To Truly Challenge Traditional Masculinity, Try ‘Failing’ at It
Nearly a decade ago, back when I first began my reporting on what was then-called the “global masculinity crisis,” I wrote a story for The Atlantic that ran under the optimistic headline, “The End of Violent, Simplistic, Macho Masculinity.” In it, I detailed the beginnings of the healthy masculinity movement, which sought to redefine masculinity, according to Pat McGann of the grassroots advocacy organization Men Can Stop Rape, with words like “nurturing, kind, positive, good, caring, courage, confident, inclusive, courageous, honest, accountability, and respect.” Through my research, I encountered a vibrant network of academics and grassroots organizations like MCSR who’d spent decades working to stop violence men perpetuate against others — and ourselves. I later made the unfolding effort to challenge and reimagine capital-m “Masculinity” my beat, writing dozens of articles and a book on both the many perils of unconsciously embodying traditional (what some advocates call “toxic”) masculinity.
As a transgender man, I understood that I had a unique perspective on this story. I began injecting testosterone in 2011, around the time I began investigating what masculinity “means,” and as the fallout from the Great Recession was increasingly blamed for a series of concerning issues affecting men and boys like “deaths of despair” among the white working class in areas decimated by lack of opportunity and a “gender education gap” as men graduated from college at far lower rates than women.
But as I navigated the many new privileges and the disturbing constrictions of the “man box,” I quickly realized that the economic story was just one small piece of the “masculinity crisis.” I came to believe that traditional ideas about masculinity itself were the cause of that “crisis” — a crisis that has since metastasized into the political, social, and environmental disaster we’ve been witness to in the years since.
Over the last 10 years, as I’ve come into my body and place in the world, I have chronicled my own efforts to confront my biases, with the hope that facing my own internalized conditioning publicly would keep me accountable in my efforts to liberate myself from the long lineage of harm we expect from boys and men. I’ve compiled, road-tested, and shared strategies I’ve uncovered in my ongoing effort to reimagine my own relationship to masculinity. I’ve spoken to sociologists, psychologists, historians, economists, and neurobiologists about testosterone research, the tie between white masculinity and white supremacy, and how we systemically socialize boys away from humanity. I’ve explored the relationship between masculinity and violence, masculinity and shame, and investigated the class-based, root etymology of “real men.”
Over time, in my both my reporting and my life, I focused on identifying healthier alternatives to the more noxious aspects of traditional masculinity. But I quickly found that it wasn’t enough to abstain from reprehensible behavior myself; just as it wasn’t sufficient to focus only on my personal effort to get back in touch with my empathy and capacity for care.
Because, truth is, I’ve fucked up. Early in my transition, I frequently toed a line that allowed me to maintain my privileged role by not interfering actively with the bad behavior of other men. I’ve looked the other way in “small moments” — an interrupted co-worker, a misogynistic barber shop conversation — because doing so protected me from “failing” at being a man. I could “protect” my masculinity and even my body by staying silent, and in trade I could achieve a wobbly sense of belonging, a “real man” — but at what cost?
Most men in the US (where most of my reporting focuses) seem to struggle with this same flawed premise: That masculinity is a state to be “achieved,” not an ever-enlarging identity one embodies.
What to do about this? I’ve found a simple, if challenging, way to undo this flawed logic in real time. It’s helped me through dilemmas large and small, but I should warn you: It’s not easy. In fact, it risks everything.
If you want to truly liberate yourself and others from the destruction endemic in more toxic forms of masculinity: Note when you are in a situation where you feel the pull to “prove” your masculinity — and “fail” by doing the exact opposite.
To unpack how to do that exactly, we must look first at that pull. When we attempt to prove or “achieve” masculinity, what scripts are we following?
I like to use the “act like a man” box, a powerful classroom exercise originally designed byTony Porter, executive director of the anti-domestic violence organization A Call to Men. This box is a highly restrictive code boys must learn to “succeed” at masculinity, with behaviors and attitudes so intuitive to children that they can fill it out on cue. (When asked what “goes outside the box,” even kids know the derogatory language — which I won’t repeat here — for boys who dare transgress these norms.)
The first step to a more liberated, embodied masculinity is to see the problem, and how deeply we’ve internalized it. I always ask men who I talk to about harmful masculinity to consider if these ideas of masculinity align with their core values. If not, we must first be vigilant about interrupting them in ourselves. That’s the easier part. The hard part is using the reality of our privilege to, as Samuel Beckett writes, “fail better.”
How? Here’s an example: Earlier this month in the UK, a You.gov survey confirmed what most women who’ve walked down a street in public will tell you: Nearly all women report being subjected to sexually harassment. Shortly after the release of that survey, a South London marketing executive named Sarah Everard disappeared on her walk home through a residential neighborhood. A police officer was later charged with her murder — sparking outrage internationally about gender-based violence and the ongoing dangers of being a woman in public space.
This, as per usual, led to a swift backlash from aggrieved men and their defenders, whose instinct to defend capital-m, monolithic Masculinity (a response best summed up by the #notallmen hashtag) centered men’s feelings about masculinity over a crucial conversation about women’s physical safety.
To this end, English actor, writer, and advocate Jameela Jamil issued the following challenge:
So how to “fail better” than just telling the world you’re “not that kind of guy”?
The most effective way to challenge gender-based violence, as Jamil notes, is calling other men in. That means challenging fathers, brothers, bosses, coworkers, neighbors, friends, and even strangers when you witness something that isn’t cool. That means being uncomfortable and making others uncomfortable. That means being willing to “fail” at masculinity in order to change it.
There are infinite ways to approach a conscious effort to dismantle problematic masculinity — but for the purpose of this post, I will leave you with a few guidelines in response to Jamil’s challenge:
- If you see something, say something. Bystander intervention is incredibly powerful, especially if you are in the same “in-group” as the offender. If you witness sexism or other harassment, say something immediately so as to not contribute to the complicit silence that often follows harmful behavior.
- It helps to have some go-to lines. I like “that’s really not cool,” “that’s not funny,” and “I don’t like when you ___.” Depending on the context, using the “I” can be especially helpful, as it shows ownership, and that you’re willing to go to the mat for it.
- When it comes to hard conversations outside of an immediate incident, be willing to be vulnerable in efforts to call other men in. Rather than relying on shame, use your own mistakes as a way to disarm others.
I know this is hard. It takes persistence and confidence to stick up for what’s right, and I too can collapse in despair and futility. But when that happens, I remind myself that we are living through a historic flashpoint, a rare opportunity to leverage a conversation the whole world is having into meaningful change. The time is now. Failing is hard, but as Beckett also reminds us: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”