It is safe to say that femininity in its many forms has changed a lot over the past few decades. I think it’s also safe to say that aside from a few adamant keyboard warriors, this has generally been considered to be a great thing.
The very fact that we’re now so enraged by the thought of having to wear skirts and heels at work shows how far we’ve come. Not too long before that, office-wear wouldn’t have been an issue, because we simply wouldn’t have been in the office. In the 1950s, advertising completely revolved around the expression of femininity within the home space. Now, in 2017, we have sportswear brands celebrating femininity in the form of strength, power and creativity, and typically hyper-feminine outlets such as the catwalk showcasing androgynous beauty.
On the other side of the coin, masculinity hasn’t really changed at all. The idea of the ‘man box’ that Tony Porter spoke about in his amazing TED talk is still very much at play, and those who display traits that even slightly sit outside of the box e.g. showing emotion and vulnerability still face torment, abuse and ridicule.
“We tend to think men have it easy. But we need to talk about the other gender gap, the one no one talks about.” Laura Visco – 72andSunny
The Birth of Masculinity
In order to break down the concept of masculinity, it’s important to track back to its origin and understand how it gained so much power and influence. Masculinity isn’t inherent in gender, babies born with a Y chromosome aren’t silent and commanding from birth because they are tough, cold, unemotional ‘men’. All babies cry, and then at some point, the boys are told to stop. Masculinity is a learned behaviour that is reinforced literally everywhere. From the ‘harmless’ army toys that little boys are bought, to the phrase ‘man up’, to the representation of the man as the ‘protector’, it isolates anyone who doesn’t fit into the bulging bicep, spinach-guzzling Popeye stereotype. That is an extreme example, but the way that people subconsciously treat male and female children differently was brought to light during this BBC documentary, during which children’s clothes were swapped and volunteers gave the ‘girls’ dolly and soft toys and the ‘boys’ action and spatial awareness toys.
To uncover the main contributors towards the masculinity problem, we need to track back all the way to Victorian times, when the (undoubtedly thoroughly enjoyable) culture was deep emotional repression. It was not acceptable to show your feelings, and the more stoic you were … the better. This covered both genders pretty equally, all in the name of ‘morality’. Not exactly a barrel of laughs but at least in this case it was roughly a level playing field, emotionally speaking.
Then WW1 broke out and conscription was enforced. At the time the British Army consisted of just over 700,000 men and by the end of the war this number had tipped 5 million. The government knew that in order to win this thing, they couldn’t afford for men to back out of the fight, so the propaganda machine started churning and the idea of being shamed for vulnerability as a man was born. We’ve all seen the ‘your country needs you’ posters, but there were also a whole raft of others which turned not signing up to the army into the most shameful thing a man could do. That fear of not appearing ‘man’ enough still exists today, and it’s turned toxic.
The Crisis of Masculinity
The big question is, why should we care? Particularly as women, we have been fighting the patriarchy for so long now that as Caitlin Moran once summarised: “we’re tired. So, so tired”. BUT, the fight against gender stereotypes has the ability to affect the lives of everyone for the better, allowing people to identify as whoever they truly are without backlash, expectation and shame. So despite the fatigue, we’re putting a pot of coffee on and getting stuck in.
As Laura Visco from 72andSunny brilliantly put it at the recent SheSays Rebranding of Feminism event in Amsterdam, the only emotion we allow men to express is anger. This leads to violence, often against women, but also towards other men. We only have to look at the UK prison population, of which less than 5% are women.
And what is the alternative to anger? Silence. This refusal to speak out when they need help is literally killing men. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 and in 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male. This terrifying statistic cannot be a coincidence and we need to act on it... right now.
The Deconstruction of Masculinity
Men need to feel as though they can cry, ask for help and lean on both other men and women for support when they need it. Just in the same way as women today hopefully feel as though they can be strong and powerful without acting like men. By getting rid of dangerous gender stereotypes, it benefits everyone, and gives people the power to define their own gender identity, expression and basically live their own damn life however they damn well want. So let’s allow our children to discover who they are, without shoving them in a pink or blue box, and celebrate when the men in our life open up or ask for help.
Finally, let’s hope that the next generation of baby boys born into this world are never again told to ‘man up’.