Liz Plank's 'For The Love Of Men' Takes Feminism Someplace New
With her new book For the Love of Men, award-winning journalist Liz Plank shifts the gender discussion to men, stresses the importance of mindful masculinity, and invites men everywhere to a little party called feminism.
October 30, 2019
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
MC: Hi, I'm Audible editor Michael Collina, and I'm so excited to be here with Liz Plank, author and narrator of For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity. This title is a nonfiction investigation of masculinity that offers up a smart, actionable, and approachable guide to masculinity and what it means to be a man in our modern world.
While this is Liz's first book, you may already know her as an award-winning journalist, producer, and political correspondent, having worked on projects like Vox Media's Divided States of Women, 2016ish, and Facebook Watch series, Consider It. Welcome, Liz, thank you so much for joining us.
LP: Thank you so much for having me.
MC: Just what got you interested in masculinity? For the Love of Men isn't your first jump into this topic. You presented a TEDxTalk entitled How to Be a Man, A Woman's Guide, and have already been named one of the world's most influential young leaders in gender and policy; this was one of your biggest areas of study. But I have to ask, what first inspired you to jump in and explore masculinity in particular?
LP: I think I realized, like many women, that we would be in circles, and in feminist circles of activism, but also policy making, or even academic circles--it was women talking to women about women, and how we should get all these rights and are deserving of equality. [There were] always one or maybe two guys in the back of the room , who would raise their hands at the very end and say, "We're here; we're allies." And we would thank them for being there for us.
But I was interested in men showing up for themselves, and men showing up in feminist activism--not just for the women in their lives, as they obviously should, but also what they can get out of this conversation as well. And how our movement, the feminist movement, can really gain from having them be not passive participants, but active participants in this conversation.
The more research I did, the more I realized how little I knew about masculinity. I managed to do a whole master's degree in gender theory and never be assigned a book about men or masculinity. I actually even remember being assigned a topic around men, one of the very few times, and we were debating whether development programs should be interested in men as a way to help women, and if that was even valuable as a way to spend money.
For instance, there are these microfinance programs that were really successful for some women in developing countries, where we would give them a small sum of money so that they could start their own businesses. That's great. When you look at ... their wider, I guess, well-being and their lives outside of that economic framework, you see that in societies where they implemented these programs, these women ended up being victims of domestic violence at much higher levels.
What was happening, we were thinking about what it meant to be a women in those societies; we were implementing programs for women. But we weren't thinking about what it means if the role of women changes, how the role of men changes too. And if you don't talk to men, and you don't think about masculinity, and you don't create spaces where those conversations can happen, then some of the work that we do around women and feminism can be not only not productive, but counterproductive, right?
LP: No one would say that this is a great win when women have more money and women are "economically empowered," but they are beaten and are the victims of violence in their own homes.
I wanted to create a guide, actually, so that women don't have to do that emotional labor in their relationships with men, because oftentimes they end up doing it.
MC: Yes. At that point, you're really only looking at one side of the coin. You're looking at one side of the problem and not addressing the entire other half of it.
LP: Exactly. We all have a gender. I fell into this trap, as I think many people do, of equating gender with women, equating gender equality with women's condition and ideas, and self-reflecting around women's issues. But it actually is so much bigger than that. The conversation is so much richer, and could be so much more expansive, and empathetic and educational. That's what I'm hoping this book can do.
I'm not interested in telling men how to be men, I'm not interested in telling you what to do, what not to do. I wanted to create a guide, actually, so that women don't have to do that emotional labor in their relationships with men, because oftentimes they end up doing it. And so that this can be something men can use and then go off and create their own conversations, and their own community--or bring it back to their community and have these conversations among themselves.
MC: And then create their own action plans, and really start the movement from the ground up from the men's perspective.
LP: Exactly. Oh, I would love that. That would be my dream.
MC: This book also offers a really frank discussion of various forms and manifestations of masculinity. It's filled with all of the major, and even some of the lesser-known, theories and studies to back it up. But what was researching this book like for you?
LP: Oh, my god. I would end up in, I guess, a rabbit hole every single day, a different rabbit hole, but an enjoyable one. One research paper would lead me to another one, and to another one, and to another one. I just learned so much that I had not known before.
