The inimitable Liz Plank just released her book, For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity, on Tuesday, and I was able to hop on the phone with her that afternoon to talk all about it. A work that was four years in the making, it tackles urgent conversations that need to happen around what modern masculinity looks like, and opens the door the people who read it (all of us – men, women, non-binary…everyone) to take a seat at the table in trying to pinpoint the things that are and aren’t working with our current understanding of what it means to be a man. We talked about her process of interviewing a broadly diverse cross section of men, how the project evolved over the course of those conversations, what the future could look like and more, so go ahead and internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, and obviously grab a copy of the book for yourself, for the man in your life…for any and everybody, basically:
So I guess we’ll start with the sort of obvious question – who is this book realistically for? I know who it’s ideally for, but who’s buying the book, how are we spreading this message?
That’s a good question, because yeah, I think who I wrote this for and who will probably end up buying it might be…I mean, hopefully it’s a trifecta and there’s a meeting point in there, but I also was super conscious of that as I was writing the book. My entire journey of the book was actually realizing that the first version of the book was pretty much written for the people who were already having these conversations, and I realized as I was talking to a lot of men for research that there might be a different approach that we could take, a different language that we could be using in order to bring more of the people that we actually desperately need in this conversation into it. And so one of the things I actually did (to my publisher’s despair) is two weeks before the book was being sent to press was I took out “toxic masculinity”, almost entirely, from the book. It’s still there in quotes from different men, because obviously I’m not going to change men’s words, but it’s a term or a label that’s turning a lot of men away from the potential solutions, rather than bringing them into the conversation, where they can be part of the solution.
I know a lot of women will be buying the book, because they follow my work, and I love women. I’m very grateful to have a community, and to have female leaders, and consumers of the ideas and things that I put out into the world and the media. So I think a lot of those women will read the book, and will be really excited to pass the book on to some of the men in their lives, because (through a lot of conversations with women) I feel like a lot of women (particularly straight women who are married to men, or are in intimate relationships with men) feel like they’ve been left to pick up the pieces when our society doesn’t properly support men to become full human beings, emotional human beings in the world that are able to manage and process their pain and their emotions. When you’re not taught how to do that, you’re going to take it out on yourself or other people.
So, my answer is: everybody! Women, men, gender non-binary people…everyone who has a gender, or doesn’t believe in gender, you are all encouraged and welcome to be a part of the conversation in this book. [Laughs]
Yeah! And I read another interview that you did about the book where you do talk about that change you had in terms of realizing you wanted to express the frustration in a different way, which is huge, but I do think a lot of women don’t want to have to do the work, not have to hand-hold, because it seems like a lot of this stuff should be obvious in 2019. So clearly this is a good book for those people, but do you have any abridged tips for anyone who is feeling combative to the idea of a maybe gentler discourse? How can people shift that mentality?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s obviously a very valid concern, and basically, my response is: I wrote the book so you don’t have to. I did four years of research and talked to men so you don’t have to do that labor anymore. You just give them the book, or have them Venmo you for the book, but I think encouraging men, offering men this book…it’s kind of a guidebook, a map for a lot of men to start exploring these questions. The entire point of the book is not to make women’s lives worse; the entire point of the book is to make women’s lives better.
And what I realize, being involved in feminist work for so many years and having been traumatized in my personal, private life from a very young age by boys and men in my friendship circles and also my own family…I know what it’s like to be a victim of a society where men who are in pain end up inflicting pain on the women that they love in their lives. So the entire reason that I’m interested in continuing (because I think a lot of people have been having this conversation, but maybe not in a mainstream way) is that I really want to spark this conversation and make it very mainstream and have it happen in feminist circles. When feminism doesn’t have a plan for men, it’s a tax on women. We end up doing all of that emotional labor for them, and I don’t believe that that’s fair, and it’s not the future I want for girls who are growing up today, or the future for boys growing up today. I believe in a future where everyone’s raised the same way, where the way that I was raised as a girl, the opportunities and the toys and the playful way to explore how to understand my emotions and other people’s emotions…I mean, that’s emotional intelligence, and that’s important. And that’s becoming more and more important in our society. I want everyone to have access to that kind of education and that kind of support so that men don’t suffer and the women in their lives don’t suffer as well.
