Consider the above meme. I see it a lot on my Facebook feed, and have, sometimes, shared it myself when trying to make a point in a tongue in cheek manner. The meme articulates a fairly valid point: a tendency by some men to tried to sideline the views of other, less privileged people. Which happens, a lot, on the internet especially. The image is obviously meant to be semi joking, yet there’s a part of me, when I look at it, that makes me feel uncomfortable.
This kind of humour, though it’s something I’ve used, and laughed at, is the slightest bit raw for me. In my last relationship, as an birthday present for my ex, I engraved a hip flask with the words “delicious male tears.” It was, in all honesty, a joke. We used that line all the time, and I wanted to give her something that felt personal. Some months later, when the relationship ended, my ex informed me that I was “too depressed” to love anymore, and then proceeded to tell everyone who’d listen how awfully depressed I was, how totally non functional I was. I was, evidently non functional. I just completed a masters and was holding down a job, co-running a comedy night, writing thousands of words of blog posts and writing a novel. I was depressed. I always had been, but I was also getting care, support, and dealing as best any depressed person could. In the months that followed, I found that my depression, my tendency to sometimes be sad for days at a time and yes – shock, horror – yes, cry sometimes, was public knowledge, and was used to mock me, even in supposedly radical circles. I had opened myself up, emotionally, in that relationship, in a way I never had with another person, and after that scarring experience, I felt unable to be open with anyone, really. For some reason, when I think back to this time, that hipflask, with its tongue in cheek slogan that I had engraved by hand, came back to haunt me. I shed my fair share of tears over it all, which tends to happen when you feel that your mental health problems, the things you’ve shared emotionally, have been weaponised against you.
My own experience aside, the real question I must ask is this: are we doing something damaging by mocking male sadness?
Masculinity can be hard to define, which is precisely why I am spending three years doing a PhD on the subject. Raewyen Connell, arguably the originator of the study of masculinity, has argued that masculinities are contingent. Hegemonic Masculinity – the dominant ideal form of masculinity in any given social order is based on “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answers to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy.” Unchecked Masculinity, then, is inherently tied to dominance, and subordination of women, and also other men, which explains the often violent (and I use the term violent here to encompass physical, emotional, and psychological forms of violence) way that men interact with other men, or women. This violence however is a sign of the imperfection of masculinity – if you are in control of a situation, why be violent in any way? Masculinities, though they can be contingent on social orders (the masculine performance of a soldier is different from the masculine performance of say, a stock trader) but masculinities have some universal features. Self control is one of these; this is often couched in terms of an almost military repression of emotions and feelings in favour of utility. Historically, various attempts to build a new masculinity have held onto this repressive element of manhood, even if they have tried to right some of the wrongs of masculinity in general. Trotsky, in Literature & Revolution, writes of the New Soviet Man, who, under communism:
…will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.
The creation of the ideal man, then, requires a certain amount of repression in order to “master his own feelings.” That’s all very well and good but it does tie into a mindset which stigmatizes male displays of emotion as unmasculine. Consider the two phrases “boys don’t cry” and “man up”, phrases so common place that they have become bywords for male self regulation. Note the phraseology; it’s not a imperative “stop crying” but a declarative, linked to an individual’s gender identity. If you do not self-regulate your emotions, it suggests, you cannot be a man. And this is irrevocably tied into the maintenance of patriarchy. If socialized masculinity is about maintaining power, then men who feel must be silenced. Stepping away from theoretical terms for a moment, the inability of men to speak about, relate to, and deal with, sadness is both common, and dangerous.
I’d like to think that I’m relatively open about my mental health issues. But I do find them deeply isolating. In writing this, I became very conscious of the way in which my own masculinity plays into the public and private nature of my psychological state. Ask people who know me, and they’ll describe me as high functioning, (mostly) level headed, adaptable, resourceful, and the like. Combine that with a certain degree of empathy and sensitivity, and people end up liking me much more than I expect. That, however, is the public face. Here’s a little fact: I cry. A lot. Most days, in fact. Crying is something I do behind closed doors with alarming ease. The same with lots of other signs of sadness; I currently haven’t eaten for two days, because I’ve genuinely felt too sad to eat. I am, currently, consuming 10-12 units of alcohol a night. I’ve recently gotten back into going to the gym regularly, and tend to do heavy cardio work outs; last night I cycled 65 km, and I’m going back to the gym to do the same thing again when this blog post in finished. I have a horrible feeling I’m not so much doing this for the exercise as much as doing athlete level training when your body is running on an entirely liquid diet hurts and if my Catholic upbringing taught me anything, its that we all deserve to be hurt, and feel guilty about it.
In short, I’m really quite sad.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50, with higher risk of suicide in men aged 18-26. You can read the latest report on suicides in the United Kingdom, courtesy of the Samaritans, here. In general, men tend to find it harder to talk about mental health issues. Laurie Penny writes that: “Asking for help is seen as an affront to masculinity.This is deeply, deeply troubling, because it means when you’re taking that first step when you’re suffering a mental health difficulty, reaching out for help is made doubly hard. The rules of masculinity prevent you from asking for help or talking about feelings.”(source here). This is compounded for gay, bisexual and transgender men, according to Richard Lane of Stonewall: It’s so much wider than gay or bisexual men .Men hear ‘man up’ and ‘stop being such a poof’. It’s a real barrier in talking about mental health issues.” Owen Jones identifies this trend for men to be at greater risk of suicide to ” an element of “gender policing”, of abuse directed at men who do not conform to a stereotype of masculinity.” (source here). According to MIND, men are more likely to turn to self medication via drugs and alcohol (you can read a study on the reasons for this, and also why men are more likely to be alcoholics here).
My own experience of being a man who has been suicidal, and does abuse alcohol, and does live with mental health conditions, is still one of agonized silence, no matter how much I blog about it. The self regulatory elements of masculinity, which I spoke about above, are present through both external and internal means. Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine, who is in a word lovely, an excellent activist and empathetic person all round. After opening up to her about some of my issues, I was surprised when she told me that I was being “needy.” She later apologized for this, but it articulated one of my gravest fears. I don’t want to be needy. I pride myself on my resilience, and my own masculinity is very much tied to my strength. I frequently find myself telling friends that I am “made of steel.” Partially, this is a joke, but it has a serious core. More often than not, one of the reasons why I don’t reach out to people, and endure my dark periods alone, is that I don’t want to be thought of as needy, as an attention seeker, as perennially sad, as the kind of person with whom conversations are mired in their own depression. As much as I can see the absurdity of self regulation, of repressing what I’m really thinking and feeling, it’s a part of men, part of ny conception of whom I am, of what makes me a man.
Which brings me back to jokes about male sadness. There has to be a way that we can make a valid point about societal inequality, epistemic injustice, the silencing of minorities and the like which doesn’t buy into a discourse of mocking male sadness. Am I, in any way, suggesting that if you share a meme like the one above, you are consciousness reinforcing a discourse that prevents men from feeling? No, not at all. Humour can be a radical act when it makes a valid societal criticism, and I think that the meme above is making such a criticism, calling to attention the lack of understanding in men about the nature of privilege. But I fear it is a double edged sword – while articulating one valid critique, it is, perhaps, buying to another, regressive one.
What I am saying is that I worrying that mocking male sadness – even if you are making a good point about societal inequality – is feeding into the discourse – a discourse which is an integral part of patriarchy, I should note – that does silence men.
What do you think? Do I have a point? Or am I making a fuss out of nothing? Let me know in the comments.