I first became aware of our culture's obsession with the image of male heroism at about age seven. Sitting on the sofa between my parents, our evening televisual entertainment was suddenly interrupted by an advert - fast-cut images of burly, brave men carrying various heavy objects from an endless parade of fiery scenery (burning buildings, foundries), sound-tracked by Bonnie Tyler's classic soft-rock anthem, Holding Out for a Hero:
He's gotta be strong
And he's gotta be fast
And he's gotta be fresh from the fight!
What a heady cocktail of imagery and language suddenly appearing before me! In that moment, I was acutely aware of how far this rhinitis-afflicted boy, who cried when he lost at board games, was from that paragon of heroism on screen. Furthermore, I was struck, in the innocent way that children can be, by how astoundingly unfair was this unattainable comparison.
This was my conscious "awakening", for want of a better word, to a fact that we all have to confront during our childhoods. The world has already decided what kind of person you are going to be, based on the design of your sexual organs. While the expectation on girls is to become subservient, passive, dainty and emotional, boys are expected to aspire to a version of masculinity exemplified by strength, bravery, leadership, and stoicism. There's a powerful social imperative to live up to these roles, and potentially devastating consequences when, inevitably, we fail to do so.
Fast forward around 15 years, and I embark on my first proper, adult, heart-in-stomach love. I'm completely swept up in a relationship with a captivating, intelligent and caring woman: a woman with some complicated mental health issues. I consider myself a self-actualised person, with a healthy cynicism around conjugal roles. We share housework and the burden of earning money. We both eschew traditionally masculine or feminine pursuits. We habitually point out unhealthy genderised or misogynistic media. We share our emotions freely, both of us laughing and crying in equal measure.
But I'm caught up in my own myth. Lurking in the back of my mind is this unhealthy, unattainable ideal of masculine heroism, seeded during that Wednesday evening watching ITV in the '90s. Instead of a loving relationship with a rounded human, I'm enacting a white knight fantasy. Finally, in a small way, I'm able to heroically protect a true damsel in distress of our modern times. I'm able to unconditionally put everything on the line to rescue the most important person in the world. I may not have broad pectorals and a John McClane-esque sheen of gritty sweat, but in my own way, I'm the hero at last.
Two things happen to me. Firstly, inevitably, I'm unable to "fix" this broken butterfly, no matter how much time and love I selflessly pour into her. Secondly, I'm dragged down with her into a pit of depression and anxiety. Partly it's the gravitational pull depression can exert on those unwarily circling the sufferer. But it's also my own sense of powerlessness. This monolithic illness rebuffs all my attempts to slay it. I feel duped, cheated.
The relationship ends. I am heartbroken. I've lost my love, and also the certainty upon which I built my own myth of heroism: the hero always wins the girl.
I had internalised those messages to an extent that I had made myself into a hero of my own story. But I'd also fashioned myself into the protagonist of that of my erstwhile girlfriend. I'd infantilised her, made her the passive recipient of my valour. Is it any wonder, when she began to heal and depend upon me less entirely; neither of us liked what we saw in one another?
What have I learned from this? We have to begin to undo the lessons we internalise as children about our roles as men. To let go of the need to display our heroism in a world where not all of our enemies can be seen, let alone defeated. To learn to love women as people of equal value, agency and self-mastery as ourselves. To understand that "happy ever after" isn't the automatic reward for selflessness. To allow ourselves to be weak, vulnerable, emotional.
Slowly but surely, I'm getting there. Come join me on the journey.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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