Book Review: For the Love of Men by Liz Plank.

posted in: Bernies Keynote, Masculinity, PSHE, RSE | 0

Book Review – For the Love of Men by Liz Plank, 2019.  [Pub: St Martin’s / Griffin].

 

For the Love of Men (FTLOM) is an excellent, challenging, ground-breaking and ultimately uplifting book about how we move men and boys away from harmful versions of masculinity to a more mindful and carefully-crafted masculinity.

Liz Plank is an award-winning journalist and named by Apolitical as one of the World’s most influential people in Gender Policy. She has a Masters Degree from the London School of Economics in Policy with an emphasis in global gender politics.

Firstly, let’s talk about the subtitle – ‘From Toxic to a More Mindful Masculinity’ – she uses the T word…I know, it can be off-putting and alienating, but to pretend there isn’t a type of masculinity that could be described as ‘toxic’ isn’t going to help us confront it properly. I prefer to use ‘unhelpful’ or dominance-based masculinity but Plank uses the term appropriately I believe.

The book is full of research background as you would expect but also contains what she calls ‘amuse-bouches’ between the main chapters which are testimonies and insights from men on the subject of masculinity – from all types of men from all backgrounds and perspectives. She talks about her Dad who showed his love and caring for his family though the medium of waffles on Sunday mornings (what I’ve previously termed the ‘daily acts of love’ that come from cooking for people we care about) and talks about the ways harmful masculinities have helped to close men down, shame men’s emotions and lead men to take unnecessary risks in many situations.

For me, there are five major elements I want to focus on in recommending Liz Plank’s book, highlighted in the order they appear in the book:

  1. How being able to vocalise our feelings helps men and boys.
  2. We need to change the old-fashioned notion of men being a ‘provider’.
  3. Better wellbeing for women means better wellbeing for all: equality in parental leave helps us all.
  4. Stereotyping starts early, toys don’t need to be gendered.
  5. Notions of traditional masculinity actually harm men.

 

  1. On a chapter that looks at the important and corrosive nature of shame in men, Plank references the role shame plays in male pride – and how crucial it is to avoid shame (as with humiliation as discussed in Andrew Hampson’s ‘Working With Boys)., To avoid shame and humiliation, men become stoic and often stop ourselves being vulnerable and emotionally open. We take to secrecy, silence and thus avoid judgement. As Brené Brown discusses frequently, shame dissipates the more we talk about it – so owning the things that others may shame us for becomes empowering – “self-disclosure helps heal pain” – as many people have found previously. For me, speaking about testicular cancer and my struggles with stress and anxiety nearly 20 years ago allowed me to be honest with myself and my family about how my work was making me ill.Plank finishes the chapter: “if we were to discuss and challenge the myths that dictate men’s lives, perhaps men would realise that the shame they’re carrying was never theirs to begin with”…and there’s a lot to be said for that. By acknowledging the corrosive nature of the shame that we have learned that we are supposed to feel from vulnerability, then we could start to overcome it.

 

  1. Discussing masculinity as I do – especially on social media – I often come across the notion of ‘man as provider’ and how this is associated with financial input to a family / partnership and that in many circles (likely fuelled by manosphere influencers) this means that the household tasks should be ‘provided’ by the woman in a traditional relationship…even if she also works outside the home. In 2019 a UCL survey found that in 93% UK households, the majority of household tasks were undertaken by women even when both partners, in the 30% of households where the woman also works full time, the women in 45% of those homes did the majority of the housework – an average of 7.5 hours a week additional unpaid labour. (Even in countries with more equality like Denmark, men still spend an hour less a day than women on household tasks). Challenging this notion, Plank asks what men thought of the term ‘provider’ and had a range of responses, many of which were from men who were deeply uncomfortable with the notion and power dynamics that underpinned it. Terrance Kayton came up with the term Co-Provider for his family – where he and his partner share parenting and household duties alongside the financial burdens; Jim Dooley prefers the term ‘parent’ as part of a family where both partners work and both share household duties and parenting duties – he felt that the male-referencing term ‘provider’ implies ownership and direction which also impacts on a woman’s role and making it (and her) seem inferior. Dove Men+Care carried out a survey in 2015 that found that although 86% of men believed that masculinity meant something different to them than it did to their fathers, only 7% could identify with current representations of manhood…particularly in relation to their roles as fathers. Ultimately what comes from this section of the book is that the term ‘provider’ needs to be retired as it creates yet another division within gender roles and families. Co-Provider goes some way towards balance but how about we just start to acknowledge that we as men are as ‘responsible for’ the smooth running of the household as women are. We have an active role to play in income, parenting and housework – after all, in western societies today costs have risen so high that in the majority of households both partners / parents need to work so why should all the household tasks fall to just one of the adults?

