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A Berkeley Mother's Memoir Offers a Candid Commentary on the Crisis of Masculinity

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Ruth Whippman sits with her sons Zephy, 10, and Solly, 13, at their home in Berkeley on May 22. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

I went to Ruth Whippman’s Berkeley home for tea in early May because it was time for my anxiety check.

When I arrived, I realized that my appointments with Whippman, a British author and cultural critic, were aligned with presidential election cycles. I find Whippman’s candor refreshing and rational. She doesn’t sugarcoat but adds sugar to the tea that she serves.

Whippman’s husband, Neil Levine, was working downstairs and Zephy, 10, was at band practice. Solly, 13, breezed through the kitchen on his way out the door to play Dungeons & Dragons at Games of Berkeley. As he held the toy leaf blower he was delivering to his 6-year-old brother, Abe, we briefly talked about game strategy. He flinched when Whippman lifted her light blue mug, which was the same color as her phone case.


Last week, Whippman published BoyMom: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity, a treatise on the difficult challenge of raising decent men in an era when masculinity is weaponized.

BoyMom is a memoir of a six-year stretch that included the election of a rapacious, misogynistic and xenophobic president, the #MeToo movement, the rise of the masculinity influencer and the isolation of the pandemic. Whippman, a mother of three boys, was concerned about raising her sons alongside a generation of boys that insecure tough guys are exploiting.

Using reporting and analysis, she interrogated the toxic patterns in boys and men. In the book, you’ll meet insecure teenage boys. You’ll meet hopeless incels — the portmanteau of “involuntary celibate” — who are susceptible to the agitators who play on the fears of white male emasculation for likes. You’ll also meet fathers, mothers and therapists who are battling the invisible ways we separate boys from their humanity.

Wait a minute, how did we get here?

Let’s go back to 2017, when women began using a hashtag to shine awareness on sexual abuse, sexual harassment and rape.

Ruth Whippman poses for a photo at her home in Berkeley on May 22. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“As much as it was a revelation of substance, #MeToo was a revolution of storytelling,” Whippman writes in BoyMom. “Perhaps the ultimate power available to any human being is to have control of the narrative.”

#MeToo exposed men who used privilege, power and wealth to assault women and dodge consequences. The left branded masculinity as toxic, while the right, if you will, leaned in and packaged toxic masculinity, as Whippman writes, “the answer to all our problems, both politicians and online influencers peddling a new brand of wounded, furious manhood, drawn from a combination of superhero fantasies and defensive rage.”

Oh boy, we are in trouble.

According to Whippman’s reporting, boys mature more slowly than girls socially, cognitively and physically, and are about 10 times more likely than girls to develop into antisocial adolescents. But what is less well known is that boys are more vulnerable emotionally.

“The sad irony is that while masculinity norms push boys to be tough — to squash their feelings and hide their weaknesses, right from birth and throughout childhood — young boys are actually more sensitive and emotionally fragile than young girls,” Whippman writes.

Because society expects rigid stoicism from men, mental health for boys often goes undetected, Whippman posits. Instead of emotional support, boys are getting infected by men who project an impossible standard of masculinity. To some, men are supposed to be without flaws, feelings or vulnerabilities.

Just last month, Jerry Seinfeld said he missed dominant masculinity. Andrew Tate spews toxic, misogynistic commentary that is parroted by YouTubers, podcasters and social media influencers who get rich by preaching about alpha male achievements. They want you to believe that masculinity is under attack and only a strongman — you know, the kind anointed to sell Bibles for 60 bucks — is capable of making manhood great again.

Ruth Whippman writes notes in her office at her home in Berkeley on May 22. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“For something that is supposed to be so innate, masculinity sure seems to take a lot of hard work,” Whippman quips in the book.

To understand the “scripts of masculinity,” Whippman went to Iron Gate, a therapeutic center for adolescent boys and young men in southern Utah. When I first met Whippman in 2016, the pursuit of happiness had prompted her to visit happy Mormons in Utah to report for America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, her book about how our cultural obsession with happiness made us crazy. I was then a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and, over tea, we talked about the multibillion-dollar self-improvement industry that sold everything but happiness.

My column was published two days after America became familiar with how a certain presidential candidate talks in locker rooms.

For BoyMom, Whippman also traveled to New York to an exclusive, all-boys private school that boasts politicians, journalists and banking executives as alumni to sit in on Modern Masculinities, a class that challenges toxic masculinity. In the Los Angeles area, she attended Guys Group, a therapy and social group for teen boys.

Boys are at a social disadvantage because we have failed to model more intimate friendships, according to Whippman. “Online life can open up new worlds and perspectives that might otherwise be closed off to them,” she writes.

Boys have retreated online to play video games and mingle virtually on communication platforms such as Discord and Telegram, where they are exposed to racism and hate. They socialize less because they don’t have the real-world friendships and relationships they crave. They are isolated. Worse, they are lonely.

“It’s just easier to just retreat into a screen when they feel like nobody cares about them,” Whippman told me as we sat at her kitchen table. “Everyone thinks they’re terrible. Everyone thinks they’re predators.”

Ruth Whippman sits with her husband, Neil Levine, and sons Abe, 6, Zephy, 10, and Solly, 13, at their home in Berkeley on May 22. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Whippman’s most illuminative reporting is reserved for the back half of the book. She ventured into the online forums where right-leaning and alt-right people congregate on 4chan, 8chan and other violent communities. It’s where the aggrieved find solace among others who share a deep hatred of women. The spaces are where incels, an online subculture of men frustrated with a lack of sexual experiences, are accepted.

“There is a notorious overlap between misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia and anti-semiticism in online spaces,” Whippman writes.

There aren’t many interviews with incels about their personal perspectives and experiences. Whippman went beneath surface-level reporting to examine the emotional and psychological triggers that were driving boys and young men to such intolerant spaces. In the book, she shares the stories of young men she interviewed.

We must understand the path that leads to hatred if we’re going to offer a course correction.

“What I wanted to do was to not give them a platform for their opinions. They absolutely don’t need that,” she told me. “And I in no way wanted to promote these toxic opinions, but I wanted to listen to the feelings that were driving them,” she said last week in an interview at KQED after appearing on Forum.

“Everybody’s going to feel some sense of inadequacy or shame that they have to make up for in some way,” she continued. “It’s not their masculinity that makes them violent. It’s the shame that they’re not masculine enough, that they’re not meeting the standard. That’s where the violence is. That’s where the toxicity is. It’s those feelings of shame.”

Last month, a petulant former president who, I imagine, abhors accountability as much as he does facts, was convicted of 34 felony counts of falsified business records. He still faces indictments for election inference, hoarding national security documents and for attempting to overturn election results. He’s been whining about getting the conviction overturned while obsessively wailing about the election he fairly lost.

Someone should tell the walking tough guy meme that boys don’t cry.


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