Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. As part of it, we’re asking a wide range of men across industries, ages and background to answer 6 questions about what masculinity means to them. Read more about the project here. Here’s Jack Cheng, essayist and author of See You in the Cosmos.
THRIVE GLOBAL: How would you define masculinity?
JACK CHENG: I associate it with adulthood; it’s the mature expression of the self. For me it means being in tune with my needs and emotions, empathetic with others, responsible for my actions and also the broader world. Pursuing truth. Acting with love instead of violence. Being authentic to who I am while acknowledging the history and culture—all the things that have influenced and are influencing me.
TG: Who in your life shaped your view of masculinity?
JC: My parents and close friends, but I think it’s really every person I’ve ever come in contact with. We’re social beings. We have models everywhere, and not necessarily all good ones. My current definition is informed much by Buddhist texts and biographies about people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Other influential books have been Robert Bly’s Iron John, Robert Moore and Douglas Gilette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, and Robert A. Glover’s No More Mr. Nice Guy. If your name is Robert and you write about this kind of stuff, I’ve probably read you.
TG: Was there a particular moment when you felt you’d become a man?
JC: I’ve more had multiple moments of realization, rather than a singular event that I can point to and say there was a before and after. I remember an evening a few years ago when I was looking in the bathroom mirror without my glasses on. I was half-asleep, on the verge of falling into that dream state, and in my blurred face I saw the faces of other men—different archetypes from different cultures and times in history: a Chinese scholar, a medieval king, a caveman, a shaman, a monk. It was as though I were seeing in my own face the face of every man, from the dawn of humanity. That was a weird night.
TG: How has society’s view of men changed since you were a kid?
JC: In terms of what’s considered masculine, it’s more multitudinous than the ideals I grew up with. In very much the way that the word “American” used to mean “white colonial” (and still does for some), for many others it’s come to encompass a much broader range of persons, backgrounds, and temperaments. I think the same goes for the term “masculine.” It’s less one kind of person or set of traits, but many.
At the same time, so much of that definition is informed by my own growth and experiences. In many ways, our broader society’s view of masculinity is that it is increasingly toxic. I think the problem comes from the way we tend to define the masculine in opposition to the feminine. If you adhere to this oppositional definition, then as we as a society collectively wake up to women’s rights and women’s issues, then masculinity is increasingly crowded out—“If they have more rights, we have fewer.”
To me, that’s no way to live. Any definition of masculinity that is oppositional in nature, that is threatened by feminism, that fails to incorporate queer and trans people is going to fail (or rather, continue failing) both men and women.
TG: Does masculinity influence your work? If so, how?
JC: Absolutely. I write children’s novels, and part of what I try to do is help equip boys with the tools for living that I wish I had growing up. My recent book, See You in the Cosmos, is about an eleven-year-old trying to understand his long-dead father. It’s about how he, with the help of people he meets on an epic road trip in the Southwest, starts moving into adolescence, and about how his 23-year-old brother becomes a man.
TG: What do you think children should be taught about masculinity?
JC: That it doesn’t have to be oppositional, as mentioned before. That it can be much broader and varied. And for boys, specifically: that each one of them has their own expression of masculinity, and maturity, and that growing up is, in a way, figuring out what that expression is.
Jack Cheng was born in Shanghai and grew up in Michigan. After nearly a decade in New York, working in advertising and tech, he now lives in Detroit and writes fiction for kids. His novel, See You In The Cosmos, was published in 2017 by Dial Books for Young Readers.