The backlash against being a good man

By Phil Barker

Masculinity, and what it means to be a man, is under unprecedented levels of examination in our society.

We know that the internalisation of traditional masculinity can be harmful to us and those we love. In addition, we know that our indoctrination into male gender roles is a key driver of domestic violence and male suicide numbers.

But just a quick look at the events of the week shows that a male-centric “patriarchal” system not only exists, it is flexing its muscles right in front of our eyes.

Being tough, strong, stoic, in control, a leader and in charge of your emotions is still powerfully policed. To show any vulnerability is to be seen as less of  a man, and that’s deeply damaging to us all.

We  are encouraged to do a lot of talking these days, but it’s clear there’s some deeply rusted-on attitudes out there that are going to take a lot of time, and work, to change.

New research from the Movember Foundation, out last week, says “risk factors that increase a man’s vulnerability to poor mental health and suicide include relationship breakdown, acute stress, persistent low mood and social isolation.

“When it comes to tackling issues like this, talking is crucial … we’re sharing the stories of men who have benefitted for standing up,” the report says.

 “These stories, it says, “are proof that talking saves lives.”

But standing between men and these vital conversations is the powerfully policed idea that ‘real’ men don’t feel sad and scared, and most certainly don’t talk about it.

The research, of 4,000 men globally, shows that while three-quarters said they had someone to talk to when they were feeling bad, two in every five men who had opened up to someone about their mental health said they regretted it.

They felt embarrassed and weak for speaking out, they felt they weren’t taken seriously and had lost respect.

Sadly, more than half of men said they would not open up in such a vulnerable manner again.

Yet, at the same time, how society views masculinity is changing. There is a unique opportunity for men to be able to be our true selves, without pulling on the mask of masculinity.

Even that bastion of sophisticated manhood, the GQ brand, knows times they are a-changing.

New editor in chief of British GQ, Will Welch, asked in the magazine’s The New Masculinity Issue “How do you make a so-called men’s magazine in the thick of what has justifiably become the Shut Up and Listen Moment?”

I published Australian GQ years ago and know the brand well. So, it’s wonderful to see it’s now aimed at an audience that is “smart, engaged, diverse and gender-nonspecific audience.”

GQ is now “actively engaging with the complex and shape-shifting inquiry around what masculinity means today.”

A traditional men’s brand like GQ embracing this non-gendered future, is a clear sign that in the midst of a seismic cultural shift that’s just beginning to rumble.

But our culture is still inflicting sinister lessons on our young men. Just this week the Head of St Kevin’s College in Melbourne had to apologise publicly after a group of students on a tram on their way to an athletics competition erupted into a loud “offensive and misogynistic” chant.

It doesn’t bear repeating here, but denigrated women in the extreme. The song is called “I Wish all the Ladies.”

A woman filmed the boys on the tram, packed with elderly passengers, young people and children.

“I thought it was disgusting,” she told the ABC.

Individually, most of those boys are probably “nice young men”. Their friends and families will describe them as friendly and decent.

Not one of those boys would have considered for a second singing that song if he was on that tram alone.

It is likely that there will have been many in the group who didn’t think it was a good idea but went along with it anyway. It’s far easier to shout something horrible about women in a tram than it is to be labelled “gay” or a “pussy” – key policing words suffused with the homophobia and misogyny instilled in our boys – for not joining in.

For the ring-leader, a tough and devil-may-care performance of masculinity was worth the inevitable consequences.

But punishment and consequences are only one side of this. It is important to talk with these boys, to tease out the beliefs and attitudes of each and every boy. Shunning and disciplining them won’t stop this happening…we need to engage with every one of them, look them in the eye and instil a deeper understanding of why this behaviour is harmful.

The new, gender-fluid GQ is a wonderful entry on the media landscape. It holds an influential leadership position and points to a positive future. It is a reflection of how society is shifting.

But boys on trams would risk everything to avoid being called out as a lesser man, and men still feel weak for speaking up about mental issues and showing vulnerability.

Patriarchy is still alive, kicking. It’s dangerous and it’s killing us. Our men. And our women.

If you need help addressing your use of family violence, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491. Lines open 24/7