LP: You know what I loved the most, though? Obviously I love data and research, and looking into the different academics who have worked on this, but my favorite way of researching became through Facebook.
LP: Yeah. I sometimes would be reading this research. As we were talking about before, there's so little research around masculinity. If you look at ideas around masculinity and blackness, masculinity and LGBTQ issues, then you have even less. Often, it's about white men when we study masculinity and when we talk about masculinity. So I would be left with these questions in my head. I just decided I would just ask a really simple question, and I would post it on Facebook.
One of the very simple questions was, "What was a toy that you wanted to play with as a little boy, and that you were told you weren't allowed to play with?" The slew of responses that I got, and the variety, and the emotion and the vividness of the stories that these now grown men remember from their childhood, just blew me away. I remember reading through this thread and crying, and laughing, and going through so many different emotions, and realizing there's so much here. First of all, Easy-Bake Oven, number one. I mean, so many men were denied Easy-Bake Ovens.
MC: I was denied an Easy-Bake Oven.
LP: There you go. I'm so sorry about that. God forbid men would enjoy cooking.
MC: And be able to cook for themselves.
LP: And develop skills, yes. So, cooking tools. There was a man who said, "I remember overhearing my parents being worried because I wanted these fake toy cooking tools." Another man talked about loving this little shopping cart, and coming back one night. His dad's friends and his dad were all having dinner outside, having a party. He came out, and they destroyed the little pink shopping cart.
That ritualization, I think, and the humiliation of that was something that I just would see time and time again. One guy talked about a little puppy cupcake. I don't really know what that is. I looked it up; I had to Google it. But his father, after he had had so many meltdowns about wanting it, finally said, "You can have it, but don't let anyone see you play with it. You can only play with it when you're alone."
These are very small, examples that start very young. That's just one example of so many ways that men are socialized, and men receive messages about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a boy. It was just really fascinating for me to see so many men, first of all, open up and be vulnerable with each other, responding to each other through this thread, which I really loved. What made me really hopeful is that this was the first time for most of them that someone even asked them that, and that they were able to reflect on that.
So I get really excited when I think about all this untapped potential of conversation, of self-reflection that men and boys can have if we opened up this conversation.
MC: Exactly. It's all about asking the right questions. And it's making sure you're getting in, when you can, "Let's talk about this. Let's dig a little bit deeper here."
LP: Yeah, yeah.
MC: You mentioned a little bit earlier that most of what we hear about masculinity theory is about white men. But I noticed right from the start in this book, you were really all about intersectionality, which I love. You supplement a lot of your research with a couple of different men's lived experiences. It's from a trans man, to a black gay man who has a disability, or even a former white supremacist gang member. How did you select these particular men and really weave them into this narrative?
LP: Thank you so much. It is important in feminist theory and when we talk about women to have an intersectional perspective. If you're not taking an intersectional perspective, first of all, I don't think it's feminism, and I also don't think it's interesting.
MC: Yes, you're just missing such a huge population.
LP: Exactly. When I would have conversations with men who didn't "fit the standard" of what we would call hegemonic masculinity, which means basically idealized masculinity, of being white, straight, rich, like Donald Trump, of having this power in society. The more I would talk to men who didn't fit into this box, the more I learned about masculinity. The best way to learn about masculinity was to talk to the men who don't feel like they fit into it.
A lot of these guys are actually my friends, which I'm probably not supposed to say, but I came across Victor Pineda's work several years ago, around disability. Victor Pineda is such a womanizer, and such an alpha, and such a confident, assertive, amazing man, who is also incredibly intelligent, and thinks about so many issues beyond gender, but also inhabits so many, I think, contradictions in that space. Victor was one person I was obviously fascinated by and wanted to speak to. Thomas Page McBee has been leading this conversation for a really long time. He was my boss at Mic way back in the day... when we were both working in media. He wrote this amazing book. [Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man.] He obviously was the first person I wanted to talk to about this.
Coming back to this community that I'm lucky to be a part of on Facebook, I would ask questions that were very general, that didn't ask specifically to hear from a wide variety or a "diversity" of men. I would ask, for example, a question about, "Do you identify as a provider?" I had a dad who happens to be trans who said, actually, this doesn't fit at all with my identity. We can each other be co-providers, and we don't want to fit into this nuclear idea of the family because we don't fit into it in so many different ways that it doesn't make sense for us. Again, just the richness of the conversation is so much bigger the more people you include in that conversation.
