When I met with journalist and producer Liz Plank at a Manhattan cafe one afternoon last week, we ― two feminist journalists ― were there to talk about one thing: men.
It was a like scene from “Sex and the City,” overpriced vitality shots included, except instead of sitting around contemplating why men are one way and women are another, we were chatting about how deeply-ingrained cultural myths about masculinity pose an existential hazard to people of all gender identities, and our planet itself.
I couldn’t help but wonder… what’s going on with modern men?
Luckily, Plank’s new book, “For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity,” which comes out Tuesday, attempts to dig into this Very Big Question, and drives home that a system we all participate in is one that we have the power to collectively transform.
Plank’s book paints a deeply-researched, compassionate and critical portrait of modern manhood. Through years of research and interviews with a diverse cross-section of men, she explores the ways that toxic ideas about masculinity push men into undue suffering, stifling their emotions, their friendships, their health, their professional and social fulfillment, their interactions with women, and their literal lifespans.
“We’re forcing people into boxes that don’t serve them or society,” Plank said. “And I’m interested in how transformative it can be for us to just have 1 percent of this conversation. Just for one guy to ask himself one question, I think, would be fundamentally huge for our society.”
“For the Love of Men” effectively makes the case that the time for talking openly and honestly about masculinity was forever ago, and therefore we need to start immediately. And the stakes could not be higher. As Plank writes in the introduction to her book: “There is no greater threat to humankind than our current definitions of masculinity.”
We got into what that means for men, how Gen Z is changing prevailing cultural ideas about gender, and how women can responsibly participate in the dialogue about masculinity.
HuffPost: So why write a book about masculinity?
Liz Plank: A lot of people were surprised that I would write about men, and I was not as surprised as everyone else. Once I started reading about it and researching and talking to men, I realized that in my own education around feminism and gender theory ― I have a master’s degree in gender ― there was so much I’d actually not learned about masculinity. And it made me really angry, because there’s a whole half of the population that is missing from conversations around gender theory, and there’s no way for us to really solve any of our problems if we’re not talking about men and how they also have a relationship with their gender. We equate gender with women, when actually, everyone has a gender.
We talk a lot about the pain that women are experiencing as a result of men, but we don’t really talk about how a lot of the pain that men are inflicting is coming from pain that they’re experiencing.
Was there any particular moment that lit the spark for this book?
Plank: I was eating spicy ramen with my sister in the East Village, where all good ideas happen. It is actually a good [reminder] that our most creative ideas happen when we’re relaxed and having fun and not necessarily trying to come up with your next book that you’re going to spend four years working on. My sister and I were joking about how we have struggled a lot with men in our lives, and at the time she was dealing with a particular man in her life. And we were joking there should be a guidebook so that men know how to be men. And a woman should write it, because men are always telling us what to do and how to be women.
And so it started a journey. I rewrote [the book] three times, because the more research I did, the more interviewing I did, the more I realized how much was missing from this conversation. We talk a lot about the pain that women are experiencing as a result of men, but we don’t really talk about how a lot of the pain that men are inflicting is coming from pain that they’re experiencing. And that gives you a very different perspective on men from a feminist perspective, when you’re not just mad at them and assuming that they’re bad, but assuming that they are good and that something makes them engage in bad behaviors.
What does the pressure to constantly prove one’s masculinity over and over and over again do to men, specifically perhaps North American men?
Plank: There aren’t a lot of studies about masculinity, but there are a lot of studies that show the link between when men absorb these messages around traditional masculinity. So I don’t think masculinity is a problem, I think masculinity is the solution. I grew up understanding this idea of the man who’s invulnerable and who’s silent and who’s alone and never asks for help. The classic example is the Marlboro Man. Try and imagine [him] or someone like Donald Trump going to therapy. The reason why you can’t imagine that is because men like Donald Trump don’t go to therapy. But imagine what the world would look like if Donald Trump had gone to therapy.
Oh man. The number of men I would love the power to personally send into therapy…
Plank: Right, exactly. And so there’s huge power there. But the men who identify the most with traditional masculinity and with these ideas that I was talking about are the least likely to seek psychological help, they’re the least likely to go to the doctor, they’re the least likely to seek preventative care. That should worry everyone. And you see how that plays out in all of our society. Men are less likely to wear sunscreen, men are less likely to wear seatbelts, men are more likely to drown.
