Our culture is awash in toxic masculinity.
From the TV shows and movies we watch, to our politics, to the way we speak to each other in locker rooms, bedrooms, and corporate boardrooms, to the way we raise our children, we perform and reinforce the performance of a rigid, narrow definition of masculine expression that emphasizes physical strength over emotional intelligence, dominance over collaboration, and a fear of vulnerability.
Like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous ‘This Is Water‘ parable, we are absolutely surrounded by and swimming in it, and yet at the same time we are completely unaware of it. And, as Jared Yates Sexton, demonstrates in his second book, ‘The Man They Wanted Me To Be,’ that explains so much.
Reviewers across the country, from Henry Rollins to the Chicago Post-Tribune’s Jerry Davich to NPR’s Nicholas Cannariato, have universally praised Sexton’s part-memoir, part research-based socio-cultural analysis as a key guidebook to examining our ‘toxic masculinity.’ It is a study of its historical and cultural roots, its wide-ranging impact on a panoply of issues, and how to change our culture and ourselves for the better.
‘The Man They Wanted Me To Be’ is – in equal parts – both sobering and hopeful. In the author’s own words:
“This one was hard to write. It details a lot of the abuse I lived through growing up, as well as the pain of my losing my father and watching the country go mad with toxic masculinity. It gets into the rise of Donald Trump, a blatantly insecure misogynist who continually has to puff up his own flagging ego, as well as extremist groups that recruit and radicalize young men, sometimes inspiring them to commit mass shootings. It’s about how traditional masculinity is a lie and it condemns men to hurt themselves and those around them. And how that has real life consequences and perpetuates a culture of harassment, assault, rape, and prejudice.”
The book explores the current “crisis of masculinity,” a self-imposed crisis that has men dying deaths of despair and others joining fascist/extremist groups that recruit exactly like ISIS and play upon their masculine insecurities while inspiring them to kill in massive numbers.
— Jared Yates Sexton (@JYSexton) May 15, 2019
Not to mention, a crisis that has men attempting to hold onto power by subjugating women, controlling their bodies and economic futures, while also vilifying immigrants and minorities, all of it the result of political manipulations centered around the lie of masculinity.
— Jared Yates Sexton (@JYSexton) May 15, 2019
“His book challenges traditional masculinity on multiple fronts, from a deep-rooted examination of his own working-class upbringing to the historical, psychological and sociological ramifications of what it is to be “a real man.”
His lens ranges from micro to macro to capture American progressivism in action, the global labor shift from traditional manufacturing, and roles prescribed to men since the Industrial Revolution that are becoming obsolete. It examines how we teach boys what’s expected of men in America, and the long-term effects of this socialization.
“The story of toxic masculinity is the story of what’s going on in this country right now.”
It was fascinating (and an honor) to sit down and talk to Mr. Sexton to talk about his book.
Jared Yates Sexton and The Good Men Project have intertwined paths for some time. Mr. Sexton got noticed on a national scale based on his live-Tweeting from Trump rallies in the lead-up to the 2016 Election. Going “under cover” as a plaid-shirted boot-wearing middle-aged white male, he became one of the first reporters to provide an unfiltered insight into the base toxicity, racism, violence, and bigotry that was being communally shared and fed at each rally. At around the same time, The Good Men Project had formed a “Stop Trump Task Force,” recognizing Trump as the living breathing avatar of literally every aspect of the very toxic masculinity that we had been writing about on a daily basis.
When we began our conversation, Sexton kindly noted that back in 2009, The Good Men Project was “pretty fundamental to him” as a rare voice speaking truth about masculinity. While that conversation has become more mainstream in the last few years – thankfully – back then it was literally The Conversation No One Else Was Having.
That phrase – The Conversation No One Else Is Having – remains our tag-line today, but we at The Good Men Project are pleased to see that so many more – from Vibe to Men’s Health to Teen Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar to The New York Times– are now joining this important conversation.
As Mr. Sexton put it, “the story of toxic masculinity is the story of what’s going on in this country right now.”
‘The Man They Wanted Me To Be’ is an exercise in profound dot-connecting, a holistic grand-master theory that connects politics, economics, culture, mental health, parenting, education, socialization, mass media, religion, as well as polarizing issues like gun control and football and traumatic brain injury. While it may be hard to see at first, once you see patriarchal masculinity itself as a common thread that runs through and connects all of these issues, you simply cannot un-see it.
