HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.
Probably the worst thing a journalist can do - short of plagiarising or fabricating quotes - is to use their platform for shameless self-promotion, anyway I'm writing a book about masculinity and this is a big deal. But bear with me, because even though I'd be lying if I said one of my main motives for the piece you're reading isn't to subtlety encourage you to buy 'MAN UP: Surviving Modern Masculinity' (Icon Books, 2 June 2016), the mere fact I - of all people - am allowed to write a book in the first place can teach us a surprising amount about one of the most important issues in society today.
A year ago, I wrote a piece for VICE which explored the devastation wrought by the link between masculinity and emotional repression. It was inspired largely by own experiences - particularly the premature death of my father - and while I was fairly proud of the article and thought it made a handful of good points, I didn't really anticipate it getting much of a response since it was essentially a self-indulgent, first-person essay (like 95% of the web's non-pornographic content). To my shock, within the first day of it being published it racked up tens of thousands of shares; strangers from around the world were tweeting me every minute to thank me for writing it, Irvine Welsh called it 'fabulous'.
Yes, it felt pretty fucking fantastic, but as much as I'd love to just soak up the praise and believe it went viral purely because I'm one of the finest writers of my generation, let's face it: I'm barely 200 words deep here and even I'm already sick of my clumsy prose. The immense response it drew forced me to question what it was that resonated with people so deeply, and the only reasonable conclusion was that they'd never really read anything like it before - in spite of that seeming almost as unlikely as the Me Being A Good Writer thing.
While I thought it would be a problem that it was written about my dad, this actually turned out to be one of its biggest assets. Dozens of people, probably hundreds, got in touch with me after reading it to say they saw their own fathers, partners, brothers, uncles and sons in my old man. A lot of men saw themselves in him. Some told me about experiences that were eerily similar to mine, many said they'd forced their loved ones to read it. Unwittingly, by writing about something that 1) people were able to identify with closely and 2) had never really been discussed in an accessible (i.e. non-academic) way, I touched thousands of people.
Reporting on my own success may make me sound like an ego-centric twat, and this is partly true, but the popularity of that article does genuinely matter. When it was written, I had no background in gender studies, nor, truth be told, was I really a writer. Ostensibly, I could not be less qualified to author a book on masculinity, and yet, here we are. Books don't exist unless publishers believe there is a market for them, proof for which, in my case, could be found in the VICE article's response. I don't want to belittle myself too much (I am proud of the book so far and can't wait to share it) but the fact I was the one to make people sit up and take notice - and not someone better known or with more knowledge on the matter - shows how desperate we are for this conversation.
In a very meta example of how our lack of communication is harming us, it's arguably the main reason I'm in this position - because historically we have felt unable to even vocalise the existence of these problems within masculinity. So many people want to talk about toxic masculinity and so few people are doing this that a publisher was willing to risk commissioning a book from a relatively unknown and inexperienced author - and frankly, that seems wild to me. But the response revealed more than just a thirst for discussion of masculinity; it provided valuable insight into how this should happen in order to be effective.
The audience I was - and continue to be - most eager to reach is, obviously, men - particularly those who feel they have to conform to a certain idea of masculinity. Men received the piece far better than I imagined they would and, judging by the comments, this seemed to mostly stem from the fact they could identify with the situation and with me. As I already said, I wasn't an expert on gender or even a proper writer, I was just 'some guy'. Men tend to respond better to their peers, and by injecting the piece with some dark humour I think, aptly, I came across as quite masculine. The fact is, manly men don't generally want to read an academic paper penned by a verbose Oxbridge egghead, they want gritty realism and inappropriate jokes, told by someone on their level. I know it sounds hypocritical for me to play into the very stereotypes we need to banish, but right now I truly believe we have to fight fire with fire.
Even more importantly was the way women responded. Too often, when men write about masculinity or issues concerning men, the role of women - both as victims of toxic masculinity and as the emotional supports on which men rely - is either ignored, or worse: some men blame women's rights for creating a crisis of masculinity and portray feminists as evil, man-hating monsters, actively working against us. Writer Matt Haig claimed he was 'crucified' by feminists when he tweeted his ideas for a book similar to mine, but I personally found there was no group more supportive; indeed, it was the formidable Laurie Penny who told me I should write a book in the first place and helped set things in motion.
Regardless of what some might try to tell you, toxic masculinity is an issue that people from across the spectrum want to address. It's clear that we want this discussion; need this discussion and although I'm certainly not saying my book will be the thing to bring this about (obviously that's what I want you to think, though) that it exists in itself suggests we are ready for change. I didn't write this solely so I could brag about a much better thing I'd written or tell you to buy my book (honestly!); this is far bigger than me, and though I wish I could say I was a pioneer, this couldn't be less true. The piece did well not because my thoughts were original, but for the very opposite of this; because everyone who read it had at some point thought the exact same thing and were just grateful to hear they weren't alone in this.
Skip forward a year and it's remarkable how much has already changed: I'm writing this very article as part of a huge series on masculinity in the modern day, and it comes a few days after Professor Green's brilliant documentary on male suicide and mental health aired to much applause. There's no doubt that the conversation is already well under way, and this alone is thoroughly exciting. Change won't happen unless we want it to, but if things continue on this current trajectory, there's reason to be very hopeful indeed about the future of men.