“Toxic masculinity” is a buzzword. After decades in feminist academia, it hit the mainstream in the 2010s—enough for Gillette, the razor company, to use it in a commercial earlier this year. Essentially a PSA, the ad called out men for epidemic mansplaining, sexual assault, casual violence, emotion shaming, and the grillmaster shrug of “Boys will be boys.” And so, “toxic masculinity” exploded as a Google search term. It polarized audiences just as fast.
“Even when those words come out of my mouth, I’m thrown back a little bit, because [‘toxic masculinity’] is a phrase that’s just become really overused,” Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre says, while co-hosting the first episode of What’s Good, Man?, a new podcast. “It’s become a phrase that, when you hear it, you know what side you’re on right away.”
The episode, titled “What’s Wrong with Masculinity?”, debuted Nov. 6 (on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and other streaming platforms). Tran Myhre, a Minneapolis-based spoken-word artist in his mid-30s, is riding high on a decade-long career of poetry-cum-activism, last year releasing a well-received collection (A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry) and regularly booking gigs at conferences and with community groups to talk about masculinity. His 26-year-old co-host, Minneapolis-based rapper and writer Tony “The Scribe” Williams, boasts an already-tall résumé of community organizing. On the podcast, Tran Myhre is the soft-hearted introvert; Williams, the coolheaded extravert.
They spend 50-minute episodes (to be released every two weeks) doing what feminist women have long asked cisgender men to do. They wrestle with, disengage from, and pick apart what it means to be a man.
It’s work that benefits victims of toxic masculinity, but also, the two stress, perpetrators. “There’s a lot of criticism of toxic masculinity out there but a lot less examples of men talking about their experience with masculinity and the way that it causes us harm, and the way that it directs us to cause harm to other folks, as well,” Williams says. He adds, “Every single person I’ve talked to about this podcast has been, like, ‘We need to have these conversations.’”
Broaching the Subject
In place of jargon, Tran Myhre and Williams drop examples from their own lives. On the first episode, they discuss the time a guy in a truck tailed Tran Myhre down a rain-slicked road—and the way Tran Myhre’s impulse, to pull over and punch out the truck’s mirrors, complicates the urge to frame toxicity as other men’s problem. Williams analyzes a different impulse: to intervene when he saw two men fighting on the light rail. Before it got to eye-gouging, he broke it up, prompting one of the men to complain, “Everyone makes it such a big deal when you fight these days.”
If Tran Myhre demurs at the phrase “toxic masculinity,” he also sees its pervasive applicability. The past few years especially have seen “mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting,” he notes, the vast majority perpetrated by men. Last month, President Donald Trump described the death of an ISIS leader “in really gruesome action-movie detail.” With #MeToo, subtext has risen to narrative, making What’s Good, Man? feel both of its time and overdue. (It joins ranks with other popular social-justice-minded podcasts on gender, like The Gender Knot and Tough Conversations with Henry Rollins.)
“We don’t necessarily say this explicitly in the podcast, but I do think there is an element of de-radicalization,” Tran Myhre says. The first season’s eight episodes cover consent culture; ask whether masculinity, in and of itself, is bad; and offer tips to the teen whose Google search, “how to meet girls,” has led to pick-up artists’ websites. They spell out ways to support anti-sexual-violence work and reproductive rights. They chat with guests of other gender identities, including experts on sexual assault. (In the second season, they hope to feature more guests, now that they have a proof of concept.)
Most of all, though, they give themselves room to explore. “We’re not trying to tell any particular man, ‘Oh, here is how you solve this problem for yourself’—because, honestly, we’re on the journey as much as anyone else is,” Williams says.
Earlier this year, Williams took action when American Public Media put out an open call for podcast pitches (the same month, incidentally, that “toxic masculinity” spiked on search engines). “I wanted to create that space that didn’t exist for me five years ago,” he says.
As Williams sees it, online options for young men haven’t improved much. Alt-right message boards, chat rooms, and forums like 4chan treat masculinity as a serious concern. “But [everybody there] is turning around and weaponizing it and blaming it on women,” he says. Alternative, feminist spaces “have a lot of amazing things to teach men about gender” but can also feel “pretty inhospitable to folks who are just figuring their shit out for the first time.”
What’s Good, Man? targets those lost in the middle. Tran Myhre hopes teachers and parents use it as a resource—as, in the first episode, when they break down the buzzword. User-generated site Urban Dictionary comes into play. The first entry—“exaggerated masculine traits, like being violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth”—precedes “A term invented by man-hating fake feminists seeking to suppress men’s biological superiority.”
