From hip-hop that tackles toxic masculinity, to frank online discussions about mental health, a global movement is asking afresh: what does it mean to be a man?
He smiles rarely. He boasts and bullies and shoves his way to the front of photo line-ups. He has publicly defended the size of his penis. Donald Trump is a caricature of a tough, powerful man’s man – and it might have won him the US presidency.
For disaffected rust-belt workers emasculated by years of unemployment and underemployment, Trump promised new jobs and renewed pride. “He was evoking an old-school image of work that involves men wearing hard hats,” wrote Monica Potts in The Nation days after the election result. “Like so much else in his campaign, his promises were explicitly made to men.”
In the UK too, the pro-Brexit mantra of ‘take back control’ spoke to the frustration and fear felt by some men as digital technology, automation and the gig economy – among other factors – cause uncertainty about their role in society.
An unwritten man code has left many dangerously out of touch with their emotions
Men have been on top since forever, of course. Patriarchy has gone hand in hand with capitalism, and the two have suppressed women, subjugated many other sections of society, and helped spark countless conflicts.
But men are hindered by patriarchy too. While men have helped create wars in the first place, they have also largely been the ones to fight and die in them. It’s an underreported fact that almost twice as many men than women are victims of violence.
“Society doesn’t differentiate between men and patriarchy,” says Nathan Roberts, chief executive of A Band of Brothers, a charity that helps young men who have been involved in the criminal justice system through personal development and community building, particularly rites of passage. “But the young men we work with don’t have a great deal of privilege. It’s only when you reach the upper echelons that you find the people with the real power – a few men in a system that impacts all of the women and all of the men below that. Looking at educational attainment, rates of mental health problems and incarceration rates, I think: where is it, exactly, that men have it so good?
“My grandfather was a miner, and a solider in the second world war. It’s frightening to think about what he was asked to do. Society hasn’t thought enough about the scars there are in the masculine psyche. I worry, too, about automation, and how we create an identity and a purpose for men in the post-industrial age. The more you rob men of dignity, the more dangerous they are.”
Men make up 95 per cent of FTSE CEOs, but also 95 per cent of the prison population. They are three times more likely than women to be frequent drug users. Language has gone from ‘manmade’ and ‘mankind’ to ‘manspreading’ and ‘mansplaining’.
As their traditional social roles become less stable, it’s apparent that men have paid a price for male privilege and power. An unwritten man code has left many dangerously out of touch with their emotions, making masculinity synonymous with toughness, status, power over others, and the avoidance of emotional vulnerability. And everywhere you look, machismo is packaged up and sold back to men. But being urged to ‘man up’, seems to have left many decisively down: suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
In a post-feminist world, traditionally male instincts to toil, protect and provide are being thwarted left, right and centre. Women aim for glass ceilings, but men are trapped in glass cages. “How do you hunt and gather in an open-plan office?” asks Tim Samuels, author of Who Stole My Spear?
Is masculinity struggling? Yep. Finished? Definitely not.
Joining up, not bottling up
A global movement is building, of men who are exploring new and varied identities, rediscovering their true natures and redefining male strength. Strong and silent stereotypes are being replaced with more diverse and fulfilling ways of being men.
The Good Men Project, a website that publishes articles about “what enlightened masculinity might look like in the 21st century”, says that it receives more than 5 million visitors a month: testimony perhaps to how many men care about how their behaviour as men impacts their lives and others’.
“There are lots of different ways to be a man these days: we’re not having to conform to stereotypes as much any more,” says Samuels.
In mainstream culture, places where it is acceptable for men to spend time together are no longer limited to sports and pubs. The London-based Chaps Choir brings together men of all sexualities and backgrounds for unashamedly joyful singing. “Singing in a choir is powerful because, unlike in sport, you don’t have to win to succeed,” says the choir’s founder Dominic Stichbury. “To succeed, you have to become part of the group.”
