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Book Summary: The Will to Change – Men, Masculinity, and Love

Over the last century, feminism has become a hot topic in political debates. From an early focus on equal rights and pay, feminism has grown to take a big picture perspective on the patriarchy: a social system where men have dominant roles in politics and the economy as well as moral authority and social privilege.

Book Summary: The Will to Change - Men, Masculinity, and Love

But the patriarchy is not only bad for women, it’s also bad for men.

Just as patriarchy subjugates women, it represses men. Rather than losing political and economic equality, men in the patriarchy are deprived of love and other emotions. Here we look into the patriarchy’s devastating effect on men and society as a whole, and how the time is ripe for change.

In this summary of The Will to Change by bell hooks, you’ll find out

  • why the saying “boys don’t cry” is emblematic of the problems of patriarchy;
  • why men are taught that sex is a natural desire for men, but love isn’t; and
  • how the family is the place where a real change in men’s behavior will begin.

Content Summary

Genres
Patriarchy prevents men from loving and getting in touch with their feelings.
Boys are taught to suppress their feelings, and this leads to anger and violence.
Patriarchy teaches men to crave violence and sex, but not love.
Working women, dull jobs and unemployment threaten the patriarchy, but work culture represses men.
Men must become aware of their feelings in order to heal – and women must welcome this.
By practicing integrity and finding space to express love, men can change for the better.
Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Politics, Social Sciences, Men’s Gender Studies, General Gender Studies, Interpersonal Relations,, Women’s Studies, History and Theory, Anthropology, Human Sexuality, Love and Romance, Masculinity, Self-Improvement, Sex Role, Motivation, Self-Esteem

Patriarchy prevents men from loving and getting in touch with their feelings.

Most people know that boys just don’t play with dolls, but do you ever wonder why this is such a deeply ingrained social norm? It’s an assumption that comes from how the patriarchy, a system that instructs the behavior of men, affects our thinking.

The patriarchy is everywhere you look. It’s a power structure that tells men they should be in charge, dominate those around them and feel superior, especially toward women.

Indoctrination into this system begins in early childhood when parents teach their kids behavioral rules. During this time, gender determines the norms that kids are taught. Girls are taught to serve and nurture while boys are taught to suppress their feelings and provide financially for their families, but not to care for others in different ways.

Because of this early teaching, every social setting is afflicted by patriarchal logic. No matter if it’s religious, educational and so on. In every instance, both kids and adults are reminded that breaking the rules of patriarchy will result in punishment.

Just consider the author, who would always win when she played marbles with her brother. Her father considered it inappropriate for her to be better and more aggressive than her brother, so he forbid her from playing. When she rebelled, he responded by beating her and sending her to her room.

So, the patriarchy affects everything, and the situation is dire. After all, as long as men are trapped in this system, they won’t truly be able to love or be in touch with their emotions.

That’s because the patriarchy denies men access to their feelings and therefore to emotional well-being. Just consider the common saying, “boys don’t cry.” Many people haven’t seen a man cry, and that’s a result of the patriarchy telling men it wouldn’t be manly to feel emotions.

As long as men are disconnected from their feelings in this way, they’ll be deprived of love, both for themselves and for others.

Next up, you’ll learn more about the consequences of this emotional denial.

Boys are taught to suppress their feelings, and this leads to anger and violence.

Can you recall the last time a male colleague talked to you about his innermost emotions? Men are taught from the youngest age that feelings are to be avoided at all costs.

As a result, patriarchy doesn’t just affect adult men, but boys as well. Boys are taught that, to become a man, they need to be strong and never weak. Feelings are associated with weakness and are therefore off limits.

For generations, parents were even scared to comfort male babies in case such attention made them “wimpy.” It’s only recently that this ludicrous logic has been challenged. And that’s not even to mention the mass media, which inundates boys with images of what it means to be male.

So, boys are told not to express their feelings, and, when they’re denied this option, they act out instead.

This is pretty simple really: boys are taught that the only acceptable emotion for them to express is anger. That means when they don’t get something, they become furious.

The mass media also plays a role in teaching boys to act out, whether in the form of kicking, hitting or screaming to garner attention. This, of course, has major social implications.

