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The new crisis of masculinity

What’s the matter with men — and how do we fix it?

Drawing of a man falling in liminal space. Getty Images/iStockphoto

What’s going on with men?

It’s a strange question, but it’s one people are asking more and more, and for good reasons. Whether you look at education or the labor market or addiction rates or suicide attempts, it’s not a pretty picture for men — especially working-class men.

Normally, more attention on a problem is a precursor to solving it. But in this case, for whatever reason, the added awareness doesn’t seem all that helpful. The “masculinity” conversation feels stuck, rarely moving beyond banal observations or reflexive dismissals.

A recent essay by the Washington Post columnist Christine Emba on this topic was different. It was — apologies for the cliché — one of those pieces that “broke through.” Besides being well done, Emba’s treatment of the topic was uncommonly nuanced, which is increasingly hard to do when tackling “controversial” topics.

So I invited Emba onto The Gray Area to talk about the state of men and what she thinks the way forward might look like. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday.

Sean Illing

Worrying about the “state of men,” as you say in your piece, is an old American pastime, so what makes this moment different?

Christine Emba

I think that now we have actual data showing that men do seem to be in a real crisis, and we also have data on how the world has changed. We can all see this in our own lives. Our social structure, our work structure, our economy, has changed really significantly over the past 30 to 40 years. And that necessarily changes how people fit into the world.

A lot of the changes have had a direct effect on men specifically. So we can look at the stats that we have right now about how men are doing, and we see that for every 100 bachelor’s degrees awarded to women, only 74 are awarded to men. We know that when you’re looking at deaths of despair, which is a more recent phenomenon, 3 out of 4 of those deaths are males.

And then there are social factors, too. There’s been a change in who the high earners in our society are. In 2020, nearly half of women reported in a survey that they out-earn or make the same amount as their husband or romantic partner. And in 1960, that was fewer than 4 percent of women.

So we’ve seen the economy change in ways that have moved away from the strength jobs, from traditional union jobs and factory and labor jobs that were mostly seen as male jobs and helped promote this idea of the man as the provider who can take care of a whole family on one income. Now it’s more about soft-skilled credentialism and that favors jobs that tend to skew toward women. Because of the feminist movement and women’s advances — which, to be clear, is a great thing — women have entered schools and the economy in force and they’re doing really well. And I think men are beginning to feel a little bit worried and lost in comparison.

Sean Illing

Why is this such a difficult problem to talk about, especially for people on the left?

Christine Emba

This was actually one of the major inspirations for writing this piece, because I was trying to get at that question, and I even felt as I was working on this piece my own reluctance to attend to it empathetically. I theorize that there are a couple reasons for this.

First of all, justifiably I think, progressives and people on the left want to preserve the gains that have been made for women over the past several decades. The feminist movement and movements for women’s equality are still pretty fragile. We saw during the Covid-19 pandemic that suddenly it was women dropping out of the workforce en masse. It’s really easy, on the left and just in politics generally, to think of things as being zero-sum. So there’s this fear that if we start helping men, then we’ll just have forgotten about women and there won’t be space or time for women anymore. I think that’s a mistake. We should be able to do two things at once. We can recognize that both women and men are members of our society and we should want to help everyone.

I think there’s also something really appealing to someone with a progressive mindset about the idea of gender neutrality, or gender neutrality as an ethos that we should aspire to and avoid making distinctions between men and women or masculine and feminine. We’ve moved in liberal society toward a real ideal of individualization; the idea that there could be one form of masculinity or manhood that’s good risks alienating people who don’t necessarily fit into that box. And then ascribing certain traits to men, especially if they’re positive traits, might create worries that we’re subtracting those traits from women. If we say that men are leaders, does that mean that women are always going to be followers? Or if men are strong, are we actually saying that women are weak? I think there’s a fear of doing that.

Finally, I think there’s a generalized resentment, especially after the Me Too moment — but also after a feminist movement in the 2010s that encouraged a pretty silly and uncritical form of man-hating and misandry where it was cool to be like, Men are trash, men suck. Wouldn’t the world be better without men? What are they even for? It was a feeling that you needed to do this sort of thing to prove your liberal bona fides that you love women enough.

