An aside - we’re not separated into 2 groups anymore, there are increasing numbers of non-binary people. BUT that doesn’t make these unfair masculine expectations disappear - we have 2 separate worlds here, with a more progressive gender-fluid society and the society that embraces Trump and the Proud Boys
  • Plank writes about how isolation and a lack of attention to mental health in men can actually make them “more vulnerable to predators who capitalize on that poor emotional integration to recruit them for violence.” So a group like the Proud Boys uses these outdated concepts of masculinity and relies on emotional isolation to basically recruit men for a type of war. Men are lauded as protectors of their communities, and violence can be justified because it’s for the common good. They’ve grown up thinking white men are superior, but then they are faced with a changing society. They perceive a loss of power because of what they view as a “threat” of increased power by other non-white male groups of people. They’re led to believe that violence, racism, and misogyny are acceptable responses to protect their community.  Plank writes that instead of looking at these men as all bad, perhaps we should view them as vulnerable. This might be a starting point to prevent further extremism.

 

Chivalry:

“The moral panic about chivalry ‘being dead’ wasn’t about women being too empowered; it was about men feeling like they were giving up an important part of their identity… if we let go of men’s obligation to open doors and pay the checks, perhaps we could have a more interesting conversation about coming up with other ways for men to be men and show respect to women.”

  • Again, not a super obvious issue in many parts of society, but still there for sure. I did wonder when reading - is part of it “how on earth can I prove I respect women if I can’t be chivalrous?”

Yes, one of the saddest parts for me was reading Plank’s interview with Tomi Lahren (BARF) and her friend John, who was proclaiming the virtues of patriarchal society with very rigid gender roles, where the man is the leader, and makes all the money, and takes care of his wife.

“I asked him what would happen if he lost his job or got injured or if he had to become a stay-at-home dad. For the first time in our conversation he went a bit quiet. ‘The way I was raised, no, I could never be a stay-at-home father. I’d have to go out and work. I can’t fathom the idea of a woman supporting me. It’s just I want to take care of her; that’s how it should be.’ He continued that he couldn’t bear the thought of not ‘bringing anything to the table.’ It made me sad to think that John didn’t think he could bring something valuable to the table as a man in a relationship unless it was money.”

 

This was so sad for me because I know a couple of men who were raised this exact same way who have ended up as stay-home parents, one because of unexpected twists and turns in his career,  and one because of an injury and chronic pain that make it so he can’t work outside the home… and both these men are incredible fathers, whose work is important and indispensable, and whose work they would celebrate if their wives did it, but both have struggled with severe, crippling depression because they feel like total and utter failures as men. And it’s all from this story in their heads. :( 

 

Jenny: Ch. 9 - Parenthood

“All this time we’ve focused on the changing role of women inside the workplace and inside the home, not realizing that this would also shift men’s. We updated what it means to be a woman, but we didn’t update what it meant to be a man… If young men aren’t presented with a viable substitute for that model of the man as the provider, they’re stuck idealizing the only model they have. Men were secretly wondering: If she’s the provider, what does that make me?”

  • Women are, for the most part, taken seriously now as members of the workforce. Men are still not taken seriously as caretakers. 
  • The image of the dad braiding his daughter’s hair - huge deal. Moms get mom-shamed, but standards for fatherhood are pretty low.

YES - I feel like this is one of society’s most critical next “action items” and hurdles to overcome. How do we de-stigmatize the work of the home for men?

Such a great, important question. I’m not sure! I think as a society we’re slowly crawling in the right direction. Now when you see a commercial on tv for a cleaning product and it’s only a woman doing the cleaning, you wince, right? We’re noticing these antiquated representations more and more, which leads to speaking up about it, which leads to changes in mentality. I hope.

 

Much bigger issue - “Masculinity norms have a hand in both making it hard for men to be fathers and also making it hard for men to have fathers. One of the most profound ways it shows up is in the mass incarceration and the criminalization of black and brown fathers.”

  • Cycle of fatherlessness, deliberate system - our criminal justice system disproportionately punishes men of color, which of course disrupts families
  • Hypermasculinity in prisons

Quote from a research article by Corinne Datchi, a psychology professor, on incarceration - this is from The Journal of Men’s Studies: “Performances of hypermasculinity are strategies for coping with imprisonment, deprivation, and loss of social status that conflict with relationship satisfaction and engagement in family roles; in turn, low engagement in family roles and relationships may result in decreased family support and contact as well as reduced opportunities for accomplishing nondominant forms of masculinities.” You can imagine how incredibly difficult it is to break this cycle!

