Towards the end of 2013, and as is the case with the close of every Movember, my husband proudly wore a bold moustache. It's always a point of conversation: I find it so amazing that a strip of facial hair can greatly influence the way people respond to the wearer, particularly at first encounters. Ideas of masculinity are almost wrapped around every sprouting follicle, as though "I'm a man" is written right across the face. As well as that, we've recently discovered that we're expecting a baby boy later this year! So, it goes without saying that issues relating to male identity are of huge interest under our roof right now.
Particular focus has been on life's possibilities for our son, and, as part of coming up with a list of names that we like, we find ourselves asking never-ending questions such as: What sort of personality traits does each name suggest? Will he be bullied? When he is older, will he get a good job with a name like that?
It's interesting, to say the least, and it has seriously made us think about the gender stereotypes that will no doubt try to shape our son's existence.
Back in May 2013, Diane Abbott, MP for Labour, claimed that Britain was facing a "crisis of masculinity." Blaming the economic downturn, Diane said that mass unemployment and so-called 'poor prospects' are depriving young men of the ability to perform as 'bread-winner'. This, she said, is forcing young men to reject the traditional roles associated with family life and to, instead, seek out other, and some could say more destructive, forms of male identity, such as homophobia, misogyny and machismo.
Describing it as becoming a bit like a "Fight Club" situation, Diane reckons that the current climate of "hypermasculinity" is making young men scared to open-up about their troubles, and, because they are unable to move out of the family home, they are "locked into a transitional phase."
Alarmingly, suicide is the biggest killer of young men in the UK, and research shows that if men felt more able to ask for help, hundreds of male suicides would be preventable. When it comes to the reasons why men don't, or can't, ask for help, the largest barrier appears to be the cultural expectation that men should 'keep it together' and 'be a man'.
In Morgan Spurlock's 2012 documentary Mansome, a cast of American actors such as Paul Rudd, and various social commentators, discuss what 'manliness' means. Picking up on the physical definers of facial and body hair, as well as the complex issues surrounding baldness, moustaches, chest hair and beards, manliness is analysed in terms of the judgments that society makes about men. Thankfully, the resolution to the film is that men can present themselves in many different ways, and they're now more openly allowed to look after themselves and their appearance. So, it could be said, there seems to be a sort of freedom when it comes to rejecting the previous set standard that men shouldn't care about what they look like. Saying that, it must be recognised that men are increasingly under more pressure to consume and groom. Therefore, although there are arguably more choices when it comes to modern-day forms of 'manliness', it could be quite confusing for a young man trying to navigate the mountainous terrain of masculinity. Especially when certain norms still dominate their lives from way before they are even born.
Take the colour blue as an example. It's loaded with gender norms. From the moment a baby's gender is identified, certain aspects of the child's life are automatically mapped out. Well-meaning parents and gift-givers stock up on blue clothes, and make comments about the typical 'manly' things that will become a part of family life, such as an interest in sport, or train sets. Children are, from the off, socialised in order to fit constructed gender norms.
Coming back to our unborn son's potential name, we've noticed that boys' names generally tend to sound tougher than girls' names, and it's been pointed out to us a number of times that boys' names 'should' be more traditional. Girls' names, however, can be more creative. What's more, we've discovered, through reading about the subject, that parents actually treat baby girls and boys differently, by their use of language and handling techniques (Rubin, 1974).
As boys grow older, they are, for instance, encouraged to play with toy swords and trucks, and are more likely to be told to 'be strong' when they fall over. Girls, on the other hand, are expected to cry, and are more often than not encouraged to play with dolls. This could be a key reason why girls are often better than boys at tuning in to their own, and others', emotions; avoiding conditions such as alexithymia (the inability to express feelings). These distinct differences in the upbringing of boys and girls continue and intensify throughout childhood, resulting in a clearly defined behaviour for boys to "suck it up!"
As soon-to-be-parents of a little boy, we really hope our son is never ordered to 'be a man'. I guess our wish for him is that he never equates net-worth with self-worth. We take some comfort in knowing that men are somewhat permitted these days to do things that would have once seemed completely 'unmanly' such as to be a ballet dancer or a househusband, but we're not deluded about the world he is being born in to and the challenges he will no doubt have to face.
Reflecting on one of Britain's favourite poems, Rudyard Kipling's 'If': it appears the expectation of men to be stoic, and to retain a stiff upper-lip, hasn't changed much since the early 1900s. Instead, and if the "masculinity crisis" is anything to go by, society has, by placing more emphasis on material wealth and status, almost crossed-out some of the softer sentiments of what Kipling attributed to being a man. If the crisis is to be believed, this is a sad shame, because there are some wonderfully gentle and positive statements in that poem. Except, of course, the bit about concealing problems. Nonetheless, there are still many, many men who identify with that poem, and from the perspective of a lot of men that we know, 'If' is largely something to aspire to, as it's widely regarded as a fair representation of how British society expects 'gentlemen' (a particular form of masculinity) to behave.
It must be acknowledged that cultural change starts (though in no way does it end) with parents, of both boys and girls. If parents can at least question the gender-specific norms that they place on their children, it could go a long way toward creating a society that challenges the way men and women are supposed to behave and interact with each other. It's not about squashing the individual characteristics of girls and boys; it's just about parents checking they're not placing unnecessary pressure on their little ones to say and do in terms of pink and blue. In the end, I guess it's about allowing children to be themselves, and to find their own, unique colour, whatever that may be.
To end, CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, has named 2014 as the 'Year of the Male' and published a Charter for Contemporary Man, signed by a coalition of leading figures in the mens' movement. This year-long "exploration and celebration of what it means to be a man in the UK today" aims "to tackle some of the root causes of the biggest killer of under 35 men in the UK, and to make changes to ensure a fairer society for all."
For more information, please visit yearofthemale.com