What is real vulnerability? Brené Brown, a researcher whose work on vulnerability has made her a celebrity, defines it as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” in her 2013 book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” Petulant vulnerability, however, uses the language of vulnerability as a cudgel. If true vulnerability means accepting change, personal fallibility and the human condition of reliance on others, petulant vulnerability feigns emotional fragility as a means of retaining power.
If true vulnerability seems scary, it is — but that doesn’t make expressing it any less necessary, for men as for everyone. What if, on Jan. 5, 2021, a man upset by Donald Trump’s electoral defeat had confessed to friends and loved ones that he was afraid and that he felt he was losing control in a world he believed no longer valued him? What if he had sat with those feelings, cried if he wanted to and discussed how to chart his path in a changing landscape? That would have been vulnerable.
This kind of vulnerability can be difficult, of course. Even as men’s groups committed to positive change gain prominence, our society still broadly enforces traditional masculinity norms and restrictions. And online there are plenty of spaces where extremely toxic behavior is encouraged and applauded — some of which also deploy the language of vulnerability. In incel forums, for example, rather than working through the pain of being sexually rejected, men lash out at the women they feel they deserve — occasionally resulting in horrific violence.
So, what’s to be done? Though men’s discussion groups and more nuanced male leads on TV cannot, on their own, shift our expectations of manhood, the fact that they exist and are gaining popularity counts for something. “Men cannot change if there are no blueprints for change,” bell hooks wrote in her 2005 book “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love,” where she uses feminist thinking to show men how to overcome their conditioning.
The hard part is yet to come. Change is taxing and boring and scary. It requires humility and vulnerability — the real stuff, not the cheap imitation. And it requires letting go of what some men feel entitled to. The rewards, however, will make this effort worthwhile.
“To know love,” Ms. hooks writes, “men must be able to let go the will to dominate.”