Masculinity in Crisis?

The Gryphon discusses the need to open up the conversation and challenge current ideas of manliness.

In this current social climate where the ‘#Me Too’ movement is finally helping to expose thousands of harrowing cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment, it would be consoling to assume that great changes are occurring in the way that people, especially men, behave in society. Sadly, conversations with friends at university reveal that there is still much to be done. For some, the excitement of Freshers’ Week and the beginning of a new year of independence at university has been tarnished by distressing experiences. Incidences of cars honking their horns and passengers catcalling at women out on a run are so commonplace that some have been forced to abandon the healthy hobby altogether. It is also difficult to find anyone who hasn’t experienced or witnessed some form of inappropriate physical contact in a club, bar or pub in the last few weeks.

It is easy to understand why victims can feel intimidated, humiliated and have their self-confidence lastingly knocked. This hostile culture fits into a broader context of an epidemic increasingly called ‘toxic masculinity’. In universities, at home, or in the world of politics, the abuse of power by men is one of the fundamental issues of our time. It is vitally important to understand what is going wrong and what needs to be changed.

Played out on an international stage, these characteristics can be seen in some of the world’s leaders. In his foreign policy, Donald Trump adopts a quintessentially ‘macho’ stance. He treats international laws and customs with contempt, deriding the process of modest deliberation in diplomacy. More recently, the supreme court hearing over Brett Kavanaugh’s promotion to that body brought similar themes to the fore. His furious and emotional rebuttal of those who questioned his eligibility, following serious sexual assault allegations, was seen by some as the actions of an entitled and arrogant man unaccustomed to having his authority and dignity questioned.

So why is this damaging form of masculinity so prevalent? Some blame social changes relating to shifts in gender roles. As old restraints on women’s careers and lifestyles are being broken down, men are left floundering, apparently lacking the structure and discipline of traditional paternalistic roles. Another argument blames the pressures of fiscal uncertainty. In Britain, following the 2008 financial crisis, a decade of austerity has meant a relatively meagre lifestyle for millions on low incomes.

The effects of hardship on male behaviour have precedents in history. Many historians agree that masses from the industrial class in the nineteenth century went through a ‘crisis of masculinity’ as the quality of life declined. Unhappiness, created by poor living and working conditions, led to widespread disgruntlement and deterioration in the stable family structure.

So, are we going through a similar situation now? In the UK, three times more men commit suicide than women, though rates are dropping due to the work of suicide-prevention agencies. Scientists believe that this disparity between genders is related to men’s lower tendency to confront their own emotions and confide in others. Pressures associated with growing up as a boy compound the problem. Ideals of how a boy should dress and behave still pervade society. Students have spoken about fearing to stray too far from fashion norms in case of being labelled “gay.” Furthermore, opinions expressed in The Guardian talk of a lack of diversity in clothing items for boys in high street stores; apparently options are predominantly “sludge-green, grey and… navy blue.”

Being in touch with one’s emotions and talking openly about negative feelings is still looked down upon in certain circles. Even if men don’t feel an explicit requirement to act in a certain way there is often an implicit preference for guys who behave in an unemotional and neutral manner. On the TV and in the cinema, male heroes are still often ‘peak-masculine’ figures: heterosexual, muscular, war-battered and tough. Kit Harrington, the actor behind Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow says he is tired of the cut-throat world of medieval violence. When asked in an interview for last week’s Sunday Times if the wrong messages were being sent on TV, and on the street, to impressionable young boys, he replied, “something has gone wrong for men.”

‘Boys will be boys’ is a phrase that often creeps into discussions surrounding this topic. Such an expression holds the rather dismal implication that our society is resigned to view this form of male behaviour as not just acceptable, but natural and inevitable. However, there are efforts to make a difference. In an attempt to combat old-fashioned tropes of male behaviour in the advertising industry, brand campaigns such as Lynx’s #itsokforguys are attempting to get men and boys to question the meaning of ‘manliness’ and challenge societal expectations to ‘bottle up’ negative feelings. Elsewhere the toy-manufacturing company Mattel portrays dads playing with their children in its adverts in an effort to counter the outdated stereotype of a withdrawn father figure who only attends to practical tasks.

Many believe that in order to create a more equal relationship between men and women in society, we need more cooperation and to open up the conversation before vilifying certain groups. Ideas put forward in the Good Men Project offer men constructive support to help them break out of the tumultuous phase of ‘adolescence’ – apparently the stage in which men are yet to understand their own feelings and desires in life. Negative labels such as ‘the patriarchy’, ‘straight white male’ and now ‘toxic masculinity’ certainly derive from real and serious concepts but, it is often held, can be overused and unhelpfully divisive. This discourse can make some innocent men feel like culprits, stretching the divide between genders and alienating people from the process of real improvement.

In a recent broadcast of Radio 4’s Point of View, the author Howard Jacobson, despairing of the current trend in male behaviour, declared: “this is not a good time to be a man.” His pessimism is not unfounded, but, post-Weinstein and ‘#Me Too’, the opportunities to make things better are surely greater than ever before. We now know to a fuller extent what men have done wrong, and we’re starting to understand why. The next step is to do something about it.

Tristan Griffith