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30 October 2016

Sometimes it’s hard to be a man – especially if you overthink it

A new outpouring of books show masculinity isn’t in crisis, human beings are.

By Steven Poole

What a terrible time it is to be a man. Emasculated by desk jobs and postmodern gender politics, they can’t even exercise eternally manly virtues – correcting other people’s grasp of trivial facts, say, or punching them in the face. And as everyone knows, men are incapable of maintaining proper friendships, so they have no one to talk to about their problems, even if they were able to acknowledge their emotions, which of course they can’t. No wonder they commit nearly all the world’s crime. And no wonder that the single biggest killer of men under 45 in this country is suicide. Men these days are angry and sad and voting for Trump and Brexit. And it’s everyone’s problem. It’s Mangeddon. It’s the Androcalypse. Why does our culture hate men so much? Who will stand up for the downtrodden male of the species?

One answer, of course, is the “men’s rights” movement, from which corner one hears mainly the distant yowl of entitled misogyny. But in a slew of new books, readers will find a variety of more competent thinkers addressing the current supposed crisis of masculinity, and what should be done about it.

The first question to ask is: what is masculinity anyway? The artist (and transvestite) Grayson Perry attempts a definition in The Descent of Man, a book that draws on his “Great White Male” guest edit of the NS in 2014. Perry describes masculinity as “a deeply woven component of the male psyche”, but also simply as “how men behave at present”. Jack Urwin, in the bloggy, teenager-friendly tones of Man Up, writes ecumenically: “As far as I’m concerned anyone who identifies as a man, is a man; and because masculinity is a social construct and thus rooted mostly in identity rather than biology, masculine behaviour is exhibited by all men.” Masculinity “is simply a reflection of how the majority of men act”.

Conceptual hazards arise immediately. Do all or even most men behave in the same way? Obviously not. But if masculinity is nothing but how men behave, and their behaviour is heterogeneous, there would seem to be no useful borders to the idea. So maybe “masculinity” is somehow innate after all. Urwin seems hesitant on the matter. Biological factors that might have been important during the Stone Age are irrelevant to modern lives, he argues. (As is often said about politics, however, you might not be interested in biology, but biology is interested in you.) Yet soon afterwards he states confidently that “violence is inherently male”, but he hopes that men can somehow be persuaded not to enact what is inherent to them.

A more nuanced picture is offered by the broadcaster Rebecca Asher in her refreshingly evidence-based book Man Up. She surveys claims that the brains of men and women are “wired differently” and notes that even if some neurological differences can be observed – which is still hotly contested – any such differences, given the well-established idea of brain plasticity (that the brain essentially “rewires” itself according to experience), could well be a result of acculturation in a heavily gendered society, rather than biologically innate. Studies suggest that fathers encourage “rough-and-tumble play” with their sons but not their daughters. So is it surprising that boys grow up with a greater inclination towards play-fighting, and perhaps also real fighting? The jury is still out on how exactly hormonal differences in the womb influence subsequent behaviour, if indeed they do, but the influence of adults on children is clear.

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However men got it in the first place, all these books seem to agree that they have a penchant for fighting. Enlightened males such as Urwin want to reason them out of this proclivity, but suppressing men’s natural instinct for violence is part of the problem for the author of Who Stole My Spear?, Tim Samuels. He complains that open-plan offices are “an unnatural source of emasculation” for men, because it “sends our flight/fight hormones haywire”. (It is not clear whether a natural source of emasculation, such as a testicle-nibbling tiger, would be any better.) For Samuels, there are “core male values” that have not changed since we were all cave people: “heroism, aggression in the face of conflict and stubborn individuality”. Let us pass quickly over the fact that “stubborn individuality” and aggression definitely have not been celebrated throughout history. The problem with the modern world, for Samuels, is that these “values” are not valued properly any longer, especially at work, where “the traditional female emphasis on consensual decision-making will be dominant”. (I suppose if you’re going to stereotype men you might as well stereotype women, too.)