As Sexton explained:
“I had never considered the idea of masculinity as anything other than a biological necessity that we were controlled by. But then I began to study feminist theory, and I began thinking about masculinity. And then there was the Trump phenomenon; something was happening with men where the economic, social and political were all coming together.
I started to carefully examine myself, which is really the thing that we all need to do. Once I did – when you look at ‘the dots,’ so to speak – it’s all very clear and compelling. When you realize that masculinity is everywhere and everything and that it’s a construct that affects so many people all throughout our society.
In his book, Sexton uses his own life and his own relationships with his father, his family members, and his male peers to show how the construct of narrow and abusive performative masculinity permeates through all and contributes to a host of problems for men, including loneliness, mental health issues, and violent and abusive behavior.
In the process of writing the book, he discovered that the academic literature and studies aligned with his lived experience. That research is artfully presented in the book, wrapped around Sexton’s own stories:
“The other thing that happened was I began to research my theory. And I found that there is an entire body of research that shows that its not only toxic to individuals but to society. Amazingly, the studies of feminism and gender and masculinity are very specialized in academia; you have to go looking for it. Unlike pop culture, which we are awash in, not many people know about it or know to question it.
It’s also – ironically – harder for men to see it. Our pop culture and mass media soak us in it and it’s all around us. Narratives about toughness and what it means to be a “real man.” Tales of sexual conquests and aggression. “Ah, boys. Boys will be boys, you know.” Whereas women have to question everything from how they communicate to their public image, men often walk through the world and let the world permeate around them. As a result, women have more self-awareness about these cultural forces acting upon them that they interact with daily. Men, by contrast, don’t have to actively question it and so they don’t see it. But it’s all there for the taking.”
For starters, what is ‘masculinity,’ anyway?
Before delving deeply into “toxic masculinity,” its important to first think about masculinity itself.
If masculinity is to be this diverse and inclusive thing – i.e., you can be physically strong or intellectual, gay or straight, into sports or into poetry, and still be ‘manly’ – the type of “Big Tent Masculinity” that we subscribe to at The Good Men Project, then what really is “masculinity,” anyway?
As Sexton explained, “even many of the people who are aware of the issues around masculinity still think of it as a biological construct – but that is simply not true: ‘Masculinity’ simply relates to the way you carry yourself in the world; it really is certain societal signals and ideas.” It’s a construct:
“I wear jeans, boots, watch sports, drink beer, because I enjoy those things.
But before I get dressed every single day, I remind myself why I’m putting on the clothes I wear. The identity I wear, the way I express my masculinity, is an armor. It’s a costume, a persona that I wear.
I wear a beard, because I am a character that has a beard. I keep it conscious, so it’s not unconscious.”
The idea of our identity as something performative and changeable is something that the younger generations seem more comfortable with than those of us who are older.
Sexton’s conclusion is that “as long as you’re not hurting yourself or hurting others by the identity you wear, you should feel free to make that identity anything that you want,” whether you are drawing from elements traditionally considered ‘masculine’ or elements traditionally considered ‘feminine,’ or some combination of the two.
“The idea of toxic masculinity is a lie. Everyone knows it. Everyone feels it. No one wants to say it. But once you can, it opens everything up.”
One of the most incredible parts of the book is the transition that Jared’s own father made, from a patriarchal toxic male to a progressive one. That transformation is a remarkable about-face. In writing this book and sharing this story, Sexton helps us to identify what we can we learn from it and also to question how such a shift was even possible.
As Sexton explains, his father was the kind of man who would have been a Trump supporter. He was aggressive, he loved the story of General Patton (and the movie), he watched sports, he never talked about his feelings, he overcompensated, and he ranted about “the pussification of men.”
While Sexton wanted his father’s love, as all sons do, he saw his father’s open racism, sexism, support of fascism, and thought he was ignorant and lacked the capacity to be anything else.
As they got closer, however, Jared explained, “I got tired of all the ‘man talk,’ the role playing men do when they hang out where there are no real conversations, no intellectual or actual intimacy. So I developed it with him. I made it safe for us to be intelligent and emotional people with each other. Men are afraid to do this. It’s seen as feminine and there is a risk of losing status. Men are socialized not to do it. As a result, men often have terrible relationships that are then reinforced through patriarchal or toxic masculinity.”
