What's a man?

A conversation with Deepa Narayan about toxic masculinity, backlash, and the need to change men if anything is to change

When you hear the word “man,” what is the first word that comes to your mind?

I asked this question the other day online, and the answers weren’t pretty.

It is the question that anchors a new podcast, “What’s a Man,” that I want to tell you about today, narrated by Deepa Narayan, an eminent social scientist, former World Bank researcher, author of a small library of books, including “Voices of the Poor” — AND…my mother-in-law.

A few years ago, Deepa published an important book called “Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women.” She gave an accompanying TED talk, titled “7 beliefs that can silence women — and how to unlearn them.” She was focused on patriarchy in India, one of the most patriarchal places around, in the hope that if it can be shattered there, it could be shattered everywhere.

But then Deepa had an epiphany. Everyone was talking about how to empower women, how to change systems, how to vanquish sexism — but no one had a plan for the men. People’s assumption tended to be that the men had to be worked around. But that is like trying to fight a fire by working around the flames.

So Deepa began a new investigation — not of women but of men. It is an investigation into the inner life of patriarchy in India, which is to say, into how men see and justify themselves, how they become stuck in twisted and disfiguring notions of how to be, how so many are lost today, cut off from broken old models and yet to find new ones that hold them — a lostness that has catastrophic consequences for women and us all.

I was very honored to be interviewed by Deepa as one of the men in the project, so I’m sharing a text excerpt of her interview of me below. But you really want to check out the whole project, which will continue to drop episodes over the next several weeks.

On Apple. Google. And the “What’s a Man” show’s own website.

And a reminder that if you enjoy getting these bulletins in your inbox, consider subscribing to The Ink to keep it free and open for everyone.

What’s a man?

DEEPA: I am so pleased to be able to talk to you about masculinity. You have written about the two forms of masculinity played out on the world stage by Donald Trump versus Joe Biden. I want to talk to you today about masculinity as a universal theme. Is there one dominant form of strong masculinity that prevails today? 

Other words that people use are an alpha male or a patriarch or leadership, there is room for only one at the top. If you were to describe the characteristics of that profile of masculinity, what would it be? 

ANAND: A lust for status, for dominance, a kind of a hyper-competitive streak, an ability to tune out the needs of others and even the immediate context and focus ruthlessly on one's own needs and one's own goals. It’s a vision of masculinity that I think has clearly jumped beyond the training of boys and men. In many ways, it has become the way our economies are organized, the way our society is organized.

It's hard to understand climate change and the kind of economic incentives that lead to climate change without resort to that kind of very alpha male way of looking at the world, where blindness to context, tunnel vision on one's own goal, and ruthlessness to anything else in service of it is the definition of how to be good. 

DEEPA: I'd love for you to contrast this. There seems to be right now at least two competing visions of masculinity: one of the strong man or the alpha man, what used to be called the patriarch, and then there's something else that's emerging. 

ANAND: This very confining alpha male definition to which so many men were subjected and what's actually emerging are part of a multiplicity of ways of being a man, or just different ways of being a person.

The rise of the LGBTQ community is the most visible expression of a bunch of people saying, “Hey, this definition you’ve got over here does not apply to me. The story you are telling is not my story.” There's just been a tremendous service done in that expansion of the kind of terms, but it goes beyond that.

DEEPA: How is the total power and authority of a strong, tough man different from the new emerging forms of masculinity and power that you were talking about?

ANAND: The old model was based on a few things. There's an aspect of this desire to dominate and compete and win. That is a very narrow understanding, but there's a sense of the naturalness of this power distribution.

That God wanted it this way. That men were made this way for a reason. It's our job to lead or our job to be the providers. There's also this notion of stewardship that that is a false notion, but a powerful one. Which is that others don't need voice, and women don't need voice, because we are stewards of all. We're not just taking care of ourselves. There's this kind of false selflessness that you also see in philanthropy, where the power is upheld by this notion that the powerful are better caretakers of the powerless than the powerless would be for themselves.

DEEPA: One of the things you've written about recently is that to be a man is not to be a woman. Can you expand? 

