The last five years have seen a sudden spurt of infants in my family – five to be precise, and all of them boys. I’ve always been optimistic for the next generation of youths, for I think – perhaps naively – that they’ll endure an ounce or two less of the misfortune and adversity that their predecessors had grown up in. Perhaps what we currently deem ‘anomalies’ – things like gender equality, homosexuality, and racial fairness – will seem as familiar and ordinary to them as something like a woman’s right to vote does to us.
Well that’s the hope... or is it?
I was at a birthday party the other day when one of the five infants in my family tripped, fell on his head and began to cry. Naturally, his parents came to the rescue, picked him up and began to coax him in a bid to draw back his tears. Another member of my family shook him gently and shouted rather sternly, “big boys don’t cry!” expressing a semblance of disappointment that the almost two-year-old might be showing emotion – the ‘weak’ kind. At just two years of age, he is already being taught to suppress his sadness, a trend that contributes to the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK: suicide.
Reverse the situation and we get a very different picture. This time, we have two brothers, a five-year-old and a two-year-old. The older sibling: an introverted, shy, and reserved type compared to his more boisterous and ‘boyish’ younger brother. In referring to the younger sibling, you’ll often hear something proudly professed like: ‘he’s got a really strong grip!’ or ‘he banged his head on the wall but didn’t even flinch!’ – male behaviour that’s recognised and celebrated. And these conversations are happening among my generation, the supposedly ‘modern’ kind. We remain frightened if our male descendants, age notwithstanding, deviate from behaviour commonly prescribed to man. In fact, when it comes to man, it seems we’re still frightened of ‘feminising’ him.
Women, however, in their pursuit of gender equality, have been ferociously pushing for a modernising of gender roles for centuries – and rightly so. As a result, the definition of femininity is changing and amounting to social progress, yet what is ascribed to masculinity remains stuck in a pool of testosterone you might find at the end of a football match.
A select few forward-thinkers, like Grayson Perry, are leading conversations around the rigidity of masculine roles and the damage it is wreaking on men’s lives (as evidently shown through the statistic on male suicides in the UK). In his book The Descent of Man, Perry argues that the kind of maleness that views power, physical strength and silent suffering as a means of survival is outdated. Instead, Perry models a progressive version of manhood on prolific figures like Barack Obama and David Beckham, who embody a more tender type of masculinity (we’ll call this manhood version 2.0). This version of manhood needn’t attain to standards that tell us we must grunt while pumping 90kg of iron, argue until we have the last word, compete until we have the upper hand, and pretend we’re emotionless cyborgs. This version does not perform manliness or contort him around the one-size-fits-all cutout that society has imposed since birth.
If ‘sex’ is a biological construct (referring to the physical differences between males and females) then we may well consider ‘gender’ a social construct, passed down by history, (bad) habits and beliefs. Even before our grey matter had formed, our roles as men had been pre-determined by everyone and everything around us so we were all just a compilation of the same thing – the same history, the same (bad) habits, and the same set of beliefs.
Simply turn your eyes to a television, arguably still one of the most influential mediums, and witness how reductive and broad-brush we still are in presenting and representing masculinity. I can’t recall the last time I watched something on television where a group of men were shown engaging in intimate conversation – outside of football ‘bants’ and trivialised humour. Or when emotional intelligence, advice handouts and an enviable fashion sense weren’t just stereotypically billed to the ‘gay best friend’ of a female character. If a man is “in touch with his feminine side”, we deem him more sensitive, emotionally expressive, and better able to engage in pillow talk than the average man. But is this a ‘feminine side’ or a version of masculinity that’s rebutting and unlearning everything its been taught about gender? If gender were an heirloom, passed down from one generation to the next, then perhaps it should have lost its value a long time ago.
Indeed if gender were an heirloom, I’d be unwilling to pass it down to my descendants. I’ve never given parenthood much thought; entertaining someone else’s child and giving him or her back to their parents once I sense a whiff of you-know-what, suits me just fine. But if Kim Kardashian has taught us anything, it’s that raising your child in gender-neutral clothing might the first, basic step in helping redefine what gender means in the modern world. In a world of pink and blue aisles, gender divisions, and a bunch of ‘supposed tos’, we may have centuries ahead of us till we’ve deconstructed the foundation that masculinity has been built on. For now though, let big boys cry,
Let them wail,
Let them define for themselves what it means to be a man.
Manhood version 2.0 is ready. Not available in Beta.