Once Jared and his Dad were honest and open with each other, his father admitted it had been over 30 years since he had had an emotional or intimate conversation with another person: “He told me he was lonely for most of his life.” He was able to let that all fall away once he was able to understand that other men felt similarly and were open to it: “That lessened the pressure and gave him permission.”
“We will move away from patriarchal masculinity. But people are grasping on and still looking to weaponize it. And it’s going to be a fight. It already is and it will get worse.”
Even as the forces of toxic masculinity appear in some ways to be gathering and gaining power (i.e., the election of Donald Trump) and we remain under constant cultural assault with the messaging that perpetuates it, Sexton believes that there is reason to be hopeful for the future. Though winning this battle is far from a sure thing. It’s certainly not that “the arc of the moral universe” necessary bends towards a kinder gentler more-inclusive masculinity; our history to date has demonstrated quite the opposite. Rather, it is that we are at a moment of history where we are becoming more self-aware of these issues and their negative impact on the lives of both men and women; and we are beginning to see a willingness to speak out and change; especially in the younger generations. And not just because it is the right thing to do as some moral matter, but because it makes for a better life.
As one example, Sexton points to our modern economy, which he believes largely stands in opposition to the forces of toxic masculinity, because “modern jobs are about communication and collaboration.” In addition, “many corporations are pushing messages of diversity and inclusion. Whether or not they believe it is a different story, and maybe they are being opportunistic. But the economy is betting on changing masculinity and that provides real incentive to change.”
Sexton acknowledges that the forces of push-back are strong. According to Sexton, the big question is whether and to what extent will forces on the other side (Trumpists, the Alt-Right, etc.) create a bastion of people who refuse to change or open up:
“The radicalization of insecure white men is one of the largest looming crises. This crisis is already here, and many people still refuse to acknowledge it. It’s right there in front of us and everyone refuses to examine masculinity and whiteness.”
To be sure, this is not “just” a U.S issue; it is a global one:
“This is absolutely a world-wide thing, but America has a few very specific traits that aggravate toxic masculinity – rugged individualism, the history of Manifest Destiny, a national love affair with racism and guns, which we continue to bury and refuse to address. There is also an overwhelming capitalist/consumerist and mass media messaging that we never question. White male patriarchal privilege is exacerbated by these narratives. Now, 11 years post-[the 2008] recession, we’re seeing the open embrace of nationalism, white supremacy, and fascism. It’s a very dangerous situation.”
Sexton acknowledged that among the reactions he has received to the book – and to his presence on Twitter – there has been harassment, anger, and attempts bullying. But that reaction fits squarely within his theories about masculinity so well it is to be expected, even:
“The people who push back against the attacks on toxic masculinity are the men who are the most insecure and the most affected by it. So they fall back on the bullying techniques they learned from their own socialization.”
In other words, there will be push-back. There already is. And that push-back is powerful and vicious. There are many people who read the phrase “toxic masculinity” and feel under attack. Those people are now going on the offensive to guard what they – in their a zero sum view of the world – view as theirs.
As Sexton summed up: “We will move away from patriarchal masculinity. But people are grasping on and still looking to weaponize it. And it’s going to be a fight. It already is and it will get worse.”
Hope, however, lies in our own self-awareness of the problems caused by toxic masculinity, the harm it does to both men and women alike. It lies in our own capacity to change. And it lies in the next generation.
The weekend before I sat down to speak with Sexton, I chaperoned my son’s high school junior varsity ultimate frisbee team to a tournament in New England. I saw boys being affectionate with each other. I saw boys hugging one of their teammates to keep him warm in the the pouring cold rain, rather than making fun of him for not “being tougher.” I saw glimmers of hope, and they were striking to me in comparison to my own locker-room experiences of my youth.
Sexton likewise sees hope in the next generation:
“Every generation rebels from the previous generation. This millennial generation really doesn’t like old traditional ideas. They reject the binary. There is hope in that. This generation doesn’t react with the same fear. And it’s really inspiring.
A lot of my male students are questioning everything about masculinity in exciting ways and are constantly recalibrating their identities. For me, it’s revolutionary. For them, it’s a Tuesday.
When I see tenderness between men, I feel like I’m witnessing something supernatural.”
Photo Credit: Author (Photo by Danielle Debien)
Listen to our podcast of the entire conversation between Mr. Sexton and GMP’s Michael Kasdan on SoundCloud here.