There’s also the fact that because progressives in the mainstream have not really taken up the masculinity question, the people who have taken it up tend to be on the right and often they tend to be problematic figures. You see incels and men’s rights activists and Ben Shapiro burning Barbies, and there’s a fear that if you speak up for men, everyone’s going to be like, You seem too interested in this. Are you one of them? It’s a branding problem.

Sean Illing

It’s definitely true that the left, for all of these reasons, has ceded this space to the right and the right has happily filled the vacuum. So what do you see happening with people like Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate? These are very different people, I’m not equating them, but they inhabit this space in revealing ways.

Christine Emba

It’s a super interesting question. I do think that it’s important to try and draw distinctions here. There’s sort of a spectrum of what I call in the piece “the manfluencers” — a ridiculous word for a ridiculous phenomenon. But there is a range of people who are maybe slightly more benign. I think Jordan Peterson started out as more benign, although he’s gotten fringier since, to people like Andrew Tate, who I think are just straightforwardly bad people. And you have also people like Josh Hawley and Joe Rogan and Bronze Age Pervert and all of these people in between.

I think it’s just factually accurate that conservatives and the right have always been more invested in — and more clear about — gender roles. So it’s almost natural that they have a clearer vision of what manhood is and what men should do. But I think they realize that there was an opening here. Young men especially are looking for role models and realizing that they feel unsure and uncomfortable of their place in the world.

There’s a young man who I interviewed for the piece, who was like, I just want someone to tell me how to be. If the progressive left is like, We’re not going to tell you that, just be a good person, you don’t need rules. And then young men are like, No, I’m really asking you. I really want rules, actually, the right is happy to give them those rules.

If people have an identity as a man or masculine, the right is not going to say it’s toxic and only talk about toxic masculinity. They’re positive about it and they frame it as something that you want to aspire to, that’s actually transgressive and great and historically superior to whatever’s going on today, for better or worse. And being told that your identity is a positive thing, and here’s a road map to how to fulfill it, whether it’s actually good or bad, that something is going to beat out nothing anytime.

Sean Illing

I think there’s something earnest about Peterson’s project, or there certainly was, but the Tate phenomenon is different. To me, this is what happens when masculinity becomes steeped in fear and resentment. With Tate, unlike Peterson, there’s no pretension to anything virtuous. It’s just, Hey, the world hates you. The world wants to make you weak, wants to make you soft, so take what you can get, crush your enemies, abuse women, double down on everything they hate about you. It’s the weak person’s vision of a strong person. It’s the 19-year-old Nietzsche reader who didn’t make it past the preface.

But I still don’t think a lot of people quite understand Tate’s reach. Do you see him as a creature of a very particular moment or do you think he represents something bigger and more enduring?

Christine Emba

The Tate phenomenon, as you say, isn’t just about Tate. There’s a whole space with very online figures like Bronze Age Pervert, or BAP, who wrote this book, Bronze Age Mindset, that’s become a very conservative phenomenon. I think you’re exactly right. This is a vision of masculinity that’s super basic and sort of tailored to a 15-year-old who doesn’t know any better. It’s all about just shouting and showing off your cars and your women and your money, and that’s what being a man is. It’s very clear: just work out and be mean. It’s simple and it’s superficially appealing because there are a lot of fast cars and pretty girls. And I guess that appeals especially to young men who haven’t thought about it very much.

But I do think, in the absence of better road maps, in the absence of other models, people like Tate present a very clear, visible model. He’s everywhere. You see him everywhere if you’re a kid online. I think that’s also part of what has let him be underestimated. His reach is enormous among younger men, like middle school through high school-aged kids. They’ve all heard of Andrew Tate, to the point that, actually, in Britain, where he’s from, there was a campaign last year where teachers in high schools and middle schools were talking amongst themselves about how to combat Tateism in the classroom because these middle schoolers who had watched Andrew Tate videos were getting up in class and telling their female teachers to shut up, because they don’t listen to women, and that’s what Tate taught them.

His videos spread on TikTok and YouTube and Facebook before he was banned from all of those sites. Fifty-five-year-old dads weren’t necessarily on TikTok, and I think didn’t realize how much reach he had and how much of a hold he had. And the same with all of these online figures who are sort of flying under the radar because they’re online. But I do think it’s important what you point out about their immorality.