While not all men will exercise violence during their lifetimes, men are certainly raised to be violent. Patriarchal society, after all, teaches that rage and violence are manly. We tell boys to suppress their feelings, and that isolates them. Once they’re isolated, they forget their worth and develop aggressive inclinations.

And finally, boys are angry because they lack the necessary connections to their fathers. Fathers are often extremely strict, using shame to assert their dominance. Since boys are told not to feel, they have no tools to grieve this lack of emotional connection in a healthy way and instead their anger leads to bad behavior.

Patriarchy teaches men to crave violence and sex, but not love.

The majority of people weren’t beaten as children, but many were shamed by their fathers – a form of emotional violence.

This is a good example of how patriarchy teaches men violence, even if it’s not necessarily physical. From childhood, boys are told that pain will make them into men, whether it’s the result of emotional abuse by their fathers, a lack of love or the consequence of using violence themselves to achieve their material desires.

The images boys see in the media play a key role in this process. Just consider interviews carried out by a sociologist in which young boys were asked what they would do if they had the powers of comic book character The Hulk. Many of them answered that they would “smash their mommies.”

So, boys are told that violence will make them men, and, as adults, men use violence to prove their manliness if they can’t assert it through wealth and success.

This drive to assert their value is a result of men never learning that they have innate value in the first place. Because of this, most of them attempt to define their worth by becoming rich or successful and, if that doesn’t work, they simply lash out violently to prove their status.

In a similar sense, many men seek out sex as they believe it will fulfill their need for love. Men are taught to think of sex as a natural desire determined by their biology, but not to consider love the same way. They believe they can have sex without love, but not the other way around.

The problem here is that men expect to feel emotionally satisfied from sex, a feeling that would normally come from love and simple intimacy. Since sex only brings temporary relief to these yearnings, no amount of sex can actually fill the void.

And what’s worse, the more intense a man’s emotional pain becomes, the more he craves sex or pornography.

Working women, dull jobs and unemployment threaten the patriarchy, but work culture represses men.

During our grandparents’ generation, men were the main providers for their families and rarely faced unemployment. But that’s all changed today.

Women entered the workforce in increasing numbers, and changes in the economy meant that men had to work mindless jobs and experience unemployment. As a result, men lost their sense of importance and any sense of personal fulfillment in the workplace.

Losing their patriarchal role left men with little to hold onto, and many of them turned to alcohol, pornography or gambling to deal with their emotions.

Unemployment challenges the patriarchy because it gives men more time to think about emotional issues, which is precisely what patriarchy evolved to prevent. After all, in patriarchal society, a man’s value lies purely in his work, which leaves him no time to understand his inner self.

Work drains men of energy to such an extent that they’re left with no will to invest in emotional issues. Either out of economic necessity or to complete a difficult job, most men work long hours. They’re compelled to do so, since patriarchy teaches us that work is far more important than emotions. Because of these ideals, men who stay at home are still considered strange.

If men could access their feelings more, they’d be more likely to find work that they actually enjoy, but society has a different plan. Just consider the movie American Beauty, in which the main male character falls into a depression and stops taking his work seriously. He starts to notice his feelings, but can’t find redemption and ends up dead.

Movies like this send the message that when men get in touch with their feelings, they lose. But while society is opposed to men noticing their emotions, it’s likely the only way they can find freedom.

Men must become aware of their feelings in order to heal – and women must welcome this.

Now you know how society dictates that men be strong and how this prevents most men from getting in touch with their feelings. But how can men overcome this emotional barrier?

By simply acknowledging that their feelings exist. After all, the majority of men have been told that they shouldn’t have feelings at all, and therefore constantly mask their emotions. They create a false self and struggle to build self-esteem or feel their emotions, living every day as a lie.

They play this game because they fear exposing their weakness, but the pain that most men have pushed away is exactly what they need to feel to heal themselves. It might cause suffering, but it is only this suffering that can bring them back in touch with their emotional selves.

Women also have a role to play in making this transformation, because they often urge men to show their feelings but then shut them down. This is to be expected, since women are indoctrinated into the patriarchy as well. When men are suffering, they often turn to women, who can’t handle an emotional man and turn their backs.

