The Great Suppression.
By Liz Plank
New York, NY; St. Martin's Press, 2019, 336 pp., $27.99 hardcover
Provocative yet warm, urgent yet thoughtful, For the Love of Men starts with a whopper of a premise: "There is no greater threat to humankind than our current definitions of masculinity." Author Liz Plank then proceeds to tie idealized masculinity directly to shame, suicide, depression, racism, abandonment, terrorism, war, and relationship failure.
At first, her claims may seem overstated. Yet, with analysis backed by a twenty-one-page bibliography and Plank's own academic and media reporting on gender theory, she takes aim at the "lies" we tell about this gender. "Cookie-cutter masculinity prevents the full expression of men's humanity," she writes.
Despite its being loaded with facts, the book is conversational in tone. Plank peppers in personal anecdotes and short reflections from men, bringing hope and potential for enlightenment. Though she is angry, she is patient to understand.
The interviews give male vulnerability a voice through subjects that include a rape victim's father, a trans man, a disabled man, and an inner-city youth who grew up to work in the White House. She tackles stereotypes and takes them down. Stereotypes of all genders, all cultures, all persons are dehumanizing, but Plank makes a case that a rigid concept of masculinity is the most damaging stereotype of all, leading to suppressed emotions and loneliness. She uses the term "toxic masculinity" often, but also less polarizing terms such as "idealized masculinity" and "rigid masculinity." She rails at familiar targets, like shooter video games, as indoctrination of boys. But, just as her refrain begins to sound familiar, something happens: Plank asks men probing questions that transform the book.
What's hard about being a man? What makes you a good man? What makes you a real man? When she asked young men in Zambia, "What does a man say?," the answers were negative or prideful things. When asked, "What does the heart feel?," the answer was, "Sad." Her takeaway: A "good man" comes from a place of strength; a "real man" comes from a place of fear.
Most illuminating was the fact that every man she asked did not really feel like he was a man yet, because, she writes, "Masculinity requires constant self-regulation," whereas womanhood isn't lost through social acts. "There aren't femininity-restoring acts, because femininity doesn't have to be earned."
She calls gender norms "simultaneously arbitrary yet powerful." Harder for men than dealing with women is dealing with other men in a world of hypermasculinity: "No wonder men weren't able to be vulnerable about their fears; they're too busy pretending like they don't have any." She says too many men are sad, lost, depressed, and in need of guidance. Helping men admit their vulnerability and realize the genders are more alike than different would do nothing less than change the world, writes Plank.
What triggers the sadness? Males become emotionally stunted, the book explains, which is unexpected, because they actually emote more as toddlers. What changes? Suppressing emotions leads to psychopathology, and fear of emotions leads to violent behavior. Men identifying with traditional masculinity are more likely to personally harass and lose the ability for compassion. We codify gender roles by not smiling at boys or talking about their emotions as often as with girls; instead, power is asserted over them through discipline. In an attempt to avoid mental illness, many who fail to maintain a strong, self-reliant image turn to substances amid covert depression. Trained to block emotions, Parkland school shooting survivor and gun control activist David Hogg tells Plank he had been a "lone wolf": "I didn't feel empathy until the day of the shooting."
For many low-paid people with poor access to healthcare, it is easier to get a gun than a therapist, she writes. She blames our modern gun culture on the traditional masculine code, showing with her research that men are three times more likely to own a gun and six times more likely to kill themselves.
Dominance and providing are emphasized as the key narrative of being a man. When these things fail, men are less likely to seek help: "Loneliness is a disproportionate male problem." She credits this mindset for men's becoming the minority in colleges, and for their lack of interest in caregiving or education fields considered too feminine.
Plank makes interesting sociological observations, one after another: "Early-life adversity causes boys to struggle much more than girls." Why? Girls are better able to handle challenges of modern childhood because they are allowed to share emotions and therefore build better support systems. Boys are more vulnerable than girls in poverty and low-resource environments, but well-off students have less of a gender-specific learning gap. She writes,
[Men] need more intimate attention, not less. We let our gendered bias dictate the conversation about what they need.... Mix an inability to cope with emotions with a reluctance to seek help, and you have the perfect--and lethal--mix for a mental health crisis.... Men don't have the tools to deal with something they're not supposed to feel in the first place....
