A year on from the start of the #MeToo movement, when everything from Brexit to the rise of Trump has been blamed on toxic masculinity, we are currently witnessing a paradigm shift in our understanding of what masculinity really means – and men are struggling.
The rise of female empowerment has been hugely positive, but it has left some men confused about their roles, and social media heaps additional pressures on men to “show success” at all times. Throw in the current political, economical and moral turmoil around the world, a society constantly telling men to ‘stay strong’ and not show their feelings, and it’s no surprise that some men simply don’t know how to ‘be’.
As a result, men are lost, keeping their real emotions buried and living life in a way they think is expected of them rather than how they really want to live. It’s hugely harmful and it’s impacting themselves and the world around them. You only have to look at the fact that suicide is still the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
Men no longer have anything to guide them - there are no institutions nor enough role models to help guide men towards living a life where they can be happy in their own skins.
Body positivity campaigners like Jameela Jamil, who this week called out celebrities who say their unrealistic bodies are down to ‘diet teas’, have helped women see that their worth is not dictated by being a certain body weight, shape, or look, and embrace diverse beauty ideals.
But where are the male equivalents?
Because I think old-fashioned ideas of what ‘success’ is for men should be tackled in the same way as how traditional concepts of what ‘beauty’ is for women have been.
If men are to thrive, the current narrow definitions of what it means to be a successful man need to be fought.
Men are still being told that success means ‘manning up’ and more than half in the UK believe that crying in front of others makes them less of a man and that they should never ask for emotional support. Yet men feeling free to express their feelings should be considered a sign of maturity, not vulnerability.
Other recent research has found that 37% of millennial men believe that “real men don’t crack under pressure”, almost a quarter (23%) believed it was more important to be feared than respected and 23% see losing as a sign of weakness.
At work, we think we’re expected to show no emotions and that demonstrating your manly strength is mandatory if you want to climb the career ladder.
Online, never-ending porn tells men the number of notches on their bedpost and the size of their nethers mark them as good lovers, not the love, care and intimacy shared with their partners.
Yet women don’t believe in these often harmful stereotypes as much as men do, indicating that the pressure men feel to live up to these tropes is mostly coming from themselves and other men.
But without an abundance of positive role models to give them a new way of understanding what being a man really is, when power and money are still portrayed as synonymous with success, men - in particular millennials - are left flailing.
Why don’t we include other criteria in our view of what it means to be a successful man?
As comedian Robert Webb says in his book ‘How Not To Be A Boy’: “When we tell a boy to ‘act like a man,’ we’re effectively saying ‘Stop expressing those feelings.’ And if the boy hears that often enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like ‘Stop feeling those feelings’.”
Millennial men need more like Webb to look up to and see that success as a man is possible outside of harmful, outdated stereotypes. We need more men like Grayson Perry, who combat macho caricatures reinforced in the worlds of entertainment and the media. More of the likes of Daniel Radcliffe, Professor Green, Years and Years singer Olly Alexander and Prince Harry - men who are honest and real about their emotions and feelings, who dare to break the mould age-old beliefs of what being a successful man means.
However, this is not to say that all men should suddenly become emotional and vulnerable - this is about an expression of freedom to be who we really are, not push men towards a set of “progressive” stereotypes which could also attempt to separate them from their real selves, in the same way that traditional ones do. Stress and toxicity come when men push themselves and others to a sustained performance of who they are not.
We need more public figures to be “spiritual leaders” to inspire and guide men on the journey from the ‘man up’ era to the ‘be yourself’ era.
Yes, this will require a huge social transformation throughout our society, not just in media, sport and entertainment, but in business, politics, advertising and education too. We need to see real male models in all these areas.
But men are ready to change and the world at large needs that change - towards a new breed of man who feels comfortable being himself rather than conforming to a narrow and outdated set of stereotypes. Now, that really would make a world of difference...