 

  1. Better Wellbeing for Women, means better wellbeing for men too. Iceland is the number-one ranked country in the world according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index – meaning the gap between the genders is the smallest in the world. The most equal nation on earth, and has been for more than a decade…and the fourth happiest nation on the planet too. This will be linked to the free universal healthcare system, generous parental leave, state-sponsored childcare and an incredible social safety-net. The men Plank met in Iceland didn’t view gender equality as a type of charity or a nice-to-have, but as a necessity: “to have a decent society, we have to have everyone do their share” said Gísli Marteinn a young father and newsreader in Iceland. It also seems that a country that is the best in the world in which to be a woman, is also simultaneously a good place to be a man – as the saying goes, more equality for one doesn’t mean less equality for others – it’s not pie. One glaring statistic to underpin this is that Icelandic men have the greatest life-expectancy in Europe…with men’s life expectancy being almost as long as women’s Iceland has the world’s smallest life-expectancy gap between men and women.  In Iceland Plank found that just as minimising income inequality benefits the country as a whole, minimising gender inequality also helps the health and the lengths of lives of all of its citizens too, so feminism can be seen as the antidote to shorter male life expectancy. More equal parental leave helps us all. Not just in terms of time-off for recuperation from the new mother’s point of view, but also as a way of bonding with the new baby AND setting up joint-parenting roles and skills. Denmark has one of the most generous parental leave policies in the world – alongside Norway and Finland – where men are entitled to take up to a full year off work. In 2001 the country’s new use-it-or-lose-it policy for fathers (which can’t be transferred to their wife) has meant a change in the perceived role of the father as a caregiver rather than a provider. One interviewee from Norway, Tobiass said that “in the first few months, parenthood is parenthood. There are really no father or mother tasks, it’s just seen as a normal thing to take care of your kids”. In this section, Plank highlights the role that parental leave plays in not just fatherhood, but in the way that men see themselves as men: it helps men to overcome the stigma that is imposed by constructs of masculinity which often highlights the importance of ‘work’ being outside rather than within the home. In the US, parental leave is a fraction of what it is in Scandinavia, with a 2011 Boston College survey finding that 75% of men took a week off work (or less) after the birth of a child. Even when parental leave is seen as generous – such as at JPMorgan Chase and their 16 weeks – it is often applied with stereotypical rigidity, where the ‘primary caregiver’ is automatically seen as the woman and male staff are allowed a maximum of two weeks. Concluding the section on gender norms, Plank looked at studies which compared straight and same-sex couples and found that in same-sex couples there was a much more balanced approach to household chores because, without rigid gender stereotypes, couples discussed their expectations and agreed roles to mutual satisfaction.   Imagine that – communication helps!

