In Jared Yates Sexton’s insightful and important new book, The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making, toxic masculinity is framed as a system of taboos and impossible expectations imposed on men through physical and emotional abuse until they become addicted to performing those expectations.
To understand how Sexton defines “toxic masculinity,” picture the semi-fictional “Greatest Generation.” They grew up in poverty, emerged victorious in war, and provided for their families (if they were white of course), often earning enough to buy a house and a car from one job in a manly industry like manufacturing. And they did it without complaining. Hundreds of thousands of American men returned from World War II (and Korea and Vietnam and the two Gulf wars) with PTSD and lived with it untreated for the rest of their lives, because, of course, “Dad doesn’t talk about the war.” We celebrated their stoic silence as they suffered. We interpreted three-martini lunches, scotch-soaked poker games, Saturdays alone in the garage, demanding their injured sons “walk it off,” intimidating tempers, and corporal punishment as inherent masculine traits rather than as inadequate coping mechanisms. We saw them as ideal men, rather than ill men. From them — how we celebrated them — we drew one fundamental lesson about how men should be: men should feel no pain, and when they do they are forbidden from sharing it with anyone else.
Toxic masculinity predates the Greatest Generation, of course. A masculine ideal has and will always be impossible to achieve, because, in the words of Dr. Joseph Pleck, “gender roles are social constructs and thus impossible to fulfill, the inevitable failure to live up to them can result in psychological damage,” but in the Greatest Generation, it found a new fuel to supercharge its transmission. Sexton writes, “If our fathers and grandfathers could survive a depression, ship off to Europe or Asia, and fight against the forces of fascism, then we should be capable of conducting our civilian lives without complaint.” Sure, your job batters your body and mind so you feel like a crushed can every night, but your grandfather saw his best friend step on a landmine outside of Bayeux and he never complained about it. Any displayed weakness is fundamental proof that you are not a real man like your grandfather.
According to Sexton, “being a real man” is imposed on men as children through physical and emotional abuse. And Sexton should know. He suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a number of men in his life until he internalized and adopted the principles of toxic masculinity. He writes, “It permeates everything, reverberating throughout our language and tainting our power structure; it plagues our every action and thought. […] Toxic masculinity is a chronic illness, and once we’re infected we always carry it with us.” And that is not a generic first-plural. When Sexton says “us,” he includes himself. The arc of his story is one we’ve seen in dozens of memoirs and movies about addiction.
Toxic masculinity is addicted to performance, to poses and postures of physical endurance, willingness to engage in or actual violence, and stoic absence of any emotion, pain, or discomfort. “John whipped and beat me when I didn’t fulfill my end of the masculine bargain. If I cried, if I complained, if I was sick or if I simply fell short of his expectations, that’s when I received punishment.” Men learn the actions that get them hit or insulted and those that don’t and perform the later “until there’s no performance anymore. There’s just a man who knows no other way.” We know the addiction story arc ends in one of two ways and luckily for us, Sexton’s addiction arc ends when he realizes he cannot do this alone and gets the help he needs to heal.
A great work of nonfiction, on any topic, makes its case and tells its story in a way that lets readers come to their own conclusions and acts as a base for future exploration. Sexton’s ideas about addiction and performance drawn from his experience at Trump rallies leads us to a potentially surprising conclusion. Some of the racist, sexist, and homophobic vitriol spewed at Trump rallies is performative, spewed by men who did not believe it, or at least with that intensity, but were afraid their masculinity would be questioned if they did not pose as an angry, hateful Trump supporter, who doesn’t care about your feelings. Many of Trump’s supporters engaged in the same kind of pissing contest as internet trolls, where the point was not actually to advance an idea, but to prove how tough you personally are through a specific demonstration of emotional disregard and potential, and occasionally actual, violence.
To put this another way, there are members of Trump’s base, especially men, who truly don’t believe in him, but feel obligated to attend his rallies, shout his slogans, and even vote for him to be real men for their friends and family. This is not to absolve them of responsibility, but to define a relationship with toxic masculinity in our search for a way out of it.
Sexton wants to change the world. A perfect review of a book like this would be able to look into the future to see if he has. But we can’t know that. I don’t know if the men who most need to read it, both for their own health and for the health of society, will read it. But their sons might. Their daughters might. A new football coach might. And Sexton implies a potential path forward: just stop.
Stop beating your sons when they cry. Stop using feminine and homosexual descriptions as insults. Stop telling hurt children to walk it off. Believe yourself when you feel like something isn’t right and stop doing that. Believe yourself when you feel like you are performing and just stop.
The Man They Wanted Me to Be is centered in Sexton’s personal experience, drawing on social science to elucidate that experience. He says very little about how people of color experience toxic masculinity, the ways class impacts toxic masculinity, or about the experiences of women and people of other sexualities and genders. Sexton is open about these limits, and frequently clarifies when an experience is unique to straight white men. The story of toxic masculinity is bigger than one man and to tell it completely would require telling the stories of men of color and men of different classes and women and people of other genders and sexualities. But Sexton isn’t trying to tell the story of toxic masculinity, he is trying to find a path forward from it. The scope of his book needs to be narrow, because it needs to be driven by sharing his personal story, sharing the pain he felt, and sharing the help he sought to remedy that pain.
As important as the data is and as insightful as Sexton is with that data, the most important thing he does in The Man They Wanted Me to Be is break the taboo about sharing vulnerabilities: he exposes his alcoholism, his eating disorders, his therapy. Taboos lose power when you break them. Toxic masculinity loses power when we, and I especially mean straight white men like Sexton and myself, weaken the taboos that protect it.
Josh Cook is the author of the novel An Exaggerated Murder (Melville House, 2015).