Men’s groups and sharing circles – where emotions can be discussed, vulnerability shown and support given – have a long heritage, but this idea is no longer confined to ‘alternative’ cultural scenes.
“There’s a much greater freedom to express yourself and be who you are,” says Samuels. “Being more emotionally developed gives us the potential to be better partners, and closer to our children, too: being in their lives in a rich and rewarding way. There are positives amid all the mayhem.”
Princes William and Harry made headlines in April when they called for an end to the British stiff upper lip culture, talking openly about their mother’s death and their subsequent struggles with mental health. Tennis champ Andy Murray was among the well-known men to talk recently to HuffPost UK about the last time they cried. He described his tears on Wimbledon’s centre court when he lost to Roger Federer. “People didn’t laugh or think less of me,” he wrote, “it was the opposite. They respected me for letting off the pressure cooker of emotion and for letting the mask slip.”
Meanwhile, boxer Anthony Joshua has teamed up with men’s fragrance brand Lynx to raise awareness of male insecurities by answering some of the most-searched questions about the subject on Google. A publicity campaign, yes, but in sharing questions like #isitokforguys… ‘to say I love you first?’ ‘to be the little spoon?’ ‘to be depressed?’ it has genuine social value as well.
Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry has also helped bring the subject to the fore through his book, The Descent of Man. Perry wrote that art saved him from the “trunkful of angry masculinity” he was carrying. He has also presented several TV series on the subject. Interviewees included a cage fighter who breaks down over his brother’s suicide and gang members who discussed the voids left by absent or disappointing male role models.
Compared to even a generation ago, there is more awareness of, and respect for, different identities and sexualities among men. Leading the way in music is Frank Ocean, who came out as gay to the macho world of rap and R&B in 2012. Even some stars of contemporary hip-hop are rejecting the genre’s hyper-masculine traditions; financial wealth is no longer the sole proof of achievement, and vulnerability gets discussed too. US artist Kid Cudi, for example, explores depression and suicidal thoughts in a track on his Man on the Moon album, while lyrics by rapper J Cole include: ‘I ain’t too proud to tell you / That I cry sometimes.’
The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) charity is dedicated to preventing male suicide. It runs a helpline, website and webchat, challenging a culture that prevents men seeking help when they need it. Their CALMzine online magazine is accessible and in no way worthy. It contains interviews, honest writing, art, poetry and a healthy dose of piss-taking. It’s inspirational rather than aspirational.
CALM’s #ManDictionary campaign asks men to define themselves on their own terms by poking fun at archaic stereotypes. Suggestions for new words include Camanflage – ‘the happy front that men wear in certain social situations’. Can you guess the meaning of Mangry? ‘To be inexplicably furious about something trivial because the real problem is too hard to talk about’.
The Calm Photography Movement has been founded to help men express their emotions and provoke conversation through photography. It also raises awareness and funds for CALM.
There are lots of different ways to be a man these days: we’re not having to conform to stereotypes as much any more
One project that sets out to help young men in particular break away from gender stereotypes is Being ManKind, which will release a book of the same name in August. The book features diverse stories from positive role models who are “inspiring boys to be kind and confident humans”. For every book sold, the project will donate one to a school or youth organisation.
So what does an authentic, evolved masculinity look like?
“It’s trying to be true to our roots, to our biologies, but in a way that includes the best of modern society too – for example social equality – and while being more emotionally attuned,” suggests Samuels.
It will take time. Supporting men’s personal growth is “a continual journey,” says A Band of Brothers’ Roberts. “We don’t ‘fix’ people – they’re not light switches – but we try to give them the ability to better navigate choppy waters. We’re there for them as a community from that point on. We want every man to live a life of meaning, purpose and connection.”
Main image: Daniel Lynch / The Calm Photography Movement
Six perspectives on what it means to be a man today
This article is featured in issue 90 of Positive News magazine. Become a subscriber member to receive Positive News magazine delivered to your door, plus you’ll get access to exclusive member benefits.