In “The Man They Wanted Me To Be,” Jared Yates Sexton explores the culture of toxic masculinity in America.
To this day, toxic masculinity permeates offices, factories, highways, bars, locker rooms and pretty much anywhere else American men have taken it upon themselves to be strong, silent and seemingly impervious to the day-to-day brutalities they have invented and inured themselves to.
This myth of the seemingly inalienable right to dominance and control perpetrated by men, especially by white males, has myriad catastrophic downsides.
White American males — mostly middle-age — accounted for 70% of suicides in 2017.
And Sexton finds its roots in our fathers. “Of course, father issues are nothing new,” he writes, noting that many difficulties “mostly center on what is expected out of a man.”
My own father would boast about working all night at the office, taking the bus back to the house at dawn. He’d shower, shave, put on a new starched shirt and head right back to the office. He thought protein was a useful sleep substitute. By age 13, I was, and still am, a workaholic. From then to now, it’s not about the money and it’s beyond self sufficiency. It’s what I think a “real man” must do. I am unable to shake myself of this, but at least I know where I got it from.
These standards — and postures many American males contort themselves to — are not without consequence. Beyond misplaced anger, feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness, the men who hold their emotions in check — like a stress position used to induce confession — sometimes break. White American males — mostly middle-age — accounted for 70% of suicides in 2017.
American masculinity, or rather the lie of American masculinity, became another product in the same vein as ... the new Chevy glimmering in the driveway.
The origins of toxic masculinity go back even further, according to Sexton. It started almost immediately upon European men setting foot on the North American continent:
“In fact, White American men have enjoyed privileges since before there was an America,” Sexton writes, “and those privileges resulted in the overthrow of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, mistreatment of minorities, the controlled subservience of women, and an order of hegemonic power that has existed well into the twenty-first century. It has defined the struggle of America since its inception.”
Later, through mass media and the “anxiety fostered by advertising,” Sexton writes “[men’s] insecurities and fear of failure were multiplied ... American masculinity, or rather the lie of American masculinity, became another product in the same vein as ... the new Chevy glimmering in the driveway of the suburban home.”
Understanding the Lie
Sexton is not a sociologist; not formally, anyway. He is an author and an associate professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University, and he traveled the country as reporter on the 2016 campaign trail. He is also a survivor of toxic masculinity.
But he almost didn’t make it.
After almost committing suicide, Sexton made a choice. “After that close call,” he writes, “I decided to try, as imperfect as I am, to understand the lie and the people it hurt in an effort to find another way to live.”
Sexton learned, as a sensitive boy, raised by a volatile father and abused mother, that it was a man’s America and it was best for him to cover up and role play in order to survive. The father, a victim and carrier of toxic masculinity, perhaps doomed himself to a life of denial when he dropped out of high school to join the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, not only to fulfill his veteran father’s expectations, but to become the man he thought he had to be. He got as far as basic training and a uniform that would ultimately become a costume when he instructed his wife-to-be to lobby for him to get a hardship discharge. She did, and it worked. Sexton’s father never went to Vietnam, and for the rest of his life, he felt like a coward. He took it out on his family.
It’s a story that is all too familiar to me.
I was born in 1961. Interactions with my father were mostly weekend visits to his home through the late 1970s. During these often uneasy stretches of tense hours that felt like days, I would recite the Pledge of Allegiance, learn to fight, and be lectured on the dangers to America that nonwhites, homosexuals, hippies, communists and Vietnam War protesters posed. Many of the things my own father told me, I have never repeated out loud and am sure I never will.
Sexton was born in 1981, and the America he grew up in gave males two choices. You could be a “man,” which required a perpetual state of aggression and a willingness to fight at any time, seeing women as objects — who existed exclusively to submissively comply to the wishes of their “stronger” providers — an ability to endure the pain and misery of a real man’s workload, but most important, to give way to little or no emotion other than anger. Yet there was the other option: You could be sensitive and have an emotional register — but this risked injury and exclusion from other males who called you a “faggot” or, even worse, a “girl.”