I still feel like the book is not intersectional enough, to be completely honest. That's why I am excited about more people being involved in this conversation, and getting book deals and documentaries and movies. And being able to have the investment of our society and these conversations. There's so much I don't know. I think that's also, hopefully, what made it interesting... I had this totally beginner's mind to masculinity, in a way, because I was not raised as a man or as a boy in our society. So I think some of the questions that I asked were maybe questions that men don't ask each other, because that's just considered "normal." But to have an outsider come in and ask very simple questions, all of a sudden, I think, led to very profound answers and questioning.
Again, that's what I hope happens in a million different ways, and that this conversation becomes richer, and is led by people who are marginalized in terms of our ideals of masculinity. And show that these ideals don't make any sense, and are actually really damaging.
MC: The fact that you had to ask these really basic questions--they open up the conversation that we need to be having that men aren't having. I think that really did add that perfect extra element that this conversation needed to open up.
LP: Thank you.
MC: You described it perfectly.
LP: I always feel like a little bit of a troublemaker, though. When I went to Washington Square Park with Esther Perel, and I was just [reaching out to men]... "What's hard about being a man?" I would ask them, [which] again, to me seems like a pretty simple question. I understand that it has weight in our society because men are not an oppressed minority, so I think a lot of men don't know what to say in response to that. But I felt they would just stare at me, and I was like, "Are they going to join, are they just going to walk away, or are they going to slap me in the face?" I never know what sort of reaction I get.
The most interesting ones have often been these guys who come in with their armor, and I just think, okay, there's no way I'm going to get through this guy. When I'm able to ask very simple questions and have them self-reflect, I think that's my favorite. I love that so much.
MC: And that's exactly what a lot of men just need to do. They need to be asked these really simple questions so they have that space to stop, think about it, and then have that opportunity to reflect and think about it a little bit more.
MC: Even though this is a nonfiction book, it's filled with a lot of theory and science. You also deliver a lot of personal anecdotes, and what I like to think of as little comedic gems, with these witty one-liners scattered throughout. That really made listening to this performance feel more like just a conversation you're having one-on-one, rather than a lecture or you sitting down telling us what the facts are. Why were those little bits important to this story?
LP: I love that you think that because I was a bit nervous ... it's my first book. My entire career as a journalist, to be completely honest, has been me trying to prove myself and prove to others to take me seriously. I think that a lot of people make assumptions about young women; they make assumptions about gender equality and about having a feminist perspective to working in journalism. I like to make things enjoyable and funny, especially dark topics. That's just the way that I was brought up.
I actually had to process a lot of my own trauma to write this book--trauma caused by men in my family... The men that I thought were the safest for me became the most dangerous for me. That was really difficult and obviously informed my interest in talking about gender equality. But I also had weighty conversations very early in my life, let's just put it that way, and very dark conversations early in my life. In our family, the way that I've now understood that we survived those things is by being able to still laugh and use comedy to add levity to our lives.
My motto is smiling through the darkness... Comedy's not about making light of what is bad in the world. It's not about distracting people about what's bad in the world. I think it's about addressing what's bad in the world, and making people feel really seen and heard in their pain, because we're all in pain for many different reasons. Distracting people from their pain is not necessarily what I'm interested in. I'm interested in people being seen and heard in that pain, and then we can all laugh together and release, right?
LP: We can all share this moment, and share this common collective pain, and move forward from it together. And not let it define our lives and not let it define everything.
I always, I think, have this inclination to use humor in my writing and even when I go on serious MSNBC cable news, it's really hard for me not to make a joke here or there.
LP: Yeah, sometimes it means that people don't take me as seriously, and they think that I don't know what I'm talking about. But I think that's such an important way to pull people into topics... If I were to lecture people on feminism, I think I would've reached far few people. I think that the potential of this conversation, in order to make this a real conversation that is impactful, we have to include as many people as we can in that conversation. That's important, right?
