When journalist Liz Plank was a kid, she surrounded herself with stuffed monkeys and imagined that she was Jane Goodall. Her dad’s love language was making waffles and he kept the family’s home so well stocked that to this day Liz finds waffles unremarkable, when for the rest of us, waffles on our plate is a reason to celebrate. Liz’s mom is an adamant feminist, but Liz initially rejected her mom’s ideals.
“Wanting justice was a gift that both of my parents gave me. My mother is a big feminist. I resisted her influence for a while, as we all do as teenagers since the last thing you want to be is your mom, and then you grow up and realize that all you are is your mom.”
What do you get when you combine an insatiable appetite for anthropology, a sweet spot for your dad, and a life purpose inspired by your mom? Throw in your Canadian roots, and you get an eternal optimist willing to spend four years writing and researching every day to create a book that could change the world.
Her audacious new book For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity is a deep dive into what Liz believes is humankind’s greatest threat: the toxic ideals of masculinity. At first you may ask, isn’t that climate change (or viruses like COVID-19)? But as Liz points out, one of the symptoms of these toxic ideals is the gender recycling gap.
“Climate change is an extremely gendered problem. Men have a very different way of dealing with it than women. That’s not because men are biologically predisposed to recycle less, or to be less worried about our planet self-imploding, or that they’re less likely to understand facts about climate change. They’re just raised to care less about climate change because as a society we are raised to think that caring about climate change, and caring about recycling, and tote bags, is somehow feminine, and not becoming of these ideals of masculinity that we hold.”
To get men talking about feminism, and dispel harmful myths about the construct of gender and the supposed gender war, Liz focused on what she calls ‘idealized masculinity’. Women’s roles have evolved over time, but men’s roles have remained stagnant until now. Her book is a guide to help men re-evaluate their gender, or as Liz says; “Maria Kondo their gender.”
“If you don’t see your gender, you don’t see the ways you were shaped by it. The risk can be dangerous for women, and also for men. Men have a greater chance of dying of suicide, dropping out of school, being a perpetrator of violence, and experience a lot more isolation than women. If they don’t talk about the way the patriarchy and masculinity principles shape some of their behaviors and attitudes, how can they begin to change them? We risk a society where people don’t have the true freedom to be themselves.”
As Liz interviewed hundreds of men and asked them questions about their gender, she realized that many men had never thought about it. After some probing, she discovered that men’s failure to live up to idealized masculinity leads to shame, partly because masculinity has to be constantly proven and can be painful.
“That’s at the core of this conversation. That is the part that I have received the most messages about from men who said ‘You were able to put into words something that I’ve felt my entire life, that there is a gap between how I feel, and how I think I’m supposed to feel. There’s a gap between who I am, and who I’m supposed to be, or who I think I’m supposed to be.’ That gap can be incredibly taxing. I think the shame is real, and just like for women, we have to be understanding that everyone’s dealing with their pain, no matter what their gender is. We should never be in the business of ranking pain; we should be in the business of listening to pain, and being empathetic is such a crucial starting place. It’s so important, and it’s seen as weak, and that’s misogynistic. Women are seen to have that skill, and maybe that’s why we dismiss it, but I think that having empathy is the hardest thing to do. Framing it that way might make people take up the challenge to be empathetic when they’re having this conversation.”
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tfw when the author who opened, cradled, protected and held space for every tender part is holding your first book. I’ve sat in bed so many times re-reading your poems that the cover and pages are full of coconut oil, tears and underlined words and entire phrases that i felt had from a sacred and holy light that you’ve held up for so many of us to see the hidden parts of ourselves we were told to run away from. @rupikaur_ I you are a treasure and i will live everyday so grateful that my life has lead me to find you. ❤️🍯
Publishers were skeptical that men would read the book, but it’s already in it’s second print after the first 2,000 copies sold out fast, to both women and men. Liz knew based on her conversations with men that she was onto something new, and that men were ready to talk. We hear rumblings of the crisis of masculinity, and Brad Pitt is championing a conversation about changing the definition of masculinity. The conversation is out there, but as Liz points out, not nearly enough.
“If idealized masculinity was a religion, everyone would be worried about it. It would be on the front cover of every newspaper. That’s because it’s at the root of so many seemingly unsolvable problems.”
“I knew based on the conversations I had with a lot of men that there was something here, that wasn’t being discussed in an open way, and they needed to feel like they have the permission to talk about it. I think a lot of people were skeptical. Why would men want to talk about gender? Because when we think about gender, we think it applies to women, forgetting that gender is the first thing that defines you before you’re even out of your mom’s belly. The first question we ask is ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ That is already determining so much about how you are going to be interacted with in the world. Being a girl means a lot of different things, what clothes you are given, what toys are given to you, and which toys aren’t. It’s the same for boys. There are certain rules and certain norms, and scripts for men and boys in our society, and we need to talk about the scripts that are given to girls, and it’s just as important to talk about them for men and boys. “
Liz believes that we need to teach emotional intelligence in schools.
“People need to know how to manage their emotions, and how to heal, and how they feel, and be able to transform their pain, rather than transmit their pain. I think it’s just a shame that we put such a premium on developing girl’s emotional intelligence. We teach them to be more collectively minded, to collaborate. We give them dolls. We give them a bunch of different toys for play, which is how children develop multiple skills. We expect girls to think about how other people are thinking, and to feel compassion and empathy for others. For boys, we often teach them that ‘Boys don’t cry’. Sometimes crying is the way to manage emotions so you don’t take it out on someone else. Let it out so you don’t repress it, and it costs you for the rest of your life. When boys properly express emotions we get worried, we think there is something wrong with them, and that’s a lot of shame that men are carrying, and have been carrying, for a really long time. I don’t think that we realize how the way that we raise boys has created a lot of trauma for a lot of men. If we don’t give them an outlet to understand and frame that, it will create a lot of problems. All problems come down to interpersonal relationships.”
