Booknotes: Mask Off

RECOMMENDED if you're a teenager with a weak grasp on the issues with contemporary masculinity

Booknotes: Mask Off

JJ Bola

Finished 29/12/22

This book is the start of a project for me, so I will thank it for that, if for little else. Sometime last year I saw someone asking a question, something along the lines of how can you nurture your gender? It was specifically a trans person asking cis people to think about it, and I thought it was interesting as it honestly wasn’t something I’d really thought about before. I hadn't thought much about my relationship to my gender at all, to be honest, so that provocation shook something loose. I started having a think about what the deal was there, and also what I want it to be? though I didn't really look into it much at the time.

Just before Christmas it was CM’s birthday, and one of the things we did was going to Waterstones, picking out a book each and reading it in the cafe. As is pretty common for me when I have this kind of task, I was struggling to choose. Then I remembered that thought that had been tickling at the back of my head so I went to the Gender section. It was a slim-ish floor-to-ceiling bookcase:

this is a dramatic reconstruction (I came back to take the picture a few weeks after)

So, I was looking for something about masculinity. To be clear, I would expect most of the stuff to be about women/feminism/trans issues/'gender' in a more general sense etc, but I would expect at least something about masculinity. Specifically, some kind of positive vision of masculinity—not necessarily ‘saying it’s good’ but something which, if we are to accept that the current state of masculinity has issues, has some kind of idea as to how that could be developed and improved. Once you've found yourself some solid ground, how and what do you build?

I was disappointed to discover there were very slim pickings here. There was Iron John—which, from listening to a whole episode dedicated to it on the QAA ‘Manclan’ sub-series (which is good, and another nudge for me thinking about this) I took not to be the kind of thing I was looking for. There were several books which largely seemed to be about why men/masculinity are bad (you can see in the image above one that is literally called "BAD MEN")—but that’s a subject with which I’m pretty well acquainted, and still not waht I'm looking for. There were a few other books about masculinity-specific issues which seemed worthwhile in their own ways—e.g. one about helping male survivors of traumatic events—but not what I was after. Then there was MASK OFF, the subtitle of which promises that it’s Masculinity Redefined. That's more like it, I thought.

It’s a pretty slim volume, easy to get through, engaging enough to read, but given the expectations set up by the subtitle and the blurbs on the back—Benjamin Zepheniah saying "we need to find a new way forward, this book is good for all of us"—I felt like it never really got out of first gear. Maybe 10 of the 120 or so pages—the conclusion—make much effort in the 'redefinition' game. The rest is a completely fine but also insanely basic intro to various standard concepts like feminism, intersectionality etc: literally, sections headings like "what is feminism?". (There's one point where it says "patriarchy is not a term or system that many people are familiar with outside of academia, classrooms or textbooks" and... I just don't think that's true? Maybe it's just the company I keep.)

There keep being glimpses of something more interesting: there's a bit in the introduction, for instance, where he talks about how in the Congolese community in London which he grew up in (and in other cultures too), holding hands isn't necessarily seen as a romantic thing and men holding hands is very normal. This happens a few times, and every time I thought: at last, we're getting somewhere. Could we do something with this? Shift the culture in this direction somehow? Then it goes "...and that's how that aspect of contemporary masculinity limits and harms men—and can cause them to harm women too. Sucks, doesn't it? Anyway, moving on to the next point, social media: it's bad, for men, and the way they treat women." The author's personal stories really hit, but they don't really join up to any larger program beyond "stop doing the bad thing" When we do eventually get to the redefinition—and for a book whose subtitle is Masculinity Redefined, we sure are doing a lot of throat-clearing before we get to that—it amounts to a list of 10 suggestions, one of which is literally “keep a diary”. I payed £10 for this!

To be scrupulously fair, keeping a diary is a good suggestion if you don't do it already, but men have, famously, kept diaries forever, and it doesn't seem to have done much for inhibiting culture-wide toxic masculinity. Some of the other suggestions seem solid—male support groups, for instance, an idea I seem to remember being mentioned in Designing Your Life (not part of this series, but notes coming soon) and something I think worth exploring, but then there's also "say 'masculinities' instead of 'masculinity', to remember there are multiple ways to be a guy" and, idk, I've given out about that kind of language-first stuff before but I really do feel like This Ain't It Chief.

What I want is to understand how we can try and for want of a better phrase, redefine masculinity a bit. Find a way to nurture our genders without falling into some of the normal traps; find a better way to be. I feel like this book is not meritless, but it's not really describing a redefinition of masculinity, but rather rehashing criticisms with which all will be well familiar. (If you're not, sure, many you should read up on feminism a little, and this book would be a decent starting point, but I'm not sure how many of those people are reading stuff Pluto Press is putting out).

Maybe I need to pull back a little and have a bit more of a think about what this whole 'masculinity' thing is anyway.
NEXT TIME: Adam goes to the library.

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