Updated: May 31, 2021
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Glennon Doyle’s memoir Untamed is in part a reflection upon how American culture perpetuates harmful stereotypes that restrict women from living authentically. While I considered the impacts of the patriarchy on the health of its citizens, my thoughts kept returning to the plight of one particular group. We’ll get to that later.
Not every book I read teaches me something new, and it can be enjoyable for that very reason. Some books reaffirm an already held belief, and that warm-fuzzy feeling of familiarity draws me in. I’m particularly prone to reading several books simultaneously on the same subject, but also have a soft spot for anything genetics, biology, or brain related. I think perhaps the inspiring female self-help genre might generate this affect for many women. The empowering narrative Doyle presented in Untamed is one I’ve seen repeated over and over again. I wonder, do these books remind us of the messages that were drilled into us growing up? Is this a spillover from the girl power sentiment of the 1990s?
For the entirety of my life, I’ve been bombarded with messages touting all the things I can be. There are countless books meant to empower women, as if reading about equality is all that is required to attain it. There is the wishful notion that if girls are raised under the mantra that they can be anything they want, then sexism will magically go away. The implication is that patriarchy persists by being held up by the poor self-esteem of women. If this seems backwards it’s because it is. But then again, power has a way of manipulating the facts to justify the means.
I don’t mean to imply that words don’t have power. Words help spread ideas and ideals. One of my habitual ways to digest ideas is to read. In this case, words inspired me to seek out gender equality literature. I’m currently reading No More Nice Girls by Lauren McKeon, a well referenced book that’s piqued my interest in a long list of other feminist literature. It gives me the feeling that I am still quite naïve in my understanding of feminism, a fact that has me wonder if I’ll question this blog post down the road once my ideas are more fully formed. I’m reminded of what Doyle says in her book,” this sort of thing is why Jesus only wrote in the sand.”
Growing up, I found the overzealous girl empowerment narrative eye rolling. I now realize this is partially due to my advantaged upbringing. Aside from my privilege as a white, middle-class Canadian, I was raised by a mother who—through both her words and actions—instilled the belief that anything was achievable, resulting in what I assumed was my innate confidence. In fact, I first heard about the stereotype that girls are bad at math from a classmate when I was 10 years old. I didn’t believe him because I had data to the contrary. It would be years before I learned that this is a widely held assumption. It’s hard to imagine how immensely different my life could have been if I had been raised under the burden of that stereotype.
I get it now—not everyone got the same message I did. Back then, the community decided to voice a loud and clear message to account for individual differences between girls. It seems like they forgot something, though. Empowerment should be for all youth, regardless of gender. While I dream of a world where gender-based prejudice is a distant memory, our current patriarchal society presents different challenges for empowering boys, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming youth. For parents interested in this topic, check out the Your Parenting Mojo podcast episode about raising emotionally healthy boys, and these additional episodes about gender and parenting.
For girls we insist that whatever a man can do a woman can, too. I mean, of course she can; they’re not wildly different. It’s not like men have thumbs and women don’t. Women can even pee standing up. Trust me on this one.
The very word patriarchy leads some people to think of activists, feminists, and possibly anarchists. Someone who is against the patriarchy is often assumed to be against men. This is far from the truth. The patriarchy is harmful to men and women. To oppose patriarchy is to oppose a power hierarchy based solely on gender and sexuality. For every cage that has been erected to imprison a woman, there is different yet equally restrictive one for men. Sure, men benefit from a patriarchy, but their membership is constantly under review. A small deviation from masculinity standards and their manhood can be revoked. An individual can quite easily see themselves thrust to the other side of the power dynamic. For men whose self-worth have been grounded in gender roles, this can be devastating. On the flip side, maintaining the status quo is also detrimental. The effects are extensive, including decreased life expectancy for men, widespread domestic and sexual violence, higher rates of substance use among men, gender-based terrorism, loneliness, and global warming , to name a few.
When a woman rebels against patriarchal expectations, she is labelled as empowered. That is, she can reclaim some of the power that was previously held by men. When a man rebels according to his preassigned gender roles, he is perceived as losing power. Disempowerment. The free women is considered strong, like a man. The free man is viewed as weak, like a woman. Their goal is the same: to be whole, like a human being. Placing strict limits on the acceptable behaviours awarded by gender is one way the patriarchy assures power for the privileged. It uses a combination of fear and shame to keep everyone in their place. The strong woman is not a threat to those in power if she is surrounded by those dominated by fear and shame.
By now you may have guessed what group of people I could not help but think about while I read Untamed.
That’s right. Men.
Yes, I understand that Doyle’s memoir is primarily about women and for women. It is also about taking the blinders off and recognizing the cages that were put there by the patriarchy. The female cage is easily recognizable because it is talked about. A lot. What does a man’s cage look like? How can we help him get out? I couldn’t help but wonder: Is there a book like Untamed for men?
When I started looking for similar books written to inspire men to be their authentic selves, I met a lot of dead ends. Many of the books I found were doing the opposite. They were perpetuating toxic masculinity and contributing to the problem. Some of the text is shocking, but on further reflection, it’s not surprising that some people connect to this. Neglecting the emotional development of boys raises men that lack the emotional language and the self-awareness to name their own suffering. Many carried the message: if you’re not fulfilled with your life, it’s because you’re not man enough, or, it’s because women are stealing your power. Books like this aggravate the problem.
Then I found something. In his book I Don't Want To Talk About It, Terrence Real proposes that the restrictive expectations of toxic masculinity has lead to covert depression in men. In some cases, this covert depression manifests differently than that in women, exhibiting as substance abuse, violence, workaholism, and difficulty with intimacy. In online reviews, men praised it as being a revelation, and a life changing book. It makes sense. I have known many men with a seemingly unsatiable desire for more, always looking outside for fulfillment and happiness. I can see how for some men this book broke the silence surrounding depression, granting them permission to pursue good mental health. This is an example of how both spoken and unspoken words can hold power. While this book broke down a barrier for some men, given that it was written in the ‘90s, I think we can be assured that it didn’t have widespread impact. Surely there was a more recent book out there.
A friend found it. For the Love of Men by Liz Plank is a comprehensive review of toxic masculinity and its destructive consequences for men. This book covers a lot of ground, and effectively takes the blinders off, revealing the unrealistic limitations placed on men, and the detrimental results for us all. This book is for anyone who is a man or has a man in their lives that they care about. And for those of you that don’t care for men? Well, it might help you see things from their perspective.
During Book Interrupted’s Untamed episode 2, I state that equality is not achievable unless we bring the men along. By that, I don’t mean to be used as weapons in a fight for power. Men too deserve to be treated as unique, complex beings with intrinsic worth, and deserving of love. Women can work hard to remove the societal barriers that imprison us, but true equality will never be achieved until all humans are equal. Female empowerment will continue to be a struggle until those holding power, namely men, join the fight for equality. For men to join the fight, they need to be free to live authentically, as whole human beings, free from restrictive gender norms. That requires that the rest of us accept them when they do. Organizations like MenEngage promote exactly that.
I am encouraged that the negative effects of toxic masculinity are being talked about more. Concern for the well-being of boys is gaining attention, as is the realization that their emotional well-being has been neglected. Organizations such as White Ribbon and Next Gen Men are striving to create a new vision for masculinity that empowers men and boys to live healthier lives, achieve a sense of intrinsic self-worth, and build healthy relationships. There are so many more out there, too.
Is there a book you recommend for helping men escape their patriarchal cage? Can you think of a time when you participated in upholding harmful masculine stereotypes or perpetuated toxic masculinity? Is there an organization in your community that is reframing masculinity?