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Being a good father means rethinking masculinity

Michael Ian Black on how to raise better men.

AFP via Getty Images

As Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences as a dad and how rewarding — and confounding — they can be. Which is why a recent book by Michael Ian Black, called A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son, captured my attention.

Black is a comedian, writer, and actor who you likely know from his roles in Wet Hot American Summer, The State, and Stella. His book — published in 2020 and now out in paperback — is a revealing piece of writing, one that walks the line between funny and serious and never strays too far from its core purpose: Black’s attempt to talk to his college-age son about what it means to be a good man in a culture that seems very confused about masculinity.

A month ago, I invited Black onto Vox Conversations to talk about his book and many other things. But then a few days before we recorded, 19 children and two teachers were gunned down in yet another mass shooting by a young man in Uvalde, Texas.

Michael’s son was a student at an elementary school right by Sandy Hook when that massacre happened in 2012. After the Parkland shooting in 2018, Black decided to write this book and explore why boys — and it’s almost entirely boys — are committing these acts of mass violence.

For obvious reasons, the tragedy in Texas loomed over the entire conversation. But we also tried to step back and reflect on a bigger question: What the hell is going on with young men in America? We discuss our own struggles to define masculinity, why so many American men have such a hard time asking for help, and how we, as fathers of boys, can be better examples for our sons.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

So I had a vague idea of what this conversation would be like, and then the shooting in Texas happened. This is obviously something you’ve dealt with and, well, here we are again. What do you make of it?

Michael Ian Black

I’m not surprised that this happened. I’m not surprised that there was another shooting at an elementary school. Just as I wasn’t surprised when there was a shooting at a grocery store the week before, and at a church a few days before that. These events no longer surprise me. They continue to outrage me. Because we’re not doing anything about it.

We’re debating doors today. I don’t feel like doors are the problem. I feel like I’m okay with doors. In fact, I’ll go even further: I’ll say the more doors, the better. I’m willing to go all-in for doors.

What I’m not willing to do is go all-in for guns and this insane weaponry that we just make available to whoever wants it. Now, I understand that there are certain restrictions on quickly acquiring weaponry in some parts of the country. Not in Texas, where the governor signed a bill saying, Hey, if you’re 18, you want to buy a weapon of war, go ahead. We’re not gonna throw up any roadblocks to impede your progress on your journey to a massacre. We’re Texas. We want you to have as many guns and ammunition as you wish.

So I’m sick of talking about guns. And I feel like I would be talking about them a lot less if fewer people were getting shot by them.

Sean Illing

There are so many conversations happening now — about gun control, about the Second Amendment, about congressional inaction — but I want to focus on boys and fatherhood and why these kinds of shootings seem to be the exclusive work of men, often young men. You say in the book that you can see how a certain kind of masculinity “can nudge a teetering psyche toward violence.” What do you mean?

Michael Ian Black

It is true that these acts are committed almost exclusively by boys and young men. Off the top of my head, I can think of none that have been committed by women. There may be some examples of that, but I certainly can’t think of any. Why is that? It’s obviously a complicated question.

The first thing you have to do is break it down into two categories. Is there something biological that impels boys to commit violence? And is there something sociological that compels boys to commit violence?

The answer to the first question is, I think, yes. I think there is something biological. I think we understand that testosterone does in fact lead toward more aggression. It doesn’t necessarily follow that because you have more testosterone in your body, you’re going to commit acts of violence. And in fact, so much of our culture is organized around trying to control aggression. That’s maybe what culture is in some ways.

I think it gets very nuanced when we get into the sociological question. And this is why we have to take a deep dive into what it means to be a man in the culture.

Sean Illing

What it often means to be a man, in our culture at least, is to bury our feelings, to not admit vulnerability. We live in such a hollow society, where so many of us don’t have real community. We live in our heads, we live in the virtual world, and there’s so much resentment that just build and builds and we have all these young men exploding in slow-motion and their inner turmoil is hidden and probably inexpressible for a lot of them and we just keep paying the price for it with the blood of children.

Michael Ian Black

So much of what it means to be a guy historically has been about never admitting weakness, never admitting fear, never admitting vulnerability. And not having the tools or the vocabulary to open up.

Generally, there are two acceptable emotional reactions for a lot of guys: anger and withdrawal. And I think we see that in so many of these shooters. You hear people say, “Oh, he was a quiet kid. He was so quiet.” Well, yeah. What do you think that is? That’s somebody retreating into themselves because they don’t know how to ask for help. They don’t know how to communicate. They don’t know how to receive or express empathy.

Yet there’s clearly something broken with these dudes. That’s why so many politicians go, “Whoa, he was crazy. This is just a lone wolf.” So we can write off all the mass shooters as crazy and just dismiss them. Fine, go ahead. But they’re not the problem. It’s the day-to-day gun violence. It is the domestic violence. It is the suicides. It is the accidental discharges. It’s the easy access to firearms. It’s the family disputes. It’s the retaliatory gunfire when somebody feels dissed — it’s all this bullshit.

So we have to look at how we’re raising boys. What you said is right, they don’t know how to express themselves. And one easy way to do it is with a gun. The lack of community is a big part of it, too, which ties into lack of purpose, which ties into lack of self-identity.