Jordan Peterson, and even to some extent the Josh Hawley figures, are saying, Well, it’s good to be a man, but also being a man means being responsible in some way, contributing to society in some way. The Tateist version of masculinity is totally divorced from anything positive. It’s just about defining yourself in opposition to women and taking what you can get. But it’s a clear path and it feels almost transgressive, which I think is part of its appeal because he’s like, Call me toxic. I love being toxic. I am toxic masculinity. To a 15-year-old edgelord, that is aspirational, I guess. But it’s really ugly and it’s not good for society in any way.

Sean Illing

What do you think a truly healthy masculinity looks like? You identify three traits in the piece — protector, provider, and procreator — and I know a lot of people will hear that and, not without reason, immediately think of the patriarchy of yesterday. Do you think that’s a mistake?

Christine Emba

Another great question. Even when I was writing the piece, I was wrestling with my reluctance to try and define masculinity or cheer on masculinity too much and my belief that we actually need to do just that. One of the things about the piece that seemed to strike a lot of people was the fact that I admitted that I like men. I want them to be happy. And I also do think that there is something distinctive that one could call manhood or masculinity that is a different thing than womanhood or femininity.

So you pulled out the concepts of protector, provider, procreator, and I got those from the anthropologist, David Gilmore, who did this cross-country study a couple decades ago looking at what it meant to be a man in all of these different groups across several continents. He found out that almost every society did have a concept of masculinity that was distinctive from just being male. It was something that you earned and was also distinctive from being female. It had to do with being someone who protected the people around you in your community, who provided in some way for your family. That often looked like not just providing, but creating surplus in some ways and sharing that with others. And then there was the idea that procreating, having a family, was what being a successful male looked like.

In our modern moment, I think that can look like a lot of different things. In my essay, there’s a callout where I ask people to write in and tell me about their ideal of masculinity. When I think about masculinity myself, there are a couple of attributes that seem to come up a lot, and it’s stuff like strength used well and responsibility, performing your duties, looking out for people who are weaker than you.

The pushback that I get very often when I talk about this is what I was saying earlier, people are like, Why do you have to say that’s being a good man? Why is leadership or ambition or adventurousness a male trait? Aren’t women leaders? And of course, yes, but I do think that being a good person is not a clear enough road map. It’s not a strong enough, clear enough norm, and that’s what younger people especially are looking for.

I think what it means to be a good person is in some ways tied to your embodiment, to your human form as a male person or a female person. For instance, [younger] men tend to be — though not always — much stronger than the average woman or old person. So being a good person, if that is your embodiment, necessarily means thinking about what that says about your responsibilities. What do you do with that strength?

Richard Reeves, who wrote the book Of Boys and Men, talks about how masculinity and femininity, or male and female, overlap a lot. But on the far ends of the spectrum, there are very big differences, and that tends to be where our definitions of male and female come from.

Sean Illing

It’s true that you can’t talk about masculinity and femininity without acknowledging some differences between the sexes. And yet, that acknowledgment is utterly compatible with the reality that much of what we call gender is a performance, is a cultural construct. And I don’t know why we seem unable to avoid this zero-sum trap. You see this in lots of other cultures where there’s a respect for the masculine and feminine ideal. There’s no zero-sum relationship. These are poles at opposite ends of the continuum, and possessing virtues at both ends of the spectrum is seen as wise and healthy. I don’t know why we can’t do that.

Christine Emba

America really likes extremes. I think we like things that are very clear-cut and we’re used to seeing things that way and seeing them used to marginalize people or somehow denigrate people who don’t fit the exact norms. I think people who think of themselves as good progressives and liberals really don’t want to do that, and so shy away from espousing norms because they might leave someone out. And I understand that. But for the people who are asking for a road map, who want to be told who to be, just saying Be whoever you want to be, but be a good one is just not helpful.

There’s also an age factor here and I noticed this in the responses to the piece. There were older men who would write in and say, What’s the problem? I’m a man, I feel great about it. I don’t see the issue. That’s great for you, but for young people, who don’t have that much life experience, who are trying to figure out who to be, having some kind of norm or ideal, even if it’s loose, can be helpful. And then as you grow older and you get life experience and you figure out how you fit in the world, you make the norm up for yourself. But they’re looking for a starting point.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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