I used to be the most vocal advocate for male vulnerability. I would wander around syrup-eyed after meeting a guy who talked about “feelings!”, who peeled back his skin to reveal the bloodiest parts of his soul. It somehow felt novel, every time. To me and my friends, “he cried on me” was a new-found base in physical intimacy – I suppose this is because it felt like an antidote to years of “toxic masculinity” and the associated pressure on men to be “hard” and not talk about their mental health. Indeed, vulnerability has become a buzzword, in particular thanks to Brené Brown, a professor who focuses on the concept in her lecture The Call to Courage – which aired in 2019 on Netflix.
You could tell that a lot of men have clocked this hype on the second season of Love is Blind, the Netflix reality dating show that has become popular among millennials. During a recent reunion episode, almost every man recounted, glowingly, how much they had loved the chance be “vulnerable” on the show, to bare their deepest hopes and fears. Yet the thing I found most striking was that the men who majored on “vulnerability” had generally behaved the worst during significant chunks of the season – notably, two of them, Shayne Jansen and Jarrette Jones, who entertained the prospect of pairing up with other female contestants after getting engaged. The most notorious contestant, Shake Chatterjee, repeated phrases about his fiancé such as “I’m not physically attracted to her” and “it feels like I’m with my aunt or something”. Apparently there were worse comments – so unpleasant that even hardened reality TV executives felt the need to edit them out.
Shake professed himself proud to be “keeping it real” – although viewers largely interpreted his need to put others down as a reflection of his own insecurities. He reminded me of a voice note I once received from a man who said he didn’t want to see me again because, “in the interests of being honest”, he “felt empty inside” after we last met up. This possibly said more about him than it did about me, but even so I found it hard not to question my inner worth after hearing it.
And increasingly, this is what I find so fascinating about the way male vulnerability can be weaponised – you can play the part of “the good guy” by appearing to lift the lid on your emotions. But the reality often entails shifting pain on to another person, thus avoiding responsibility or dealing with said emotions. The trope is now so common in dating discourse and popular culture that there are Reddit threads devoted to it – for instance, Taylor Swift’s description of a man she dated as “so casually cruel in the name of being honest” in one of her song’s lyrics. The cult Instagram account “beam me up softboi” shares screenshots of messages from men who use their emotional openness to hurt women; it has become a byword for the millennial dating experience.
I wonder whether some men think that vulnerability can absolve them of their sins – as though being unflinchingly honest makes up for everything, or can act as a sort of plea bargain to reduce their sentence. I can’t count the number of guys I’ve heard about who dumped a girl while informing her they have been seeing someone else all along, proudly prefacing their statement with “I just want to be transparent!” – as if they deserve a journalistic award for their commitment to truthful and accurate reporting. One man that a couple of my friends have been involved with talks so much about his feelings of insecurity that it makes it impossible to reject him; he mentions his fragile mental health so much that it would feel unkind to point out his well-worn pattern of manipulation, infidelity and “stealthing”.
It could be that a lot of men are genuinely confused – women are asking them to suddenly undo decades of “boys don’t cry” conditioning. Is it fair to expect them to grasp proper vulnerability – the type that is not a goal in itself, but a precursor to personal growth – straight away? My worst fear is that male vulnerability is becoming cheap – like flashing a bosom or showing a wound to get what you want. True male vulnerability is a useful and honourable endeavour. It would be a shame for cynical men to devalue it.