“Is man meant to fight?” Samuels wonders innocently. If so, one solution is supervised and ritualised combat in the form of fight clubs or Krav Maga courses. A kindly boxing coach tells him: “Here, they can take out their angst, whatever natural aggression they’ve got in their system, in a positive way.” This is one thing that authors seem to agree on. Rachel Asher meets a former gang member for whom boxing was the ideal escape: it’s macho enough that you can say “I can’t get involved, I’ve got training”.
Grayson Perry also thinks some similar kind of outlet for pent-up aggression is good: he approves of boxing clubs, reminisces fondly about his days as a competitive cyclist, and talks to the owner of a gym in Sunderland who explains that “his place has taken over from the shipyard and the working men’s club. Men come here to work up a sweat and to socialise. Instead of making iron, they are pumping it.” In that case, maybe it’s not fighting per se that’s necessary for the modern man. Perhaps it’s just sociable and intense physical activity that does the trick.

As, it could well be said, it does for human beings in general – not excluding women. Many of these authors’ examples of a crisis of masculinity, indeed, are just examples of the crisis of personhood in the 21st century. Modern workplace science says that open-plan offices make everyone, not just men, more stressed and less productive. There are other factors that affect women just as much as men, though you wouldn’t guess it from these books. Samuels laments the modern “fusion of work insecurity with sky-high expectations about how we should be living”, which is obviously universal. “Loneliness is a feature of many men’s lives,” Asher writes, generalising from a study by an American sociologist – but it is a feature of many women’s lives, too. (For one thing, research suggests that everyone feels lonelier and more miserable the more time they spend on Facebook.) Both Urwin and Perry note the rise of body dysphoria among young men exposed to ripped torsos on TV and in porn, and yet here men are only just catching up to a condition that women have experienced for decades. And although obviously the much higher suicide rate among men is a bad thing, the claim in all of these books that male sadness is a unique problem looks rather unfortunate in the light of the news, too recent to have made it into any of these books, that it is in fact young women in this country who are most likely to suffer depression, and most likely to self-harm.

Samuels also bemoans the excessive choice available to him on dating apps such as Tinder, which he thinks are discouraging men from commitment. After enjoying the sociable experience of a charismatic church in America, he comments drily: “It looked more fun than spending a Sunday evening on the couch half watching a box-set, banally chatting to girls on Tinder who have nice cleavage shots but terrible grammar.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that women on Tinder might be having similarly unsatisfying experiences chatting to men. Or that more women, too, might be playing the field for longer because of internet dating. It is arguably the very notion that these are uniquely men’s problems that is behind the supposed modern crisis in masculinity.

Besides the idea that men suffer from violent urges that must be given a civilised outlet, lest they attack random passers-by, another common stereotype is that they are emotionally illiterate. All the writers here assent to the truth of this, which hints that they haven’t spent much time participating in or overhearing men’s conversations in pubs these days. But Asher offers an explanation of why the stereotype might have come about. Studies suggest, she notes, “that mothers and fathers are less tolerant of displays of emotion in boys, particularly crying and expressions of unhappiness or fear”. In other words, rather than being some kind of innate incapacity, it is the idea that men don’t or can’t talk about their feelings,
passed on from one generation to the next, which ensures that (some) men don’t talk about their feelings.

In these ways, stereotypes do real and baleful work in the world. Even people who don’t conform to the stereotypes know what they are and often, in some sense, measure themselves against them. The best analysis of what is going on here is Grayson Perry’s. He comes up with a splendid metaphor for a kind of mental panopticon in which most men live.


Men are performing for an invisible authority, the Department of Masculinity. We never know when we are being observed, so we constantly keep watch on ourselves and each other; we guard the boundaries of the role. We are all the authority figure and the prisoner.


