To Truly Challenge Traditional Masculinity, Try ‘Failing’ at It

A tried-and-true method to liberate yourself and others.

Thomas Page McBee

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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…

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Thomas Page McBee

Writer exploring the relationship between gender, culture, and history. Most recent book: Amateur (Scribner). Essays/reporting: NYT, The Atlantic, GQ, more.