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19 June 2006

Sometimes it’s hard to be a man

On the surface, any connection between the World Cup and men's mental health week is just a quirk of

By Zoe Williams

By an uncanny coincidence, this year’s National Men’s Health Week focused on mental well-being, while also coinciding with the start of the World Cup. I personally think that devoting any week, or indeed day, to an “issue” is misguided, relying as it does on a sense of wholesomeness and community to bind us together against individual activities – such as smoking, say, or drinking oneself into a stupor – that are always more exciting than communality will ever be. The gentle solicitude, furthermore, of devoting a week to the mental health of one gender is infantilising. You can imagine the timetable. Wednesday: International Symposium of Depression Studies. Thursday: Sleeping Lions, Cake. But of course the extra piquancy comes from the fact that they’re going to be drunk, these men I mean, for the whole of the month of June, and then some of July. You might call it football. A mental-health professional would call it self-medication on an international scale.

Now, on the surface, any connection between football and mental health is just a quirk of the diary. Men need the extra attention, mental-health-wise, for the same reason they had a cancer week last year and a heart disease week the year before: they don’t go to the doctor. If there’s anything wrong with them, in consequence, it gets worse, and if there isn’t anything wrong with them, the anxiety incurred by never being able to check that for sure means there soon will be. In descending order of doctor-visiting, the list is: women; men with wives; men with girlfriends; men with friends who are girls; men. This bodes ill indeed for single men. There is a plus side, though, which is that they put a lot less of a burden on the NHS.

But let’s imagine that men’s mental health suffers for reasons more culturally profound than that they don’t want to go to the doctor because they’re scared of his rubber gloves. Let’s suppose that masculinity, if not in “crisis”, at least makes demands, of those who try to embody it, that compromise their well-being. Let’s suppose, in other words, that trying to be a man is not the same as trying to be a woman. It’s much harder; it’s much more confusing; and it’s liable to create anxiety disorders. Football in this context operates as a near-perfect microcosm of the contradictions of manliness, where everything that is most lauded and encouraged, the boisterousness and excess, the awesome fellowship, has some noxious sibling – violent, losing all sense of personal dignity, doing that annoying thing in pubs of hugging and jumping up and down at the same time – who is totally abhorrent.

Is there such a thing as irreducible manliness? Is it innate or conditioned? Are there elements of it to which men ought still to aspire, or is it all nonsense? Is there any such thing as a gender generalisation that doesn’t leave one side short-changed?

A number of things prevent us from addressing any of this. The first is what we might call the Michael Buerk effect. Almost a year ago, Buerk attracted a flurry of media attention with his theory that “male” characteristics of “stoicism, reticence and single-mindedness” were being sidelined in favour of female traits such as chatting in a friendly manner and being able to cut hair and play Donkey Kong at the same time. Women were taking over, in other words. We were becoming more like men; men (“David Beckham and, God forbid, Tim Henman”) were becoming more like women.

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I reprise these notions just to remind us how annoying they were. Not because Buerk was extrapolating a point about society from a bunch of newsreaders (this is what scientists might call a poor sample). Not because of his manner, which affected straight-talking, you-won’t-like-this-but-I’ll-damn-well-say-it-anyway, but in fact strikingly failed to mention the central thesis: “Times were better when people like me were in charge.” No, we were enraged because any perceived difference between the genders has, traditionally, been used to denigrate and undervalue women. Good at multitasking? Sadly, this makes you unsuitable for a full pension . . .

Clearly, there were some aspects of Buerk’s argument that were true: reticence is a male trait, and so is stoicism. (Otherwise, as we have seen, men would go to the doctor.) But to allow masculinity any territory or characteristics of its own is, in the end, going to make a statement about femininity – and we fear this, rightly, because it has only ever been used to subjugate women. This is, I believe, why tabloid newspapers – actually, to be fair, the media in general – get so excited whenever evidence is revealed that “scientifically” nails down gender characteristics: when, for instance, testosterone-related traits which produce aggression, or the ability to skim stones across water, are identified as “male”. There is something gleeful in the way these features are reported – there’s nothing anybody likes more than political correctness not argued against but disproved by science.

There are, evidently, pitfalls in trying to repudiate the very existence of masculinity – but there are pitfalls, too, in trying to discuss it as a serious and definable characteristic. These are evinced rather well by the Harvard academic Harvey C Mansfield in his book Manliness, published in March, in which he asks: “Why do men need to feel important? It’s their manliness. But is manliness obsolete? Is it even a virtue?” He then “invites – no demands – a response from readers”. Do you see what he did there? He started off inviting, but then demanded. That is very manly of him. “A manly man,” he continues, “asserts himself so that he and the justice he demands are not overlooked. He rouses himself and seeks attention for what he deems important, sometimes something big – in the case of the New York uniforms and the Islamic fascists, the nature and value of western civilisation.” So much of that makes me uncomfortable – first, the notion that only masculinity can protect justice; more importantly, the random and grandiose choice of the focus of that justice.

If masculinity exists at all, one of its pillars, perhaps its only pillar, is that it takes itself far too seriously. This makes it almost impossible not to snigger at. That leaves you with the World Cup and men who’ve painted their faces red and white. (Why would you do that? What are you, 12?) But it also leaves you with men who won’t go to the doctor because they’re too stoic or reticent, or maybe they just think that as soon as the green ooze stops, it’ll crust over. And it leaves you with the nationalism that seems rather bonkers in a sporting context, but will come in very handy if we ever get invaded.

Gender generalisations are easy to pick holes in but, without them, we have statistical curves that are inexplicable. Men are more likely to commit suicide; they are more likely to be alcoholics, to be addicted to non-prescription drugs, to be smokers; they are more likely to be schizophrenic. Women are more likely to be depressed. But is that just because we, er, go to the doctor?

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