ANAND: It's interesting how, when men steeped in this toxic model want to insult other men, some of the most common terms of abuse are simply to call other men a woman, or something feminine, or the body part of a woman.

As though it is something so awful to be anything belonging to the feminine side of the ledger of words. You had Robert O'Neill, a Navy SEAL who claims he's the guy who shot Osama bin Laden in May 2011. And on the dominant, alpha male model that prevails in American life, certainly among people like the Navy SEALS, you'd think that shooting bin Laden in the face would be satisfying to a man like that. But it turns out Robert O'Neill — like so many men steeped in this alpha tradition—is a gaping hole of perceived weakness and fear.

Robert O'Neill is so afraid of his own lack of vigor that he felt a need not only to get on a Delta flight a few months ago and refuse to wear a mask, but to take a selfie of himself not wearing a mask. In the selfie, there was another guy wearing a United States Marine Corps hat behind him, who was wearing a mask, an older man.

And O’Neill wrote, “I am not a pussy” in the tweet. It was just profoundly revealing. I almost felt for Robert O'Neill, for what a gaping hole he has in his body. Even after performing the ultimate alpha male act, in that somewhat cursed model of manhood that we've been talking about, nothing's ever enough, and you have to claim to the world that I am breaking a law. I'm breaking common sense. And I am not a woman. I am not a woman. I'm not a woman. You have to keep repeating that to yourself and to the world simply to feel whole. 

DEEPA: So it's hiding a lot of insecurity and fear under the persona of being strong in this narrow sense of being an alpha macho male.

ANAND: Having met a lot of men in my life, I would say that they broadly fall into those two categories. I know a lot of Robert O'Neill men who basically cannot survive if they're not reminding you that they're not a woman every five minutes and who are basically paralyzed by fear. And then there’s a lot of other men who are just out here living our lives. 

DEEPA: What you're describing is shared power, where they're not afraid to embrace a whole range of traits that are beyond what was allowed in an alpha male.

ANAND: The new model includes the old model as one of the possible ways of being. If you're a president of a country, it's totally fine to have a leadership drive. It’s totally fine to be a certain kind of alpha, but not the abusive kind of alpha, in certain contexts.

What's exciting about the new way is that it's open to all the different ways of being a man. What was limiting about the old way was that it was only accepting of one way of being a man in a way that actually didn't work for most men.

DEEPA: Right. Also, the definition that not being this kind alpha man is not being a man or being a weak man. 

ANAND: Exactly.

DEEPA: Do you think there's a crisis in masculinity? Not just in the U.S. but in many parts of the world?

ANAND: Yes, but I think the crisis is not a crisis of a lack of change. It's a crisis born out of change that is happening. It's really important because when we think we're in a crisis that grows out of things not changing enough, it's very depressing and discouraging.

What's actually happening is there is so much change in places like the United States and Europe, but there's also change in India. A lot of the pushback you see and the thirst for a strong kind of a dictator daddy — strongmen rulers — is people who essentially see that broader change coming and don't want to live in it. Backlash, you see, is just that — it's backlash. It's different from a failure to have progress. It is actually a measure of the fact that so much has changed. 

This is where there is a measure of failure for those of us who do want to live in the new world. I think we haven't shown enough of those men that they will be OK in the next world. We have not taught enough of them how to be their new selves.

One person I joke about this with is our mutual friend — my wife and your daughter, Priya — and this may not be true for all women, but I see it with her. I see it with her friends. I see it with me and my friends. Women often end up reading books about being women, and men almost never read books about being men.

DEEPA: Exactly right.

ANAND: That's partly what privilege is and what patriarchy is — that men don't need to read those books or feel they don't need to read those books. I went to many years of school, high school, college, some graduate school. I don't think I ever was assigned a book about different ways of being a man throughout history or across societies. I can't remember having an explicit conversation in all my years of education, not one.


Deepa Narayan is an author, researcher, and practitioner on poverty, gender, and development. She was a senior adviser at the World Bank. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Check out her podcast, “What’s a Man,” here.


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