Unbox the box: ‘For the Love of Men,’ Liz Plank talks masculinity, disability with Victor Pineda

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Award-winning Vox journalist Liz Plank’s first book, “For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity,” is a compelling, gender-deconstructing read. As part of her book launch tour, a fireside chat was held at UC Berkeley’s International House, or I-House, where Plank discussed her book with Victor Pineda, a world-renowned human rights advocate and campus lecturer at the department of city and regional planning. The Oct. 1 event, titled “Disability, Masculinity and Global Human Rights: Intersections in politics, gender and social Change,” was sponsored by the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, World Enabled and I-House.

The underlying theme of Plank’s book is to unbox the box of toxic masculinity. Plank points out that women now have public acceptance to fluidly transgress from the norm and be dominant and assertive inside and outside the home. But this makes for an “incomplete” gender revolution, as men are still very much stuck in the box of toxic masculinity. For a man stuck in this mindset, proving that he is a “real man” gets in the way of becoming a “good man.” In her book, Plank worries that this is a real social issue as the “future of boys rides on the current behavior of men.” Already, male enrollment in college has declined while that of females has increased.

Plank highlights the contradiction in toxic masculinity, which needs a shield of “hyper-masculine” protection such as a football helmet that gives them permission to come into close contact with other men and even display affection — behavior that is frowned upon outside the sports field. At conferences, Plank found that fathers would proudly raise their hands when asked if they have told their daughters they can do anything a son can do. These same fathers, however, would pretend to look down at their phones when asked the reverse question: Have they told their sons they can do anything a daughter can?

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Ironically, toxic masculinity — with its “biological centric perspective” of the testosterone-fueled caveman — is an unattainable state. The pinnacle of this ideal is the young, rich, muscular white guy, with the Marlboro Man as a prime example. Such masculinity is oppressive, as it must constantly be earned through action. This makes for a perpetual state of “precarious manhood.” Any deviation from this box establishes you as less of a man to other men and may result in you being insultingly referred to as a “sensitive new age guy.”

As Plank explained during the chat, when society fails to acknowledge that this ideal of masculinity is not achievable, it makes men suppress their emotions and internalize shame around it without the ability to handle such emotions. This unresolved conflict can lead to these men going out and shooting their girlfriends or schools or joining detrimental online communities as a salve. Others abandon their families when they are unable to live up to the narrow definition of “provider.” They become both perpetrators and victims. What we need is a society able to see men as other than just “providers.” In fact, the idea of being a provider itself has to be redefined — it cannot just be based on paid work outside of the home. Taking care of yourself and your family is also valuable work, which makes everyone — men, women and children — co-providers.

In her book, Plank goes on to claim that tackling this issue of toxic masculinity head-on would perhaps be a solution to many of our societal ills, from sexism to homelessless to terrorism. This may seem absurd at first, but as she explains, a majority of homeless individuals are single men who feel internalized shame and so will not reach out for help from their social connections. In their view, a man is supposed to be the provider and an independent island; he is expected to deal with stress alone. But this just leads to more isolation and stress. According to Plank, even terrorism recruits are attracted to the promise of “high-status masculinity,” an image that accompanies acts of violence.

So where does disability fit into this picture? Plank’s book features vignettes of individuals with disabilities, such as D’Arcee Charington Neal and Pineda.

”I feel like being masculine and the idea of masculinity has a big effect on how society treats people with disabilities,” Neal, who is black, gay and a wheelchair user, said in the book. His intersectionality presents difficulties on many fronts, with race as just a starting point. Earlier in the book Plank points to gay male culture as being very masculine-image obsessed, with Asian men often thought to be effeminate, less masculine and therefore less desirable. When it comes to disability, Neal feels that there is almost an outright rejection by the gay community of the existence of the “imperfect-body” that uses a wheelchair. A drag queen demanding to know why a “cripple” was present at a club is just one instance of this attitude that Neal has experienced.