I was a lifeguard, and in our lifeguard training, we learned that 80 percent of deaths related to drowning involve men, so it’s almost a uniquely male experience. And yet we don’t talk about drowning as a gendered experience! And the only reason is not because men are worse at swimming than women, they have equal aquatic abilities. But men take more risks. Men are less likely to wear life jackets. They are also more likely to think that they’re better swimmers than they actually are. By the way, the studies found that women and men [both] overestimate men’s abilities at swimming. These are not things that are biologically ingrained, these are things that are socially learned. And so if we are to challenge some of those ideas and some of those preconceptions, imagine how different the world will look.
“Toxic masculinity” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, both in academia and online, but it appears very infrequently in the book. Why is that?
Plank: Originally, I had it [in the book] maybe 267 times. It was a challenge to figure out a way to talk about this problem without using the term because that’s the term that’s most widely used. I reached out to Michael Kimmel and I reached out to Jackson Katz, who are two of the foremost experts on masculinity, and they both separately confirmed to me that it was a term that they would not really use when they were working with men. I had a lot of pushback for this, but I decided to not use it. I think it shows up only in the quotes that men use, because I obviously am not going to change the way that people express themselves. And maybe a few times [there are references to] “toxic ideals of masculinity” or “toxic ideas.” But I try not to use it because it’s loaded.
The first person who really challenged me in an interview was [gun control activist] David Hogg. I asked David Hogg if he believed that there was a link between toxic masculinity and school shootings. And he said, “You know what? I don’t really think this term useful.” He is one of the hugely important people challenging beliefs around gun violence and gun safety, and he’s very aware of terms that make people listen to you or not listen to you. And he challenged me to think about that.
Was there anything else striking you learned about masculinity from interviewing younger men like Hogg?
They don’t even think gender is a thing. They know that it’s made up. As children, we believe that gender is flexible and changeable. So if you ask children before the age of six, they believe that if Emma’s wearing a dress, then she’s a girl. And if Emma wears pants, well, she can be a boy. So gender can be something that changes. But then somehow when we grow up, we watch TV, we talk to our friends, we get called names, and we adopt these beliefs that are not rooted in science and not rooted in truth and we make up these rules. And so it was really nice to be challenged by a younger generation.
That’s one of the reasons why I’m really excited about this conversation about masculinity, because to me it’s not just a conversation about masculinity, it’s a conversation around making the feminist movement gender-neutral. Is it productive to equate feminism with women and to equate women-only spaces with feminism? I don’t think so. If the whole point of feminism is gender equality, then shouldn’t everyone be welcome to the table? And gender non-binary people too, who are already left out of all of these conversations. When we just make it about women, we’re just excluding so many people who have so much value to add.
Did the process of writing this book change the way you personally talk about masculinity?
Plank: I think that there’s been a lot of counterproductive conversation around men and masculinity, and I regret some of the things [I’ve said]. We all regret tweets. I want to put it out there right now before someone goes on a tirade and says, “Look, she tweeted ‘cancel men’ in 2014.” And I probably did, because I was mad and enraged and sad and traumatized. But I think it’s important for us to process our pain, because I want men to process their pain so that they stop inflicting it on us.
How did you go about finding men to interview? Because you obviously dedicated a lot of time and energy to finding men to speak to, and specifically finding a very diverse cross-section of men to speak to.
Plank: A lot of the people that I ended up interviewing were people that I was working with or people I was friends with, or men that I really admired. D’Arcee Cherrington is one example ― he’s gay, black, and has a disability. I interviewed him for an article a couple years ago when he had to crawl out of a United flight because they didn’t bring him his wheelchair. And so he was one of the first people that I thought of for the book. if there’s a person that I want to talk about masculinity with, it’s not, I don’t know, some white guy. It’s not Joe Biden. Although I would still like to talk to Joe Biden about masculinity.
Joe Biden, if you are reading this interview, you can hit Liz up.
Plank: You can DM me. But I think the conversation around masculinity is so much more rich when you talk to people who don’t fit neatly into the standard of masculinity that we have in our society.
Some of the most fascinating conversations were also with men on Facebook. I love my Facebook community. I would be reading something, and writing a book is spending a lot of time on your own and being alone with your thoughts and going crazy. And so sometimes I would just ask them really simple questions, like, “What was a toy that you wanted to play with as a child that you were told you weren’t allowed to play with?” The thread that ensued was just totally heartbreaking and beautiful. So many [men] denied Easy Bake Ovens. Because God forbid men would know how to cook or be interested in cooking. There are very simple questions [about gender] that women are asked all the time and women ask themselves all the time. And so why aren’t men asking each other these questions?
