Conversations in Masculinity: New Year, New Men

Ben Francis 30 January 2019
Image Credit: Torange

2018 was the year in which many necessary conversations about masculinity began to take place. In the tremors created by #MeToo, Jordan Peterson and alarming rates of male suicide, questions arose about what it is to be a man in the modern world. As we head into 2019, this column aims to register the force of those cultural tremors here in Cambridge.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of 2018 was ‘toxic’. And the word appearing most frequently alongside it was ‘masculinity’. Indeed, the events of the last twelve months has given the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ a certain cultural significance.

Every week the powerful exposés of #MeToo and #TimesUp brought us high-profile reminders of a distorted masculinity that is malignant, entitled and predatory, from Kevin Spacey to R. Kelly to former Oxfam chief Roland van Hauwermeiren. In Cambridge certain university sports teams and drinking societies were rocked by allegations of misogynistic behaviour.

While, in the sphere of global politics, retro displays of manliness are on full and constant display. In particular, the growth of the ‘strongman’ style of leadership has caused a rush of testosterone to usurp conventional political discourses of diplomacy and deliberation with a language of machismo. Look no further than the boasts of the US president about the size of his penis and nuclear button; Vladimir Putin’s pectorals that emblazon the official Russian presidential calendar; and the claims of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte that he personally killed criminals when he was mayor of his home city of Davao, cruising the streets on a “big bike” and “looking for trouble”. Closer to home, don’t let the bumbling manner and received pronunciation of certain politicians deceive you. “He’d go in bloody hard” drooled Boris Johnson over the prospect of Donald Trump negotiating Brexit.

Even more worryingly, last year we saw new expressions of explicitly violent misogyny with the rise of ‘incels’ (involuntarily celibates); an online subculture that condemns all women in response to personal cases of sexual inactivity. Although these fringe views have been predominantly confined to the depths of Reddit (notable posts include ‘reasons why women are the embodiment of evil’ and ‘rape isn’t that bad, feminists just want people to think it is in order to vilify men’), 2018 saw an increasing tendency for them to find violent expression. A post uploaded to the Facebook profile of the perpetrator of the Toronto van attack, which left 10 people dead in April, glorified the misogynistic manifesto of Elliot Rodger and declared “the Incel Rebellion has already begun”.

To be clear, most men will never become violent. Most men are measured and humble in their manhood – recognising the fragility behind cocksure rhetoric and macho displays of masculinity.  However, there still remains a cultural narrative where manliness is measured in strength and status; a narrative that is propagated by the stories young boys are told about what a man should be. Phrases like ‘be a man’ or ‘don’t be a pussy’ are code for don’t show fear or emotion or weakness; traits deemed feminine or gay. A recent YouGov poll revealed 61% of men aged 18-24 feel UK society expects them to “man up” when faced with a difficulty and over half (55%) said that crying in front of others would make them feel less of a man. Indeed, there exists no medium for men to express vulnerability without feeling emasculated as the language of sensitivity is still viewed as intrinsically feminine. The comedian Robert Webb conjures a humorously sadistic image to depict this crisis in modern masculinity: “imagine Dr Frankenstein being constantly bum-raped by his own monster while shouting, I’m fine, everyone! I’m absolutely fine?”

Except men aren’t fine. Boys perform worse than girls in all tiers of education. Men consistently report lower life satisfaction than women. Statistics from a comprehensive study by the Men’s Health Forum reveal men make up 95% of prison inmates, 73% of reported missing people and 87% of the homeless population. Tragically, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. 84 men take their own lives every week. And in response to this crisis in modern masculinity, many young men are increasingly being drawn to the views of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist turned YouTube sensation turned mythical father figure, described by the New York Times as ‘the most influential public intellectual in the western word right now’. His advice? “sort yourself out, bucko”.

This is an epidemic, and one that can’t be remedied by such banal instructions of self-help. With ‘toxic masculinity’ becoming such an insidious force in all walks of life, we must embark on a collective process of reckoning with it – going further than simply calling time up on the unhealthy ways it continues to rear its head. There is a real opportunity to take a new look at manhood and develop definitions of masculinity that are less destructive to both men and women. Men can use the feminist movement as an inspiration – benefitting from replicating the conversation girls and women have been having for the last half-century. By exploring the complexities of womanhood, its different models and expressions, women have begun to mount a challenge to traditional gender stereotypes. Men need to do the same.

Robert Webb has again written how “being male is terrific but it comes with an extra load of baggage that is worth noticing…Stuff which is getting in your own – and other people’s – way”. In 2018 we exposed this rubbish ‘stuff’ that was rotten and fermenting at the core of our society. In 2019, it’s time to throw it away.