“When I spoke to women, the most consistent worry and problem, and cause of break ups and divorce, was this lack of understanding of one’s emotional state. Or lack of empathy about your partner’s emotional state. I share some research in the book about the number one predictor of a successful relationship, is whether the man does emotional labour. Whether the man is accepting of his wife’s input. Coined by relationship expert John Gottman, the number one thing that kept coming up in his research is accepting your wife’s influence. According to the toxic ideals, this makes you “pussy-whipped”, when in fact transgressing masculinity would perhaps get men laid!”
“I would love to see men take on the challenge of changing our definition of masculinity. I think that only men can do it. I’m excited for them to be taking on the emotional labour. Women have been doing the work of gender equality forever, and we need men to be a part of this movement, and we need to make it appealing to them, not by lying, but by telling the truth; that the patriarchy hurts everybody.”
COVID-19, feminism and men
According to Liz, this quarantine “is highlighting every single injustice and structure of our society, every single social ill, from racism to sexism, to inequality in healthcare, to inequality in domestic work, to childcare. In many ways this is a huge reminder, and an opportunity, for us to see in such a magnified way the huge power structures that operate in our society.”
“I think that for a lot of women this has been a very difficult time, for a lot of people period, who are stay-at-home parents, who are single parents, who are working from home and are also home schooling their children. My heart really goes out to all of those people. Unfortunately, because of the way our society is structured, the majority of those people are women. Women are far more likely to be single parents, are more likely to live in poverty, and have lower wage jobs. In the US, and I’m sure it’s similar in Canada, the majority of service workers are women, many women are the essential workers. It’s grocery store workers. It’s pharmacy workers, nurses and doctors too. We’re really seeing the way our society depends on women, and on people of colour. Those who work jobs where they should be paid twice or three times what they are actually making.”
“When it comes to men, I think that a lot of women have talked about men really pitching in in their lives and taking this moment to appreciate how much work it actually is to take care of children, to have a full-time job, or work from home, or not even be working; and having to handle everything that comes with the responsibility of having children. From feeding them, to entertaining them, to making sure the house is clean. All of these domestic tasks that we tend to minimize as a society, that we deem as unproductive in our society, rooted in our economic principles, that it’s not even ‘productive work’ that’s counted in our economy. I hope that a lot of people, and hopefully a lot of men, realize that this kind of work is extremely crucial, and that it’s extremely hard.”
Can good come out of this?
“I cannot predict the future. Another lesson we are learning is that we have very little control, very little ability to know exactly what’s going to happen. I would hope that this is leading to more conversations, to deeper ways of connecting with each other, with our partners. Spending so much time with each other is not something we’re used to doing. We end up spending more time with our co-workers than with our partners, but this time of staying in, and all of those things being taken away from us, I think is a really good opportunity to ask each other questions, to talk about things that maybe we wouldn’t have brought up otherwise. I hope that for men, there’s an appreciation for the work that women have been doing in their relationships, and in their homes. Hopefully the best case scenario is that men not just appreciate, but do more to change the power dynamic, or the current proportion of the burden that rests on the women in their lives, and change their behaviour, change their attitude, reorganize their lives so they can be better partners and they can be more connected to their homes, to their families, to their children and to their partners.”
“It’s definitely going to lead to more conflict. For couples who aren’t in a situation of danger or abuse there could be more conversations, there could be more growth. For people who are unfortunately in situations that are much more difficult, the abuse is worse, and the growth is not possible. Or there are people who realize that their partners were never right to begin with. This is making them realize they can leave and they don’t have to put up with what they put up with before, because before there were a million distractions and reasons to not reflect on that, and that’s why we’re seeing these photos of these divorce lawyers having line-ups outside their offices. A lot of couples are realizing that things aren’t working out and they have other options, and that they can love themselves more than they can love being in a relationship with someone that’s not right for them.”
A few tips to help you communicate better with your partner
Active listening: “I’m not a relationship expert, but I think that active listening is a really good exercise to do right now. It’s a useful technique of repeating back what your partner has said back to them, before you say how you feel, or what you want, so you aren’t just talking at each other. For example, ‘So what I’m hearing is that you are frustrated that you have made dinner every night and that I have not been available to help.’ And then your partner can say ‘Yes.’ Or they can say ‘No, what I’m saying is this…’ It takes more time to get through the argument, but it certainly is a better use of your time in the grand scheme of things.”
Use “I”: “Being direct is the best way to love each other. In every day life, you’re running around. Making a sarcastic comment as you’re heading out the door can feel easier than saying ‘Ouch – that actually really hurt.’ Start with “I” and say “When you do this, I feel this way.” Then you’re not assigning intention to them. You are responsible for your feelings, so you are responsible for communicating your feelings and communicating your boundaries. Boundaries by definition need to be communicated in order to exist. So if you have more time, use it to communicate effectively what you need to your partner, and give them a real opportunity to hear and understand and to decide how they can meet that need for you.”
Don’t assume the worst: “We often forget to give our partners the best of intention. We assign a negative intention to a behaviour without actually knowing what the intention is. We say ‘He didn’t pick up the food because he doesn’t care about me’. We go to the negative intention when in fact maybe that’s not it. Maybe there is something on their mind and they are really upset about something. You can’t know until you ask. Go into these conversations, not as a confrontation, but by realizing that you’re actually on the same team. If you want to spend more than just the quarantine with your partner, and you don’t want to line up outside the divorce office, realize that ‘If I have a problem, than we have a problem’, and ask ‘How can we solve it together?”
You can order the book here.