Last year, NPR producer Melissa Gray began thinking about her two sons—specifically, about how to raise them in contemporary society. Were she to suddenly need to parent her boys by herself, Gray realized she had no idea what she should teach them about “manhood.”
“Things have changed, and my default is the 1960s default of what manhood was, and the more I thought about it, I wasn’t the only one,” Gray said.
Over at All Things Considered, Gray brought her concern to the radio show’s “big ideas” meeting last December. She pitched her idea of talking about men, and what it means to be a man in America, to the table, and the conversation heated up.
The resulting series, “Men in America” (or #menpr on Twitter), launched on June 23 and will run for 10 weeks. Hosted by Audie Cornish, “Men in America” will be divided into three sections, focusing on different parts of men’s lives. The first, looking at childhood and early development, is happening now. From there, the series will examine young adulthood—looking at college, dating, relationships, and friendships. The final third focuses on adulthood and the end of life.
Soon after Gray floated the idea, Cornish approached her and asked to take part. To Cornish, the ongoing conversation around gender in the media has felt lopsided and incomplete.
“I jumped on it as a host because I think there’s this really robust and vigorous and enthusiastic conversation online among women, and certainly with the feminist movement, about how women are perceived and treated and their status politically,” Cornish said. “It seems like it was not that far-fetched to talk to men about what roles they see for themselves.”
NPR has done series in the past focusing on women’s experiences, including, last year, “The Changing Lives of Women,” on women’s political and economic gains and challenges around the world. “Men in America” aims to pose questions that have not yet been addressed, in what its producers hope will be an inclusive discussion.
“I want to have a dialogue that is open and doesn’t put everyone on the defensive,” Cornish said. “We’re not scared to offend or raise controversial issues, but we’re not coming at people like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ That is something that men and women can appreciate—certainly a lot of what feminism fights is that something is wrong with you, connected to you that’s inherently wrong in some way.”
With a host onboard, Gray and All Things Considered supervising senior producer Matt Martinez went about pitching the series as a collaboration with the rest of NPR. Wanting to approach the topic of masculinity from a variety of angles, they tried to involve other branches of the organization in generating stories.
“I went to our new education team, the national desk, the arts unit, we went to science—[we cast] a wide net,” Martinez said. “Everybody responded enthusiastically. We know we’re not going to cover every base, but we want to give the biggest, broadest picture about what it means to be a man in America today as opposed to 20, 30, 40 years ago.”
The series took a few months to put together, due in part to recent changes in NPR’s organization and staff downsizing. Cornish said that the team had to be realistic about its resources, and as a result, “Men in America” will not be able to cover all that it means to be a man—as if it ever could. Instead, Cornish said the series seeks to “take little snapshots.”
Martinez and Cornish said that, by incorporating field reporting, studio interviews, and individual commentaries throughout its run, the series will be able to highlight a range of voices varying in ethnicity, age, geographic location, and sexual identity, especially those that are often obscured or ignored.
“We’ve tried to make sure that everything we do isn’t stuff that you might have already heard, surprising stuff, stuff that will make people think twice about assumptions about what it is to be a man in America today,” Martinez said. “Being a man in New York is different than being a man in Wyoming.”
While reporter Shereen Marisol Meraji is reaching out to listeners to discuss the objects, tools, and stuff men equate with masculinity, NPR Ed, the organization’s new education team, has thus far contributed two stories on the importance of roughhousing in parenting for boys and on a club for middle school boys to talk about their emotions.
The series comes at a time when gender issues are big in the media, from ongoing coverage of colleges and sexual assault to the #YesAllWomen campaign in May, started after the misogynist writing of University of California, Santa Barbara mass killer Elliot Rodger came to light. Although not formed in direct response to those events, “Men in America” will tackle those and related issues in its coverage.
To ensure the team is on the right path, sociologist Michael Kimmel, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University, as well as Brett McKay, who runs the blog The Art of Manliness, will assist the producers in brainstorming ideas for the series, Gray said.
Despite the team’s efforts to ensure the series is well-rounded, Cornish and the producers anticipated some amount of backlash. And they were right: Many listeners expressed skepticism about the very premise of the series. Commenters on Twitter have ridiculed #menpr for dedicating such time for the “underserved audience” of men or questioned if the series goes as far as being “oppressive.”
Gray also said many of the subjects it will cover throughout the summer will probably spark anger or confusion with listeners.
“There is going to be stuff in here that doesn’t please everybody,” Gray said. “If we tried to please everybody, it would be a fricking boring series. The main goal is to get people to think, and part of the way to get people to think is get them to listen to experiences that may or may not be part of their own.”
According to Gray, however, the response has been mostly positive—or, at the very least, curious. Soon after it was launched, Gray said men reached out to contribute their own experiences, which some said they previously felt they couldn’t discuss in front of other men.
“There really is a hunger to talk about what it means to be a man in America,” Gray said. “It’s almost as though you’ve tapped a well and the pressure has gone up.”