Q&A: Escaping the "Man Box"

I interview author and speaker Mark Greene about a better model of masculinity

The Mandate Letter, by Jason Rogers, focuses on the evolving state of masculinity. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:

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One of the things I love about writing this humble newsletter is that I get to have conversations with supremely interesting people and learn aloud. This interview with Mark Greene is no exception.

Although it may seem like an academic and hypothetical conversation about masculinity, each subject has a direct impact on our lives. Understanding how cultural conditioning affects the way we think and act in the world is a critical part of learning how to be a better man.

We talk in-depth about how the “man box” fuels disconnection, loneliness, and violence in our society, and what we can do about it as men, partners, parents, and friends.

About Mark Greene:

As a co-founder of ThinkPlay Partners and as a Senior Editor for the Good Men Project, Mark has spent over a decade as a writer and speaker, deconstructing our binary-riddled dialogues around manhood and masculinity. He writes, speaks, coaches, and consults on the challenges we face as men raised in man box culture. Greene is also the author of the book the Little #MeToo Book for Men, which exposes the price man box culture extracts from men and women worldwide.

Before you spent ten years as a senior editor for The Good Men Project, how did you originally become interested in men's work?

About 15 years ago, I began writing a stay-at-home dad blog inspired by my experience looking after my son. Much of that early writing explored what happens when a man becomes a primary caregiver versus a provider, and it often looked at the micro-interactions that took place during my everyday life. For example, when I would be at the park at noon on a weekday with my son, and I was the only man. It was clear that many were wondering, are you unemployed? Babysitting? What's your deal? 

At that time, the public discourse around parenting made men appear hopelessly inept at caregiving. There were, literally, TV commercials in which dads were dropping their kids upside down in the trash can. So, the stay-at-home dad movement became politicized, and I began my career writing for the Good Men Project from that space. However, it didn't take long for me to notice the larger cultural questions around masculinity. And as I began to ask myself, how are these questions going to impact my son? So, I switched to writing more generally about masculinity. 

Over time, I learned about the work of Niobe Way and Judy Chu, which led me to this idea that boys and men are trained out of authentic emotional connection. Once you break their ability to connect authentically (which Way suggests is completed by late adolescence), you offer them only one form of masculine validation: the ability to operate in the hierarchical domination-based culture of masculinity. 

There, they get slotted into that hierarchy based on their physicality, race, finances, class, etc. And they're basically told they must accept domination from whoever's above them. The implicit message is that they better learn to dish it out to those below them, or they will lose status, thereby increasing the number of men who can then dish it out to them. The end result of this hierarchy is that disconnected boys and men validate their masculinity by dominating those around them, resulting in epidemic levels of loneliness and violence for men and those whose lives we impact. 

This is deeply interlinked with the “Man Box,” which I’ve referenced in past Mandate Letters. Can you talk about that concept in your own words?

Man box” culture originates with author and activist Paul Kivel. In the 1980s, he went around asking boys in high schools, what are the rules for being a man? They told him that the rules include things like: Don't show your emotions. Always be tough. Always be a leader. Be heterosexual, not homosexual. Have control over women and girls. 

Boys and men are taught they shouldn’t have conversations with other men, and about anything heavy. Instead, they should focus on sports, money, women, drinking, etc. So Kivel conceptualized these rules as a box that boys and men are policed into by the men and women around them. Whenever they fail to live up to those expectations, they are punished or shamed. 

For example, if a young boy scrapes his knee at the park and cries, he can quickly be told by the men around him to man up, brush it off, and act like he’s okay. If he cries a little longer, the next question becomes: what are you, a girl? That moment is a pivotal part of how boys and men are policed back into the man box, beginning very early on. That is, via the denigration of the feminine. 

We take this whole range of human capacities—empathy, emotional expression, and connection—and we falsely gender them as “feminine” on the gender binary. Then, we shame them out of boys and men as they grow up. Then we take a number of other human capacities—leadership, toughness, and persistence—and falsely gender them as “masculine” and shame them out of girls. 

When we strip half of what it means to be human from our sons and daughters, a huge amount of dysfunction results. This also suppresses vast resources for innovation and leadership in those populations that are deemed less by men in the man box. Research by Deloitte and other organizations tells us of the vast increases in innovation that occur when we create diverse and inclusive organizations and communities. Man box culture suppresses all that.

Tell me more about how your book—The Little #MeToo Book for Menfits into all of this?

