HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.
How do you measure a man? Is there such a thing as 'manliness'? Are these self-set standards healthy for male well-being?
As precious as men hold the masculine ideal, it is an ideal that has shifted like the seasons through the millennia. For the hench Macedonian soldiers under Alexander the Great, sexual man-on-man relations were simply a non-romantic way to pass the time. Far from the image of smelly, pointy-horned raiders, historical Viking men would rarely travel without their grooming kit. Some even dyed their hair to conform to the luxurious blonde Nordic look. Despite their modern, ultra-feminine associations, high heels were initially worn by Persian soldiers on horseback, fixing to the stirrups when they stood to allow for a better shooting stance. Heels were later worn by the 5'4" Louis XIV of France who wore them to tower over his court.
Unfortunately for him, he started a fashion trend, and his courtiers once more gained the height advantage. These well-to-do dandies of the royal court sported a demeanour and dress sense that would seem entirely at odds with the status quo today. The 19th century fashion for beards - a rarity before the Crimean War's blistering cold weather and risk of infection from shaving - made the bristly face bush a practical necessity. This latest chin accessory was quickly picked up by civvies back home, notably by former clean shaven Victorian studs Dickens and Darwin. Today we can pick from a variety of masculine archetypes, from the tip-twizzled moustachioed hipster to the gym worshiping, hairless spornosexual. Today's is not a painted picture of masculinity, but a fluid interpretation of ever changing values.
Modern entertainment inundates us with choice of male identities. Most interestingly in comedy, we often root for the lovable loser, who inexplicably beats all the odds to win the affections of a woman through some shared experience or misadventure. Through cheering on these characters, we men get that temporary high of feeling that we too can achieve greatness through our mediocrity. If only we stumble across that treasure map, or pretend to be a spy and uncover a drug smuggling ring, or give the (always attractive) girlfriend's family cat CPR. Yet in these romantic comedies, the functional adult male plays the antagonist. These different male identities vie for our attention, acceptance and adoption.
These unwritten rules of manliness are pervasive. The modern concept of 'bromance', for instance, hastily cobbled together to channel an acceptable form of affection between one heterosexual man and another. On the other side we see an attack on male culture that, intentionally or not, belittles the gender as a whole: manspreading, mansplaining and a plethora of pejorative manprefixes that belittle the belittlers in the name of man. If masculinity is in crisis, we can thank an unwillingness to open up about common issues, to admit that there is anything to talk about in the first place, perhaps from both sides. 'Can't we just get on with our own lives?'
The everyday struggles of men are a far cry from those portrayed on the silver screen. The Hollywood narrative of male death is typically car accidents or drug abuse; high octane, dangerous pursuits that romanticise assumptions of masculinity as brave and devil-may-care. But it consistently comes as a shock when young boys and men realise that the biggest killer for men under 40 is suicide. That 78% of people who take their own life are men. That the numbers are creeping up, year on year. The pressures to follow suit when it comes to drug culture, or embrace the speed and machismo of Vin Diesel are all too evident. Storytelling is a large part of our quest towards a perfect manliness. We strive to be like our heroes, our father figures, yet rarely have the rules laid out to us like a finely tuned school syllabi.
The very physical nature of a man continues to reinforce stereotypes. "Men are worse at raising children." "Men are better in senior management roles as they are more logical and less emotional." The idea that men and women are biologically and evolutionarily predisposed to different behaviours is a tried, tested and ultimately failed argument. If we truly believed this, we would let cancer take its course, birth control would be regarded as an evil standing in the way of our biological need to procreate, and the less able bodied would be left to fend for themselves. In the same way, aren't we ready to cast these constricting age old assumptions on gender roles into the obscurity of the past? As a race, we actively fight against our biology for the very physical improvement of the human condition. Yet when it comes to notional ideas of gender our views are worryingly static.
So is there a social hardwiring of men? Does the very fact that these archetypes exist suggest they are goals we should strive towards? Or are we beginning to accept that a 'real' man is one who simply identifies as one? Every time someone is told to man-up, what are we really saying? What values do we want them to exhibit?
Somewhere along this winding road of muddled masculinity, violence against women by men, against men by men, and against a man by himself has reached epidemic proportions. If we don't see these effects personally, it is hard to empathise and when addressing modern masculinity we fall back on the age-old argument: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'. When we get lost in the statistics we neglect what's most important: the individual.
So how do you measure a man?
This article was first published in Issue 3 of PYLOT Magazine.
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