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

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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.

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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.