That book was born out of ten years of writing and speaking about masculinity, along with the double whammy of the #Metoo explosion and the Kavanaugh hearings, which was arguably the most aggressive assault on a woman's #MeToo story we’ve seen to date. Watching that many powerful white men aggressively and abusively dismissing the claim that Kavanaugh had committed sexual assault crystallized my understanding of how dominance-based masculinity operates (as well as its place with our overall dominance-based culture). 

The #MeToo book is designed to serve a single purpose. In just seventy-five pages, it's designed to help us men make the crucial distinction between our individual identities and the larger culture of masculinity that taught us what we believe. It shows step by step how man box culture enforces conformity to its bullying hierarchy over the course of our personal and professional lives. 

For most of us, our culture of masculinity is so ubiquitous that it's as invisible as the air we breathe. It’s what we’re taught from infancy—first by our parents, then our brothers and sisters, the kids in the neighborhood, then our teachers, coaches, ministers, and priests, not to mention television and movies. It's so ubiquitous that most of us aren't even conscious of it. For millions of men, our culture of masculinity is simply “my identity.”

But if we can get men to step back and see our man box culture of masculinity, we can begin asking questions about why we believe what we believe about women. Or why we believe what we believe about being a man. What we demand of ourselves. What we never allow ourselves.

It's up to each of us to determine whether we feel like that's a good thing for us or not. My work is to make the nuts and bolts of man box culture visible, to make it part of our larger public discourses about gender and race.

I think that’s a commendable mission, and it’s one that I think we share. However, what’s interesting is that, while some men are beginning to see the harms of this dominance-based masculinity model and doing the resulting self-inquiry work, others are using it as an excuse to go deeper into more extreme expressions of masculinity. For example, the men’s rights activists (MRAs) or the pick-up artist community (which I wrote about last week)...

When you talk about the rules of man box culture as defined by Paul Kivel, every single thing on that list is about doing, not being. That is, men must take up the action of proving over and over that they can succeed at living up to those rules. This means we never finish proving that we can hide our emotions or that we can make money or get the girl. And it doesn’t matter if we did it yesterday, we have to do it again today. That treadmill of constantly proving oneself is exhausting. Not to mention when we eventually falter—for example, losing our job. We may go home and take that out as violence against our wife because, in man box culture, doubling down on dominance is our go-to default for validating masculinity. Lose status by losing your job? Gain that status back by dominating someone. 

This doubling down on domination is central to masculinity extremism. As men stripped of the relational capacities we need to create relationships, we seek to rely instead on the application of coercion, bullying, and force to get what we feel we are owed by women. The pick-up artist community sees human relationships as transactional (again, that doing mindset). I do this, and you give me sex in return. This is the dominance model because it’s predicated on controlling the sexual transaction. But human intimacy and connection aren’t transactional; they never have been. Ask any therapist who works with couples. Reducing relationships to a transaction is guaranteed to fail. 

The same dysfunctional transaction mindset also shows up in the “incel” community. Incel stands for “involuntary celibate,” a relatively recent subculture of masculinity extremism. After decades of being bullied and policed in man box culture, incels suffer deep disconnection and low self-esteem. For them, it is failing in that supposed transaction for sex that fuels their victimhood mindset. They are recruited based on their sense of victimhood, taught to weaponize the idea that the transaction is unfair, thus justifying terrorist violence against women. At the root of all of this is disconnection, the process by which man box culture breaks relational capacities in boys reducing all relationships to cold and calculated transactions. 

One problem we face is that many loud voices contribute to this broader confusion around what masculinity is. For example, the MRAs talk about “real” masculinity. The pick-artists perpetuate the “alpha, beta” concept. What's the antidote to all of this confusing shit that's out there?

What’s crucial to an MRA or pick-up artist is to frame masculinity as monolithic and singular. In response, we can assert what is already obvious. Masculinity is a vast plurality. We have as many masculinities as we have men to perform them. When we offer a vast spectrum for how to be a man, masculinity extremists lose their baseline argument that gender is a binary with traditional roles assigned to men and women. In a vast spectrum of masculinities, the arguments for male supremacy collapse. Which version of masculinity is supreme? There are millions. In our plurality, we each have the opportunity to make our own distinctive version of manhood. To become whole, complete, and healthy.

For the record, I don’t condemn traditional masculinity any more than I would condemn any other wholly different performance of masculinity. As long as it’s not abusive. You cannot encourage a wide spectrum of masculinities, and then identify one section of that spectrum and say I don’t like that one. It defeats the entire argument.

There are certain aspects of the man box culture that are just wrong. For example, the rules that say: Don’t be homosexual. Control women. Those ideas are acts of violence. But being a breadwinner? For some men and their partners, that’s a good fit. The toxicity of man box culture is that it trains men to bully and police each other to enforce a narrow homophobic and sexist version of masculinity as the only acceptable way to be a man. This is bullshit.

