Former President Barack Obama and legendary musician Bruce Springsteen discussed toxic male behaviors, the definition of masculinity in America and struggles with their fathers in the latest episode of their “Renegades: Born in the USA” podcast, released on Monday.
In a monologue opening the episode, Obama argued that, unfortunately, society’s definition of masculinity has not substantially changed since the days when he and Springsteen were children and many of these “narrow distorted ideas ... contributed to so many of the damaging trends we continue to see in the country, whether it is the growing inequality in our economy or our complete unwillingness to compromise on anything in our politics.”
As examples of these flawed ideas, Obama listed an “emphasis on physical toughness and suppressing your feelings, having success defined mainly by what you own and your ability to dominate rather than on your ability to love and care for others [and] the tendency to treat women as objects to possess rather than full-fledged partners and fellow citizens.”
The 44th president added that these qualities had come up constantly in conversations about masculinity with friends of his daughters, Malia and Sasha. Both men agreed that members of their generation had never fully reckoned with the potential harm of these ideas, and the Me Too movement was the result.
On the subject of fatherhood, Springsteen described his father ― who had served as the impetus for many of his moody songs about parent and child dynamics, notably “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Independence Day” ― as a man who “carried a tradition of secrecy about his own life.”
This had made Springsteen assume that stoicism and silence was the proper mode of masculinity, and the musician said it took him years to learn that “you’ve got to open the doors and that archetype doesn’t leave a lot of room for those doors to be open because that archetype is a closed-man.”
“If you want a partnership, if you want a full family who you are going to allow and give the kind of sustenance and nurture and room to grow and be themselves and find their own full lives, you better be ready to let a lot of that go, my friend,” Springsteen said.
Obama, meanwhile, discussed how he struggled with not having a constant male presence in his life as a child, alternating between an Indonesian stepfather who had died relatively young, a white grandfather he had difficulty relating to as a Black man, and a Kenyan birth father whom he had met only sparingly as a young adult.
“We end up wrestling with ghosts,” Springsteen said, noting that trying to prove one’s worth to an absent father is an exercise in frustration. “You have to turn your ghosts into ancestors. ... Ghosts haunt you. Ancestors walk alongside of you and provide you with comfort and a vision of life that’s going to be your own. My father walks alongside of me as my ancestor now. It took a long time for that to happen.”
Listen to the entire podcast below.