 

  1. Stereotyping starts early, in the toy box. Plank found a marked difference in the levels of empathy and understanding between boys and girls and on analysing the research found that toys have a marked impact on these character traits. In the US, a Pew survey found that 72% of men said that girls should be encouraged to play with traditionally boys’ toys, only 56% said that boys should be encouraged to play with girls’ toys. This reluctance to think boys should be allowed to play with girls’ toys points to a fundamental belief that cuts across society – that being feminine is a weakness. If there was nothing ‘wrong’ with femininity, then men wouldn’t be so anxious to avoid exploring it…for fear of labelling or so-called ‘emasculation’. The long-term impacts of gender stereotyping in toys – where boys’ toys tended to be more violent, more competitive and rooted in domination rather than competition compared to toys marketed at girls which tended to encourage group play and empathy – are seen in boys’ later development of cognitive and spatial skills at the expense of social and emotional development. These stereotypes impact on job roles, future pay and the gender gap in health and income outcomes…as well as linkages to parenting and caregiving.

 

  1. Traditional masculinity can also actually harm men in a number of ways – in work and with relation to seeking medical or emotional support when things go wrong. Men’s attitude to risk is complex and affected by traditional notions of masculinity. Men are taught to be ‘brave’ and ‘fearless’ and with this, is the perceived way we as men view risks and risky scenarios. This view is backed up by research by Dan M. Kahan, Law Professor at Yale Law School who found that men (especially white men with a high rate of individualism and a belief in hierarchy) are the most risk-ignorant…these men weigh the risks they face as much less-risky than say women or men of colour…because, he calculates, those risks harm that section of society the least. Regardless of his level of risk-awareness or averseness, men are expected to have one thing in common: fearlessness. This impacts on men in any number of ways – it was used in advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes in the 1920s (a time where women were sanctioned for smoking) men were encouraged to look at smoking as part of their toolkit to live up to the ‘lone cowboy’ image that the brand was synonymous with.  Alcohol is another substance that men are taught signifies their manliness – look at the drinking games and rituals associated with male coming-of-age events in the UK and USA at college and birthday parties, fraternities and sporting events such as Rugby teams and at football matches. In Russia, drinking vodka (not wine or beer as these are seen as less-manly) is used as a way to counteract the threat of being seen as a moraika kuritsa (a wet hen). Changes in Russian society in the past few decades has increased vodka consumption amongst men whose roles have changed from being the main hardworking breadwinner of the family to no longer being the head of the household (as the State had now taken that role in the Soviet Union). In order to reinforce their masculinity and dominance over their own bodily autonomy, vodka consumption increased so much that a quarter of Russian men do not live past 55 years old. Drinking is seen as a manly activity and the deaths occur as a direct result of the alcohol consumption, liver disease of fatal fights when drunk. Regarding men’s ability to ask for help when struggling with physical or psychological symptoms, The Journal of Counselling Psychology found that the more you cling to unrealistic traditional notions of masculinity the less likely you are to seek the support you need. Researchers found that men who cling to one or more of eleven norms of traditional masculinity that were commonly reported in the studies were more likely to be reluctant to seek medical help and had lower health outcomes:
  • Desire to win
  • Need for emotional control
  • Risk-taking
  • Violence
  • Dominance
  • Playboy (sexual promiscuity)
  • Self-reliance
  • Primacy of work (importance placed on work roles)
  • Power over women
  • Disdain for homosexuality
  • Pursuit of status.

Conclusion.

All-in-all, For The Love Of Men is an overview of why we as men need to look inwards whilst listening to global research findings and find solutions that help us – and the rest of society – to benefit from new ways of thinking about masculinity. These five subject areas are ones that really spoke to me as I read the book amongst plenty of other areas of insight into the world in which we live and the world that has shaped and challenged our masculinity.

I can’t recommend For The Love Of Men enough and have been recommending it to men of all ages and most have seemed interested. For some men though, because it’s written by a woman – even an educated one – it’s a definite ‘NO’ and that is in essence why dominance-based, old-style, male-supremacist manliness will likely never be eradicated…even in the face of words and concepts that could actually help men in many ways, some will choose to continue to be wedded to damaging versions of masculinity.

What are you choosing?

 

Bernie. x

 

What Makes A Man / (Hu)Man helps schools to open up debate about harmful masculinity and sexism, stereotyping and equality. 

Life By The Balls is about dealing with testicular cancer and male cancers as well as male health more generally.