A new column exploring masculinity

The conversation in recent months in the media about what masculinity means has become more and more complex. Terms like ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hashtag ‘#NotAllMen’ – used ironically – have become ubiquitous in any discussion of the sexual assault allegations recently brought to the public eye in many different industries. Campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp have – quite rightly – drawn attention to female voices, allowing women who have been repressed to speak out. It feels to me, and to many young people following this trend, like we are frustratingly close to being on the cusp of real change. It feels fresh; different; exciting.

No attempt can be – or should be – made to justify the actions of men who have mistreated women. However, the question I want to ask is whether there could be some value in an attempt to quantify these actions. I am gay, grew up with sisters and consider myself liberal, and have rarely questioned whether my own treatment of women is in any way lacking – until the last year. I have been shaken from a very safe place where gender inequality was something which happened outside of my immediate circle. Despite being comfortable in my identity as a man, I struggle to understand men, and the fact that so many of these allegations have been leveled against men of my own generation threw me. It is impossible to explain them away by saying that these are the actions of a near-dead generation. I am confused what I should be doing from hereon to be a good ally, and I wanted to know if this was something that other self-identifying men have been thinking about.

All of this is a long way of saying that I’ve been interviewing men about what it means to be men.

[1: THE ARTISTS]

I have started with three men who I am loosely categorising as ‘The Artists’ – in coming weeks I hope to focus on men from different ‘social groups’. Although some said they would be happy to have their names published, I have chosen to anonymise them as A, B and C. I have tried to collate and shorten my interviews in a way that seems logical, but keep true to their meaning.

Disclaimer: All interviewees are under 25; all come from the UK and – I realised only after completing the interviews – all are from families with non-divorced, heterosexual parents. I do not claim that these men represent any kind of cross-section of society. I am not a psychologist nor an anthropologist and I claim no scientific results from these interviews.

Incidentally, all of them at some point during the interview said that they had been ‘sensitive’ as children.

A:

For A, unlike my other interviewees, being a man was informed first and foremost by his physicality. Despite being a ‘sensitive’ child, he managed to fit in with groups of men from a young age by learning what was expected of him to say and by taking part in sports and other ‘masculine’ activities. ‘Laddish banter’ always seems very false to him, but he still went along with it because it was what was expected of him. However, he draws a distinct difference between feeling intimidated or overwhelmed and actually being uncomfortable or unhappy in this situation.

He also feels himself consistently more comfortable around older men than women and has been more influenced by men as role models. Like some of my other interviewees, he quantifies this by saying that older men fill a ‘dad’ role, meaning that they are more directly influential and somehow more important than authoritative women, who become less approachable ‘mother figures’. A female teacher, for example, who was an influential part of his life, did not push him as in his mind she was the ‘nice’ teacher. It was men who would influence him to make the important decisions of his life. Because of this, he feels that on a subconscious level he often accepts the advice of a male figure before that of a female figure.

In talking about the way which the way he treats women might have changed, he mentioned the recent Aziz Ansari incident – the article which started a backlash against the actor can be read here. A says that as a man he had a ‘biological reaction’ to defend the male perspective in stories like this. Yet he tries to and has to fight this reaction to look at similar allegations as objectively as possible. He describes what he always thinks when he is with a woman in a similar situation: ‘Clothes on, hands where you can see them, before any consent is given.’

B:

B says his masculinity is something he thinks about a lot, and this is informed by his background as a dancer in a big city, where he was confronted by ‘a lot of people trying to assert themselves every day’. This led him to feel like he didn’t have very much to prove; he could simply be who he wanted to be without having to fulfil a stereotype or perform all the time. Only in hindsight does he wonder why he wasn’t more self-conscious or more aware of his non-masculine traits when he was young. Growing up in an ‘arty environment’ allowed him to be a little freer in his self-expression.

In terms of older people or authority figures, he dismisses the idea that women automatically become more ‘maternal’ and therefore less influential than ‘straightforward, dad-like men’. The biggest factor about masculinity is, for him, whether men come from broken families or not. Male friends who had no steady father figure in their lives had something else to prove; had a role to fulfil. This can be extremely negative, yet B also praises the virtues of male-only groups and friendships. Being around just men is somehow easier – ‘the pressure is off’.

In terms of how he treats women, B says that he takes pleasure in mocking ‘macho men’ by impersonating them and their treatment of women but recently has acknowledged that there is a privilege in being able to make these jokes. Having more open conversations with men that are less goal-orientated – ‘men going hunting together’ – would be a key to dealing with problems of masculinity.

C:

C cannot pinpoint a time when he was first aware of being a man; he feels is was conditioned gradually into him and it is rare that he questions any aspect of masculinity, although it may well have been taught to him. He danced from an early age, and before ever being self-conscious of the non-masculine connotations of that, he would attempt to academically justify his choices. He remembers saying to other boys that ‘Lots of men are dancers’ and it is only in hindsight that he sees how unaware of masculine and feminine roles that he must have been at this time.

C identifies as bisexual and now most of his good friends are queer men. He struggles to say whether the fact of queerness or maleness is what brought him together with these people. Gender divisions are not what defines his friendships and yet he cannot deny that there is a pleasure in being friends with other queer men and somehow being ‘masculine’ in this. However, he also says that he would always choose to spend time with heterosexual women rather heterosexual men, which implies that the commons factor in his good friendships is queerness rather than gender identity.

Most of his male role models were male as a child, for example BBC Saturday night hero Doctor Who (until 2017, when a female Doctor was cast), where he now acknowledges the ‘weirdness’ of the fact that the male doctor would be a constant for a number of years while the largely female ‘companions’ would come and go and represent inconsistency to him. Like A, he says that both parents are influential but he associates his father with more fun activities and his mother with more maternal, organisational ones. Despite this, he says that nowadays women largely influence him more and he can think of more female role models than male.

Overall he feels like gender does not at all influence how he treats men or women. He describes himself as socially awkward, and far more likely to be influenced by how comfortable he is around a person than by the gender of that person.