My thoughts on Liz Plank's For the Love of Men
In a thorough and compassionate manner Liz Plank sheds light on the ills of modern masculinity and compellingly argues that a more mindful vision for masculinity will further the progress made for women while freeing men from their self-made and societal shackles. Modern masculinity hurts men and women alike, and we’d all be better for updating what it means to be a “real man” from the stoic, unfeeling provider to someone more human.
Additionally, this book shook me to my core in the best possible way and I’d highly recommend it to everyone, but particularly to men who don’t think we’re part of the problem.
Plank’s work comes from a place of compassion, with the ultimate message and motivation to make life better for everyone. She sees the current definition of masculinity as something that ruins men and by extension, women. The book is split into two main parts, the first elaborating on myths surrounding masculinity, the second explicitly pointing out things that are wrong and can be changed.
She dives in to the modern interpretation of masculinity head first: “Masculinity was something you did, not something you talked about.” I love this line because it emphasizes how it is an act, how it is something you have to keep doing to maintain. My mind drifts to a scene from the show Scrubs, where Dr. Cox gives JD a handful of literal “man cards” that he takes away over the course of the episode whenever JD does something that isn’t “manly”. As with other forms of systemic oppression that we don’t easily notice, the lack of conversation around it is driven by the shame of not having it. By actually observing it and talking about it, we can start doing something to change it. But, some might ask, why change it?
She cites study after study demonstrating so many things, from how men will add a few inches to their height when their masculinity feels threatened, how they’ll eat more around women (I had to take a few moments to myself after reading that one), to the correlation between higher measures of gender inequity in a country and the gap between men and women’s life expectancy (less equity, shorter male lives). She talks about how shame drives men to isolation, overwork, substance abuse, and violence. She demonstrates both the ridiculousness and the danger of modern masculinity, and I would hope most any rational person would see the weight of her arguments.
Speaking of rational people*, Liz sat down with Tomi Lahren and two of Tomi’s friends to discuss masculinity. For the blissfully uninitiated, Tomi is a talking head for conservative ideas and to my understanding has a decent following. Plank refers to her conversation with Tomi and friends numerous times throughout the book, and the common thread I saw was a lack of listening to anything research suggests (yuge surprise**), an aggressive defense of the status quo, and, well… an exhibition of the toxic modern masculinity we’re talking about (as exhibited by Tomi’s guy friend). They believe masculinity is “under attack”, which struck me as code for “I’m losing that which identifies me and I don’t know how to cope”. “If your job is no longer to pay for the date, what’s your job on the date?” sums it up pretty darn well. Tomi’s guy friend talks about chivalry, phrasing it in a “let me do this for you because I love you”. Liz explains how it isn’t so much that he wants to help, but he wants to show that he can help. That he’s capable. Because if he isn’t and he doesn’t show that, then what is he?
**Not a yuge surprise
In addition to spotlighting the true driver of chivalrous behavior, Plank addresses the stupid myth that guys are slaves to their bodies and don’t need intimacy. It is a testament to the power of shame that we can believe something we know to be untrue. We are human, we have feelings, we clearly need emotional and physical intimacy. To deny it is pain which inevitably comes back out eventually, hurting us or those around us. Dispelling such ideas would also place the blame for sexual violence squarely where it belongs: on the assailant, with not even a tendril of thought dedicated to “but what was she wearing” or any bullshit like that. “Boys will be boys” because we tell them to and let them, not because they are innately programmed to do wrong.
And this is where the compassion comes in. It’s easy to get hotheaded and scream into the void about our systemic problems, and we love to blame real, tangible people (or fake, intangible internet people I guess). But we can do better, and Liz does do better. She points out how in private, women ask men to open up and be vulnerable, but in public, society tells them to man up. It isn’t easy for everyone to update themselves to an evolving system, and a great place to observe this is in the world of cis dating. Some women still expect the guy to pay for dinner (fulfilling the role of “provider”), while some prefer to split the bill. How is a guy supposed to know, when the woman who expects you to pay might even take issue with you asking how you want to go about paying? (Sidenote: “Use your personality as a filter” and don’t bother lining up a second date if their response to an attempt at communication is anger and irritation.) The point is, men and women all have different perceptions of masculinity and what is expected of a man and yeah, that’s tough. We’ll just have to do the best we can as we work through it while practicing empathy and compassion for each other as we make mistakes and get better at it. And if you need it to help figure this all out, therapy should be provided by a therapist, not your girlfriend.