The author recalls a time when she did just that. She asked her partner to share his feelings and, when he did, she began interrupting him and making him stop as she began to cry. In this way, she essentially communicated to him that it’s better for him to hold his feelings inside because they’re too painful for others.

In short, women also need to overcome patriarchal barriers and learn to let men talk about their feelings.

By practicing integrity and finding space to express love, men can change for the better.

Have you ever done something for work that contradicted your values? It probably didn’t feel great.

Most men live their entire lives that way, which is why it’s essential for them to practice integrity. By doing so, they can learn to shed their masks and become whole people again. After all, integrity is about being one undivided person, which is exactly the opposite of what men are under the patriarchy.

In patriarchal culture, men are taught to hide their true selves to aspire to an ideal that they will never reach. They split their personalities, dissociating from their real selves and causing inner suffering. But their true self can be rediscovered through the practice of integrity.

But of course, since men have been taught to tell themselves lies and compartmentalize every aspect of their lives, practicing integrity will be painful.

This is another necessary pain, because only by mourning the loss of patriarchal influence will men begin to heal.

So, while men need the will to change, they also need space to do so; family provides the perfect environment for this. Instead of being seen as a place of resistance, the family must be transformed into one of love. In so doing we can create a culture in which the function of the family is re-envisioned.

Boys will then learn that building connections with others and not practicing violence and domination will make them men. Men will be able to love, and women will be able to love them back.

Summary

The key message in this book:

Men are taught to be dominant, violent and unfeeling. This social expectation causes them and the people around them to suffer, but there is another way. Men can learn to acknowledge and share their feelings, and in so doing, learn how to love others and themselves.

About the author

Bell Hooks was a cultural critic, a feminist theorist, and the renowned author of more than twenty books, including Rock My Soul, The Will to Change, Sisters of the Yam, and When Angels Speak of Love. A charismatic speaker, she divided her time between teaching, writing, and lecturing around the world. She passed away in 2021.

Table of Contents

Preface: About Men
1 Wanted: Men Who Love
2 Understanding Patriarchy
3 Being a Boy
4 Stopping Male Violence
5 Male Sexual Being
6 Work: What’s Love Got to Do with It?
7 Feminist Manhood
8 Popular Culture: Media Masculinity
9 Healing Male Spirit
10 Reclaiming Male Integrity
11 Loving Men

Overview

Everyone needs to love and be loved—even men. But to know love, men must be able to look at the ways that patriarchal culture keeps them from knowing themselves, from being in touch with their feelings, from loving.

In The Will to Change, bell hooks gets to the heart of the matter and shows men how to express the emotions that are a fundamental part of who they are—whatever their age, marital status, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. But toxic masculinity punishes those fundamental emotions, and it’s so deeply ingrained in our society that it’s hard for men to not comply—but hooks wants to help change that.

With trademark candor and fierce intelligence, hooks addresses the most common concerns of men, such as fear of intimacy and loss of their patriarchal place in society, in new and challenging ways. She believes men can find the way to spiritual unity by getting back in touch with the emotionally open part of themselves—and lay claim to the rich and rewarding inner lives that have historically been the exclusive province of women. A brave and astonishing work, The Will to Change is designed to help men reclaim the best part of themselves.

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

Publishers Weekly A fierce…denunciation of patriarchy and a clarion call to the uncommitted to align themselves with visionary radical feminism.

George Weinberg author of Why Men Won’t Commit [A] compelling study of the culture’s unfairness to men.