Men’s reactivity to the conversation about masculinity represents a major blind spot. When a woman says, “Hey, this thing you’re doing around women, that’s not cool,” too many men immediately become highly reactive.  “Stop telling me how to be a man. I'm sick and tired of it.” But the part we aren’t able to fully grasp is the reason that our capacity to self-reflect on this issue is already used up. It’s because we’ve been policed and bullied about masculinity all our lives... by other men. 

We are policed and bullied into the man box, not daily or monthly, but hourly starting at a very young age. Be we cannot and will not admit that we've been brutalized by the very men around us because to do so breaks the first rule of the man box: Never admit weakness, pain, or distress. Sadly, this creates a closed reactive loop against women.

Could you say a little more about the style in which that policing occurs?

It all comes down to the denigration of the feminine. Just think about the language boys and men use. What are you, a sissy? What are you, a girl? Or worse, the C-word, the B-word. The men who say that he made another man “his bitch.” Boys and men bully each other back into the man box by denigrating the feminine hourly. Men could come out of a lifetime of that process conditioned into thinking women are less. 

As a result, boys come to believe their value lies in the fact that they are not female. When you raise boys to believe they are better than girls instead of teaching them, “don’t make yourself feel better by putting others down,” you open the door to all other forms of bigotry. Once you teach a man he’s better than a woman, it doesn’t take much to convince him he’s better than BIPOC, LGBTQI+ people, immigrants, and so on. There is a direct overlap between white supremacists and male supremacists populations. The Southern Poverty Law Center has confirmed male and white supremacists are actively recruiting from each other's populations. 

It's important to note that many boys and men also learn man box culture from women. Mothers teach it to their sons, having internalized man box culture in their own families of origin. But many times, we teach our sons how the man box works—knowing it is harmful—because we don’t want them to go out without some armor. We don’t want our little boys to be the ones victimized on the playground. We all know what’s waiting for them out there.

So many parents are caught on this the horns of this dilemma—they feel that they must teach their sons to model aspects of the man box enough to avoid becoming a target for assault. But they must also make them human enough such that emotional connection is something that they must value and understand how to do. 

I love this quote from the book: "We’re wasting our lives chasing a fake rabbit around a track, all the while convinced there’s meat to be had. There is no meat. We are the meat."Can you expand on what this means to you?

The hierarchical domination-based culture of masculinity is designed to do a single thing: move power and wealth up. It’s designed to make us compete for status, and teaches us that if we are more successful at dominating the men around us, the more meat we’ll get—success, money, power, respect, etc. But for every person that makes it to the top of the man box hierarchy, millions do not. So all of us are chasing this rabbit around the track. A few thousand of us get to sit at the top of the pyramid. The rest of us are just cannon fodder, i.e., meat. 

And it utterly breaks our relationships in the world. You cannot have an authentic, healthy relationship with someone who's dominating you. Nor can you have one with someone that you are dominating. So, even as we chase that rabbit around the track, as we keep trying to control and dominate all the circumstances in our work and our personal lives, we may move up in terms of status—we may become the President of the United States someday—but we will never have the kinds of relationships we need to live fully realized meaningful lives. And for the vast majority of us, the millions who never get to the top of the heap, the deep disconnection man box culture enforces results in anxiety, extremism, addiction, violence, and early mortality.

How does that impact men in the long term?

Because men are trained to dominate each other, even from within our so-called friendships, we often don't trust other men; they are our competitors. As a result, we never form a network of meaningful male relationships we can rely on when a crisis hits. And if you're playing the domination-based masculinity game, you're living with massive amounts of anxiety and stress because you're constantly looking over your shoulder to see if anybody is going to call you out. You ask constantly, am I doing it right? Am I making enough money? Am I getting enough sex? Am I drinking the other guys under the table? 

The deep social isolation that results has a dramatic health impact. Cigna did a study in 2018 that found that one out of every two people feel “sometimes alone” or “always alone.” The American Association of Retired Persons did a study in 2010 that reported one out of three people that are 45 and older are chronically lonely. The health impact is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It increases your likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative illnesses, cancer (cancer metastasizes faster in lonely people.)

So, we’ve got all these men fighting their way up and down this pecking order, and they're facing epidemic levels of anxiety. And, by the way, man box culture invites and encourages men to vent their anxiety by taking it out on someone else—to dominate those below them on the ladder, which are men of lesser status, women, people in the LGBTQIA community, people of color, immigrants, etc. In man box culture, attacking others validates our masculinity and confirms our position. It is this anxiety-driven expression of dominance against those who are “othered” that fuels the murderous violence of white and male supremacy. 

