The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Short review—a great primer for any man looking to change.
Just a touch of back story. As a kid I saw the Old Boys Club antagonize my mom in all kinds of nasty ways, so I decided my way of being a man would be to “do no harm” essentially embrace a sort of neutral passivity… which kinda worked, but I’ve found passivity allows the patriarchy to still hold sway, and I am often still complicit.
So, I’ve been exploring what a healthy assertive masculinity would look like. A friend of mine recommended bell hook’s book “The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” saying it is the only book out there addressing Alternative Masculinity.
“The Will To Change” is a broad description of what the Patriarchy does to men—Dr. hooks describes a totalized system, I have to admit I’ve not experienced all the manifestations of patriarchy described, but I’d imagine that just means I’m either lucky or have some blinders.
What follows are a few points made throughout the book:
-Patriarchy does not allow for relationship
Dr. hooks begins with the statement that women fear men, for we are a constant threat of violence to them. She uses an intense example by Barbara Deming, who describes the first time she felt true intimacy with her father, which was when she held his corpse. It was the first time there was no threat of violence in him.
Put simply, Patriarchy involves domination, and love and domination can’t coexist. So, all intimacy within patriarchal culture is pretend intimacy.
-The Patriarchy involves Domination
Men living under the Patriarchy are constantly asking where they are on the social pecking order. There can be no sign of weakness.
Instead of finding self-esteem in a man’s individual identity it is always found in relation to other men. Any sign of weakness is shamed. The question is always “who is on top?” “who is dominating who?”. One of the silly thing men often do is answer questions even if they don’t know the right answer, or were not asked the question—this is because not having the answer causes shame and shows weakness. So, mansplaining, for example, is an attempt to not be shamed.
Boys become men when they learn to stop expressing their emotions. This is a horrendous loss, and within the Patriarchy manhood is reaffirmed by learning to only grieve this loss in private. Dr. hooks suggests the anti-social stage of development in boys may in fact be the point at which they learn to stop expressing their emotions.
There are multiple masks men learn to use to hide this grief and other emotions. In general the mask is compartmentalization. This causes men to distrust everyone, after all if they are masking their pain, everyone is lying. Often times boys living in anti-patriachal homes lead a double life at home and at school.
Additionally, Workaholism is a mask that is rewarded and encouraged by pretty much everyone. Work is a place to escape the self. It encourages a sense of separate spheres, men work and make money, women work at home and do the emotional work for men.
Another major mask is sex. The Patriarchy has told men that sex is the only space for intimacy and release of emotions. This causes men to have a constant sense of sexual scarcity, after all they are told sex does the work of all passions, sensualities, and relationships. “All human needs are promised to us by way of sex and sexuality.” It isn’t put in its proper place as “one pleasure among many pleasures.”
Dr. hooks warns women ought not ignore the pain the Patriarchy inflicts upon men, as they too can be socialized into psychic self-mutilation.
-Change is hard
Popular culture props up the Patriarchy, even when it tries to be thoughtful about masculinity. For example, American Beauty, Life as a House, and Monsters Ball all depict men critically reflecting upon their emotional life, and they all end up dead. Who would choose to embrace a practice that he is told will lead to his destruction?
Men are often bought off by the Patriarchy. Dr. hooks describes a gentle quiet feminist man who assumed a macho persona and was rewarded for it. Women were drawn to him, he was noticed publically and professionally, and “his feminism ceased.”
At times mainstream feminism gives men who want to change mixed messages, “Hold onto ideas about strength and providing for others… while dropping your investment in domination and add an investment in emotional growth.”
It’s important to remember that women also enforce patriarchal norms. The following conversation is a norm:
“How do you feel?”
“Like there is something missing, I’m in pain and I think society hates me.”
Similarly, men recovering from substance abuse often have the experience of being told by their partner, “Now that you are sober you no longer need to express your feelings.”
Finally, as long as the Patriarchy is the water in which we swim, men who want to change will be left resource-less. “Men will never receive support from patriarchal culture for their emotional development.”
-But it is worth it
“Anytime a single male dares to transgress patriarchal boundaries in order to love, the lives of women, men, and children are fundamentally changed for the better.”
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