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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.

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.

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

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”