Our Broken Definition of Masculinity Is Bad for Everybody

“For the Love of Men” is widening the discussion of masculinity.

@cindi_leive / Instagram
@cindi_leive / Instagram

We’re in the peak of the long-overdue #MeToo movement, but as Liz Plank shows in her new book For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity, to truly move forward as a society, we need to widen the discussion. “There’s a whole half of the population that is missing from conversations,” she tells HuffPost, “and there’s no way for us to really solve any of our problems if we’re not talking about men and how they also have a relationship with their gender.” And the consequences of this limited dialogue — and this is the core of the book — are visited on men just as they are on women.

Plank’s central argument is that our notions of masculinity are profoundly misguided. Traits we think of as intrinsically male — “just men being men” — are in fact being assigned to men. They’re not innate, they’re learned.

“It starts when we equate emotion with weakness and direct boys to display strength no matter what,” Plank writes. “It shows up in the way we expect and encourage girls to show their true emotions while we demand that boys hide them from us.” So men grow up with no choice but to inhabit and fulfill these expectations, which very quickly imprisons them. “Their behavior is highly monitored, their gender is constantly surveilled for any sign of misstep or mistake,” Plank writes. “Boys become fluent in emotional self-censorship.”

It’s a notion that is not only validated in schools but also, as Plank writes, “encoded into every institution,” dictating “what men and boys can do, practically erasing the opportunity to know their true tendencies, proclivities or desires.”

And turn over the rocks of virtually any societal problem — gun violence, domestic violence, suicide — and at the heart of it, you’ll find this broken idea of masculinity that discourages men from seeking help. At Thrive Global, we’ve seen how that list also includes burnout. Our macho culture of sleep deprivation, in which exhaustion is a badge of honor and considered a proxy for dedication, was built largely by men. But we all pay the price for it.  

Pushing men into accepting the idea that it’s weak to ask for help and that real men solve problems with violence is, as Plank shows, a disaster for everyone. For men, it results in the fact that they make up 79 percent of homicide deaths. Or the fact that skin cancer rates for men have increased because they’re less likely to communicate with a doctor. For women, we see it in the fact that the second leading cause of death among pregnant women in the U.S. are their male partners, or that almost half of all female homicide victims are murdered by a current or ex-partner. 

In short, we all have a stake in redefining masculinity.

But the book is full of hope. Because these toxic notions of masculinity are learned, they can be unlearned. As Plank notes, the conversation around what it means to be a woman has greatly — and finally — expanded in recent years. And now, we need to do the same for men. “We were raised in the system,” Plank says. “It’s all of our responsibility to disrupt it. But that’s exciting. That means we have the power. And so, if we don’t like the system and we don’t like the way that things are going, we can change it.”

So this book is not just about how we got here, it’s a guide for how to get to a much better place, for both men and women. In addition to showcasing the stories of new male role models who are already leading the way, she concludes by making the case for mindful masculinity. For Plank, it’s not about asking men to simply reverse course, but to be mindful about which parts are working and which parts aren’t. It’s a kind of collective Marie Kondo exercise for the whole culture. “Think of it as decluttering, but for your gendered habits,” she writes. “Is holding on to the idea that women are more emotional or that boys don’t need intimacy working for you? No? Then start decluttering your gender and throw away all the crap you’ve acquired over the years.”

And that’s a task not just for men, but for women, too. As Plank writes, “we’re all on the same team.”

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