Often, when I talk about how men benefit from feminism, and that they benefit from this conversation, I can get criticized because people--particularly, I think, feminists who are upset, and I understand that--they say, "Why do we have to give men a selfish reason to join this fight? They should be joining for their mothers, for their daughters, and for the women that they don't even know." And I agree with that, but I also think, what are we going to do? Hide all the benefits? Come to our party, it's going to be really boring. You're going to have to stand in the corner and we're not going to give you a microphone. You're going to have to shut up the whole time, but it'll be great. Come to our party. Do you think people are going to come to the party?
MC: Absolutely not.
LP: No. Why hide the fact that they actually can join in the party, and it be a block party instead of a speakeasy where they need to know a password? Let's make it fun. It doesn't have to be boring. It doesn't have to be self-punishing and purely altruistic in every sense of the word. Come, we're going to have fun. We're going to talk. It doesn't have to be a boring lecture.
MC: I love that so much. That's like my new world view of how to get people in on this conversation, and thinking about these really important things. That's the way to approach it.
Reading the audiobook was also... I don't know, maybe a spiritual experience for me of really connecting with the men who shared really personal, intimate, vulnerable, difficult stories with me, and being able to share those with the world.
LP: I love it. Thank you. I'm glad that you like it. We should form a party-planning committee and just call it feminism.
MC: Yes, please. I am onboard. We already touched on this a bit, but with your background in journalism, you already have an audio background with a few of your podcasts and video series. Can you share a little about the writing and recording process for this particular project?
LP: Oh, my gosh. Can I tell you the actual truth?
MC: Please do.
LP: I came in with really, my chest up. I came in guns blazing into the recording studio for recording this audiobook because, to your point, I'd done VO for many years, which means voice over, for episodes of the multiple shows that I've done. But that's 20 minutes of recording.
MC: Yeah, it's really short form.
LP: It's super short form, and then you're done. This was several hours, sometimes eight to nine hours in a day, several days in a row. It was so hard. I came in with so much confidence, and I was humbled by the experience because people who do this work, who do actual voice work, are geniuses. We need to love them. They need their own national holiday, like, Hug a Voiceover Artist--is that what they refer to themselves as?--Day.
MC: It is now. I think that's what they call themselves now.
LP: They're artists, yes. It takes a lot of energy. I was taking shots of olive oil at one point, which I was told was very a bad idea, to help with my throat because I was losing my voice.
MC: Oh, jeez.
LP: I realized I wasn't talking from my stomach. Anyway, I learned a lot of things. Cold water--apparently, you're supposed to drink lukewarm water. I learned a lot about my voice and how weak it is. But I also really enjoyed it. It was interesting to read, and I'm sure many authors say this, but obviously writing something, you have different emotions and you're hoping to bring out certain emotions as people are reading it. But reading the book really signaled to me the parts of the book that were really meaningful to me, and that were just emotional.
There were many parts that I had to stop [while recording] because I was crying, and obviously that's not that great on audio to hear snorting and someone's voice shaking. Especially, I think, in those amuse-bouches, those stories that you referenced earlier of these men who don't necessarily fit into these idealized masculinity roles. Sammy Rangel, who joined a gang by the time he was nine years old, and basically described being in a gang like falling in love--that he had experienced so much trauma as a child, and no one had helped him process that trauma. He hurt people and end up hurting people, and that was his life.
Re-reading ... I have chills even just talking about it because, yeah, those stories are just so important. Those perspectives are so important. Reading the audiobook was also... I don't know, maybe a spiritual experience for me of really connecting with the men who shared really personal, intimate, vulnerable, difficult stories with me, and being able to share those with the world.
MC: Awesome, thank you. Once more women start to read and listen to this book, what do you think some of the next steps are that we should be taking? What can men and women do to get this conversation really off the ground and happening more often, and [begin] fixing some of the problems that are really out there?
LP: I think there's an individual strategy and a collective strategy. The individual strategy is really easy. It means taking stock of the way gender has affected your life. We've been encouraging women for a long time, but I think especially in the last few years, around ideas of being in the workplace. And how different your life is from your mother's life, and what it meant to be a woman for her, what you were taught about what it meant to be a woman from Disney princesses, and from Barbies and from movies. And being able to say, okay, I took on this crap that I don't want to take on anymore. I want to be more assertive in different ways, and I'm going to use these tools, I'm going to read this book, or I'm going to go to therapy, whatever it is. Really self-reflect and try and make some changes in my life so that I am aligning with my potential as a human being in the world, and aligning with who I want to be in the world.
