Masculinity detox: redefining what it means to be a man

In light of #MeToo and the rise of Jordan Peterson, can boys and men learn to be better? Here's what Canadians of all genders are doing to rewrite the rules for masculinity


The book Fight Club is often read as a commentary on modern masculinity, where the unnamed protagonist, played by Edward Norton in the 1999 film adaptation, is a sad, limp version of the everyman: unmotivated, uninspired and undesirable. 

Only after encountering a mysterious Übermensch named Tyler Durden does the narrator learn to take control of his own life. He transforms into what a stereotypical man should be – daring, decisive and dominant – and starts Fight Club.

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club, and for years, men have applied a similar ethos toward masculinity. For the Tyler Durdens of the world, this has made life seemingly unproblematic. But for many women, non-binary folks and men who don’t fit the hyper-male stereotype, this type of masculinity has led to some of North America’s most heinous crimes like gun violence, sexual assault and online trolling.

Now the tide is turning, and there are activists, authors and artists working to redefine masculinity. The issue has been made all the more urgent by the #MeToo movement and the rise of alt-right figures who want to turn back the clock. Folks of all gender identities are breaking down the walls of Fight Club and finally taking a critical look at what it means to be a man.

#METOO AND MEN

On a chilly afternoon last December, Humberto Carolo, executive director of White Ribbon, stepped up to the microphone at a rally at Queen’s Park inspired by the #MeToo movement.

“We must commit to never using violence against women. We must not remain silent,” he urged the handful of men in the crowd. “We must be a part of dismantling rape culture.” 

Carolo has been with White Ribbon, the world’s largest campaign to end gender-based violence, for 12 years. The organization started in Toronto in 1991 as a response to the Montreal massacre, a mass shooting at an engineering school two years earlier in which 14 women were killed by a man who stated that he was fighting feminism. In recent years, White Ribbon has broadened its scope to include promoting healthy masculinity. 

“We need to teach men how to empathize in order to be better allies,” he told NOW in an interview. “There’s a strong connection between toxic forms of masculinity and gender-based violence and inequality.” 

The opposite of toxic masculinity, he explains, is healthy masculinities – pluralized to reflect the myriad ways masculinity can be performed, even beyond stereotypical butch and femme dichotomies. “Men and boys should be encouraged to express the full range of emotions and not just ones that are traditionally accepted.”

This includes showing vulnerability and kindness, and pushing against stereotypes of machismo and dominance. But unlearning behaviours that are socially encouraged is a lot harder than it sounds. 

Carolo points to the all the ways in which boys and girls are raised differently, from the toys they’re given to play with to the careers they’re encouraged to pursue. 

“Gender norms don’t exist in isolation,” he says. “They’re very entrenched in our everyday lives.”

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Jamil Jivani

ALT-WRONG

When Jamil Jivani was coming of age in Brampton in the late 1990s, he learned how to be a man from rappers and basketball players.

“I’d go home from school and watch MuchMusic or Rap City on BET and see these examples of men with brown or black skin, the way they dressed and the values they espoused,” Jivani recounts. “If I had a father in my life or someone who could consistently show me that masculinity was more complicated than the version I saw on TV, I’d have known that men get disappointed and sad, and that we depend on women for things.”

Jivani, a Toronto lawyer and author of Why Young Men: Rage, Race And The Crisis Of Identity (HarperCollins), says his understanding of masculinity changed when he was a student at York University. A professor encouraged him to read about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington, which helped him see more ways Black men could exist.

His book offers an analysis on how young men, especially racialized men, are influenced and provides insights into what society can do about it. Jivani’s research spans men in Europe who’ve been radicalized by jihadist groups and their counterparts in Toronto suburbs, who are drawn to gang violence. 

“Young men, no matter where they’re located, are looking for role models, inspiration and redemption,” he says.

Jivani is optimistic that there’s an appetite for these conversations and points to interest in Jordan Peterson as an example. 

The controversial University of Toronto psychology professor has long criticized identity politics, transgender people, gender pronouns and what he sees as the victimization of men. In his recent book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos (Random House), Peterson lays out a dozen rules, starting with: stand up straight with your shoulders back. It’s a corrective to softness and spinelessness – the exact kind the narrator in Fight Club displays before his masculinity makeover. “Men have to toughen up,” Peterson writes. “Men demand it, and women want it.”

Peterson is in the midst of a three-continent world tour with two dates set for Toronto.

“He’s engaging a lot of young men and addressing personal behaviour and accountability,” Jivani explains. 

But what worries him is Peterson’s alignment with the alt-right and men’s rights activists/groups (MRAs). 

“We seem to have a hard time separating these conversations about masculinity from the radical conversations that are happening,” Jivani adds. “His work is associated with online trolls that say offensive things about women and minority groups.”

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Jake Stika (left), Jason Tan de Bibiana and Jermal Alleyne of Next Gen Men.

GENERATION NEXT

So what’s the solution? How do we engage men in discussion when the loudest voices are MRAs like former Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes’s Proud Boys or the more innocuously named Canadian Association for Equality? 

“The reason MRA groups are successful is they have some really valid points around parental rights and alimony,” says Jake Stika. “Broader societal systems have changed but the justice system hasn’t, so MRAs view it as a zero sum.

Based in Calgary, Stika is the co-founder and executive director of Next Gen Men, a non-profit aimed at developing better men through youth and peer engagement, education and empowerment. 

“For us, we acknowledge those are real and pressing issues, but we approach it from a ‘rising tides lift all boats’ point of view,” Stika continues. “We need more women in leadership and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math studies) just as much as we need more men in early childhood education and caregiving roles.”