The men she spoke with told her they were often unable to show intellectual vulnerability or to demonstrate relational tenderness or emotional flaws. One man simply stated, "Anger is acceptable; sadness isn't." Plank cites studies finding many male shooters share narcissism and feelings they are victims of injustice. "Everyone experiences hardship, but only one demographic has been indoctrinated to medicate with revenge."
Why does this continue? "Having an identity that fits into the dominant culture protects you." For those who don't have time to read extensive current theory in this area, Plank's book summarizes it for you. She cites a current "gender panic" nurtured by people like Fox News's Tucker Carlson and author Jordan Peterson, who wrote 12 Rules for Life. Plank even analyzes trends like risk-taking and an aversion to recycling. "Both men and women associate those eco-conscious behaviors with femininity," she writes, and "threats to masculinity are more important than the environment."
Fifty years after Mr. Rogers's 1969 refrain that "feelings are mentionable and manageable," many men feel bullied out of having thoughtful, nuanced conversations about masculinity. She adds that gay and trans men often face hostility because they threaten the traditional masculine code.
The myth about testosterone making men predisposed to being violent is "damaging," she says. It's not "testosterone, but a sense of entitlement." Again, a psychological mindset is the key here. Plank says testosterone is not the cause of violence, but the result.
She says claims of gender differences hurt women's chances in the job market and dissuade couples from trying to resolve conflict. In reality, neuroscientists find that men's and women's brains are not that different, Plank writes. She cites a bomb simulation in which women, when anonymous, actually dropped more bombs; when they had to identify as women, they dropped fewer. More research should focus on the positive aspects of testosterone, she claims, including increasing competitiveness, which can lead to more successful outcomes.
The most damage caused by idealized masculinity is from "shaming behaviors": Women are ashamed for wanting sex, and men for asking for intimacy. The man suppresses his needs because he is taught he doesn't have any. For some, this means a disconnect during sex and a focus on performance, during which men aren't really "present." Plank cites the success of a cuddle service that caters to men in their fifties, the same group with a high incidence of depression.
Then she reaches far again: "Perhaps the root of both men's and women's problems could be the same ill: unvarying and unwavering patriarchal gender roles." She says we need to focus on personal preferences, not collective ones. Studies show that the happiest husbands recognize their wife's influence in their lives. However, women can be unhappy with men's vulnerability as well. But researchers show that partners in gay relationships usually don't have set roles and are therefore more equal and more likely to be happy, with greater connectedness, more equitable domestic work arrangements.
So the answer? Deprogramming, "ending the Great Suppression," Plank writes, likening it to an addiction. "Demanding men be tough actually makes them weaker emotionally." End the myth that women's empowerment comes at the expense of men's happiness. Plank proposes a new form of masculinity that focuses on responsibility for others rather than dominance.
She says the omnipresence of gender can be diffused if ignored: "The leverage that gender as a system has over us is only as substantial as our willingness to honor it."
Her goal: To exist outside gender. Or, if we must have masculinity, "reclaim" it as compassionate, mindful, intentional. In a world where our emotional quotient is becoming increasingly valuable, "these rigid masculine behaviors are learned and therefore changeable and avoidable."
She compares idealized, rigid masculinity to a religion or radical ideology, pointing out that ISIS and Neo-Nazis are among the groups taking advantage of the vulnerability it foists on men. Plank wants to reframe our conversation and change the way we raise boys, saying these codes were created as protection but have done harm. Simply stated, she believes there are two factions: those who realize gender is made up and those who don't.
Reviewed by Carol Blair
Carol Blair is a writer and editor who has worked as a newspaper journalist and public schoolteacher. She and her husband have two children; both are men.
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|Title Annotation:||For the Love of Men: A New Vision of Mindful Masculinity|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2020|
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