“Each offering from bell hooks is a major event….She has so much to give us.” —MAYA ANGELOU

A companion to We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (Forecasts, Nov. 10), hooks’s 23rd book for adults is a fierce, quirky denunciation of patriarchy and a clarion call to the uncommitted to align themselves with visionary radical feminism. In 12 slim chapters, hooks examines the stages of a man’s life, from babyhood through boyhood to the teenage years into manhood. She finds patriarchy plays a role in most socio-sexual ills, as boys and men seek alienating sex as a substitute for the love that often seems, because of demands on families that destroy them or keep them from forming, unavailable to men: “Sex, then, becomes for most men a way of self-solacing. It is not about connecting to someone else but rather releasing their own pain.” The men who can lead us out of patriarchal chains are “men of color from poor countries, men who live in exile, men who have been victimized by imperialist male violence”-the Dalai Lama for example. While she calls Will Smith films such as Men in Black and Independence Day tools of the patriarchy, hooks saves her big guns for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, scornfully exposing them as foisted on us by “rich white American men” and no more than updated version of the British schoolboy books that fueled the fantasies of Victoria’s empire. A better book to buy for children, she suggests, might be her own recent Be Bop Buzz. Hooks is always readable, but her takes on mass media here have a retro ring to them.

Video and Podcast

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Chapter One: Wanted: Men Who Love

Every female wants to be loved by a male. Every woman wants to love and be loved by the males in her life. Whether gay or straight, bisexual or celibate, she wants to feel the love of father, grandfather, uncle, brother, or male friend. If she is heterosexual she wants the love of a male partner. We live in a culture where emotionally starved, deprived females are desperately seeking male love. Our collective hunger is so intense it rends us. And yet we dare not speak it for fear we will be mocked, pitied, shamed. To speak our hunger for male love would demand that we name the intensity of our lack and our loss. The male bashing that was so intense when contemporary feminism first surfaced more than thirty years ago was in part the rageful cover-up of the shame women felt not because men refused to share their power but because we could not seduce, cajole, or entice men to share their emotions – to love us.

By claiming that they wanted the power men had, man-hating feminists (who were by no means the majority) covertly proclaimed that they too wanted to be rewarded for being out of touch with their feelings, for being unable to love. Men in patriarchal culture responded to feminist demand for greater equity in the work world and in the sexual world by making room, by sharing the spheres of power. The place where most men refused to change – believed themselves unable to change – was in their emotional lives. Not even for the love and respect of liberated women were men willing to come to the table of love as equal partners ready to share the feast.

No one hungers for male love more than the little girl or boy who rightfully needs and seeks love from Dad. He may be absent, dead, present in body yet emotionally not there, but the girl or boy hungers to be acknowledged, recognized, respected, cared for. All around our nation a billboard carries this message: “Each night millions of kids go to sleep starving – for attention from their dads.” Because patriarchal culture has already taught girls and boys that Dad’s love is more valuable than mother love, it is unlikely that maternal affection will heal the lack of fatherly love. No wonder then that these girls and boys grow up angry with men, angry that they have been denied the love they need to feel whole, worthy, accepted. Heterosexual girls and homosexual boys can and do become the women and men who make romantic bonds the place where they quest to find and know male love. But that quest is rarely satisfied. Usually rage, grief, and unrelenting disappointment lead women and men to close off the part of themselves that was hoping to be touched and healed by male love. They learn then to settle for whatever positive attention men are able to give. They learn to overvalue it. They learn to pretend that it is love. They learn how not to speak the truth about men and love. They learn to live the lie.

As a child I hungered for the love of my dad. I wanted him to notice me, to give me his attention and his affections. When I could not get him to notice me by being good and dutiful, I was willing to risk punishment to be bad enough to catch his gaze, to hold it, and to bear the weight of his heavy hand. I longed for those hands to hold, shelter, and protect me, to touch me with tenderness and care, but I accepted that this would never be. I knew at age five that those hands would acknowledge me only when they were bringing me pain, that if I could accept that pain and hold it close, I could be Daddy’s girl. I could make him proud. I am not alone. So many of us have felt that we could win male love by showing we were willing to bear the pain, that we were willing to live our lives affirming that the maleness deemed truly manly because it withholds, withdraws, refuses is the maleness we desire. We learn to love men more because they will not love us. If they dared to love us, in patriarchal culture they would cease to be real “men.”

