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Shifting the Mindset of Masculinity

How traditional masculine archetypes create contradictory and confusing traps for men.

Man holding up glasses to inspect.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Today, I was walking back to my desk at work and I accidentally broke a coffee cup in the middle of a frequently used and busy walkway. A fellow male employee stopped and said, “Should I help?” I was a little shocked by the way he said, “Should I help?” because my immediate thought was “Well, yeah of course.”

Why wouldn’t you help a fellow human being regardless of gender when they are down on the ground cleaning up a mess? Then I thought, well maybe it was a poor choice of words and he meant to say, “Would you like help?”

However, the thing is, I think men are simply confused about how to act around women at times. Should I open the door for women? Should I pay for dinner on a date? Will I offend her if I do these things or don’t do these things?

While it is hard for me at times to have empathy for men in some regards because I am inherently going to have more empathy for my fellow females, I do have sympathy for men in terms of what it means to be a man in the modern era.


Men are constantly thrust between the dichotomy between “be a man” or “don’t be a pussy,” but also be vulnerable and share your feelings. However, when they show vulnerability, they are sometimes seen as less of a man or less attractive by females.

Feminism in its extreme form, can sometimes become a form of straight-up male-bashing. In years past I would think of feminism as only a female issue or label, but only in recent years as the culture shifts, we learn as a society, and I learn and evolve as a person; men can be feminists too.

Even just this year, my 80-something-year-old grandpa said he is a feminist. I was absolutely stunned and impressed that my grandpa said this! I always viewed my grandpa as an open-minded and progressive man, but I was even more impressed that he used this term.

He said, “I think women can do anything.” I am even more impressed by someone of his age saying this sentiment. We have a 50-year age gap and yet, we are STILL on the same page in this regard. That is pretty damn cool that this label and this social cause is so intergenerational like that.


Masculinity and what it means to be a man in the 21st century is really having a moment right now. In the era of #metoo and #timesup, it is also becoming the era of learning, unlearning, and re-learning what it means to be a man. One of the podcasts I listen to regularly is “The Angry Therapist” from life coach John Kim.

I like listening to what he calls his “ramblings, revelations, and shares” so much that I listened to his audiobook, I Used to be a Miserable F*ck: An Everyman’s Guide to a Meaningful Life. While this book is intended for men, I still read it as I was curious about what kind of advice he would give to men specifically.

First off, I was motivated to listen to this book to sort of get behind “enemy lines” and get more insight into how men think, the types of unique challenges men might face versus women, and to see if I could truly understand, even if only slightly, the enigma that are men. The advice Kim gives to male readers is formulated in very short chapters, which is similar to his podcast episodes of “self-help in a shot glass” in a series of dos and don’ts.

The dos and don’ts range from quite trivial things such as “Don’t Overuse Hair Product” and “Don’t Wear Skinny Jeans” to “Don’t Pee in the Shower” to more serious things such as “Do Share Your Fucking Feelings” to “Do Do Things Alone” and “Do Go on Man Dates.”

As even Kim states in the introduction of his book, “we live in a fatherless nation.” Men are either not physically or emotionally present or available for their children. The ideas of what it means to be a man are passed down from grandfather to father to son.


If your family was or is dysfunctional and their distorted views of manhood and masculinity are emulated or taught to the male children, that’s what their view is going to be as well. It is only when they are in the world learning their own perspectives and learning their own lessons, sometimes hard ones, that they see manhood through a different lens.

However, more thought leaders are emerging on the topic. We need to change the lens of feminism, masculinity, and how we view both. For feminism to work, we need male allies too. If we are under the oppression of a patriarchal society, we need men to be advocates for injustice and to stand up when other men are being unjust or sexist to women.

Change is gradual and it will take time to unweave ourselves from the web of the social constructs and walls built to keep people from speaking out. Small as it may be, I see it shifting in even the small ways it’s represented on television.


Big Mouth is a show about teenagers going through the difficulties of puberty in all of its raunchy glory. Similar to shows such as South Park or Family Guy, it is intended more for adults and touches on many of the social issues we face today including feminism. The teenage male character Nick Birch is even quoted in the Netflix series trailer as saying, “I just want to be an ally to women.”