Absolutely! Do you feel from your interviews and research that the situation is getting better in terms of men being able to seek mental health services, or even just have a language that wasn’t given to them in terms of being able to express their emotions? I watched a documentary from the UK that was made pretty recently, and they went into an elementary school classroom where they asked the boys and the girls individually to give them synonyms for different emotions, and with “anger”, for example, the boys had few if any other ways to express that feeling, whereas the girls had a lot.
Wow, that’s fascinating! It’s just such a perfect little way, right, to express such a tragedy in our society, that men and boys don’t have any synonyms or any other ways of expressing anger in a way that’s not destructive towards themselves or other people. I like to say (and I know other people have probably said this, but) imagine the world if Donald Trump had gone to therapy. The entire world would be different if people like that, if our childhood bullies, had gone to therapy. Donald Trump’s kids wouldn’t be traumatized by whatever he learned from his own father, his own family, society at that time, and he wouldn’t be transmitting those things to his children.
I think that it is changing slowly. I sense that change when I talk to boys or really young men, and that’s actually how I was challenged not to use the term “toxic masculinity”. For example, a majority of people in this country think we should have stronger gun laws, but there’s a minority of people who feel very threatened by that conversation who we need to convince in order to have big, radical social change in our society. I think it’s the same thing for men and boys; when I talked to David Hogg and his friends, he talked about how he’d heard his sister crying, and he couldn’t stand to be in the house after the [Parkland] school shooting; she’d lost a few friends, and he realized he couldn’t stand to be in the same house because he was feeling empathy for her, and he didn’t know how to handle that sadness.
He’s part of a generation that’s a lot more progressive on these issues, but still, he was taught to think the same things that, for example, that school in the UK you were talking about had been taught. And so it’s interesting to see this conversation shift, and to see people like Michael Phelps, Terry Crews…these prototypical “alpha males” (if you ascribe to what that means in our society) saying they go to therapy, going out of their way to talk about vulnerability and sexual assault. It’s not only important for men to talk about sexual assault since they’re the vast amount of perpetrators, but it’s also important for men to talk about sexual assault because they’re survivors, they’re victims.
So I think it’s changing, but I also think there’s a lot of pushback. It’s like, the pendulum swings one way and then the other way. I interviewed a lot of conservatives for the book, too, and I definitely sensed that. And if you look at media now, see people like Tucker Carlson and the popularity of Jordan Peterson, you may also think that things are getting worse, in a sense. Because there’s a big void there, and these people are filling the void. This is what I think is so urgent about this conversation, and this is why I think feminism and feminist spaces and preventive spaces need to fill that void urgently. Because if they don’t talk about masculinity, if they’re not talking directly to men, then Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon and threads and groups on the internet that are part of the alt-right, the Proud Boys…they are speaking to men, and that is a crisis that will only get worse and more dangerous as time goes by, the more we let it happen and don’t get involved and do something about it.
Absolutely. And I recently saw a Twitter thread from a mom talking about how the radicalization process starts based on what she’d observed from her son’s social media feed, and how it’s so important for men to speak out.
Yeah, we kind of dehumanize men in a way. Obviously we dehumanize women so much, but there’s a kind of dehumanization in the way that we’ve been talking about men, and for me, a big part of the book was realizing that the vast majority of men are doing the best that they can with what they’ve been handed. And I think what we hand them can be a lot better, and then we could see huge changes in our society happen at different levels if we were to offer them a different proposition about what it means to be a man in our society and if we let them talk about their pain and their suffering. Not in a way that takes away from women’s pain and trauma, but in order to talk about women’s problems, we need to talk about men’s problems, too.
And you did talk to a lot of men for your research, so what was the process like in terms of sourcing your cross section? Were there any interviews that you found less productive than others, or do you feel like you changed anyone’s mind just from the conversations you had?
