Photo credit: Eleanor Kaufman Photography
man of the month series
In our "Man of the Month" series, we feature people who inspire us and are creating positive change in the men's self-care space. This month, we are excited to feature Andrew Reiner, a pioneer in the field of research on healthy masculinity and emotional honesty.
Andrew Reiner a writer and full-time lecturer at Towson University where he teaches writing, men’s studies and cultural studies. He created two popular courses: The Changing Face of Masculinity and Leading Lives That Matter. Reiner’s work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, among other publications, and he has an upcoming book, Better Boys, Better Men that will launch December 1, 2020.
Let’s start at the very beginning: what inspired you to dedicate your work to researching healthy masculinity?
When I was around seven years old, I got into a brutal, long fistfight with a neighborhood kid. The other boy pummeled me even when I begged for him to stop and, when I tried to run away, he hunted me down and kept punching me. When my oldest brother heard about it, I thought he was going to try to comfort me or stand up for me. Instead, he ranted to my parents about what a “disgrace” and “blacksheep” I was to our family. For the rest of my childhood and adolescence, he never let me forget that this was my identity. I got into a lot of fights after that, trying to beat back my shame. I stopped fighting when I was in the sixth grade, and when that void was left open, I started realizing how horribly many boys treated each other—all in the name of competition and dominance.
During my late 20s, I was reading a novel on a flight home from a vacation with my then-girlfriend. For a bunch of reasons, the ending of the book touched something deep in me, and, for the first time since I was 12 or 13 I cried—loud and hard. To my own surprise, I didn’t try to hold back. My girlfriend was mortified and a lot of other passengers gawked at me, surprised to see a guy openly weeping. That triggered something in me.
"I wanted [my son] to find a masculine identity that gave him permission to experience the full range of his deeper emotional life—of his deeper humanity."
When my son (now nine) was born, I was overcome with an urgency to rewrite this script any way possible; I wanted him to find a masculine identity that gave him permission to experience the full range of his deeper emotional life—of his deeper humanity. That birthed the popular college seminar “The Changing Face of Masculinity” and some essays in the Washington Post and New York Times that got viral attention. (This ultimately led to my book, as well.) Both of these developments made me realize that my mission on behalf of my son could potentially benefit more boys—and men.
Thank you for sharing those personal experiences with us. Can you tell us more about the course you created and currently teach at Towson, “The Changing Face of Masculinity”?
In the beginning, the course was focused exclusively on unpacking the problems with traditional masculine identity and norms. The longer I taught the course, though, the more I realized that the vast majority of boys and men who blindly follow and embrace this identity do so because it’s the only identity available to them. It's what many of them were force-fed growing up. And it’s what they were taught by parents, teachers, coaches, even girls, and the media they consumed. The ways we talk—and don’t talk—to boys during childhood, for instance, are deeply imprinting and send the message that emotional language isn’t the lingua franca of boys, that they aren’t supposed to integrate their deeper emotional lives into the fabric of their being. What I aim for in this course and in my writing is an understanding of American masculinity that is justifiably critical and also objective, contextual. Yes, it’s absolutely important to expose what’s no longer serving boys and men with the limitations of traditional masculine identity. And: It’s important to understand that this is the identity parents hand boys at an age when they are far too young to understand its complex, far-reaching implications.
On top of teaching, you've also been working on a new book, Better Boys, Better Men. Share with us what it's about.
My book Better Boys, Better Men (HarperOne Publishers) is coming out December 1st. Through a lot of powerful interviews with boys and men, well-researched studies and some memoir, BBBM explores why boys and men need a new masculine identity that gives them the resiliency, courage and strength so many of them presently lack. The book unpacks the unhealthy fallout from traditional masculinity, of course. But, unlike many books, it doesn’t end with all the reasons we should torch this identity. Through stories of boys and men who are struggling to find a way forward that’s healthier, more productive for themselves and everyone else, Better Boys Better Men also illustrates how we need to move forward—how to build from the ashes.
“Andrew Reiner decodes the hidden language of guys, thus pointing the way to a better, deeper, more authentic masculinity... This is a much-needed book that advances exactly the conversation we need to be having right now!”
—MICHAEL KIMMEL, Distinguished professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men
How has the definition of masculinity changed over the past few decades?
The old school American masculinity doesn’t serves boys or men anymore. It’s far too narrow, limiting and damaging—for them and for the rest of us. There are a lot of promising changes afoot for a new, more expansive masculine identity—and there are still a lot of static beliefs that young and older men cling to which are amping up their loneliness, anxiety and depression and, in turn, destructive behaviors.
There are some really encouraging changes being made to contemporary American masculinity and some not-so-welcome changes. In some ways, masculinity has devolved. For all of the bad lip service we give Baby Boomer and, to a lesser extent, Gen X men, there are parts of the masculine identity they developed that are healthier than the one being marketed today. They didn’t/don’t suffer from male body dysmorphia—specifically, a need to have a cartoonishly inflated upper body that pumps them up with skin-deep confidence. Also, if you look back at the popular movies and TV from 20 or 30 years ago, you’ll find more diversity in presentations of masculinity—from the grunting hypermasculinity of Stallone’s Rambo to the kind, smiling, more emotionally aware characters that actors such as Alan Alda and Billy Crystal portrayed. Alda’s and Crystal’s characters often modeled vulnerability.