Stika attended Brock University in St. Catharines, where he befriended Jermal Alleyne, NGM’s co-founder and program director. They launched the organization in 2015.

“At the time, as a 27-year-old male, I was suffering from social isolation,” Stika recalls. “I came out of a romantic relationship that I had isolated myself within, and I could see the roots of that life-long path of loneliness forming.”

Stika and Alleyne decided to create a space not typically found within the confines of masculinity: a place to develop social bonds based on empathy, caring and vulnerability. They called the program Wolf Pack, a monthly drop-in for all genders where topics like body image, mental health and relationships could be openly discussed. 

Over the course of a year, Wolf Pack saw on average 40 men between the ages of 25 and 55 attend sessions in Calgary and Toronto every month. The program is on hold due to limited resources, and NGM is focusing on youth programs, which Alleyne runs in the GTA. 

Presently, Alleyne manages a 10-week after-school program for boys in grades seven and eight in the York region.

“We tackle self-love, self-acceptance and being self-confident,” Alleyne explains, adding that emotional, mental and sexual health is also a big component. “We talk about diversity, inclusiveness and community and how to it relates to each young man, and encourage them to find masculinity for themselves.”

Most boys enter the program through the suggestion of teachers and social workers, and typically these kids have a history of bullying or being disruptive at school. “When we start, there’s often an inability to communicate feelings,” Alleyne says. But each week, the boys are encouraged to be vocal about their emotions.

“Before you get your snack, you have to pay someone in the group a compliment. At first, boys would say something like, ‘You have cool shoes,’” he explains. “But a few weeks in, those compliments start becoming, ‘Thanks for taking the time to ask me to play basketball. That made me feel grateful and like I had a friend.’ That’s a huge culture shift.”

Alleyne is also a counsellor who works with men who commit domestic violence. He says compared to boys, adult men are less aware of how power and privilege influence masculinity. They feel more pressure to conform to gender norms, even if they acknowledge that gender inequality exists, which is why NGM is determined to start these discussions with boys and young men.

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Samuel Engelking

Kyle (left) and Joel Curry were teased for being “pansy boys” when they were young. Now they’re reclaiming the term.

THE PANSY BOYS

Kyle and Joel Curry, who are 22, wish a program like NGM existed when they were growing up in conservative Stittsville, a suburban community west of Ottawa. As gay fraternal twins, they recall the teasing they endured in school for lacking tough-guy traits. Boys called them gay even before both of them came out, and they were taunted with the term “pansy boys” for being effeminate.

“That stuff stays with you,” Kyle says. “Eventually, we found musical theatre, which was a saving grace in some ways.”

Luckily, they felt free to be themselves at home, dressing up in their mom’s clothing and singing along to the RENT soundtrack. Their parents, a high school math teacher and telecommunications expert, didn’t encourage their sons’ behaviour but weren’t dismissive either.

“We had each other, which was lucky,” Joel recalls. “I can’t imagine being the one gay kid in your grade. With two, there was strength in numbers.”

After graduating from Concordia University with music degrees, they formed the musical duo the Pansy Boys. The name is their way of reclaiming that phrase and a nod to the lush, delicate feel of their music.

Their live performances also challenge gender roles, and on the cover of their 2017 EP, In Days Of Yore, they’re pictured wearing bright pink blush and eye shadow. Leaning into each other with their eyes closed, they evoke a tenderness and wistfulness not often portrayed by mainstream male musicians. They follow a legacy of artists like Boy George and Mykki Blanco and count Rufus Wainwright and Porches’ Aaron Maine – both queer and boundary-pushers – as inspirations, but the Pansy Boys are determined to carve out a space in masculinity for themselves. 

They refuse to conform to binary stereotypes of men within queer culture, and are hyper-aware of intersectionality, being upfront about their privilege as cis white men.

THE FUTURE IS PLURAL

The fact that there are two books on masculinity being published by local authors within a month apart tells us the conversation is growing. 

Rachel Giese, author of the forthcoming Boys: What It Means To Become A Man (HarperCollins, May 2018), began writing her book in 2014, in part because she wanted to do right by her teenage son. 

The editor-at-large at Chatelaine, Giese was concerned she and her wife weren’t equipped with a frame of reference on how to be a man. So she set out to explore myths of masculinity against a backdrop of school shootings, Gamergate and #MeToo.

Since #MeToo started last fall, more men have wondered whether they’ve acted wrongly. Others are in denial. Giese’s advice: “It starts with listening and acknowledging.

“I was interested in using the feminist model of challenging gender roles and stereotypes and applying it to masculinity,” she adds. “A lot of men are surprised by the day-to-day harassment women face. Men are grappling with what it means that they behave this way.”

Groups like White Ribbon and Next Gen Men and artists like the Pansy Boys prove there are men who want to change and engage in these uncomfortable conversations. 

Even Peterson’s popularity shows that masculinity, as we know it, is in crisis. There’s a need to unpack the status quo, although Peterson’s solution is to go backwards, while others want to leave behind the old ways that clearly have not worked. We can – and we must – create spaces for many versions of masculinity. We must start talking about masculinities in plural.

“It’s about giving men permission to be emotional and really have feelings, and being able to articulate those feelings to the people closest to them,” Alleyne says. “By breaking down gender roles and celebrating kindness, we’re reinforcing good things and learning how to just be good human beings.”

Read Neil Price’s essay on learning to be a Black man as a fatherless boy here.

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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