As Plank pointed out during the fireside chat, the irony is that the able-bodied community owes much to the activism of men and women with disabilities; they are the reason that we have the Affordable Care Act, automatic sync, texting and the ability to walk around with “suitcases that have little wheels on them.”

During the chat, Plank asked Pineda how his experience being a man with a disability challenges everything he thought about being a man. Pineda explained that in life you have to confront expectations about how you are supposed to act, react and behave. A person with a disability is often objectified and not seen as “sexualized or fully human.” The challenge with a disability is to “know you are worthy of love, worthy of calling yourself a man.” If you are unable to physically change a lightbulb, does that make you a bad husband? Not at all. You can be a supportive and caring husband, and you can create infrastructure to change lightbulbs.

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Pineda also went on to explain during the chat that understanding temporality helps us be kinder to ourselves and not get stuck thinking in black and white. Disability itself has undergone evolution in how it is perceived: from witchcraft to a charitable cause to a medicalized model and now to a more social model. He added that the societal ground will keep shifting under our feet, and men may end up not knowing where they fit.

Pineda said most men are oblivious to the many identities and cultures they carry. It was therefore important to go on a journey of self-discovery to explore your many identities and come to terms with them. Identity itself needs to be challenged and, according to Pineda, we learn identity when we have conversations about gender. 

“I can be vulnerable within my masculine identity, which allows me to get to a level of intimacy where I can share — this is a part of me that is afraid,” Pineda said.

Audience member and UC Berkeley alumnus Lateef McLeod asked the speakers how individuals with disabilities can learn forms of masculinity and femininity that are both healthy and disability-centered. McLeod is not only a wheelchair user but also a doctoral student in anthropology, a Sins Invalid performer and a published poet.

In response to McLeod’s question, Pineda remarked that our identities are constantly being negotiated, so we have to claim the positive notions of masculinity and femininity and normalize the “reality of disability.” He illustrated this with the example of disability rights activist and wheelchair user Judy Heumann, who insisted on being filmed getting out of bed in a red lingerie nightgown with the help of an attendant and getting ready in the morning for a United Nations documentary on women with disabilities to celebrate the International Year of Disabled Persons.

“This is a novel scene — a woman with a disability getting out of bed,” Pineda said. He pointed to the Netflix series “Special,” which shows two layers of identity — the main character has cerebral palsy and is gay. Similarly, Leroy Moore Jr., who is black and has cerebral palsy, introduced a hip-hop variant, “Krip-Hop,” which challenges the norm of traditional hip-hop featuring only muscular, able-bodied individuals. Moore addresses both homophobia and ableism in his work. What’s important is that these stories are told by the individuals with disabilities themselves, not by someone else about them.

A kids’ soccer coach in the audience explained how he as a coach needed to show vulnerability first, before the boys — who often came from troubled or poorer families — would be able to open up and express emotions. Both Plank and Pineda pondered over whether a change in wording from “vulnerability” to “resilience,” a shift used in military PTSD treatment and in professional sports, would make mainstream conversations more “bro” friendly and bring about a broader range of emotions and depth.

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At the chat, Plank expressed feeling that men are stuck in a box: Leaving it feels scary because what lies beyond is unknown. But she stressed that we’ve reached a point in which this does not work anymore. In her book, she adds that you can’t just ask men to relax and suggests giving them a “safe alternative” to toxic masculinity. This alternative is mindful masculinity or “getting in touch with the intentions behind the actions,” both at the individual and collective level.

For Pineda, confronting notions of masculinity is an important and much-needed conversation being started by activists such as Plank. But fundamentally, it is a question about how we move goal lines so we have a notion of what justice is. Pineda underlines that we also have to consider how to translate these concepts globally without imposing these notions in a colonial way. For example, feelings can have different meanings and responses in Italy versus in Japan.

Both Plank and Pineda pointed to the progress from the three to four generations of the feminist movement. As Plank says in her book, “The most important question is: Where is the version of a feminist movement, but for men?”


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Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].