  • Many incarcerated men have created this armor in defense against trauma they’ve experienced in their own lives. Then they’re put through more trauma in prison.
  • On a much more optimistic note though - fatherhood for men in prison can actually help them. There was research done that showed that men who had close relationships with their children while incarcerated had lower rates of recidivism. We can look at it this way - redefining masculinity in a positive way, as a responsibility for others, rather than domination of others, can have really hopeful consequences. 
  • One more study to point out is one about income inequality. The research showed that black boys have worse outcomes than white boys in 99% of the country. 

“Even when black boys are raised by actual millionaires they are as likely to end up incarcerated as boys raised with a yearly household income of only $36,000. The fascinating (and potentially hopeful part) of this research is that one thing seemed to protect black boys from this distressing fate: seeing black fathers present inside the home. Indeed, in areas where there was a high presence of fathers living with their children, black boys didn’t fare worse than white boys.” Plank wraps this up by saying that the future of boys really depends on the current behavior of men. 

 

Amy: Chapter 11 - If Patriarchy Is So Great, Why Is It Making You Die?

[Plank talks about going to Iceland to research gender, and says everyone talks about how great Iceland is for women, but it’s underreported how great it is for men too.

  • Icelandic men enjoy the longest life expectancy in Europe
  • Smallest gender gap in life expectancy, so men live almost as long as women
  • Less likely to get divorced (greater marital happiness)
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Lower rates of violent death

This is a direct answer to my friend’s question. Plank says:

“It’s hilarious that gender equality helps men live longer, because one of the most frequent men’s rights activists’ arguments to derail a feminist’s argument is to point to the fact that men die sooner than women and that because of this, the focus on women is unwarranted. ...Feminism is the antidote to shorter male life expectancy, not the cause of it. Saying feminism makes men die earlier is like saying firefighters cause fire or that pain relievers cause headaches. Men’s rights activists fear that any examination of idealized masculinity is an attack on men when scrutinizing it might be one of the most effective ways to help them.”

 

Another case study (this one less positive) is Russia. The WHO warns that patriarchal cultures encourage behavior that puts men’s lives at risk, and heavy drinking is high on their list. In Russia, men’s life expectancy is declining : one in four Russian men won’t make it past their 55th birthday, and they found that the majority of those deaths are alcohol related: liver disease, alcohol poisoning and getting into fights while drunk are at the top of the list. Binge drinking makes men twice as likely to become victims of violence. She says that after the industrial revolution drinking went from being a communal activity to an exclusively male one. Taverns popped up near factories, and drinking became a “man club” She says:

 

“Drinking became such a masculine ritualized performance that working-class Russian men couldn’t even drink wine or beer, as those beverages were seen as too effeminate. In other words, vodka became the only option for men. Sobriety also became associated with femininity, as men who didn’t drink or didn’t drink enough would be called mokraia kuritsa (“wet hens”), which is especially relevant because of the super not-sexist Russian proverb “A chicken is not a bird, and a woman is not a person.” 

 

She then says “when we raise men to have to prove their manhood by taking risks, they can resort to hazardous means to fulfill those expectations.” (231-232)

 

One last data point on this topic: research from Rutgers University indicates that men who glamorize rigid, unhelpful beliefs about masculinity are 50 percent less likely to seek preventative health care. Men are trained not to show vulnerability, not to ask for help, to be embarrassed if they go to the doctor with a question and learn that there wasn’t anything wrong… so they would rather die of cancer than risk going to the doctor and being told they don’t have cancer. (And this is all the more true for emotional pain - men certainly won’t ask for psychological help, and therefore they end up killing themselves rather than asking for help)

 

Jenny: Concluding chapter - recommendations

“The gender wars myth has warped the conversation and led us to believe women’s and men’s problems are not connected and that spending time or resources on one doesn’t help the other when, in reality, it’s challenging the big overarching system that harms all genders that allows us all to thrive.”

