It seems to me that feminism is higher on the world agenda than it has ever been before, and thank God for that. Not only has Hollywood big shot Meryl Streep made a long overdue film about the struggle for women’s rights, but the gender equality movement has never had more clout. However, there is something getting overlooked in the eternal fight for female equality: masculinity.
In an age where female identity is discussed at length in this male-dominated world, it’s important to question exactly what we are asking of men in 2016. Fifty years ago a man was measured by his ability to provide for his family, but nowadays women are banging on the glass ceiling and demanding what they deserve – respect and equality.
So where does that leave the modern man? I think it’s safe to say that 21st Century women don’t want a brutish caveman protector and provider anymore, instead they want a fella who can satisfy their emotional, physical and ideological needs.
I recently attended a festival created to champion men, in an attempt to understand where we stand in the horror show that has been 2016. Being A Man Festival was set up three years ago to help men and women address the challenges and pressures of masculine identity in the 21st century. Hosted by London’s Southbank Centre, the festival brought together celebrities, academics and artists of both genders – to discuss what it is to be a man.
I witnessed former James Bond actor Sir Roger Moore deliver a witty walk down memory lane, but the man who really grabbed my attention was someone from a very different background.
Flick over to the next page to hear about the mystery man who changed my perspective on the complicated world of masculinity.
On the surface, British rapper Professor Green (real name Stephen Manderson) might seem scary. Covered in tattoos and mired in rap culture, Pro Green has the aura of a man who has seen and done quite a bit. A drug dealer on the estates of London as a youth, he ended up marrying a wealthy socialite and has created documentaries for the BBC on everything from dangerous dogs to homelessness. But of course, appearances are misleading, and after only a few words I was instantly aware that I was in the presence of an eloquent, sensitive and intelligent man.
One thing that resonated with me about Manderson’s talk was something he said about friendship. Despite having the same group of close male friends for a number of years, only recently had the group started saying that they love each other. This is something that my father’s macho generation would have struggled to understand, yet it made me recall the closeness of my own male friendships.
What I was left with was a sense that men are much better off in 2016 than they ever were 50 years ago, when men “were men” and didn’t discuss their feelings. If you had problems back then, you sorted them out either with your fists, or with a steely mask that belied the truth.
This concept of modern men being comfortable externalising their feelings led perfectly into another key area: male suicide. The biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide, and of the 6,000+ British lives lost to suicide each year, nearly 75 per cent of those are male. This highlights the fact that being a modern man is perhaps much harder than people realise.
Manderson recalled a tragic story he had uncovered during his documentary on male suicide. It told of a young man haunted by his father’s decision to kill himself. He had left a tragic note about bottled-up feelings, which warned his son not to end up like him. The irony was that his son was so traumatised by the act, and unable to deal with it emotionally, that he then went on to try and take his own life twice. This stuck with me for days after the talk, and I was troubled by the idea that men can be so withdrawn and inward that their issues consume them.
This is why discussing masculinity is more important than ever. In 2016, men are expected to be everything: hero, breadwinner, confidante, friend, lover – forced to contort themselves depending on the time of day. As far as I’m concerned, men are in real danger of losing their identity in a sea of change.
While I have a good idea of the man I want to be, I’d be remiss to force that view onto other men striving to find their own place in the world. After listening to Manderson, I was certainly clear on one thing: masculinity, and the ideas around it, are subject to constant change, and the only way to stay afloat is to be open, honest and caring.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, contact Your Life Your Voice on 1 800 448 3000, Samaritans on 116 123 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on 1 800 273 8255. For recorded information, call Mind on 0300 123 3393.