Continuing on the topic of compassion, Plank talks about relationships between cis men. Why are we so often closed off from one another? She makes a powerful point by quoting letters between our founding fathers where they refer to each other with lots of love, letters that in a modern context might be thought to be between lovers. But they aren’t. So what happened? How did we go from calling your best friend “my dearest love” to inane small talk and a studied resolve to avoid vulnerable conversation without even realizing it? Plank finds that the language changed along with the introduction of sodomy and decency laws that made being gay a crime and associated it with a mental disorder. Homophobia has harmed countless people directly and has had numerous ripple effects that harm even more people, like this lack of deep friendship between cis men. This is literally killing men. Having at least a couple of close friendships helps people live longer, yet lots of older men are isolated, depressed, suicidal, and die far before women their age.
Moving on from friendships, lets look at parenting. We see mothers and fathers very differently; how often have you heard the term “babysitting” to describe a father caring for his child? It stretches beyond our social lens and into policy too, as parental leave policies are often just maternal leave (if there’s anything at all). A relatively recent example Plank highlights is that of Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets (a professional baseball player for anyone unfamiliar with the team). He took THREE WHOLE DAYS (gasp) to be with his wife and newborn child and was promptly mocked by Mike Francesca, a sports talk radio host. So clearly some folks take issue with fathers trying to be present and consider it a woman’s job to be a parent. On the flip side, people who are okay with more involved fathers can have such low expectations and standards for them that it is harmful. This touches on entrenched gender roles and men identifying as the provider. Some people see Don Draper in Mad Men and think that’s how a family should be. These people should probably read this book instead of helping an article titled “Man changes diaper” go viral because a man being a parent should not be so remarkable.
Lets dig into the topic of gender roles. Plank calls the 2008 Recession the “Mancession” because men have had a harder time recovering from it overall (due to a wide range of reasons which I won’t go into here). I think I’ve mentioned (about 20834 times) that men often identify as the provider, and therefore they define themselves by their work quite often. “Real men” have jobs that involve risk and sacrifice (think of the portrayal of cowboys and miners, or in more modern workaholic office settings of doctors or lawyers who don’t sleep). Why do a “woman’s job” of cleaning the living space or taking care of an elder when you can pointlessly put your life at risk, amirite? We are surely getting more women to pursue historically male-dominated roles, but this falls into the standard issue of normalizing what is male and marginalizing what is female; in other words, women should “be more like men”. Now, there’s nothing wrong and everything good with more women doctors, engineers, CEOs, etc. But Plank rightly argues that we need the reciprocal to happen too! Men should be able to see themselves as nurses, teachers, caretakers, etc. There is no good reason for men to avoid such roles apart from this societal pillaging of freedom.
Say you’re a cis dude in a typically male-dominated work environment (or any work environment, really). Say there’s this new cutie in the office that you’ve chatted with a handful of times and you think you might be interested, but you’re just woke enough to pause and think “wait is it okay to ask her to dinner?” What do you do? Liz Plank is here to help with a set of rules:
Some people just have a really hard time updating their priors when given new information. I’m guessing they wouldn’t pick this book up anyway. Liz demonstrates the ills of modern masculinity at the outset of the book, but she circles back to it with a few more points about life expectancy. Countries that have higher measures of gender equality have higher male life expectancy. In countries with lower measures of gender equality, there are three main reasons why men don’t live as long: work, risk, and doctors. Men tend to work riskier jobs in industries that employ effective marketing and lobbying to convince them that they don’t need that fancy expensive safety equipment because “real men” aren’t afraid and will put their life on the line for minimum wage. Men tend to exhibit riskier behavior in general, with the interesting caveat that white men take more risks because they can, while men of color take more risks because they don’t have much of a choice. And lastly, we all know the trope of men not asking for directions, but men also often refuse to seek help for medical issues. Even when they do, doctors are human and part of the same system as us and can misdiagnose issues due to their own biases.
To close out the book, Plank talks about how masculinity makes lots of young men vulnerable prey for gangs and extremist groups. These groups give men a taste of what they’re truly searching for: companionship, validation, belonging, loyalty, and a promise for so much more. Though a bold claim, I’m fairly convinced by her argument that addressing toxic masculinity would go a long way in stemming the recruitment of extremist groups like neo-Nazi movements, the Proud Boys, and ISIS. A final interesting note that left me with some more hope was the difference between what people thought of a “real man” and a “good man”. A “real man” was the embodiment of toxic masculinity, while a “good man” was a virtuous incarnation of all our loftiest ideals. It is really, truly difficult to even identify things entrenched in our subconscious and all around us in our daily experience. It is even more difficult to take active steps to do something about it. But when true freedom lies beyond, it behooves us to at least try, because I know that I’d rather be a good man than a real man. And if you’re a man, I hope you would too.