As I remember, the angriest my father ever got at me was a time I cried in front of him. Never once did I challenge him. Instead, I turned 18 and went into the full-time minimum-wage working world.
I decided to try, as imperfect as I am, to understand the lie and the people it hurt in an effort to find another way to live.
In heartbreaking detail, Sexton describes how he acted out for years, and by doing so, bought in to the lie. He drank, he fought and followed in the footsteps of millions of white American men before him. There was an experience he had, while as a college student in Illinois, that proved somewhat instructive. Sexton was pulled over for driving drunk. Instead of making Sexton take a sobriety test, the officer sat him down in the passenger seat of the squad car and asked him what he was doing with his life. After a brief conversation, the officer asked Sexton if he thought he was sober enough to drive home. Sexton affirmed and was allowed to go on his way.
“I’ve come to understand how fortunate I was that night,” Sexton writes. “The officer who pulled me over had taken pity on me and granted me a chance that was predicated on mercy and unbelievable privilege, a privilege that has long been a courtesy between law enforcement and white men.”
Sexton repeatedly reminds the reader that he is not cured, that there is no cure for toxic masculinity, and that he is in a perpetual state of awareness and vigilance against its ravaging, lifelong effects.
“Like an addict who gets their addiction under control,” Sexton writes, “I learned to view masculinity as a chronic problem I could never be totally cured of. Every day was a new struggle, as there was no such thing as conquering it. I knew, from previous experience, the easiest thing in the world would be to sink back into those destructive and dangerous behaviors.”
A mirror of ourselves
Sexton is not the first person to point out the fact and effect of toxic masculinity. The book is extensively footnoted but it is ultimately his confrontation of the forces that raised him — and the traps he willingly entered into — which give his reporting a narrative pulse and humanity that the field data only hint at.
By carefully and soberly examining his own story, Sexton deconstructs American life and gives many examples of how pervasive toxic masculinity is in our culture, like an aerosol spray so micro-particulate, it escapes detection and the mention of it is easily argued away as “political correctness” or being “soft.”
In what is perhaps the most poignant and teachable part of the book, Sexton, after years of a turbulent relationship with his father, finally bonds with him. Near the end of his life, Sexton’s father seemed to have parted ways with many of his prejudices in an almost total reversal, even going as far as to tell his son that he loved him. Of spending time with his father as his life slipped away in a hospital bed, Sexton describes the nurses: “Everywhere I looked were women doing the heavy work for men who needed them desperately and without fail.”
My life played out differently. When I hear men speak about their closeness to their fathers, like Sexton, on the one hand, I have no idea what they mean, but on the other, I see that my father revealed everything of himself to me. My father wanted me to be like him. He could not see any other way. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of dealing with my father, beyond the fear of inspiring his anger, was knowing that much of what he told me was simply wrong. Being so young and having to endure a relentless barrage of truly toxic sentiment on a regular basis was numbing and defeating; it was a place where nothing grew, not even resentment.
Like an aerosol spray so micro-particulate, [toxic masculinity] escapes detection and the mention of it is easily argued away as ‘political correctness’ ...
It would have been all too easy to retreat into a life of bigotry and cowardice under his influence. We would have bonded then. I understand the appeal, but I fight it constantly. What my father thinks of me, or if he is still alive, I have no idea.
We currently find ourselves in a rapidly and irreversibly changing environment. The fury of white men — in full realization that what has been theirs by gender birthright is seemingly being taken away — can be seen in everything from the president’s narrow range of popularity to the ultra-restrictive laws on women’s reproductive health rights being passed in many states to the obstacles impeding further acceptance and embrace of the LGBTQ community.
Speaking from his own life experience, Sexton investigates toxic masculinity, almost exclusively, the white male variant. “The Man They Wanted Me To Be” is both story and assessment. It is not a text book and should not be critiqued for what it lacks, but lauded for the awareness and empathy it can inspire.
In the pages of “The Man They Wanted Me To Be,” some readers might not only be acutely reminded of their fathers, uncles and countless others, but more important, of themselves.
Jared Yates Sexton
Counterpoint Press; 288 pp., $26