LP: I think that men need to do the same thing. I think that women can be partners in that for the men in their lives, in asking the right questions, in buying them this book, in Venmo-ing them afterwards because I don't think women should be paying, necessarily, for men's education. But I think making sure that men have the tools. I do this all the time. I encourage men and women, but particularly men need to be pushed a little bit more to go into therapy. I have heard firsthand from a lot of the men in my life how much they've benefitted from that. Obviously, going to therapy is something that very few people [can afford], because of the way that healthcare is organized in this country; it's not accessible to all people. But it could be a meditation app or just meditating.
Again, this idea of mindful masculinity for me is to live your life in a conscious way, to mindfully approach gender. It doesn't mean taking away certain things from men. I think this is a really important part of this conversation because this is the way that it's being framed. Because we don't have a big mainstream conversation about it, the people who are having a conversation about it are exploiting it. Jordan Peterson, Tucker Carlson. I think to a certain extent, Donald Trump, which I lay out in the book. They will tell men, you are suffering because of women, you are suffering , if you are white, because of immigrant, because of black people. I think that we need to offer men an alternative to those things. We need to say, "It's okay to be in pain." You have to explore that pain and take radical responsibility for that pain.
LP: One way that this was explained to me was by one of the psychologists who did the APA guideline. A couple months ago, the APA, the Association of Psychologists and -Psychiatrists of America, came out with guidelines about how to deal with male patients. Because before 2019, there were no guidelines...
MC: Which is insane.
LP: It is really, really, really bananas. There were some for every other community, basically, for women, for the elderly, for LGBTQ people. Somehow, again, the masculine identity is just not seen as an identity. Dr. Levant explained this to me, where he said gender is kind of like a Swiss Army knife. There's a knife, there's a little magnifying glass, a corkscrew, a bunch of other things that I don't know about because I never owned one.
It's not about taking away the knife. It's not about taking away the corkscrew. It's not about taking away the tools. It's actually about increasing the amount of tools that are available to men and boys so that they can choose from a wider array of expressions. It's not about necessarily saying, "Don't be aggressive. You can't be aggressive anymore." There are certain times where being aggressive is warranted and probably necessary, right? If someone literally attacks your family in the street, you probably should react in an aggressive way in order to survive and protect yourself. But if aggression is the only way that you are presented as a way to express yourself, that is when we fall into problems. We can get into school shootings, and everything that we've been seeing play out in the news, from the fact that we're not having this conversation. Levant will talk about just expanding the way that men and boys can express and exist in the world as the actual goal of this conversation on an individual level.
We can talk about it also about a collective level. I think it comes down to academics, the way that we teach gender theory. We are both products of that system, and we thought it was a really enriching, beautiful, rewarding experience to study gender and women's studies. But we need to include masculinity into those conversations.
LP: And we need policy makers to talk about masculinity. I think it's wild that we have never had a State of the Union that mentioned the word masculinity. I really think it's pretty remarkable--when masculinity is, as we've talked about through this entire hour, at the root or part of so many issues in our society that we have.
I think we need programs. We need think tanks, we need task forces that are interested in the research and implementation of different programs for men and boys in America.
And the world.
MC: Exactly. One of the things you say in this book is that one of the first rules of masculinity is like fight club, where you don't talk about it. That's exactly what we need to fix. We need to bring it out in the open. We need to talk about it. We need to talk to each other about it. We need to reflect and think about it for ourselves. That's exactly what we need to do. That's right.
LP: There's so much potential. I get excited. I get really pumped, I get jazzed. We talk a lot about the harm, obviously, and the darkness that comes with when we don't talk about masculinity and some of the consequences for our society. Obviously, they're massive and great, but I'm really interested in the potential that there is in this conversation. I'm really interested in what happens in our society when men can completely flourish as human beings and become the human beings that they want to be in the world, where they're not blocked from certain things, where we don't have 90% of teachers being women, which is the case right now. I'm not saying female teachers should be pushed out of their jobs.
But as I talk about in the book, one black teacher, male or female, in the life of a marginalized person of color who's a child, that fundamentally changes the entire course of their life. It makes them 38% more likely to actually go to college. One teacher. One teacher.
