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Do we need to change the way we talk about men and boys?

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

Corrosive stereotypes and growing hearts and minds.

We all have heard the many tropes about men: “Men can’t multitask,” “men are only after one thing,” “men don’t cry.” And sometimes when men do express vulnerability, they can be critiqued: “He was like a wet blanket”. There are also stereotypes and characterizations of dads: the deadbeat dad, the lazy dad, the bumbling dad and the overprotective dad. TV sitcoms and films are full of characters that can provide entertaining jokes and stories but can be corrosive in that they often repeat the same stereotypes and characterizations of dads (see clip here).

In recent times, there has also been many necessary important conversations and activism about toxic masculinity and domestic violence, with the aim of making a safer world for people and prevent violence against women.

But whilst it’s important to address the negative aspects of masculinity, the whole concept of masculinity is being questioned, reframed and undergoing transition in an increasingly modern world.

It’s becoming more important men themselves define what being a man and masculinity means, rather than having to succumb to societal and cultural norms and to celebrate the positive aspects of masculinity.

Why is a negative view of masculinity a problem for men and boys’ mental health?

1. Fixed ideas on masculinity are limiting and outdated

Dominant masculinity themes include men having confidence with women, being tough, wealthy and cool. Whether it’s Don Draper (Jon Hamm), The Marlborough Man or Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface, these characters have huge weight in the Western ideas of masculinity and expectations on what it means to be male. Other traits that can be encouraged in boys and men to live up to a masculine role are demonstrating control, not showing feelings (emotional rigidity and inhibition) and having an aversion to behaviours associated with femininity (caring, expression of emotion) (Kierski and Blazina, 2009).

Al Pacino in Scarface personifies a narrow conception of masculinity

In reality, many men do not fit the cookie cutter of these outdated views of masculinity. In today’s world, gender roles are actually more fluid, many men do things that women traditionally did in Western culture, and vice-versa. Parenting is one arena where both men and women care (from nappy changing to bedtime cuddles), in order to take good care of a growing child. Yet this softer side of masculinity is often neglected in dominant tropes of masculinity.

2. Representing masculinity in negative ways is bad for how boys and men see themselves

When society portrays masculinity in a rigid manner, it can be harder for boys and men to be themselves, and instead feel the need to conform to a narrow set of ideas of what it means to be a boy, a man or a dad. Being able to be yourself, and be accepted for that identity, rather than what society prescribes for you, is important for mental health and wellbeing.

Seeing ourselves in positive ways contributes to high self esteem. Seeing masculinity as inherently bad is therefore not ideal for men’s or boys’ mental health or self concept. In a recent YouGov poll, more young men (18–24yrs) saw masculinity as a negative rather than a positive trait.

3. Ideas of masculinity can stop men getting help

There is a crisis in men’s mental health. American men 3.88 times are more likely to die by suicide than women in 2020. In the US, white males accounted for 69.68% of suicide deaths in 2020. In the UK, men accounted for three-quarters of suicide deaths registered in 2019, 4,303 compared with 1,388 women according to ONS statistics.

Many men do not get help for mental health issues. Research finds that fixed gender roles can stop men talking about feelings or to seeking help. Men often feel they have to fix it themselves and it’s too embarrassing and stigmatising to reach out for help. Some men feel that when they do talk about their feelings, this can be used against them.

4. Conventional masculinity doesn’t represent men as loving caring fathers.

Being a loving and involved father is important for children’s cognitive and emotional development. Fathers that can “be there” for their kids are really important for their children’s mental health.

Being there means listening, empathising and providing emotional safety for a child, free from belittling or mocking. Close emotional ties between fathers and their children are really important for both early child cognitive development, as well as reducing the risk of behaviour issues and addiction in older teenagers.

So, do we need to change the way we talk about men and boys?

Arguably, yes. A number of activists and charities are already reimagining masculinity, such as charity Beyond Equality and author Carlos Andrés Gómez.

Gómez, author of the book, Man Up Reimagining Modern Manhood tells the story of transforming from “a tough guy” looking for fights to someone who dared to rewrite his own notion of masculinity as a poet and creative. He writes that he has embarked on “a journey to becoming a man, a different kind of man, a man who lives and moves and acts outside of the predetermined boundaries of masculinity.”

One of the ways that masculinity is being reimagined is through positive masculinity.

What is positive masculinity?

Michael Wilson at the University of Melbourne defines it as:

“Positive masculinity is understood as a perspective that accentuates the strengths and beneficial aspects of a masculine identity”

Drawing from positive psychology, it encourages exploring what men need to be healthy, responsible and nurturing of themselves and others.

Some argue that positive masculinity is the idea that where men use their physical and emotional strength to demonstrate healthy behaviours and build communities. The focus of positive masculinity is to help generations of men learn healthy behaviors and then develop more robust communities.

However, positive masculinity again needs to be a diverse idea. Whilst traits that might be included in positive masculinity include independence, courage and strength, these are not confined to masculinity as pointed out by Christopher Dewey, femininity can include these traits, (childbirth being one such example!). Equally, men who do not identify with such traits need not adopt them in order to have positive masculinity.

However, there is no easy answers and more debate and exploration is necessary and the voices of boys, men and fathers is critical. There are some key questions that it’s important to answer.

Your views on these questions are most welcome.

My big questions in men’s, boys’ and fathers’ mental health

  • Do we need to change the narrative on masculinity to support men, boys and fathers?

  • If we, as a society, become more aware of negative masculinity and promote positive masculinity, can we improve men’s, boys and fathers’ mental health?

  • How can reimagining fatherhood have a positive impact on being a father?

Let me know your thoughts and what masculinity means to you.

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