In season three of the Netflix adult cartoon Big Mouth in “Girls Are Angry Too”, the girls of the school rebel against a sexist dress code. The rebellious and outspoken female character Jessi Klein outright asks her fellow classmate Nick Birch to take a stand and help the women with the unfair and sexist dress code policy that is implemented by the school.

Birch, like many men before him, does not want to rock the boat of standing against his male peers for fear of ridicule. However, after much cajoling from Klein and a change of heart, Birch stands up to his fellow male classmates to advocate for the women.

Similarly, even Nick Birch’s father, Elliot Birch, is portrayed throughout the series as a more effeminate man. (I would personally like to call him the evolved man for the 21st century.) Elliot is seen as being an actively involved family man, he is physically present, engaged, and inquisitive at the Birch family dinners.

He is vocal about his affection for his wife Diane, his sons Nick and Judd, and his daughter Leah and often spouts “I love you” whenever he can. He is portrayed as sensitive, caring, communicative, and physically expressive with his wife Diane.

In the episode “Obsessed”, Nick catches his father Elliot on camera in a private moment where he is naked, moisturizing his body, and singing. Nick posts the risqué video on social media. Diane is outraged at Nick and shares the video with Elliot, who doesn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest. He is amused and entertained that his son has caught him at his best. Even Nick’s attempt to ridicule his father in a scenario where most people would have been mortified, Elliot remains secure and confident in his manhood.


Award-winning journalist and executive producer with Vox, Liz Plank, has just released her first novel, For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity. I recently heard Plank being interviewed about the book on another podcast I enjoy, “Expert on Expert,” which is hosted by Dax Shepard and Monica Padman.

In the show, Plank petitions for men to have space to be able to talk about their feelings without fear of retaliation, to be able to have male friendships without being seen as gay, and how the patriarchy hurts both men and women.

Plank argues that the same patriarchal system that is hurting men is also hurting women. Only about 6% of men are truly benefitting from the patriarchal system. In this system, men are on top, and women are on the bottom, but what isn’t being discussed is the strata within men. Only certain men are benefitting from this system, but many men are being ridiculed by other men.

The men who are not conforming to the stereotypical male construct our society seems to praise, are seen as effeminate and weak. The men who are not directly benefiting from the patriarchal system are hoping that they will indirectly benefit from the system through a trickle-down effect that never happens.


Regardless of whether they are top dog or not, one thing remains constant either way, many men are unable to have the vocabulary, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, or simply even a space where they can acceptably talk about their feelings and emotion. Men and women can both feel the devastating effects of bullying growing up, but men suffer more from this.

Men are taught at a very young age, Dax Shepard argues as early as junior high, that if you are seen as different or weak, men will bully you. Young boys learn to just shut down their feelings early in order to be socially accepted with their peers. Most violence is committed by men; however, men are also the biggest victims of violence from other men.

Men tend to bottle their feelings inside and simply don’t talk about them. All of these repressed emotions are leading to terrible outcomes. The majority of mass shootings are committed by white males.


Plank advocates that men are so thirsty for connection and friendship. Men have far fewer friendships than women. Men really want other male friends, but have so much fear and shame around being seen as gay or weak.

Think about it, a whole new term had to be coined to describe male friendships, “bromance.” Men had to invent a whole special hug of the “bro hug” with a one-handed tap in order to make hugging another man not be seen as gay.


Men are also encouraged from a young age to play with masculine toys and to like traditionally masculine activities and hobbies such as sports, hunting, fishing, camping, etc. However, women are encouraged to do whatever they want regardless of gender stereotypes. If a woman wants to be involved in a traditionally male-dominated career, hobby, or activity, she is praised and seen as a badass.

Yet, it is a double-standard for men. If a man wants to be a nurse, a gymnast, a dancer, or anything that is seen as traditionally female, he is instantly seen as effeminate and weak and he is ridiculed by his peers.


So, what’s the recipe for change? What needs to happen for us to flip the script? The bottom line is: men need women to be advocates for change and women need men to be advocates for change.

We all play a part in changing what we’ve been taught by society, by the media, by our parents and their parents before them. We need to challenge our traditionally held ideas of what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

This article first appeared on Medium. https://medium.com/@melissamonson1987/shifting-the-mindset-of-masculinity-66eb55b26718

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