  • We need to move away from discussions of gender identity anyway - separate discussion about the construct 

Tell me more about this! This is the kind of language that scares my conservative religious family members and friends to death. Sometimes they argue that God (who is a man) told prophets (or priests and popes or rabbis or imams, who are all men) that we are supposed to have a patriarchal society with a binary structure, and you are the sex you’re born, and your sex = traditional gender-norms, not complicated, the end. But even some who are less dogmatic in their answer still fear the disappearance of gender as we know it. What would you tell people who are scared of losing traditional notions of gender in society?

This is a difficult topic to discuss, both because a lot of these concepts are new to me, and because I haven’t really had conversations about this with people who are non-binary. However, I have a few thoughts. We’ve talked about how gender role characteristics which can be stereotypically masculine or feminine, such as aggression or showing emotion - those are not binary. Women can be aggressive, men can show more emotion. Gender identity is based on the culmination of these characteristics. If the foundations themselves are not binary, why does the culminating identification need to be binary?

The whole concept of gender identity is so difficult. So it’s a person’s sense of being a man or a woman, or an alternative gender, right? But what is gender when it’s explained with these ideas around masculinity and femininity that are blurred? It’s tied to our biology, too -- biology IS a part of this question. But gender identity is certainly a separate issue from your assigned sex at birth.  And there are different aspects of it - gender identity is the sense of self, gender socialization is how people are supposed to act, and gender expression is how people present themselves physically, with clothing and hair and makeup. For a lot of people, these 3 line up - and they even line up with your assigned sex. For some, though, they don’t line up - or they vary day to day.

More and more people are realizing that their gender is evolving the more they explore it -- and labels don’t make sense. I’ve heard that some people say the only reason they label their gender is to make it easier for other people. Can you imagine how difficult that must be? 

To Plank’s credit, she does state in her introduction that she does not believe that gender and sex are a binary. 

“We must first name the system if we are to break free from it.  In this book I am not advocating or supporting a gender binary but am, rather, interested in assessing the damage that occurs in the process of raising men and boys in a society that imposes it.”

 

Now, back to her recommendations for the future: “Healthy emotional intelligence doesn’t mean a more expansive expression of emotions; it means a smarter expression of emotions. It means we let boys have feelings so that those feelings don’t end up governing them.” - reducing domestic violence, right-wing mobs, gun violence, suicide

  • Mindful masculinity - look inward, what behaviors serve you and which ones don’t? What makes you a good man, not the garbage about what makes you a “real man.” Understand your emotions, develop tools to deal with them - it is NOT about controlling the world around you.
  • Plank talked to Michael Kimmel, a sociologist who specializes in gender studies, and he talked about this exercise he does with men all over the world - he asks them to describe a good man, and they say integrity, being responsible, being a good provider, protector, doing the right thing, putting others first, caring, standing up for the little guy. When he asks them to describe a real man, they say never cry, be strong, don’t show your feelings, play through pain, suck it up, win at all costs, be aggressive, get rich, get laid. They’re all descriptors for masculinity, right? It’s just that some are really good, and some are super problematic. What if we reframe masculinity and just try to include the good ones, and have honest discussions about why we can get rid of the ones that don’t serve a useful purpose?

YES, that was one of the most powerful parts of the book for me. Men making those lists about what it means to be a “good man,” vs what it means to be a “real man,” and how those were such different lists. 

 

  • Again, in reading this book, I kept going back and forth between “These negative attributes of masculinity don’t apply to the boys I know” and “wow, this explains a lot about what I’m seeing in the news.”

Ok, speaking of “boys you know”, as a woman married to a man and a mom of three boys, you’re totally outnumbered in your family, :) and I want to ask you what you and your husband have done to protect your boys from absorbing toxic masculinity. Because they are the absolute best boys - I’ve known them since they were little and Erik and I have always said “whatever the DeGraaffs are doing to raise boys, that’s what everyone should do.” 

!!! :) :) :) I talked with one of my boys about it, and he said he doesn’t really feel those pressures to fill certain roles. He said there wasn’t anything specific that we did to teach them about these concepts, but that we raised them to be socially conscious, to think for themselves, and to question assumptions. (That response made me feel really gratified as a parent!)

 

Amy: And that wraps it up! What would you say is a big takeaway for you, Jenny?

Jenny: Takeaway - With my sons, and with all of my students, I’d like to create more of a dialogue about what is expected of boys and girls, why, what to set aside, and how to do that. A big takeaway for me is this idea of shame creating so many devastating problems. 