What are some of the biggest takeaways from your years of research?
Plank: I think one of the biggest takeaways for me in terms of the “journey” of this book, if this book was “The Bachelor,” [is] that we far undersell the benefits of feminism to the lives of men. The way we talk about gender equality is all wrong and the framing of these conversations is all wrong. I grew up believing that if we are talking about women and you bring up men in this conversation, you are doing a disservice to women. And I realized that is actually fundamentally wrong. And in fact, we have been hurting women by not talking about men.
And [one of] the other big takeaways, which I end on, is the idea of Marie Kondo-ing your gender. That we just need to tidy up. And with men, it feels huge and it feels like, “I need to go through this whole transformational journey of understanding my trauma.” And it’s like, yeah, but what you really gotta do is just learn to get to know yourself a little bit. It’s really just about self-discovery. Open up the closet, go in the back where you don’t often go and things have been piling up for years. And some junk you might want to keep, and that’s great. You should keep whatever you want to hold on to. But there’s a lot there that you might not want to hold on to it and you didn’t even know you were holding onto. So it’s about empowering people to have the freedom to be who they want to be in the world and the freedom to let go of things that don’t serve them. And questioning a lot of the “truths” that we have about men.
It’s still commonly believed that men think with their penises, and testosterone makes men violent, and testosterone is what caused the financial crisis, and if you put men together, they’re just going to create chaos. But there’s one human species and we’re more identical than we are different. We’re forcing people into boxes that don’t serve them or society. And I’m interested in how transformative it can be for us to just have 1 percent of this conversation. Just for one guy to ask himself one question, I think, would be fundamentally huge for our society.
So then what role do women play in this conversation? How can women productively engage the men in their lives ― and each other ― on these topics?
Plank: Women are oppressed and [many of] our lives are traumatic. I am white, middle class, able-bodied, cisgendered and just came out as queer. And I feel I’ve had so many different deplorable experiences with men and boys. So that doesn’t go away and that will always stay with us.
At the same time, [I write about] realizing how I was playing into some of these myths about masculinity, and how I was expecting men to be very similar to the false expectations that we had of them. I talk about going on a chivalry diet and basically deciding I’m not going to let guys pay any more, I’m not going to accept these grand gestures. And then being like, but I want the guy to open the door for me, and realizing how fundamental that was to my identity, or how fundamental it was to my relationship with men, and that I valued those things. So how could I, on the one hand, say, “What’s wrong with you? You don’t have to be the provider, you don’t have to be the strong guy, you don’t have to do these things. Women just want you to be sensitive and caring.” And it’s like, no, we don’t just want those things. We don’t just want you to be sensitive and caring.
We were raised in the system. It’s all of our responsibility to disrupt it. But that’s exciting. That means we have the power.
We’re all raised in this culture.
We’re all raised in this culture and we’re all products of it. And so we have to take responsibility, but also take away this individual guilt that we have that we’re participating in this. We were raised in the system. It’s all of our responsibility to disrupt it. But that’s exciting. That means we have the power. Yes, there’s a system, but we’re all part of the system. And so if we don’t like the system and we don’t like the way that things are going, we can change it.
And the positive thing about that is that yeah, I gave up all my free drinks, but I also got so much more from those relationships and I learned so much about myself. And once you don’t fall into predetermined rules, you decide which rules you want to hold in the relationship, and the power dynamics are very different. And it opened up a whole new world in terms of relationships for me.
Why is it urgent for men to be confronting their gender identity and for women to be engaging with men of on the topic of gender?
We’re really late, but that doesn’t mean that it’s too late. It is like climate change. I feel like we’re at a time that’s really transformative but also stressful, because we’re realizing how fucked we are. You can put that in. We’re really screwed and we have accepted a version of reality that is false. We’ve accepted that, for example, politicians are supposed to take money from lobbyists, and politicians are supposed to fund their campaigns through the coal mining industry, and men are supposed to die on the job more than women and do these really dangerous jobs. Men are supposed to make more money than women.
And then when they don’t, when we realize that that’s not a sustainable model and that’s not true, that requires us figuring out how to work toward finding an alternative. And that’s exciting. But like all big changes, it requires a lot of work.
Just in terms of the environment, if we were to look at one thing, men are less likely to recycle than women. Men are less likely to use tote bags than women because they’re viewed as feminine. We can laugh at that because it’s ridiculous. But then you think about the consequences of that. And so yeah, it’s absolutely urgent for anyone to be free to care about the survival of the human species.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.