Sean Illing

Partly because of where I grew up, there’s something deep in me that balks at some of this talk about toxic masculinity. And this question of vulnerability and toughness is such a hard one for me. I have to say, you made me think about my own father, who I love dearly and who is still a very huge part of my life.

He’s a product of that “army of one” mentality you talk about, where toughness is almost by definition the opposite of vulnerability. I’ve probably internalized a ton of that; it’s part of me. There’s something noble in the idea of self-reliance and we’ll get to it, but I do think the discomfort a lot of us have with vulnerability can be a real handicap.

Michael Ian Black

I understand why a lot of men recoil from thinking too deeply about their own masculinity. They recoil from the term “toxic masculinity.” And it’s because toxic masculinity in some ways has become a catchall phrase that just sometimes means masculinity. And masculinity isn’t toxic. There’s so much about what men have historically done that’s great. There’s a lot that’s great about being strong and being tough and enduring tough times and keeping a stiff upper lip. There’s a lot that’s awesome about that. We need that and we should celebrate it.

However, there are times in everybody’s life when being an army of one isn’t particularly constructive. There’s a reason that armies, when they train, they don’t train you to be an army of one. They train you to work as a cohesive unit. It’s because you rely on each other to get shit done. You need to rely on each other to get shit done.

So, absolutely, be tough, but there are going to be moments where you’re going to need help. And it requires a lot of self-confidence and toughness to say, “I need help in this moment.”

There’s a flip side to this. I feel like men are romantic in lots of ways. We have romantic ideas about our solitude. We have romantic ideas about going off to fight battles. We have romantic ideas about love. I don’t think it’s hard for men to give love. I think we come up short when it comes to receiving love. To receive love, you have to let down your guard. You have to be vulnerable.

Sean Illing

I’ll read a quote from your book if you don’t mind: “Men feel isolated, confused, and conflicted about our own natures. Many feel that the very qualities that used to define men — strength, aggression, and independence — are no longer wanted or needed. Many others never felt strong or aggressive or independent to begin with. We don’t know how to be, and we’re terrified.”

There’s a lot going on there, and I’m not entirely sure what I think about it. There are definitely dueling pressures for men today to be both assertive and confident and also sensitive and empathetic, and while I do think those are mutually compatible, I know that you think that the confusion here is harmful.

Michael Ian Black

Fifty years ago, if you talked about a girl or a woman as being strong or independent or tough, you’d have thought of her in some ways as being less feminine because of those attributes. But we don’t think of girls that way anymore. In fact, we celebrate their strength. We celebrate their independence. We celebrate their toughness. Because we understand that in elevating those parts of their personalities, we are not diminishing the other parts of their personalities that are more traditionally feminine.

There’s no reason we can’t expand the definition of masculinity the same way we have with femininity. The conversations about what it means to be a woman have yielded tremendous results. We see women entering all facets of society. It has not meant that they can’t be wives and mothers as well, if that’s what they choose to be. We’ve seen how girls are just thriving as a result of these conversations, these generational conversations. And we applaud it, rightly.

Well, it’s time to have those same conversations with boys. And again, they’re generational conversations. This isn’t shit that’s just going to change overnight. They don’t know what their place is. And I’m saying there are ways to lift men and boys up. And to give them a renewed sense of purpose in the culture.

That purpose can involve all of the traditional attributes that men have. It can involve their strength and their toughness and their pride and their aggression and their endurance. And it can also involve their compassion, their natural empathy, their vulnerability, their creativity — all of it.

There is not one set of characteristics that make a girl, nor is there one set of characteristics that make a boy. But there are a certain set of characteristics that make a human and we all share them.

Sean Illing

You tell your son that one of the greatest gifts he gave you was “coming to you for comfort.” That resonates so much with my experience. The act of caring for my son, who’s about to turn 3, changing his diapers, rocking him to sleep, taking baths with him — I don’t think I’ve ever felt more satisfied as a man as I feel in those moments. I mean, I feel more manly than I would wrestling a fucking alligator. And I never would have imagined that before I became a dad.

You don’t have to become a dad to have that revelation, but it was a revelation for me. I learned that I could find such joy and pride in caring for another human being. And I needed the experience of being a dad to have that — maybe other people don’t, but I needed it.

Michael Ian Black

The thing that made you feel most paternal was performing the acts that are most traditionally maternal. The thing that made you feel most like a man are the things that are most commonly associated with being a woman. Why is that? I would argue that it’s because it allowed you to open a door into the fullness of who you are as a person.

People want to give comfort. People want to give aid. People want to give love and compassion. And as a parent, that suddenly that becomes your job. You realize, “Holy shit, this was a part of me all along and I needed this. I needed this — for lack of a better word — excuse to just be a human being.” And it feels great. It feels great when you’re finally able to do that. And to do it without apology, without self-consciousness. And don’t feel yourself diminished in any way as a man, because you’re performing your job as a father.

Well, you can apply that to the rest of your life. How good does it feel when you help somebody across the street? It feels fucking great. How good does it feel when you help somebody dig their car out of a snowbank? It’s awesome. We’re made to help other people. That’s a big part of who we all are.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.