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What Does It Mean To Be A Man? Barack Obama Examines Masculinity On 'Art Of Power' Podcast

Former President Barack Obama (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Former President Barack Obama (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

 

For the latest episode of the WBEZ podcast “Art Of Power,” host Aarti Shahani knew she didn’t want to talk policy with former President Barack Obama.

She wanted to go deeper and have a more human-level conversation. So she posed an interesting question to the former president: What does it mean to be a man?

It’s a question Obama says he’s not only grappling with himself, but it’s the defining question America needs to ask itself.

“Oftentimes the narrow definitions that we provide our boys growing up about what it means to be strong, powerful, admired, a man, seep into how we think about public policy and how we organize our societies, and often is a stunted view,” Obama told Shahani.

Shahani wanted to discuss toxic masculinity with Obama because she noticed through reading his latest memoir, “A Promised Land,” and listening to him speak that he was thinking deeply about manhood, she says.

“What’s distinct in him is his ability to voice what is happening in his inner life,” she says. “So in some ways, I actually feel like he’s doing a lot of work for other people right now, specifically other men, by saying, ‘Hey, this is the journey we’re on.’ ”

From calling himself a megalomaniac to reflecting on his marriage to Michelle Obama, Shahani says what stood out most in her conversation with Obama was his remarkable amount of self-awareness.

He admits the responsibilities of caring for their two daughters inevitably fell on his wife, even though they worked to have an equal partnership.

“This notion of sacrifice, and he says it’s one that his daughters and their generation don’t want,” Shahani says. “That point that he made about the evolution and that maybe even he and Mrs. Obama did not live the kind of equality he’d like to see us march toward, it’s simply an acknowledgment that, you know what, there’s an arc to progress, and you keep riding it.”

Obama draws a line from his own personal journey into manhood to our society’s narrow definitions of masculinity to how all of that shapes public policy.

“Part of what we have to do is to expand our notions of manhood and power so that providing people health care and caring for children and being good stewards of the environment, that’s what men do,” he told Shahani. “As opposed to just going to war and making lots of money and, you know, telling other people what to do.”

The point Obama is making here is that the messages we give young boys about what and who they can be translates into what matters to them, Shahani says.

In our society, girls are increasingly given much more freedom to explore who they are outside of the gender binary, whereas men are pressured to fit into the archetype of masculinity, she explains. The reason to expand this notion of masculinity is about more than just helping women — it directly impacts what we value in our society.

“If you give permission to yourself to be different from the alpha male dominant archetype, you might live a fuller, more rewarding life and be a better leader,” she says. “When you teach values of nurturing, you’re encouraging boys who grow up into men to be leaders who think, for example, about being stewards of the environment.”


Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Raphelson also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.