Men are in crisis. The successes of women in the workplace have caused them confusion as to what telegraphs their strong manhood, if not being the primary breadwinner of their family. They’re becoming radicalized online in dark corners of the internet, where romantic rejection from girls can fester into plans for mass murder. And in a post-#MeToo world, they’re floundering, trying to figure out how to treat their women coworkers as equals, as the danger of being labeled a sexual harasser lurks around every corner.
The crisis that has befallen men is “toxic masculinity,” argues a burgeoning market of books that call on men to reflect on their own expressions of masculinity and potentially fix their brethren (or, at the very least, stop running around like a chicken with your head cut off because you can’t figure out what constitutes inappropriate touching). From books like activist Michael Kaufman’s The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution to parenting books like How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men, the last few years have seen a boom in books that call on men to fight toxic masculinity. But in delineating a shiny new market of feminist-leaning resources for men among the decades of offerings for women already fighting for the cause, with an emphasis on reshaping masculinity for the better, these books ultimately play into the exact definitions of toxic masculinity they want to eliminate.
The combined chaos of the Women’s March in early 2017 and the rise of the #MeToo movement later the same year ushered in an onslaught of books marketed to women who had been shaken awake to the misogynist horrors plaguing America for decades, who now wanted to do something about it. There were #resistance books highlighting the work of women and activists, books about the power of women’s anger, and protest guides for children and teens. But publishers also clearly saw an opportunity to market feminism’s demands across the aisle, and for every book that called on women to rise up and fight the patriarchy, it seemed like there was one asking men and boys to do the same. Rather than rally them to fight some shadowy, sexist enemy, these books function as mirrors to the straight, white, cis audience they’re built for, largely demanding they nurture and promote what author Liz Plank dubs “mindful masculinity” in 2019’s For the Love of Men, which “encourages men to look inward to remain connected to all those things that make them a good man instead of the unhelpful trash they’ve inadvertently absorbed.”
And those books agree: the problem is toxic masculinity. “Toxic masculinity is an epidemic that knows no borders,” writes Plank in her book, billed as a resource for both women and men, but particularly for “men who want to do better and just don’t know how.” “No society has yet found the cure for it,” she writes. “It is crippling our boys,” former journalist Aaron Gouveia writes in last year’s book Raising Boys to Be Good Men, a straight-shooting parenting guide for those trying to raise non-misogynists. “It is, after all, a constant struggle not to succumb to toxic masculinity for any man who’s grown up surrounded by it,” writes Jared Yates Sexton in his memoir The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making, an extension of his 2016 New York Times op-ed.
Despite the fact that the term “toxic masculinity” was only coined around the mid-1980s, it has become a catchall in the last decade for everything that ails men. It’s now quite trendy to point out that toxic masculinity is at the root of rape culture, mass shootings, and sexual harassment, as if anyone needed a reminder of the misogyny and violence that defines those realities. But many of the books of the past few years marketed to men looking for mindful masculinity stress that toxic masculinity is more than misogynistic violence. Rather, they want to make it clear the demand to be a “real man” is more encompassing than you might think. In Gouveia’s Raising Boys to Be Good Men, he guides prospective parents through a child’s life from the moment the pregnancy test reads “Positive” to young adulthood, pointing out all the ways in which society and by extension parents box their boys into toxic definitions of masculinity, noting the little things that stack up: gender reveal parties, the men who make other men feel weird for wearing nail polish, the fact that men don’t go to therapy. “Actively combating toxic masculinity is a daily practice, not a single one-time event that happened in your past,” he writes.
In defining how far-reaching and nebulous toxic masculinity is, stressing the accepted normalcy of it all, these mindful masculinity books make it easier for a male reader to identify himself in these patterns. The mindful masculinity book isn’t defined by confrontation; it’s defined by reassurance, largely the reassurance that toxic masculinity is not something they’ve created themselves. “When we define masculinity as about having power over women, over nature, over other men, and over one’s own unruly emotions, it is a definition of manhood that reflects a social reality,” White Ribbon Campaign founder Michael Kaufman writes in The Time Has Come, which calls on men to join women in the fight for gender equality and is just one of several of his books selling feminism to men. “Once it emerges, it feels totally natural.” In fact, the mindful masculinity book says, society’s reliance on cartoonish ideas of machismo for what makes a man a “real man” is hurting men, keeping them from expressing their emotions and masculinity outside the rigid lines of accepted strong, silent, violent manliness.
In this genre, toxic masculinity is not something that men create but something that happens to them. This is true to the extent that, as most of the books point out, men are not biologically built to be more violent, for example. “Men are taught that they should not have emotions, and that any violation should result in violent reprimand, they are caught in a perpetual cycle,” Sexton writes in his memoir, after describing the abuse he faced. “They socialize their children with violence, thus perpetuating the violence moving forward.” But as I read authors like Plank stress that mindful masculinity isn’t about “shunning masculinity” or Gouveia writing that we “don’t need to vilify the good parts of masculinity,” I still didn’t know what good masculinity actually was, as if it hid under layers and layers of toxic waste to be removed by the now enlightened reader. Strength not force, protection not overprotection, Gouveia offers in the dichotomy of “good” masculinity versus toxic, but none of those values seem essentially masculine.
The problem with this wave of books, a slippery combination of personal, anecdotal experience and self-help rhetoric, is the problem with all pop political literature to help privileged individuals reflect on their relationship with feminism, or racism, or masculinity: these books offer the promise of self and societal improvement through individual reading as a way to create change that ultimately needs to be systemic. Yes, men who’ve never, ever contemplated their contributions or place inside toxic masculinity as these books define it surely need somewhere to start. But the focus on saving men from this culture, like it’s a disease to be cured of, is born from the idea that men surely wouldn’t care otherwise.
It seems to me that most mindful masculinity books are doing exactly the thing they identify as being part of toxic masculinity, which is packaging basic decency and feminist theory in man-themed wrapping paper for the comfort of a male readership. It’s as if it’s not enough to explain how toxic masculinity hurts women as a rousing cause to fight it, because that explanation doesn’t center men. And if men only seek out resources that center themselves, through a wave of books that absolve them of their agency in perpetuating misogynist culture, then what could be more toxic than that?