None of this suggests that men are the only ones suffering — for example, the economic impacts of Covid-19 have been worse by far for American working women — but overall, we’re not doing great.
In general, most people would agree that there’s a problem, the question is what to do about it. The answer, it turns out, is that we need to create more room for men to be themselves, whatever that means.
Earlier this week, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley went before the National Conservatism Conference and laid out a long list of problems facing American men that I more or less agree with, which may be a first for the right-winger and me. Alas, that’s where the agreement ends, because Hawley’s proposed “solution” is to double down on what he called “traditional” manliness. He said in his speech that “the left wants to define the traditional masculine virtues — things like courage and independence, and assertiveness — as a danger to society.”
Hawley countered that he wants “a revival of strong and healthy manhood in America. We need men who will shoulder responsibility, men who will start and provide for families, men who will enter the covenant of marriage and then honor it.”
In reality, though, it’s the kind of narrow views of acceptable masculinity that Hawley is describing that’s causing so much of men’s pain.
For 30 years, I’ve been studying history and gender. I believe in and study a tradition of feminism that analyzes the gendered nature of power in society and attempts to act in ways to alleviate inequality, and I stand by both the political and academic aspects of this work.
But these ideas about what men need are also very personal. I’ve come back to them again and again as a father, finding joy in the day-to-day caregiving of my kids, tending to mundane housekeeping tasks like dishes and laundry, and otherwise trying to be at least an equal participant in the work of our lives. Hawley did, at one point in his remarks, vaguely indicate concern for women, and even mentioned that women play sports, but it’s notable that domestic labor is totally absent from his description of what makes a good man, even as we descend into a nearly unprecedented crisis of caregiving in this country.
But my take on Hawley’s words isn’t just about positive interactions in domestic spaces — it’s also about my own long history with mental illness.
It started when I was 9. I went to therapy and talked about it for the first time when I was 45. In between, I spent years dealing with depression that manifested as anger toward those around me, especially my family, followed by bouts of intense passive suicidal ideation (which means one feels detached from life, rather than actively seeking to harm oneself).
I didn’t tell anyone about my depression, I didn’t seek help, because it didn’t seem like something men were supposed to do. I’m not alone. As suicide rates rose from 1999-2016, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that men without mental health diagnoses were an increasingly large percentage of those who took their lives. I’m glad I got therapy.
Let’s be clear that while devastating to women, patriarchy has also never, ever been good for men. Organizing society in such a way as to concentrate power in the hands of a relatively few men has been good for those at the top, but it creates a rigid, hierarchical system in which most people are forced into competition — at which most will fail — that punishes anyone of any gender who falls outside rigidly set norms.
What’s more, gender-based hierarchies feed into other systems of inequality around race, class, religion and more, ensuring in our society that privileging traditional masculinity hurts a wide array of people.
But these systems can, for all their flaws, achieve a kind of equilibrium when our material conditions are relatively stable. What’s happening over the last few decades, though, is not that the left is making men feel bad by talking about “toxic masculinity,” as Hawley conjectures, but that the narrow confines of acceptable masculinity are badly out of whack with life in America in the 21st Century.
Ours is an era in which success comes from listening, being creative and applying critical thinking. Sustaining ourselves requires processing vast streams of information and learning to make hard choices. And this is not just for people in the white collar working world, but everywhere.
We live in a deluge of new and different kinds of voices, revelations about the state of our planet and the instability of our economic and political systems that are bound to be unsettling. Narrow masculinity that finds value, or virtue — a Roman world stemming from the Latin word for man, or vir — in only a highly limited range of expressions is bound to fail most of us. Life can’t simply be about God, kids, jobs and strength. That was clear before the pandemic. It’s even more plain now.
The truth is that I am a better man in just the ways Hawley seems to value because I defied the norms he wants to trap us in. I sought help. I’m a better father. I’m a better worker. I’m a better husband. I’m even a better fisherman.
We can’t fix the real problems facing American men by trying to roll American masculinity back to some nostalgic fantasy of the past. The year 2021 is here. My message to Hawley: man up and adapt to it.
If you’re experiencing a suicidal crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text line by texting HOME to 741741 to get help.