“You might notice that the topic of this particular episode is not ‘Toxic masculinity: Does it exist?’” Tran Myhre says. “Like, it does. … This new generation knows, on some deep level, that the historical stereotype of the manly man, who has no emotions and is super violent and always in control—that that’s all bullshit.”
For the two hosts, the podcast feels like something of a culmination.
About 10 years ago, Tran Myhre’s slam poem “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’” went viral on YouTube. Calls came in. Colleges wanted Tran Myhre—today a two-time National Poetry Slam champion—to speak to their women’s-studies classes, to their rape crisis centers. Then, to their fraternities, to their football teams. (In the poem, Tran Myhre’s first response, “F— you,” waterfalls into lightsabers; distant dads; a superhero named the Five O’Clock Shadow, who defends the world from feelings; and blue baby socks. “What about purple?” he offers.)
He found that the athletes and the frat boys did not resist. “A lot of men are really hungry, or at least open, to this kind of conversation,” he says. They just hadn’t had it yet.
“It’s a difficult conversation to have, especially for men, who might have to recognize for the first time that we have done harm to people, or that we have benefited unjustly in different ways for no actual action of our own,” he explains.
At the same time that Tran Myhre was finding his way in spoken word, Williams’ parents were raising him, in Minneapolis, on the edge of gender norms. His mom and stepmom, he says, were powerful and badass. His dad was gentle and emotionally present. While high school culture flagged girls for sex or romance only, Williams cherished his female friendships.
In college, at Santa Clara University, in California, Williams’ “progressive bubble” burst. He had friends who were sexually assaulted, or who committed sexual assault. His male roommates balked at a simple “How are you?” His trans and non-binary peers, he realized, were facing storied systems of violence. “And I saw all kinds of problems with the way that I had encountered women in romantic relationships, right?” he says. On the podcast’s first episode, he levels: “I’ve caused harm, y’all. I have treated women badly. I have been inaccessible emotionally, right?”
It came down to what Tran Myhre describes as round-the-clock reinforcement. “It doesn’t take a bolt of lightning to keep the television on,” he writes in a new poem about masculinity, “The Art of Taking the L.”
For Tran Myhre, this was literal: Raised by a single mom in Wisconsin, he found models of manhood in video games, movies, cartoons, and books. (In the second episode, he and Williams concede that pop-culture depictions of masculinity aren’t all macho superheroes; some have inspired them, including the conflicted Zuko, a character in the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender.) Eventually, Tran Myhre could see the fictions for what they were. “They were easier to identify as stories that were being sold to me,” he says.
“Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’” garnered millions of views. Williams, who joined a feminist group on campus, saw it. It showed that men, too, can testify to the harm of gender stereotypes. After graduating with a degree in sociology, he found a Twin Cities hip-hop circle that values women and non-binary artists. (“Hip-hop is one of the few spaces in which black men, especially, get to be vulnerable,” he says.)
American Public Media released its call, and Williams couldn’t think of a better co-host. But Tran Myhre, now a friend, expressed doubt.
“There was a ton of resistance,” he admits. “I’m self-conscious about the whole, like, ‘Listen to my podcast.’ Because it’s 2019. It’s super, super saturated. I don’t want it to be corny. I don’t want to be another dude with a podcast.”
He and Williams linked his reservations back to toxic masculinity.
“A traditional, masculine way of being is to be very individualistic. Like, I am the one, I am the source of knowledge, I am the smart one, or the leader, or the courageous one,” Tran Myhre explains.
Instead, the two forged a collectivist approach.
“The podcast doesn’t have to be—and it can’t be—‘the best podcast,’ or, like, ‘the source of all knowledge about gender roles,’” Tran Myhre says.
American Public Media didn’t take their pitch, but the two ran with it—“thinking about this less as ‘We need to do this,’” he continues, “and more as ‘We can contribute to this thing that’s already happening.’”
In season two, they plan to integrate guests more intentionally, to answer the suspicion that two men and a microphone make an “echo chamber.” In other ways, though, they want to leverage the advantage of their gender—even if it makes them cringe.
“The sad fact of the matter is that, with some men who subscribe to some of these toxic-masculinity ideas, they’re not gonna listen to folks other than men,” Williams reasons.
“Because I’m a cisgender, straight, loud guy, and people feel conditioned to listen to that voice—that’s kind of the dark side of the success that I’ve had,” Tran Myhre says.
“And that’s part of the philosophy of the podcast, too. If that’s gonna be a reality, how can we both push back against that reality, but also use it? You know, can this show be a way for someone who’s never had a space to think about this stuff before, to plug in and at least get started?”