You've touched on this already, but I want to address it again because I think it’s a key point. You said that man box culture teaches boys/men to treat women as less than men. That is, it elevates the masculine over the feminine. Anything else you want to add to that point?

Yes, I want to highlight how we wrongly gender boys’ natural human relational capacities (e.g., the ability to express authentically and be joyful in intimate friendships with other boys) as feminine and use the denigration of the feminine to police it out of them. In that moment, we teach boys that women are less. The mission of domination-based man box culture is to police and shame the capacity for human connection out of boys so they can be slotted into domination-based political, educational, business, and nationalist systems. Because we use the denigration of the feminine as the tool for creating that closed loop of disconnection and dominance in boys, girls and women face a catastrophic price in terms of economic and sexual violence.

I now recognize that man box culture has alienated me from darker emotions, especially sadness. I've spent a long time trying to recultivate the ability to sit with those feelings because, even today, I find it really tough. We both share the experience of having done work with The ManKind Project (I’ve previously written about attending an MKP men’s group), and I'm wondering if you talk your own journey back into connection?

Yes, part of a journey back into connection included time spent with the ManKind Project. And when I attended the weekend workshop, the core belief system that I had to work through was: I don't like men. I don't trust men. I hate men. And I'm sick to death of being alone. I truly believe that one of the keys for men rediscovering connection in their lives is through healthy, authentic friendships with other men. Yes, if we happen to be heterosexual, we benefit from having intimate relationships with our female partners, and we can be in connection with our children. But until we find the path back into loving and sharing and feeling supported by a community of men, we're not going to fully undo the harm that was done to us by dominance-based masculinity. Man box culture cheated us out of our friends, our band of brothers. We have to rediscover and rekindle that level of connection in our lives.

Those who do this kind of work with men often say that it's hard to get men in the room, into men’s work. But once you get them in the room, they're pretty quick to share because they've never been in a space where they're allowed to do that. A simple, genuine question like “Hey man, how's it going for you?” can be a powerful way of giving man the opportunity for men. We let down our guard and say, “Well, I had a lot of joy this week, but I'm also carrying a lot of sadness.” 

I host a podcast with Charles Matheus called “Remaking Manhood: The Healthy Masculinity Podcast,” which is designed to model that kind of men's work during our interviews. If we men want to grow connection in our lives, we must do it in these kinds of authentic, meaningful conversations with other men. Our friendships create healthier lives for us when they include the ability to be vulnerable—to share what we're dealing with and what we're challenged by—and to accept help from others to work through it.

Men are ready to tell their stories to each other; they just need to know they're not going to be laughed at or bullied for supposedly failing. All we need to do is take the hierarchical model of dominance-based masculinity and exchange it for a masculinity of connection. All that's required is to just lean into the connection we all actually want.

One of the paradigms I use to think about this is software. Many men are running outdated software, and this idea of “leaning into connection” is the equivalent of a software upgrade. And if I have a son, his own software won’t be perfect, but he probably will be a lot more in touch with his emotions and able to connect with others. Does that resonate with you?

Yes. Software is culture. And I would also suggest that, generationally, we’re evolving quickly. I spent 50 years completely unaware of the term “gender fluid” or “gender-expansive.” For half a century of my life, there was no language to describe these questions. My father fought in the Second World War. My experience of masculine culture spans vast generational differences in terms of how gender is performed. Now how I describe myself as gender-expansive. My public performance of masculinity is different from the way I perform it privately. That said, the degree to which I can liberate myself feels finite to me. I’m simply too deeply conditioned to protect myself from violence by other men.

I also carry the burden of having had no awareness for half a century, no language, no inkling of the possibility for a wider-ranging, more diverse masculinity. And because of my age, there’s only so far I can get before I will have run my course. But if I were 20 years old right now, I would not become the same man I am today. I would be moving more aggressively into these spaces because each generation harnesses more courage to explore the boundaries of things like masculinity and gender fluidity. 

How does this relate to parenting?

We encourage healthy masculinity when we model for our sons and daughters how to center and care for relationships. Healthy masculinity is connection. It all comes down to whether or not we model for our kids how to center relationships— showing how in the back and forth of relating, we can come to realize something deeply meaningful about what it means to be human: that as I'm shaping you and you're shaping me. 

When we model centering relationships, we empower our sons and daughters equally. We grow our sense of connection and wonderment in the world, in the moment of relating and connecting—the micro-moments of expression and utterances and gestures. Too many of us in my generation got cut off from that, believing that expressing authentically is antithetical to being a man. People in their 20s and 30s grew up with a different kind of parenting; for them, there were a lot more conversations, connections, validation happening. 

