Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined

Author: JJ Bola
Publ: Pluto Press

This incredibly enjoyable book utterly destroys the myths around masculinity and is a great read for younger men told to ‘man up’, ‘stop being such a wimp’ and so on. There has been a significant rise of books around the same theme, but JJ Bola directly relates his struggles and understanding to a younger audience, which has largely gone amiss in recent years.

Mask Off acts as a tool with which to challenge the structures in society that condition men to develop into aggressors, unable to deal with their emotions. Bola opens the book by dismantling ten myths around masculinity – a fantastic way to break down such a complex issue with no easy solution. He understands the scale and the task at hand, and suggests completely dismantling the structures that prop up ‘manliness’.

The book offers interesting insights into what masculinity is. Bola describes it as a ‘performance’ that can become toxic and hegemonic when immersed in a society dominated by men. This insight comes from the view that men are suffering on a huge scale in an era when suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35. Three out of four suicides are by men.

The topic of mental health covers a large proportion of the book. Bola has had direct experience working with troubled youth, so he has seen first-hand that ‘toxic masculinity thrives on a vicious cycle where men contribute and suffer from it’.

Consistently, Bola relates his arguments away from traditional feminist ideology toward a more socialist theory. When describing female leaders he explains that we can’t expect change if they are still operating under capitalism and western imperialism.

Discussing Thatcher, he says female leaders like her have ‘further perpetuated patriarchy to be on a level playing field with men’ – ultimately they still push the same ideas as male leaders. It is the ‘prioritisation of money over empathy’ which Bola views as the ultimate issue.

I welcomed the sub-chapter on class. Bola explains that society views working class masculinity separately. Words such as ‘chav’ are thrown around in order to demonise and portray working class men as violent. But why don’t we use similar words to describe privately educated men? He describes private schools as ‘harbouring grounds for toxic masculine behaviours’. We can see this echoed in today’s politics when Boris Johnson describes Muslim women wearing the veil as ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’.

I really enjoyed this book and could have said more about the sections on sport, sexuality and race.

However, I was let down by the conclusion. Throughout the book, all the signs pointed towards radical change, dismantling gender stereotypes from the bottom up, and always putting the blame on the system we live under.

But the conclusion wasn’t as radical as I would have hoped, only proposing small reforms such as ‘male support groups’ and ‘consent education’. These are welcome but don’t cut deep enough into the exploitative and divisive capitalist system that is to blame in the first place.

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