I get really emotional, because I’m just so grateful for the hundreds of men who have spoken to me for this book throughout the years, from the renowned experts to the regular guys who are on Facebook and who follow my work and were interested, and answered my questions with their honest stories of some of the difficulties they’ve experienced over the course of their lives. I did a lot of crowdsourcing, and I used social media as a tool to spread my ideas. My Instagram following is primarily female, but for some reason my Facebook following includes a lot of older men. I don’t know how they found me, but it was really interesting; I’d ask very simple questions, and I’d wake up the next day to over a hundred responses, a beautiful thread of deep and honest responses. My favorites were the questions that were really open-ended, and I found that that was always where I got the best responses. Often when we talk about masculinity it comes with a framing, and that’s a problem. So when you start from that position (which, to be completely honest, is the position where I started when I began working on this book), it’s a problem that needs to be fixed.
The more open-ended my questions were, and the less they were framed negatively…I’m not saying I framed them like, “What’s great about being a man, and being powerful and strong?”; I didn’t necessarily frame masculinity positively, I just didn’t frame it. I asked questions that were really simple, and what I found was that that was where I got the most interesting responses. And it would lead to them warming up and allowing me to ask another question, and have this really diverse dialogue. One of the questions I talk about, because I come from an academic background and I love data and research and being able to go out in the world and talk to people in their natural environment. So I did one in Washington Square Park with Esther Perrel where we offered free advice to men from a woman, which is something I’d been wanting to do for years. I wanted to give them advice that would be useful, and Esther was incredible, but one of the things I’d ask all of the men that came to our table was, “What’s hard about being a man?” If I asked you that question, “What’s hard about being a woman?”, and we didn’t even know each other, were just both in the subway and I’d asked that, we’d probably be able to have a pretty interesting conversation about that. You’ve probably thought about that, right? But these men had never even thought about it! No one had ever asked them that, not even men to other men. It was just so fascinating to see them stare at me in such disbelief and confusion, and the variety of their responses was so interesting. I thought, “There’s something here. This is a huge conversation, and no one is really having it.”
Absolutely, and that’s why I think it’s so critical that we are finally starting to have it. I also read one of those Facebook questions you were talking about was like, “What toy couldn’t you have, or couldn’t you play with, growing up because you were a boy?” And it reminded me of how at fucking McDonald’s I remember being a kid and you’d have to ask for the boy toy or the girl toy sometimes in the Happy Meal, and sometimes I wanted the boy toy, but I was just like, “Well, I guess the girl toy is what we have to go with here.” So I’m sure that was happening tenfold for boys.
That’s so interesting! How old are you?
Yeah, I’m thirty-two, and same thing. It’s funny that you remember that, right? And to me that’s the most interesting thing when you’re talking to people about their childhood; the first five years are so formative, and that’s why…you know, it’s not too late for men who are fully grown in the world, but it’s so urgent for us to make this shift for the next generation of boys. I just think it’s so fascinating to talk to people about, you know, something so simple as a certain toy you were denied, or the first time you were called…or, for men, they’ve all obviously been called a fag or a pussy at some point, and what does that mean? That being feminine or gay is the worst thing you can be as a man. Those things shape your identity, and they’re actually really hard to let go of.
I think a lot of the men who are going to be processing a lot of this might not even get to the root of all of the difficulties and trauma they’ve been through, but I hope this can be an opportunity for self-discovery. I think self-discovery is such a better way to put it, right? Again, the way that we frame the conversation around masculinity is like, “You’re going to have to stop doing all of these things. We’re going to take away something from you.” And it’s actually not that. That’s not the way we move together as a society and make the most radical change. I think there’s such a positive element, such a richness to discovering things about yourself or the way you were raised, rethinking some of the things you were put through, or put yourself through, and discovering and reflecting on what that meant for you. Perhaps the way you interpret it today is completely wrong, or it needs to be rethought, or it changes the way you are in the world or changes the way you’re going to raise your own children in the world should you choose to have them.
So I get super excited about this conversation, because I think if we frame it in a positive way…we don’t know where the conversation is going to take us, and it’s so rich. Masculinity isn’t one-dimensional at all, and that’s another thing I try to say in the book; there are so many identities I wasn’t able to represent, but I also tried to speak to men who are as diverse as possible, who have diversity of appearance and perspective and identity in the world, because that also adds many other layers to this conversation. We’ve barely scratched the surface.