The types of conversations in which we stop teaching and, instead, ask our child a question that allows them to enter that relational space with their creative ideas. That's the place where we encourage them to learn to connect. There is beauty to the kinds of conversations in which we invite our children to tell us what they're thinking. And, in return, we can share our stories from when we were young. 

My partner Dr. Saliha Bava and I wrote The Relational Book for Parenting about how to invite our children to grow their relational capacities with us. If your readers would like a 90-page sample of our book, they can find it here. When we grow our children’s ability to center relationships, they reach a tipping point where the gender binary holds no appeal for them. They’ll think, seriously, why would I live by those rules? Why would I do that? The people who enforce the gender binary or who enforce the rules of the man box were likely cut off from learning to create and care for relationships long ago. It's not normative for human beings to disconnect, but our culture forces disconnection on far too many of us.

I really appreciated your thread about how you've messed up on Twitter. To quickly summarize, you said that, in the past, there have been occasions when you've tried to help amplify a woman's message and ended up overstepping or contributing to the problem she originally pointed out. I've thought a lot about that, especially when I wrote about what the romance genre can teach men about intimate relationships (i.e., I didn't want to be the guy that enters a traditionally female space and starts mansplaining). How can I/we act be supportive to important underrepresented voices without crowding out the original messenger?

Well, I have had my ass handed to me more times than I can count, and justifiably so (haha). It often occurs because I'm not considering the context of the conversation that I'm entering into. For example, there is a certain percentage of social media that could be characterized as people howling in pain. While they may be saying something, fundamentally, they’re expressing trauma and pain. Often, those people are not interested in having me explain my view of some subject to them. And I wouldn’t want that either because that’s not what those moments are about. As men, we can learn to read the room, to consider the context. This is where a lot of my learning has taken place.

Also, there are many different kinds of spaces—women's spaces, spaces for people of color, etc.—and there’s always this question, am I behaving like an interloper? I have discovered that if you want to be part of those conversations, you can start by liking and signal boosting for an extended period of time, then community members will see where you’re coming from and perhaps invite you in. Not always, but sometimes. These are traumatized communities. The abuse dished out to women on Twitter is catastrophic. So, if I come in and say, “oh yeah, I totally get what you're talking about, and here's my version of it,” they're like, “you just repeated what I said, do not see that?” Any time a woman writes a response to me on social media that says, “do you not see that?” I know I’ve messed up. When that happens, I immediately apologize publicly in that thread and state what I have learned. If I want to delete the tweet, I ask permission. If they say no, then I leave it up so that it can somehow be instructive. What I don’t do is further explain why what I said was okay. 

My point is that I would rather apologize too often than not enough. When I'm learning from a traumatized community, I defer to the possibility that it isn't always going to be easy, but it will be important. I really try to set aside my own defensiveness and, instead, try to acknowledge and understand that particular human moment—like, what is actually going on here? I often remind myself to make room for this person's reactivity because, if we're going to undo the damage that's been done by white males like me, listening and learning is the behavior we’re going to have to truly live into.

Anything else you want to add?

Yes, I want to be absolutely clear that I am not critical of masculinity itself because I have seen beautiful, elegant, joyful, and life-affirming expressions of masculinity over and over again in my life. What I want us to be critical of is our dominance-based culture of masculinity. As men, we must take full responsibility for shifting to a healthy masculinity of connection. If we fail to do that, then we have failed our children. We have failed our partners. We failed our communities. We have failed, full stop.

Connect with Mark Greene on Twitter or at Remaking Manhood.com

Department of Links — Newsletter Spotlight

I recently started reading Eli London’s The Breads. The author describes it as a “newsletter to make you more interesting.” I agree. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of fascinating (non-political) stuff from the internet. And each time I open it, I generally let out several guffaws and think to myself, thank god Eli read the whole internet, so I don’t have to. You should check it out.

Sub-Department of Links — More links!

  • Justin Baldoni’s book Man Enough on “undefining masculinity” came out yesterday. I’m 75 pages in but can already tell this a book we need in culture — Man Enough.

  • Have you ever heard the term “mixed vaxxed couple?” I hadn’t either. The NY Times takes a closer look at the men refusing to get a COVID vaccine — NY Times.

  • Last week, there was a brief moment when rumors circulated on Tik Tok about the impending arrival of “National Rape Day” (a holiday that would legalize rape for 24 hours). Snopes fact-checks this weird and terrifying internet hoax — Snopes

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