NFN18: “A Toxic Masculinity Cleanup Crew”

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Panelists: Taylor Broby, Clinton Crockett Peters, Will Slattery, & Ira Sukrungruang

Peters opened the discussion by acknowledging the uncomfortableness of an all-male panel discussing toxic masculinity. He mentioned that several women were invited to participate, but they declined while politely encouraging men to clean up their own (mess).

Peters discussed a piece he was writing about Edward Abbey and Theodore Roosevelt tapping into nature as a “masculinized space.” He read an excerpt from A Passage of Birds (from his book, Pandora’s Garden) which examines the death of both his father and a sparrow through the lens of a discussion with his young nephew. He realized that by writing the same stories of men in nature (such as Abbey and Roosevelt) he was perpetuating old notions of masculine space and wants to instead write about what masculinity in nature looks like now.

Sukrungruang opened his remarks by telling the audience that he “grew up in a world of boys wanting to be men” in South Chicago. He confessed that being a father has put fear in him and that he fears “we’ve regressed.” He read an excerpt from his essay, “Toxic: An Outline of Why Men Are Violent Idiots” and concluded his reading by saying the writings of Marlin James inspired him to realize that it is “not enough to be non-racist. You have to be anti-racist.” Dinty Moore (from the audience) also recommended Sukrungruang’s piece, “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology.”

Slattery discussed what toxic masculinity looks like in the writing community. He mentioned a list of recent news events in publishing such as violent and legal retaliation, issues of entitlement to authors work, the pressures by editors to write off the “quotidian, domestic, and sentimental,” and an ongoing “bad regurgitation of mid-century misogynistic writers.” He also claimed that many men were engaging in practices of “performative ‘woke-ness’” rather than focusing on actually changing the system.

Broby read from an essay-in-progress about “what we teach boys.” He recalled his own tale of killing a northern leopard frog when he was a young boy juxtaposed with the women who discovered the frog and moved it out of harm’s way after it had expired. He explained it is one story he cannot forget; his own cruelty and the kindness of the women who discovered the frog. “The myths of the west align with the myths of what men ought to be,” he said, “but we need to create new stories.”

The panel then took questions from the audience.

Q: What do you think masculinity should aspire to?

Broby asked that we consider men as gentle and consider how men can provide stories of radical empathy. Peters confessed he is leaning toward taking down the binary and for each individual to strive to be a good person. Slattery encouraged others to stop this sense of domination and embrace a more egalitarian experience.

Q: What does this look like for your students?

Sukrungruang said he teaches his students to not write “revenge prose, pity party prose, or forgive-me-for-my-sins prose.”  He explains to his students that they should not seek forgiveness, but rather attempt to “figure out why it happened, to figure out why you did what you did.” He also encourages students to use the essay to talk with a larger group of people who have done the same thing.

Q: What books should we use to teach different concepts of masculinity?

The panelists and audience members recommended texts listed at the end of this conference report.

The panel closed by addressing the final question of toxic masculinity as an intergenerational problem. Sukrungruang mentioned Claudia Rankine, who remains hopeful that we are “living in a generation where people are aware of the things that are terrible about this world” and invited the audience to also check out the Good Men Project:

A Partial List of Book and Essay recommendations from the panelists and from the audience

YA to Adult

Children’s Books


Stacy Murison is a contributing editor for Assay.

Visit Assay’s Fall 2018 issue for more!

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