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Column: The horrible consequences of telling men how 'real' men behave

As we head into a new college year and young men and women find their feet, Lisa McInerney writes about how far we have yet to go to allow males to be themselves… and not what TV ads tell them to be.

Lisa McInerney

I’M TOLD THAT back in my grandparents’ day – let’s say the 1950s, rural Ireland – a man could not be seen to take interest in the day-to-day care of his children. That he’d be assumed to be weak, should he be seen pushing a pram down the street.

My grandmother marvels at how much attitudes have changed for fathers in the last few decades, at how involved they’re ‘allowed’ to be in their children’s lives. Watching a young father out for a jog recently with his baby in an all-terrain buggy, she practically swooned.

“At the time mine were small,” she confessed, “we’d have called that man a ‘sissy’.”

It’s sad that in times past, fathers missed out on so much of the joy of parenthood in order to keep up appearances in a society that really could have used a bit more male empathy. But that’s all behind us now, eh? Men are not just there as stern disciplinarians, but capable of and encouraged to take up whatever role works best within their family’s structure. No one faints when they see dads at the school gates or out having an ice-cream in the park with their brood.

“A young man turned up wearing a bright pink t-shirt, prompting an elderly guest to declare him ‘cracked’.”

I was recently at a gathering at which there were guests ranging in age from toddlers right up to great-grandparents. One of the guests, a young man, turned up wearing a bright pink t-shirt, prompting one of the elderly guests to declare him ‘cracked’.

“Who is that lad?” she said in the tone of someone who’d found a used tissue in a birthday cake and was trying to extract it with tweezers.

As far as we’ve come with widening the definition of masculinity, we’re not entirely there yet.

One might think it’s an overreaction to bemoan the attitudes of older people on what is or isn’t sartorially acceptable for a fellow, but it all ties in with how we view masculinity and how potentially dangerous it is to confine individuals into some rigid standard of what maketh the man. The truth is that being a man maketh the man, as frustratingly simple as that might seem.

It’s not a love of football, or being unable to concentrate on what a woman says , or being browbeaten by harpies into partaking of spa treatments. Not that commercial advertising is seen as some sort of biological textbook, or anything, but we know that it’s the same shallow process that defines men as loutish, overgrown children and women as shoe-obsessed airheads. And though we accept that men are as entitled to spend time with their children, take up non-traditional careers, or fall in love with other men, it seems to be from the small chinks our prejudices seep.

“Mainstream ad campaigns would have you believe a man in drag is still the funniest damn thing”

A man can be a nurse, but he can’t enjoy a hot stone massage. He can go for a jog with his baby in a buggy, but can he stroll around the shops with the buggy instead, picking himself up a pink T-shirt while he’s at it? And as for men in drag, well. Mainstream advertising campaigns would have you believe that’s still the funniest damn thing in the world.

There was another expected guest at that recent gathering who didn’t turn up. Funny and laddish, he would have been sure to add a spark to proceedings and our host was bitterly disappointed he hadn’t been able to make it.

We later found out that he’d had a breakdown, and not of the vehicular sort.

No one had any idea that it was coming. If he was worried, stressed or fighting depression, he hadn’t been able to express it.

The week before, another local man had taken his own life. In his case, he came from a cultural background where it simply wasn’t done for men to talk through issues that might be upsetting them. Men weren’t supposed to get upset. The victim had experienced major upheaval in his life in the months before his passing, but he hadn’t been able to admit that he was struggling. With no one to help him, it is assumed he just couldn’t do it alone any longer.

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Doubtless there’ll be a few reading this now who’ll have similar stories. No matter how far we’ve come with regard to validating the emotional needs and experiences of men, Ireland still has a significant problem with suicide, and it’s still mostly young men who go through with it.

“High-profile campaigns haven’t entirely reduced the stigma of mental health issues”

We might think we’ve figured out why. Men are taught by ‘banter culture’ to be always on the offensive and not to leave themselves open to ridicule. Many gay men are still afraid to come out to their friends and families, many men from traditional (and especially traditional rural) backgrounds still find it difficult to express themselves.

But our figuring this out hasn’t seemed to halt suicide rates. High-profile campaigns haven’t entirely reduced the stigma of mental health issues. The rise of ‘bromance’ – men simply being supportive of their friends – hasn’t encouraged every man to take up the offer of a shoulder to cry on.

Heading into a new college year, in which many young lads will be stepping out onto their own two feet for the first time, it’s as good a time as any to think about how well we’re looking after those who have secured themselves a Y chromosome. Maybe a good way to start is to ask ourselves why we’re still relatively inflexible when it comes to this masculine standard?

Perhaps more young men than ever are aware that it’s now acceptable for them to be individuals, rather than the frontline infantry of life, but perhaps too they’re not quite ready to believe it. Mental health campaigns can raise awareness, but it’s up to us to implement that awareness.

For every step forward we make in recognising that men’s emotional needs are as valid as women’s, there’s a stupid ad campaign or TV comedy telling our lads that heteronormative jackassery is the only way ‘real’ men behave.

Read previous columns on TheJournal.ie by Lisa McInerney >

For information or support on mental health and suicide, contact the following organisations:

  • Samaritans 1850 60 90 900 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634
  • Console 1800 201 890
  • Aware 1890 303 302
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie

About the author:

Lisa McInerney

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