30/10/2015 04:21 GMT | Updated 29/10/2016 06:12 BST

Why Sensitivity Is a Vital Part of Masculinity


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.

What a relief that masculinity turned out not to be what I feared. I was never very good at being one of the lads at school: not good enough at football, not a big enough beer drinker, a little too comfortable being friends with the girls. I often quietly envied the sportsmen. I sometimes wished to be the one the girls were swooning about, rather than the one they were confiding in. Of course it wasn't really a problem. Acting, politics, music and being a bit of a performer were just different ways of exhibiting your masculinity. In some ways, slightly better, as the football boys soon realised. We were more likely to be hanging out with gorgeous girls on a stage than they were on a football pitch.

In journalism too, certainly in the late '80s and '90s, there was a machismo to many of the TV correspondents that I struggled with looking up to. A string of failed marriages, a couple of girlfriends dotted around the world and a slightly lecherous manner seemed the done thing when I looked around the bar at what might have been my heroes. Stories of snipers, battles and hanging out with foreign armies in the Yugoslav wars went a long way for those men competing with city boys and lawyers for attention. It was never going to come naturally to me.

My first trips to conflict zones were rather different. Working for the children's programme Newsround meant our focus wasn't the boys toys and guns, but the human impact. Like most young men before they have their own children empathy wasn't, in truth, my strongest quality. But it was drummed into me by work. We would succeed if we moved people with the plight of others, not by trying to impress them with our bravery. That turned out to be as much the philosophy of my next destinations: Newsnight, Channel 4 News and Unreported World. These were places out of the mainstream where analysis and sensitivity were valued as much as the raw reporting of big, dramatic events. And where if I happened to be in Lesbos where panicked refugees were stumbling over rocks I could stick out a hand and help without it getting in the way of the reporting.

Of course what you discover when you make TV programmes about brave, apparently macho men such as the Baghdad Bomb Squad or Yemeni death row convicts or Sunni militants in Lebanon is that they are not the two-dimensional masculine clichés you expect. They have fears, doubts and crises of confidence. They deep down care most about their children, partners and parents. They cry, often quite easily. Many - whisper it quietly - are gay or bisexual. They leave you wondering if the image of masculinity you grew up with has anything to do with reality at all.

So where do these childhood impressions of what a boy should be and become come from? How do we change them for the next generation, and make it a bit easier? As a father now to a boisterous eight year old I'm quickly finding he redefines my own sense of what's expected of me as a man. Not only is he into football, but rugby too. The roughness and exertion that rather scared me is precisely the stuff he loves. And I have suddenly become one of those dads on the sidelines and touchlines of weekend matches. Having never really watched sport in my life I've now got subscriptions to Sky and BT. Having never been able to join in those conversations with groups of men about what happened in the match last night I can sometimes hold my own, for a few minutes at least. I even find myself enjoying it. As the boys run around I shout encouragement, but never instructions or anger. I still can't bear those fathers who really want to be the coach. Or who treat it like a cup final. But I find I am not the only one who is surprised to be a touchline dad. We're slowly all sort of "coming out".

And what to tell my young son? That being a boy does not mean you have to spend all your play with nerf guns and football. That theatre and girls are worth spending just as much time with too, even at eight. That being emotionally intelligent is just as important as knowing what how fast the Bloodhound SSC will go. We are going to the Imperial War Museum today. "I hate war, but I find it interesting", he just said to me. I hope that means his preconceptions of masculinity are more complex than mine were at his age. But I suspect I will have to keep an eye on it.

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