There’s no crisis in masculinity, only a narrow definition of men

Men needn’t be at loggerheads over their identity. Eoin Gardiner

Every generation declares some kind of crisis in masculinity. And women today aren’t shy of pronouncing a masculine emergency: Hannah Rosin did so in her book The End of Men while MP Diane Abbott warned of a disaffected “fight club” generation.

But where are the male voices? The few that are in the media like Ally Fogg and recently Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow agree that, for whatever reason, men are not very good at talking openly about (and organising around) the deeper issues affecting them.

But by the end of 2013 the term “meninism” started trending on Twitter, with tongue-in-cheek hashtags like #MeninistTwitter. While some of it took unhelpful digs at feminism, a lot of men surprised themselves about how much they actually needed a forum to talk about being a man today.

Pain is as real for men

The hurt that men feel in life is very real, if only we dared to listen. Every one of the 3,784 male suicides in England and Wales in 2012 – an astonishing 77% of all suicides – tells a painful story, and the repercussions are heartbreaking for their loved ones. It’s often argued that men are just more likely to use effective means to suicide, but the evidence suggests that men face particular pressures, for example financial.

Some feminists are afraid to give men a voice for fear of giving them more power. But my experience as a researcher and psychotherapist is that men open up insightfully when it’s safe to do so. And reflecting on male stories is part of the solution, not the problem.

Whether or not the idea of meninism sticks, the MeninistTwitter hashtag, the declaration by men’s anti-suicide charity CALM that 2014 is the year of the male, and the upcoming Being a Man festival at London’s Southbank Centre, show something is in the air, and I would venture a few observations.

Mind the gap

I signed up to the charter for CALM’s Year of the Male because I thought it was a great idea, even though I didn’t agree with some of its definitions of male roles. Men in the men’s movement sometimes tie themselves in knots trying to relate their own experiences to the yardstick of roles society expects of them.

In research interviews I’ve carried out, men instead reveal how complex their issues are, like about the early care they received (or not) in their lives, their current social circumstances, their identities as men, and their relationships with others.

So it seems to me that everyday men, academics and those in the men’s movement don’t often communicate or understand each other. This is something that could be bridged and hopefully in 2014 we’ll will begin to do this.

Masculinity is a beautiful thing

There is a grain of truth in what feminist Camille Paglia stridently wrote: “The way gender is being taught in the universities – in a very anti-male way, it’s all about neutralisation of maleness.”

As in the media, academics too easily fall into the trap of depicting men as “damaged and damage doing”. Even if there’s acceptance of multiple ways of being masculine, dominant descriptions by academics commonly caricaturise men as emotionally constipated risk takers with no interest in their own well-being or in seeking help.

But depending on the circumstances, men can be very interested in wellness, being intimate with others and in consulting with professionals like counsellors. And the dominant ideals of masculinity are not as toxic as is so often fantasised.

All the world is a stage, and masculinity is defined by the way that men perform in public, and so what is considered masculine can change. At one extreme, in a South African prison, men who had been raped were considered by other inmates to have been de-masculinised even if the encounter was non-concensual. But in some other societies (including by heterosexual men in the west), where homosexuality was once viewed as unmasculine, its increasing acceptance shows that concepts of masculinity can be flexible.

And far from experiencing “crisis”, men and concepts of masculinity adapt to the world. Even dysfunctional “knuckleheads” (men who consciously act in ways that are harmful or risky) reveal hidden insights when given the space to open up and reveal hopes of redemption and acceptance.

It’s not always about power

It is important not to define masculinity so narrowly in terms of power, for example as acts “aimed at claiming privilege, eliciting deference, and resisting exploitation.” This loses sight of other considerations, like the aesthetics and the celebratory side of masculinity. It also risks sidelining the relative confidence and power of women to negotiate emotional relationships with men.

Let’s not forget that men are also shaped by forces not directly linked to gender. For example, unemployment and relationship breakdowns are known to hit men particularly hard, and are clearly linked to suicide.

Meninism (or whatever this emerging space becomes) may overlap with and learn from feminism, but it need not compete with it. Nor does it need to be misogynistic or emotionally constipated, or hostile to feminism. But it does need to involve the men’s movement, and develop its own voice and scholarly concepts separate to feminism.

Examining how men “do gender” while being open to the meanings of male narratives is as good a place to start as any. Research shows that boys and men know instinctively that their own banter, and the social winds that blow, can make it tricky for them to express themselves.

And despite inevitable competitiveness, masculinity can be less toxic than society thinks, and even a positive force for change. To gain momentum, meninism will need to authentically explore institutional forces, our own vulnerabilities, and mistakes as well as triumphs. It’s not about hierarchy of empathy, victimhood or deservedness: both men and women matter equally.

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