But if the manacles of masculinity are mind-forged they can be cracked. How to encourage such a development? All the authors make proposals, probably the most apt of which is more sensitive parenting. “We do not treat our boys with sufficient love,” Asher writes. “We discipline them more harshly than girls; we talk to them less; we encourage them to suppress their gentler feelings; we shrug off their exclusion from school and incarceration in young offender institutions; we assume they will commit most crime and account for most gang membership.”

Other suggestions include more paternity leave for fathers, and perhaps even a return to some kind of universal becoming-a-man ritual, such as national service. (Perry thinks that the success of Isis in recruiting fighters lies in the way it does offer a kind of ersatz “national service” for disaffected young men from other countries – although, seen in this light, it is possibly not a very good advert for bringing back the idea everywhere.) Fathers should play with dolls with their sons; men should talk more to one another about their feelings.

In these ways, the authors promise, we can “redefine masculinity” to make it mean something more wholesome and healthy. Perry offers a concluding list of “Men’s Rights”: the right to be “weak”, “intuitive”, “uncertain”, and so on. This chimes rather nicely with the list made by boys at an east London secondary school who, as Asher reports, were asked to make a list of traits that they would like to be considered as characteristic of a man: they included “Allow people to be different”, “If you want to be emotional, you can be”, “Empathy”, “Responsibility”, “Respecting women”, “If you want to be gay, be gay”. So, the good news is that the kids seem to be figuring out this stuff for themselves, and the old stereotypes of masculinity hold less sway over each new generation. In which case the alleged current “crisis” is just the last spasm of a disappearing ideology.

As Perry points out, none of this is necessarily relevant to what goes on in the bedroom between heterosexual men and women. “Several times,” he relates, “I have asked audiences to put up their hand if they have sexual fantasies where the central theme is gender equality. No one ever raises their hand. (Who would? Nick Clegg maybe?)” But the question remains: if “masculinity” in everyday social interactions can be redefined, as all these writers hope, to become something like its opposite, what use is it as a concept at all? The Twitter hashtag #masculinitysofragile, calling out unreconstructed bros for their aggrieved defensiveness, is in this sense part of the problem, just as Jack Urwin points out that women who reply to trolls on social media by saying they must have small penises are, unfortunately, merely reinforcing the idea that a “real man” has a big tool.

The truth is that there are many ways to be a man, and – despite the golden-age hunter-gatherer guff endorsed in some of these books – there always have been. Rebecca Asher observes: “Men can now gain kudos from being geeks, book nerds or musos, as well as through the well-worn route of physical and sexual prowess or impressive earnings.” To speak of a reified “masculinity”, even if you want to redefine it as vulnerable and nurturing, seems increasingly unhelpful, if not outright sexist. (Asher notes pointedly that most women no longer feel that “femininity” is a useful category around which to organise their lives.)

As is clear from the writings of the ancient Romans and Greeks, the idea of masculinity or manliness has been conceived as under threat and in crisis ever since it first appeared. Surely it would be more civilised to adopt the attitude of that pioneering feminist, Plato, who describes Socrates explaining why women, like men, can be guardians of his republic. Yes, they are on the whole physically weaker, but in all other respects they are people, and all traits are found in varying combinations in people of either sex: “The natural capacities are distributed alike among both creatures, and women naturally share in all pursuits and men in all.”  Because it reinforces the idea of male exceptionalism, on the other hand, the notion that there is a crisis of masculinity is just another sexist meme that shores up the patriarchy. And, like the patriarchy itself, it harms men as well as women. Maybe a real man is one who never gives any thought to his masculinity at all.

Steven Poole is the author of “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)


The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry is published by Allen Lane, 145pp, £16.99

Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity by Jack Urwin is published by Icon Books, 288pp, £12.99

Man Up: Boys, Men and Breaking the Male Rules by Rebecca Asher is published by Harvill Secker, 304pp, £14.99

Who Stole My Spear? by Tim Samuels  is published by Century, 368pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage