Book Recommendations

Book Review: Jack Urwin, “Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity”

But in the postfeminist turmoil of relationship landscapes, men have been struggling to find a way to relate intelligently, parent sensitively, and manage their emotional needs with more consciousness and depth. It’s just that many men haven’t exactly figured out a way to do all these things and still really feel like a man, or at least feel like they are integrating these higher-level qualities in a way that suits men. … [In therapy, w]e ask them to recognize that something is wrong, admit that they need help, openly discuss and express emotions, get vulnerable, and depend on someone else to help them. Unfortunately these tasks don’t typically fit with the Guy Code.
Part of what makes it even more challenging to treat men is that male psychic pain is not always broadcast as articulately as is that of women. Author William Pollack describes men’s anger as their “way of weeping.” And men also weep by drinking, withdrawing, getting irritable, developing somatic complaints, acting competitive, and philandering. ~ David Wexler, Preface, “Men In Therapy”

David Wexler was my first introduction to the specific work of inviting men into the therapeutic process, with the language of how men divert a great deal of their emotional experiences into a tiny number of limited channels of expression. It wasn’t until a few years later, coinciding with my more recent exposure and involvement in whatever wave of feminism we’re currently swimming in, that I first hear and understood the phrase, “toxic masculinity”.

I’m currently embarking on a reading binge to open up more understanding and avenues of approach that will (hopefully) provide better ways of engaging with men in the counselling office. Wexler is a great place for therapists to start, and I will be coming back to his books in future reviews. But today I am deep into a surprisingly insightful book on toxic masculinity written by a young Brit (now residing in Toronto, apparently) who lost his father to an unexpected illness about which the family knew nothing. Exploring the underpinnings of “what happened” in an effort to understand his father’s inexplicable silence, Jack Urwin wrote an article in 2014 for VICE, entitled “A Stiff Upper Lip is Killing British Men”. Overwhelming response to that article eventually pushed the 24 year old writer to expand his research and his writing into his 2016 book, “Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity.”

There’s a level of self-awareness that is required for an author to recognize the patterns of a culture in which they are themselves immersed, and yet find ways of holding up a mirror that allows sufficient reflection to observe the impacts and implications of cultural patterns and values on its participants. In looking for ways to understand why his father never disclosed his health problems to his family before his unexpected death when the author was ten, Urwin takes a microscope to the aspects of masculine behaviour and the way in which expectations any society places on men will inevitably decree what is “right and wrong” for men’s behaviour.

He starts off with neatly skewering the tradition write-off for masculine behaviours on a biological basis, and jumps fairly early into looking at how shifting economic realities helped create a landscape that has sped up the need for men to find new definitions for themselves. Urwin is British; his focus is predominantly on masculine cultural development in England, but his views extrapolate out to most Western countries, and indeed he does often look at American, at least, cultural similarities and differences in gendered development. He looks at how militarism has impacted the perception of “what is masculine” around the globe, and the ways in which popular culture have reinforced the notions of what is masculine and what is not. He also spends a great deal of time bringing in additional resources to back up his own observations on how these factors, reinforcing the ideal of masculinity prevalent in Britain’s “lad culture” (and similar masculine ideals on this side of the pond), are increasingly contributing to patterns of toxicity that cripple men who try to step aside from those limited ideals and into something more like what Wexler describes trying to achieve with men in the therapy room. In short: men are often “more scared of being uncool than dying” (pg. 66):

Men fear emasculation ? perhaps more than anything else ? so they do anything they can to ensure that the image they project to others is one of masculinity, and to reassure themselves of their own social standing as men. If someone comes along and proves me wrong, and can conclusively demonstrate that violence and aggression and risk and dangerous behaviour in men is all down to testosterone, then so be it. For now, I’ll bet you every last penny in my bank account that if all men were taught emasculation wasn’t something to fear, we’d have a much better world for everyone. ~pg. 77

One of the things that makes this book more engaging for the layperson than, say, Wexler’s textbook for therapists, is Urwin’s genuine willingness to look at his own experiences. He is aware of his own bias and narrative perspectives, and he approaches them with a blend of grace and humour that allows the reader to see the experiences he describes through his eyes. His writing style is also very crisp with some hefty doses of British humour thrown in to help temper the desperateness of the situations and statistics he’s backing up with both anecdotes and research. He admits out of the starting gate that his way of dealing with his father’s untimely death was to develop what Virginia Satir would call the “irreverent” stance; Urwin became the class clown, diverting intense sadness and grief off the boards with humour. Fourteen years later as an author, he has found his way back to an authentic vulnerability he balances against those moments of witty distraction, and the result is an engaging tone that delivers horrifying statistics in a very matter-of-fact tone, while also recognizing that humour allows his readers a safe place to decompress and process the tension of these insights before moving on to the next thing.

The biggest challenge with acknowledging and deconstructing toxic masculinity is its commonality in human culture. (There’s a whole sidebar conversation we’re only starting to have on the corresponding rise of toxic femininity, but that’s for another day.) Being able to allow men a safe place to explore having emotions beyond the limited scope allowed by “lad culture” while also educating them on the impact of their behaviour on others, is a hugely challenging task. It’s especially challenging for women, therapists or partners, because to some extent we have to recognize and step outside the recognition of our own perceptions of experiences in being on the receiving end of some of those more toxic behavioural aspects. Being able to start a conversation around what Wexler refers to as Masculine Gender Role Stress (MGRS) requires first finding out if the men in question are even aware of a performative aspect to their masculine self-identity. This is one place where a therapist can help start the conversations, at least. Furthermore, in this day and age there is still a strongly-gendered belief that men are defining themselves by their ability to earn a good living and be good providers for themselves and their families, and increasingly precarious employment situations are part of a contextual shift happening across our culture in the 21st century; those impacts on gendered definitions and coping mechanisms must also be considered.

Jack Urwin’s book provides a hugely-valuable window of insight into the costs being borne by men in the late 20th and 21st centuries as the world shifts faster than their security in their self-definitions does. Traditional supports for those definitions are eroding, and clinging harder to “traditional masculinity” (as witnessed by the rise of Men’s Rights Activists [MRAs]) is producing only bigger, hotter fights than ever. It also provides some new language for women struggling to understand the behaviours of the men in their lives, some perspective that helps explain why men keep entering into intimate relationships yet not participating on the emotional levels their partners ask of them. If you don’t mind the occasional spicy language (Urwin is free with his swearing, on occasion), then “Man Up” is going to be a handy reference guide and road map for anyone beginning to look at both the history and current scope of the issues men face, and the challenges of interacting with them in the place of greatest difficulty: their own emotional development.

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