Treating the Poison of American Masculinity with American Literature
Toxic masculinity is a term that’s gained public attention in the past decade despite being around since the 1980s. The term refers to the escalation of traditional male social behaviors toward (more) unhealthy extremes. Rigid depictions of these behaviors in various types of media from radio and TV broadcasts to comic books, film, and new media serve to reinforce and escalate the cycle into the dangerous feedback loop that it has become today.
And certainly not all media supports this cycle. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club came along in the 1990s, threatening to alter the way we view masculinity for the better, but it ultimately failed to make its intended impact, in large part due to the subtlety and nuance of its message. As if to make a point, the story’s satirical “snowflake” slur has even been co-opted to the exact opposite purpose of its intended use.
And while diagnosing the problem is the first step toward treating this poison, it can be difficult to find suitable antidotes. It’s tempting to seek a panacea that clearly points us in a single direction of optimal behavior. But we all know how unlikely any true panacea can be.
Like any social ill, conversation is a good place to start. There are a lot of stigmas that accompany the concept of toxic masculinity, and even the term itself can be misunderstood as attacking men or prejudiced against simply being a man rather than describing an ongoing pattern of behavior across culture and history that is harmful to both men and women.
But what can you talk about when “talking about the problem” is part of the problem? How can you start a conversation and discuss ideas and options that move toward healthier behaviors?
Literature has always served as an effective vehicle for these kinds of discussions. The problem for a long time with the particular case of toxic masculinity has been finding material that deviates from the mainstream in a way that allows for meaningful, authentic conversation that also doesn’t feel preachy or didactic.
Here are three works that I’ve had success with when discussing genuine and positive masculinity behaviors both as a high school educator and as just as a man.
The first title on the list is easily the most personal. I first encountered Tony Hoagland’s poetry as an undergrad in the early 2000s, and his forthrightness and intensity made for poetry that defied what I thought poetry could look or feel like. His initial collection of poetry, Sweet Ruin, won the Brittingham Prize for good reason. Hoagland’s work is accessible, impactful, and memorable.
While Hoagland represents a more typical American male perspective grappling with the changing world, his isn’t the only view. His white, hetero perspective doesn’t speak for (or speak to) everyone. Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds (winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize) expresses a masculinity that is both very different from and very similar to what Hoagland grappled with almost a quarter-century before him. Vuong doesn’t present what many would consider the typical male perspective, which makes his voice all the more necessary in exploring the complexities of what masculinity is and what it can be. Vuong’s collection feels more experimental in its form, but the heart of his writing still comes through clearly.
If poetry isn’t as comfortable of a genre (there is mention of poetry in this story but in a way that’s not really different from talking about music), Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School synthesizes multiple perspectives — both male and female — into a decades-spanning story of grappling with the expectations that toxic masculinity tries to force us to conform to. Lerner incorporates the more institutional elements that drive the cycle, but keeps the attention focused on character and conflicts both internal and external. The book covers a wide range of topics around love and relationships (and failed relationships), traditions, identity, status, and language. Even if some of the themes don’t feel as relevant, there should be plenty of elements that do resonate for any two people to be able to have a conversation over it.
So do these three works of modern American literature represent a complete regimen for curing toxic masculinity? Of course not. But as with the building of any healthy habit and lifestyle, it’s about making the small, incremental changes that move toward a more healthy outcome.
And it’s also about listening and growing along the way. So what are some approaches or inspirations that have helped you break with the toxic behaviors that continue to be perpetuated in American culture? Share your recommendations and do your part to help move the conversation along.