In her moving memoir In the Country of Men Jan Waldron describes a similar longing. She confesses that “the kind of father I ached for I have never seen except in glimpses I have embellished with wishful imaginings.” Contrasting the loving fathers we long for with the fathers we have, she expresses the hunger:

Dad. It is a vow against all odds, in the face of countless examples to the contrary. Dad. It does not have the utilitarian effect of Mum or Ma. It’s still spoken as a ballad refrain. It’s a pledge that originates in the heart and fights for life amid the carnage of persistent, obvious history to the contrary and excruciatingly scant follow-through. Mother love is aplenty and apparent: we complain because we have too much of it. The love of a father is an uncommon gem, to be hunted, burnished, and hoarded. The value goes up because of its scarcity.

In our culture we say very little about the longing for father love.

Rather than bringing us great wisdom about the nature of men and love, reformist feminist focus on male power reinforced the notion that somehow males were powerful and had it all. Feminist writing did not tell us about the deep inner misery of men. It did not tell us the terrible terror that gnaws at the soul when one cannot love. Women who envied men their hardheartedness were not about to tell us the depth of male suffering. And so it has taken more than thirty years for the voices of visionary feminists to be heard telling the world the truth about men and love. Barbara Deming hinted at those truths:

I think the reason that men are so very violent is that they know, deep in themselves, that they’re acting out a lie, and so they’re furious at being caught up in the lie. But they don’t know how to break it….They’re in a rage because they are acting out a lie – which means that in some deep part of themselves they want to be delivered from it, are homesick for the truth.

The truth we do not tell is that men are longing for love. This is the longing feminist thinkers must dare to examine, explore, and talk about. Those rare visionary feminist seers, who are now no longer all female, are no longer afraid to openly address issues of men, masculinity, and love. Women have been joined by men with open minds and big hearts, men who love, men who know how hard it is for males to practice the art of loving in patriarchal culture.

In part, I began to write books about love because of the constant fighting between my ex-boyfriend Anthony and myself. We were (and at the time of this writing still are) each other’s primary bond. We came together hoping to create love and found ourselves creating conflict. We decided to break up, but even that did not bring an end to the conflict. The issues we fought about most had to do with the practice of love. Like so many men who know that the women in their lives want to hear them declare love, Anthony made those declarations. When asked to link the “I love you” words with definition and practice, he found that he did not really have the words, that he was fundamentally uncomfortable being asked to talk about emotions.

Like many males, he had not been happy in most of the relationships he had chosen. The unhappiness of men in relationships, the grief men feel about the failure of love, often goes unnoticed in our society precisely because the patriarchal culture really does not care if men are unhappy. When females are in emotional pain, the sexist thinking that says that emotions should and can matter to women makes it possible for most of us to at least voice our heart, to speak it to someone, whether a close friend, a therapist, or the stranger sitting next to us on a plane or bus. Patriarchal mores teach a form of emotional stoicism to men that says they are more manly if they do not feel, but if by chance they should feel and the feelings hurt, the manly response is to stuff them down, to forget about them, to hope they go away. George Weinberg explains in Why Men Won’t Commit: “Most men are on quest for the ready-made perfect woman because they basically feel that problems in a relationship can’t be worked out. When the slightest thing goes wrong, it seems easier to bolt than talk.” The masculine pretense is that real men feel no pain.

The reality is that men are hurting and that the whole culture responds to them by saying, “Please do not tell us what you feel.” I have always been a fan of the Sylvia cartoon where two women sit, one looking into a crystal ball as the other woman says, “He never talks about his feelings.” And the woman who can see the future says, “At two P.M. all over the world men will begin to talk about their feelings – and women all over the world will be sorry.”

If we cannot heal what we cannot feel, by supporting patriarchal culture that socializes men to deny feelings, we doom them to live in states of emotional numbness. We construct a culture where male pain can have no voice, where male hurt cannot be named or healed. It is not just men who do not take their pain seriously. Most women do not want to deal with male pain if it interferes with the satisfaction of female desire. When feminist movement led to men’s liberation, including male exploration of “feelings,” some women mocked male emotional expression with the same disgust and contempt as sexist men. Despite all the expressed feminist longing for men of feeling, when men worked to get in touch with feelings, no one really wanted to reward them. In feminist circles men who wanted to change were often labeled narcissistic or needy. Individual men who expressed feelings were often seen as attention seekers, patriarchal manipulators trying to steal the stage with their drama.