Plank has one chapter entitled “Male Shame,” and she introduces a concept she calls the male shame spiral. She writes that one man she interviewed said, “Shame. That’s what defines you. ...Shame if you don’t provide enough, or if you feel weak or even just feel too much. Shame that you need [women] but shame if you don’t have one by your side either if you’re single. Shame when you think of what you’ve done, in the past, when you didn’t know what you do know. A lot of it came from feeling like failure was not an option. “It’s shame or anger really, but the anger usually is feeding off the former. And because men aren't allowed to admit to failure, because the matter of their failure is shameful, they keep it locked inside. That lays heavily on many of us, where we keep silent rather than talk about it because we even lack the language and concepts to articulate our pain.” (76) 

 

That last part is big for me - lacking the language to articulate his pain. We always hear men described as not talking about their feelings - but is it actually that they don’t know how to?

Plank sums it up by saying that men, as human beings, have a need for vulnerability, closeness, intimacy and connection, and that when they’re unable to claim those things they feel shame [inside - that’s the toxic masculinity hurting them] and then they may act aggressively [that’s the toxic masculinity hurting others]. She says:

 

Some of the aggression we associate with men may not be due to their nature; it’s due to the way we raise them. Patriarchy doesn’t just convince men that they don’t have emotional needs; it also leads men to feel embarrassed when those needs naturally occur, which leads those feelings to come out in other, less productive ways. (77) As we’ve talked about today, those less productive ways can be really dangerous, to others in the form of violence or to the men themselves in the form of mental health issues.

 

“Brene Brown… distills shame down to a fear of one thing: disconnection. As humans, she argues, we are all hardwired for physical and emotional connection, but shame convinces us that we need to hide certain parts of ourselves to preserve connection and avoid rejection. [Brown says] ‘The less you talk about it, the more you got it. Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgment.’ All three of these elements showed up in my conversations with men. ...Masculinity, under its current definition, is antithetical to vulnerability.”


This really resonated with me, in part because it’s kind of fixable, right? The essence of shame is its secrecy, so talking about it, bringing it out into the open, makes it dissipate. 


I can make a difference by ensuring that my students have a space to talk about how they’re feeling about gender. (Even just presenting gender-diverse examples of scientists in my classroom to show how many ways there are to be a person.) The more open we all are, the more we can recognize how unrealistic and destructive some societal expectations are. And this benefits everyone.


So Amy, what was your big takeaway from this book?




Amy: Going back to my friend’s point that men have it rough too - they are not sitting on thrones ruling happily. I would say I AGREE! Men in general, and the men I know personally, struggle too. And some of those struggles are because of patriarchy. Patriarchy puts both sexes in a straightjacket. And it’s not just Allan Johnson and Liz Plank talking about this - the very week I was preparing for this episode, I got an email from my friend Emily, who is currently getting a master’s degree in Public Health, and just by coincidence she shared with me a reading they did in class that addressed men’s mental health in the United States. Here are some of the findings from the medical research journal that they read in class:

 

Mental health among men often goes untreated because they are far less likely to seek mental health treatment than women. Depression and suicide are ranked as a leading cause of death among men. Six million men are affected by depression in the United States every single year. Men die by suicide at a rate four times higher than women. They die due to alcohol-related causes at 62,000 deaths in comparison to women at 26,000. Men are also two to three times more likely to misuse drugs than women. These statistics are troubling because they reinforce the notion that males are less likely to seek help and more likely than women to turn to dangerous, unhealthy behaviors. [Then the journal literally talks about toxic masculinity and the pressure of gender performance, and then says]: Adherence to rigid masculine norms may lead to

  • worsening of depression and anxiety
  • abuse of substances
  • greater health risk (e.g., cardiovascular and metabolic disease)
  • issues with dating and interpersonal intimacy
  • issues with interpersonal violence
  • increase in overall psychological distress
  • discouragement in seeking help
  • homophobia

We can help boys and men by encouraging wholeness, including strength and ambition and even competition… but also vulnerability and emotional intelligence and connection with others.


Huge, huge thanks for being here today!!

 

On our next episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy, we will be discussing the book everyone has been talking about all year, Glennon Doyle’s bestselling memoir, Untamed. Brene Brown said, “Some books shake you by the shoulders while others steal your heart. In Untamed, Glennon does both at the exact same time.” And Doyle has been called “the patron saint of female empowerment!” so get a copy of this book or download it and listen to it, and join us for the discussion, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.



 


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About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.