“Men Have Book Clubs, Too,” went the New York Times Style section article that was published online yesterday. Like many articles in that section, it was designed, in part, to provoke. In offering a quick tour of a bunch of men’s book clubs across the country, reporter Jennifer Miller mostly focused on those which took a rather insecure approach to the apparently fraught concept of, well, reading a book and talking about it.
Like here, for example:
Perhaps because participation in reading groups is perceived as a female activity, some all-male book clubs have an outsize need to proclaim the endeavor’s masculinity. In addition to going by the name the Man Book Club, for instance, Mr. McCullough’s group expresses its notion of manliness through the works it chooses to read. “We do not read so-called chick lit,” he said. “The main character cannot be a woman.”
In explaining the club’s purpose, the International Ultra Manly Book Club website makes explicit the notion that men take literature as seriously as women. The “About Us” section says it was founded, in part, on the vision that “one day we could step out of the shadow of our mothers’ book clubs and proclaim that yes, we too, are intellectuals.”
The internet reacted, predictably, with ridicule. Shortly after the article was published, a #manlybookclubnames hashtag popped up and people riffed on the idea of silly names for men’s book clubs — “The Old Mansplain and the Sea,” for example.
I had a different reaction. Yes, the article was silly, but mostly the examples contained in it — cherrypicked, as they almost certainly were, given the “anecdatal” feel of the article, and of much Style section content in general — just made me sad.
That sadness came from a glint of recognition. Despite the supposedly enlightened age we live in, it still really is tough for many men to open up and talk freely about traditionally “feminine” subjects, like feelings. One of Miller’s subjects put this pretty well: “Fiction is designed to examine empathy,” he told her. “Men aren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings or emotions in public. When your friend gets divorced, you don’t sit around with the guys wondering, ‘How do you think Jon feels about getting divorced?’”
You’d think that in 2016, we’d be further along in dismantling this. Just look around — rigid conceptions of gender are collapsing all around us. But it’s still very much a problem. I’m 32 and grew up in something of a best-case scenario for adopting a healthier sense of what it means to be a boy and then a man: an extremely liberal town in an extremely liberal state; two working parents; a high school where males could acquire almost as much status for starring in plays as for being athletes; a period which saw a rapid advance in gay rights (there’s huge overlap between homophobia and hypermasculine fears). And yet … I can look back over the last ten or 15 years and come up with many examples of instances in which I wasn’t as honest or empathetic or just plain good as I could have been because of these sorts of gendered expectations, because of misguided fears over appearing vulnerable, over exposing emotional parts of myself I was taught to keep hidden. I didn’t fully tell friends what was bothering me. I didn’t offer them as much succor as I could and should have when they seemed to be struggling. This was generally low-key stuff — I’m not talking major tragedies or betrayals — but along the way there were just far too many five-second “You all right, man?”/ “Yeah I’m good” / “Cool” interactions that should have been longer, more genuine conversations.
I don’t want to overstate this — I still think I’m definitely on the feelier, less hypermasculine end of the American male spectrum. But it’s still striking how easily I’ve slipped into these patterns over the years, especially when I was younger, despite the fact that I was very rarely explicitly taught to shy away from feelings and emotional vulnerability. The sense that as a male, I was simply supposed to was just sort of floating out there in the culture, and I absorbed it, despite all of the aforementioned influences nudging me in the other direction. This, of course, is what various gender theorists and sociologists and psychologists have been saying all along — that we absorb culture in subtle, osmotic, tricky-to-pin-down ways.
But it’s still a bit startling to see how much effort it takes to get past the sense that men aren’t supposed to open up. And along the way, it takes a toll — in addition to the fact that there appear to be very real-world health and psychological consequences to not having close friends you can open up to, or to not being offered empathy and emotional comfort when you need it (two natural consequences of adopting rigid conceptions of orthodox masculinity) — it’s simply a massive, tragic waste of human and creative potential to have such a huge swath of humanity bottling up their feelings and experiences because of irrational fears.
In theory, social media could provide a useful means for openly discussing all of this and helping men develop healthier, more emotionally grounded senses of their own gender identity. We’re only now finally at a point where both men and women can openly discuss, together, the various ways men have, and continue to, unfairly dominate and oppress women, a hugely important step. Usually, when these conversations touch upon the gendered expectations men grapple with, they tend to focus on the damage these expectations do to others.
This is, of course, totally understandable. But I hope we’ll also have a robust parallel conversation about how men themselves can also suffer as a result of sexism and rigidly defined gender roles — a space to talk about why so many men are still afraid of seeming “girly” (#fragilemasculinity is a start, though a hashtag can only get us so far). A space for men who genuinely want to do better.