When I was in my twenties, I would go to couples therapy, and my partner of more than ten years would explain how I asked him to talk about his feelings and when he did, I would freak out. He was right. It was hard for me to face that I did not want to hear about his feelings when they were painful or negative, that I did not want my image of the strong man truly challenged by learning of his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Here I was, an enlightened feminist woman who did not want to hear my man speak his pain because it revealed his emotional vulnerability. It stands to reason, then, that the masses of women committed to the sexist principle that men who express their feelings are weak really do not want to hear men speak, especially if what they say is that they hurt, that they feel unloved. Many women cannot hear male pain about love because it sounds like an indictment of female failure. Since sexist norms have taught us that loving is our task whether in our role as mothers or lovers or friends, if men say they are not loved, then we are at fault; we are to blame.

There is only one emotion that patriarchy values when expressed by men; that emotion is anger. Real men get mad. And their mad-ness, no matter how violent or violating, is deemed natural – a positive expression of patriarchal masculinity. Anger is the best hiding place for anybody seeking to conceal pain or anguish of spirit. My father was an angry man. At times he still is, even though he is past eighty years old. Recently when I called home he said, speaking of me and my sister, “I love you both dearly.” Amazed to hear Dad speak of love, I wanted us to talk but I could not find words. Fear silenced me, the old fear of Dad the patriarch, the silent, angry man and the new fear of breaking this fragile bond of caring connection. So I could not ask, “What do you mean, Dad, when you tell me that you love me dearly?” In the chapter focusing on our search for loving men in Communion: The Female Search for Love I make this observation: “Lots of women fear men. And fear can lay the foundation for contempt and hatred. It can be a cover-up for repressed, killing rage.” Fear keeps us away from love. And yet women rarely talk to men about how much we fear them.

My siblings and I have never talked with Dad about the years he held us hostage – imprisoning us behind the walls of his patriarchal terrorism. And even in our adult years we are still afraid to ask him, “Why, Daddy? Why were you always so angry? Why didn’t you love us?”

In those powerful passages where she writes of her father’s death, Barbara Deming names that fear. As death is swiftly taking him beyond her reach, she sees clearly that fear had kept him away from her all along – his fear of her being too close, and her fear of seeking to be close to him. Fear keeps us from being close to the men in our lives; it keeps us from love.

Once upon a time I thought it was a female thing, this fear of men. Yet when I began to talk with men about love, time and time again I heard stories of male fear of other males. Indeed, men who feel, who love, often hide their emotional awareness from other men for fear of being attacked and shamed. This is the big secret we all keep together – the fear of patriarchal maleness that binds everyone in our culture. We cannot love what we fear. That is why so many religious traditions teach us that there is no fear in love.

We struggle then, in patriarchal culture, all of us, to love men. We may care about males deeply. We may cherish our connections with the men in our lives. And we may desperately feel that we cannot live without their presence, their company. We can feel all these passions in the face of maleness and yet stand removed, keeping the distance patriarchy has created, maintaining the boundaries we are told not to cross. In a class with students who are reading the trilogy of books I have written about love, with forty men talking about love, we talk of fathers. A black male in his late thirties, whose father was present in the home, a hard worker, talked about his recent experience of parenthood, his commitment to be a loving father, and his fear that he will fail. He fears failure because he has not had a loving role model. His father was almost always away from home, working, roaming. When he was home, his favorite way of relating was to tease and taunt his son mercilessly, in a biting voice full of sarcasm and contempt, a voice that could humiliate with just a word. Reflecting the experience of many of us, the individual telling his story talked about wanting the love of this hard man but then learning not to want it, learning to silence his heart, to make it not matter. I asked him and the other men present, “If you have closed off your heart, shut down your emotional awareness, then do you know how to love your sons? Where and when along the way did you learn the practice of love?”

He tells me and the other men who sit in our circle of love, “I just think of what my father would do and do the opposite.” Everyone laughs. I affirm this practice, adding only that it is not enough to stay in the space of reaction, that being simply reactive is always to risk allowing that shadowy past to overtake the present.

Continues…
Excerpted from
The Will to Change
by
Bell Hooks