When I first started researching masculinity, one name always came up as the expert in all things masculinity: Dr. Ronald Levant. Levant was actually one of the first people I reached out to when working on our positive masculinity piece, and he immediately obliged in a phone interview. Like that day. It’s not often you can speak with the preeminent expert in the psychology of men and masculinities, so I absolutely took him up on the offer.
What I realized that morning was Levant had a wealth of knowledge around masculinity, and his goal was simply to help men be the best they can be. The same message is woven through Levant and Shana Pryor’s new book The Tough Standard: The Hard Truth about Masculinity and Violence. Written in a very academic style, The Tough Standard allows for the facts to do all of the talking. And if you haven’t done any previous research, it is startling.
If you’re looking for personal anecdotes, or characters to fall in love with, The Tough Standard isn’t for you. Instead, you’ll find over forty years of research and knowledge about the psychology of men and masculinity. This book can be a difficult read at times, and the research is complicated. Still, there’s no better resource on the market today that explores the truths around men and violence.
What is The Tough Standard?
Before we begin, I think it’s important to note that both Levant and Pryor emphasize throughout The Tough Standard that the book is not trying to portray all men as violent and dangerous. Instead, they want to highlight how conforming to negative masculine gender norms can be harmful to others. They aren’t trying to bring men down or even destroy masculinity, but instead, illustrate that our definition of masculinity is outdated. It’s time to have a real conversation about what it means to be a man.
If we’re going to be talking about The Tough Standard, we should start by defining what that means to begin with. The book’s title refers to the problematic standards placed on men through the ideals of masculinity: “self-sufficient, stoic, strong, dependable, brave, tough, and hard-working while avoiding stereotypically feminine traits (emotional expressivity, empathy, and nurturance).” From an early age, men have been taught that these masculine norms are essential to their identity, if not their livelihood. But based on research, men who conformed to traditional male standards reported lower self well-being while also believing those who don’t live up to the same rules have higher well-being.
What Levant and Pryor do in The Tough Standard is take forty years of research and experience and connect all the dots between masculinity and our present moment in time. Broken down into nine chapters, each section of the book features a variety of different resources relating to masculinity’s role in sexual violence, physical violence, and experiences of trauma. There is also a section dedicated to the summaries of research on masculinity. Still, I will admit that this section is relatively dense and challenging to work through.
The Tough Standard’s strength comes from Levant and Pryor’s ability to simplify 40 years of knowledge into something digestible, quotable, and informative. Within the chapters, topics are broken down even further into more manageable chunks, which allows the authors to get to the point right away without any additional language.
For example, there is a brief bit in “Consequences of Masculinity” about the father’s role. That’s a topic large enough to fill out an entire book, but The Tough Standard condenses it to around half a page. Within that limited space, they quote nine different studies and illustrate the section’s key point: “involved nurturing fathers have a beneficial effect.” Few books synthesize information in such a tight package. It does wonders for The Tough Standard as it acts more as another critical research report on men and masculinity.
The research report-esque style also might push some readers away. The information inside is compelling, but there is also a distance attached to the writing itself. There isn’t that emotional connection woven throughout to get you through the next chapter. If you’re interested in masculinity and it’s ties to violence, then you will find The Tough Standard to be a fantastic addition to your library. But for people on the fence, this book probably shouldn’t be your first introduction to the psychology of men and masculinity.
Some unsettling statistics
Early on in The Tough Standard, Levant and Pryor touch upon an important observation: “Masculinity is presented as obligatory for most boys and men, and most boys and men feel they have no other choice but to conform to masculine norms.” Time and time again, the research shows that boys and men are limited in their choices of who they can be. The conversation around feminism has been going on for over 50 years; men have yet to really start that conversation about what it means to be a man right now and, because of that, are stuck in a repeated cycle of masculinity.
A piece of research I kept coming back to throughout reading was from a study performed in 2014 in which randomly assigned male and female college students were asked about times they had behaved traditionally or progressively. Both sexes performed well when it came to identifying moments in which they acted according to traditional gender norms. Only women seemed to be genuinely able to provide examples of progressive behavior. “Women in the progressive condition were able to provide progressive examples of femininity (e.g., childless, career-oriented, opinionated), but only 17% of men in the progressive condition were able to do the same for masculinity. It would seem that men’s only progressive options are to either weakly endorse or reject traditional masculine norms.” Tying this research back to Levant and Pryor’s understanding of the obligation to adhere to masculine norms, the biggest problem that exists for men today when trying to identify what it means to be a man is that there aren’t any conversations or easily accessible guidelines for what you should be.
Because of this, “boys are allowed, even encouraged, to express anger aggressively. And older boys are encouraged by their peers to express lust.” There is no emotional vulnerability, no introspection. That leads to boys and men to “disconnect from their emotions and their peers, and become very lonely.” We’ve talked about the facts around male loneliness and close male friendships. So many of the behaviors attributed to toxic masculinity are the result of the inability to communicate. We fail to tell our friends when we are struggling; we are unable to admit to ourselves that we might need help (even though we desire the ability to communicate).
This ultimately brings us back to Levant and Pryor’s point at the beginning: men are stuck in a perpetual cycle that leads to violence, loneliness, and a multitude of health issues because there isn’t a dialogue around what is masculinity and what it should be. All men need to have a curious mindset (I have to thank Tribe Men’s Group for that phrase) and be willing to start the conversation. Change begins with one individual: you.
Takeaways for men and masculinity
The most important section of The Tough Standard comes 135 pages in. Entitled “What Can Be Done,” the last chapter of the book is dedicated to the resources available to help break the constraints of traditional masculinity and lead men to healthier, happier lives. Too often, when we talk about masculinity, we talk about the negatives, we talk about everything you shouldn’t be.
To make effective change, we need to start talking about what masculinity should be.
Levant and Pryor discuss new masculinities, large-group awareness training, social marketing, and public service announcements alongside a few other resources that can help men have more options in life. While I believe there is a lot of useful and interesting information, the large group awareness training seemed to be the most actionable.
Referencing the ManKind Project, The Tough Standard makes note that these retreats are meant for men to reconnect with their emotional side. There is something to be said for getting a group of men together and speaking openly. Having in-person (online until COVID-19 ends) conversations are what will make the most significant impact on men and masculinity.
Which is why I actually wanted more of this information from The Tough Standard. The book makes a ton of important points about the connection between masculinity. I also believe it’s vital that we take the time to highlight how we best can make those changes. Possibly that’s not the intention of this book, that this book is just meant to be step one of the process of change, to identify where the weaknesses and problems are in terms of men and masculinity. If that was the goal, The Tough Standard succeeds.
But for step two, it’s going to be essential that we highlight how we can make the change.
The Tough Standard: The Hard Truths About Masculinity and Violence is a book we need right now as it lays out clearly the argument for redefining traditional masculinity and what it means to be a man.
Have you checked out The Tough Standard yet? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.