MC: That's all it takes.
LP: That's all it takes. Imagine the difference that we could make if boys and, particularly all kinds of boys, were encouraged and enabled to go into teaching, to go into care taking, to go into social work. What kind of difference would it make in our society? I think there's so much goodness out there that could happen. I'm excited by the potential of that, all the missed potential of men and boys in the world being fulfilled. I think that's a way more interesting framing than violence and terrorism and all that stuff.
MC: While you were working on this book, you actually performed a few of your own social experiments. From offering men advice in Washington Square Park with Esther Perel, which you mentioned briefly before, to asking questions and playing games about gender with young men in Zambia. How do you think we can best take some of these methods from those controlled environments that you created and worked with, and apply them to our own lives and in the world at large on a bigger scale?
LP: I love social experiments, particularly because I think that you can really see how people act when they're in the wild. If you are in the middle of Washington Square Park on a Tuesday afternoon, as opposed to bringing people into an office or a conference room with people with lab coats, [where] it's very clear that there's a research [project], and very clear that we're observing them, and we're judging them and that we're taking notes. I think it's much more interesting to be able to do experiments out in the wild. It's even more interesting when you can do it when there's such a dearth of research out there.
One of the things that I find really interesting is the lack of research around how testosterone has positive effects on our society, or on men particularly, or just on people who have it in their bodies. But I think the way that people can really take this in their lives is to be the first. Be the first to ask a question, be the first to go up to [a man]--it could be someone you don't know. If you're on a plane ride with someone.
Yesterday, I was doing another interview for New York Subway Book Review.I was just having this random conversation. We were in Union Square Park because that's where we met up to do this interview. I was talking about the fact that high heels, for example, were actually invented for men. Men, not women, wore high heels when they first existed in American society. I find that fascinating.
MC: It is. The more you know.
LP: The more you know. Yeah, this idea that high heels are just for women, and that there's an evolutionary reason why women [wear them]... This whole crap is not true. As we're having this conversation, this man was sitting next to us--this man who's wearing a suit, your typical, white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied investment banker. He is sitting next to us on the bench, and he stands up in front of us, he goes, "I'm really sorry to disturb you, but I have to show you something." He takes off his shoe, and there's a heel inside the shoe. So he's wearing high heels that are hidden, basically. It's this new kind of... I never knew about it.
MC: I didn't know about that either.
LP: It's almost like a wedge. Even I'm wearing wedge shoes right now, so you can't really tell that there's necessarily a little help here, a little heel. He takes off his shoe and reveals that he's actually wearing "high heels." He explains that it's to make him look taller at these meetings that he goes into because he works in investment. He goes, "You're absolutely right. I resisted this and I thought that this was a bad thing to do, and this was just for women, but F it." To me, that's a social experiment. And then I ended up sitting with him for an hour, and asking him all these questions about his life, and dating, and how gender norms are shifting and it's making dating really difficult for him.
You learn so much about people. This is something I would've never even thought about if I hadn't been open to this random conversation in the middle of a park. You can make social experiments wherever you want. You can ask people questions whenever you want, and you could do it with the people in your lives too. So I encourage people to. I did that even with my dad, with the men in my life. So much of the book is informed from conversations that I would have with random people who I was close to, or not even close to. I think we've lost a little bit of that in our society. We're all in our phones, we're all swiping right for dating apps. We text people before we call people. When we're at a bar, when we're at a public place, we're all in our own little words. But there's something really powerful about opening yourself up to a total stranger.
LP: I think that you often learn so much about the world. You also learn so much about yourself in those conversations. I don't know if that really answered your question.
MC: Yeah, that's perfect, though. I love that.
LP: Treating your life as a social experiment, I think, is really interesting. It means that you're just working outside of the bounds of what is traditionally accepted or what's supposed to happen. And just, yeah, taking a little bit of a risk, if you can.
MC: If you can.
MC: Awesome. Thank you so much, Liz. I had such a great time talking with you about masculinity...
LP: Thank you.
MC: And about your new book, For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity. And just the different ways that men and women can really use this book and what's inside it to inform conversations they have, and ways to move forward about this big conversation about masculinity. It's been a great time speaking with you.
LP: Thank you for your amazing questions.