We hear the phrase “toxic masculinity” thrown around a lot these days and we certainly bear witness to its effects every time we turn on the news. But according to author and award-winning journalist Liz Plank, the term can be somewhat problematic and she says it’s time we flip the script on the phrase and redirect the conversation to focus on what she calls “mindful masculinity”.
Plank recently published her debut book, For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity, and in it, she explains the evolution of masculinity in America and delves into research to try to figure out why gender norms are not progressing at the same rate for men as they are for women. Unlike toxic masculinity which focuses on the problem, Plank’s vision of mindful masculinity centers around a solution. Plank recently spoke about her book at the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit in Brooklyn last month. I was lucky enough to chat with Plank backstage at the event where we discussed masculinity, feminism, how the two are interconnected and how to raise boys in a society where masculinity is both rewarded and sanctioned.
SheKnows: You have a new book out, For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity, how would you define mindful masculinity and how does it relate to feminism?
Liz Plank: “A lot of people expected me to write about women and instead I wrote a book about men and masculinity because I really thought it was important. The more I talked to men and the more I researched, I found out there was such a dearth of storytelling when it came to men and all kinds of stories about men, not just white, cis, able-bodied men but men with disabilities, men who are not white, men who are undocumented, indigenous or who have any combination of those identities. I think mindful masculinity came in mind for me because I didn’t want to use the words toxic masculinity in my title. I didn’t want to start with a problem, I wanted to start with a solution and frame this as a positive conversation. Mindful masculinity just means a really conscious masculinity — being aware of your life and your actions and behaviors and having the ability to observe and assess them and decide if you want to keep doing them of Marie Kondo your gender and leave some of them behind.”
SK: Why is it equally important for men to be a part of feminist discussions?
LP: “It’s crucial. That is a question that doesn’t get asked enough and it’s a question that reveals what kind of changes we need to make in the feminist movement if we are to really create solutions for the people and the women who we purport to defend. It’s great to get together and talk as women, obviously, those spaces where women feel safe to speak are incredibly important, but I think if we don’t have conversations that include all genders we’re missing a crucial part of society.”
SK: In some ways, culture is progressing but gender roles have remained pretty stagnant. Why do you think that is?
LP: “I think they have expanded more for women than they have for men. We’re not there yet in terms of women, we obviously still have examples every single day of the ways we put women in boxes and expect certain things from them and discriminate against them but I also think that we don’t really have a conversation or language to criticize the ways we put men into boxes. We’re starting to have a conversation about that.
We saw backlash against someone on television saying boys doing ballet is ridiculous and I think the backlash to that statement shows there’s a consciousness when it comes to this. A real sense that in the same way we started to worry about what Barbies were doing to young girls in the 2000s, we are now thinking about what toy guns do to young boys — especially now that we are seeing this massive problem of gun violence in our country. We see mass shootings almost every single day and most of those shootings are committed by young, white men and two-thirds of gun deaths are actually from men killing themselves so suicide is a huge issue with men too and that’s a cry for help. We need to listen.”
SK: How do toxic cultural male stereotypes negatively impact boys as they grow?
LP: “So many different ways. The biggest thing that hurts people is feeling shame, right? For women, I think it’s often the pressure to look a certain way, to be perfect and present yourself in a certain way. We beat ourselves up when we’re unable to achieve this ideal that doesn’t exist and we feel bad even though it’s completely unrealistic. I think it’s the same thing for men.
I use the term idealized masculinity a lot because to me it’s much more about that than toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity doesn’t define the problem the right way. I think when we talk about feminism and this idealized notion of womanhood and how it’s hard to be told that’s what you’re supposed to be when no one can achieve that, well, it’s the same thing for men. Men are told you can’t cry, you must not show your emotions, you must be silent, you must be stoic, you must be independent and not ask for help — this is an ideal. It’s the lone cowboy. The idealized notion of masculinity puts men into a box and it usually means that they’re totally disconnected from themselves. I talk about emotional intelligence and how we spend so much time educating students on math and algebra but what about emotional education? We put such a lower premium on that and I think part of it is because it’s seen as feminine and we devalue everything that’s feminine. We never learn to manage disappointment or how to handle being rejected or how to work through trauma but all that is equally as important. Because we don’t develop those skills, we have adult men who are just children inside and who are scared boys and that comes out in rage or anger which is the only emotion they’re allowed to show and then we wonder why we see so much domestic violence and gun violence.”
SK: How do we raise boys to thrive in a society where traditional masculinity is both rewarded and sanctioned?
LP: “We raise them in the same way that we raise girls. We have conversations about what toys we give our daughters and we need to normalize those conversations for boys. When I’m invited to speak somewhere, I’ll often start by asking the crowd if they’ve ever told their daughter she can do anything a boy can do and everyone raises their hand. Then I ask if they tell their sons they can do anything a girl can do and everyone kind of stares and I think we’re just not there yet. We’re more comfortable with girls acting like boys then we are with boys acting like girls and that’s demeaning to boys and girls. If boys are interested in careers in fashion or nursing or any traditionally female careers, they need to know that that is amazing and they should feel empowered to pursue whatever path they want.”
SK: Have you received any criticism for being a woman writing about an issue focused on men? If so, how have you responded/dealt with that?
LP: “Yeah, for sure. For a long time as a writer, I was told to write what you know. Obviously, I did that for many years about women and my experience being a woman but then I was also told to write the book that doesn’t exist. So that’s what I did. I have not grown up as a boy and I will never know what it’s like to be a man in our society, but I think it’s important to have empathy for that experience. I’m half man, I know and work with a lot of men, someday I may create a man and I think we’re all connected in this world and if men do well, women do well so it’s in our best interest to have these conversations.”