Two images…and a crisis of masculinity

Symbols: During last weekend’s riots, one man was a saviour; the other deeply offensive.

What does it mean to be masculine? Two moments frozen in time – one an epitome of humane kindness; the other an image of mindless crudity – sum up what many see as a societal catastrophe.

By the steps of the Southbank Centre in central London, Black Lives Matter protester Patrick Hutchinson draped an injured demonstrator over his shoulder and hustled him to safety.

Half a mile away in Westminster, Andrew Banks was relieving himself next to the memorial of PC Keith Palmer, killed in the Westminster terrorist attack in 2017. Banks had drunk 16 pints that day and not slept since Friday.

Both were among several hundred demonstrators, including Black Lives Matter activists and far-right groups, such as the English Defence League, who had come to Westminster to make a stand.

The images of the two men’s actions went viral. Hutchinson has been feted as a “British hero”. Banks has been sentenced to two weeks in jail for public indecency.

Two powerful images. Two vividly contrasting archetypes of masculinity. One selfless; the other utterly selfish.

Hutchinson’s use of his physical strength to protect someone in need epitomises traditional masculinity in its most positive form. By contrast, Banks’s lack of impulse control and drunken behaviour embodies toxic masculinity. His behaviour feels threatening and even potentially violent.

But what if there are more than two ways to be a man?

In recent years, many have pointed to a crisis of masculinity in modern society. They argue that it is precisely the pressure to conform to a particular type that is often fatal. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

Experts say that it is vital to challenge fixed ideas of what a man “should” be. Hutchinson’s bravery is admirable, but not all men should have to mirror his actions in order to be respected.

In 2017, the comedian Robert Webb published his memoir How Not To Be A Boy that explored how concealing his vulnerability damaged his mental health. That same year, Stormzy proved you can be a role model to young men and still speak candidly about your experience of dealing with depression.

Others have criticised sexual stereotypes. For example, people may assume that women are more emotional and men more practical. But recognising that, in reality, these qualities are distributed across both sexes frees people from constraints about who they can be.

Webb says, “If you’ve ever seen somebody give birth, you very quickly lose the idea that grace under pressure or physical courage are exclusively male virtues.” Men’s mental health organisations, such as Movember, encourage men to talk about their feelings – a habit often associated with women.

“We need to focus less on what makes the ideal man or perfect woman, and try to understand what makes the best human,” says therapist Marylin Mathew.

So, what does it mean to be masculine?

Boys will be boys

On the one hand, being masculine has traditionally meant looking after and protecting your family. This has often been linked with the idea that men should appear strong. While some may find this expectation stifling, others find it suits them. They don’t see why they should have to talk about their feelings.

On the other hand, many people feel that this definition of masculinity is too narrow. There is no right or wrong way to be a man. For instance, being a man is not just showing the courage and strength that Patrick Hutchinson displayed – but also the empathy and humanity that he demonstrated too.

You Decide

  1. Are there any circumstances in which it is OK to use violence?
  2. Are men and women more similar than they are different?

Activities

  1. Make a poster about a man you think is a good role model. What do you like about him? What has he taught you?
  2. Write a list of all of the different aspects of your identity that make up who you are. It could be your gender, your religion, your taste in music. Explore which of them you were born with and which you have acquired as you grew up.

Some People Say...

“Man is never so manly as when he feels deeply, acts boldly, and expresses himself with frankness and with fervour.”

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), UK prime minister

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that many significant aspects of our identities are determined by our external environment. For example, in ancient Greek epics, the male heroes often cry when they are distressed. Whereas, nowadays, there is more of a stigma around men crying. This is just one illustration of how behaviour can be shaped by the expectations of others – and if we can change these ideas, maybe we can change what it means to be a man.
What do we not know?
The jury is still out on how much of our identity is down to nurture and how much is as a result of nature. Some people believe that there is very little about us that is totally fixed; others, however, feel that much of our identity is biologically determined – and that no amount of social conditioning can ever change that.

Word Watch

Black Lives Matter
A political movement which aims to challenge police brutality and racism towards black people all across the world, usually using protests and other means of activism.
English Defence League
A far-right, racist organisation based in the UK that believes British values and culture are under threat from Muslims and immigrants.
Feted
Celebrated; honoured.
Archetypes
Very typical examples of a certain person or thing.
Epitomises
Perfect examples of.
Toxic masculinity
Traditional forms of masculinity that have negative consequences on men themselves and the people they are surrounded by. For example, peer pressure to behave worse than you otherwise would.
Robert Webb
Comedian and actor, best known for starring in the sitcom Peep Show.
Movember
A charity which supports men’s mental health best known for its annual Movember challenge, when men grow facial hair to raise money.

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