Alan Alda in M*A*S*H
Jason Momoa in Aquaman
Look at what sells at the box office today—action hero movies. These are characters who are wise-cracking, cocksure, always in combative motion, always confident, shielding themselves from vulnerability with buffed torsos and super powers. A lot of guys say, Oh, these action hero characters are just entertainment; we don’t take them seriously. But that’s not true—so many boys and men in their 20s I interviewed for my book hinge their sense of manhood on these guys. We live in an age when our consumption of pop culture mirrors and influences our self perception and, in turn, our identities. These hypermasculine action heroes—whose only complexity lies in their moral compasses—perpetuate so much of what’s men holding back from the very thing they need for greater resiliency and overall well-being: access to the deeper range of their authentic emotions. Their humanity.
What are your views on how Millennials and Gen Z view masculinity?
A lot of younger men are much more tolerant of and versed in the complexities of gender and racial issues. There are other important differences. Millennials and Gen Z men are breaking new ground with masculinity on quite a few fronts. For instance, younger men are far more comfortable than older men in their own skin—literally. It’s so great to see younger men embracing body care and fashion in ways that make older guys who fear appearing ‘feminine’ squirm. Here’s something else Millennial and Gen Z men are doing better than previous generations: They’re breaking down barriers when it comes to intimacy in their friendships.
"It’s so great to see younger men embracing body care and fashion in ways that make older guys who fear appearing ‘feminine’ squirm."
They are much more likely to share a problem with a guy friend or to hug or hold him. The next step I hope these younger men take—not just seeking counsel from a male friend when there’s a problem but seeking emotional support. Too many guys still turn to female friends for this. Also, too many younger guys are still afraid of seeking mental health help because the idea of needing assistance smacks of appearing “weak” and “incompetent” for a burgeoning man. Perhaps an even more likely reason they may not seek mental health care is because these young men fear appearing vulnerable. That is, they fear that if they tap into the sadness, fear and despair beneath their anxiety and depression they’ll wallow in it and might remain shark bait for other guys or invite their own suicidal ideation. This is something we need to help turn around for young men.
What advice do you have for men looking to embrace greater emotional honesty?
This is a much bigger conversation, but here are a few places to start:
Share. Spend time with a friend or two grabbing a beer (or whatever you drink) and not bonding over some shared activity, such as watching football together or video gaming. Instead, talk (not about work, politics or sports) about your relationships (romantic, family, friendships)—what’s great about them and what’s missing from them; childhood memories centered around a theme (favorite family vacation, teachers who impacted you, worst advice, etc.) This isn’t about finding solutions. It’s about learning how to show up, emotionally, empathetically, for another guy without judgment or advice. It’s about learning how to develop your empathy and compassion muscles.
Connect. Reach out to a person, especially a boy or man, who looks upset. Ignore that voice that tells you to leave him alone because a.) you want to give him his privacy or b.) you don’t want him to feel even worse. Most of the time we tell ourselves these ‘stories’ because we are the ones who feel really uncomfortable with someone else’s sadness or ‘negative’ emotions. Screw up some courage, and ask if he’s okay, if he needs anything. Everyone loves to feel, deep down, that someone else cares.
Self Check-in. Do a personal inventory and write down the feelings or emotions you would show other people if you were given permission. (Work with me on this, okay?) Pick one. Then spitball some small ways you could try practicing this one feeling out in the world. For instance, if you’d like to show more compassion, help a stranger (especially another guy) open the door leading out of a store if his arms are full. Extending ourselves to other guys with compassion, strangers especially, takes and shows a lot of courage.
Who inspires you?
I’m not a one-answer person, sorry. Some of my heroes: John and Abigail Adams, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack and Michelle Obama, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Bruce Springsteen.
All of these people act(ed) from a place of fierce justice, compassion, honesty, an inner compass that never succumbed to the caprice of the masses and, at their best, vulnerability. They also understand/understood the dark night of the soul.
Do you have a self-care routine?
I walk or jog six times a week. I've gotten into fast walking, big time, because it slows me down and grounds me into myself much more than jogging does. It's a form of centering that many of us get from yoga and meditation. All guys should walk more. Many of us don't because we think it's a form of exercise for women and older men--people who are more fragile, vulnerable than we want to appear. Meanwhile, these two groups are reaping the benefits of walking, without the stress fractures and muscle tears of jogging and intense weight training, and they're leaving a lot of guys who fear looking too 'feminine' in the dust.
I'm also learning the practice of gratitude--trying to find something positive in moments and experiences that can sometimes feel fraught with negativity. This reframing is especially important for guys, because we are taught to lead with anger and reactivity, both of which taint the way we see the world. This negativity, in turn, leads to more stress and the illnesses associated with it.
You've studied and researched emotional honesty in depth, but is it difficult to practice what you preach?
Emotional honesty is exactly like muscle memory: the more you do it, the easier and more reflexive it becomes.
I do still feel some resistance at times, but, to be honest, not nearly as much as I used to. Emotional honesty is exactly like muscle memory: The more you do it, the easier and more reflexive it becomes. There are definitely sticky points in my marriage and fatherhood where I need to dig deeper and practice greater emotional honesty. For instance, I can be more reactive than I want to be around my son, especially since we’re all home so often during this lousy pandemic. This worries me because my son is, like me, a very sensitive soul, and he has big feelings. I don’t want him becoming as reactive as I can be (at home). I want him to see that his father, a man, can take responsibility for his shortcomings—so I talk with him about how we handle big feelings, including mine, to normalize such feelings. I explain that, even as adults, we still need to keep working hard on the things that don’t serve us or other people. We are all works in progress—that’s even more important for men to learn and accept in themselves and others.
Thank you, Andrew, for taking the time to share your personal journey, research learnings, and practical tips for how we can expand our emotional capacity and tap into our authentic selves!
Additional work by Andrew Reiner
- Book: Better Boys Better Men, Coming out Dec 2020
- NY Times:
- Washington Post: