What does it mean to “Be A Man” in the 21st century? Few would align that idea today with obviously outdated stereotypes: John Wayne riding into town with a rifle, Mad Men’s Don Draper discarding women at will, a Dickensian father sternly punishing his children.
Modern men are more likely to be riding bicycles, enjoying monogamy with partners of either gender, and taking paternity leave with confidence.
But even as society seems to welcome men who are more sensitive, compassionate and kind, I wonder if we ask ourselves often enough about this radically-changed view of masculinity?
We know that being a man is not easy – suicide incidence is higher among men than women across the western world. In the UK, men are three times more likely than women to end their own lives. And, according to the Department of Health, for most of the past 10 years the peak suicide rates have been in men in their mid-years. Yet hardly anyone seems to understand why this should be.
A clever report by The Samaritans finds that actual masculinity – “the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them” – contributes to suicide in men.
We compare ourselves against a masculine “gold standard” which prizes power, control and invincibility, and somewhat inevitably find ourselves falling short. Yet, says the charity, failure itself is non-masculine. Real men are in control of their lives at all times.
When those feelings (shame, sadness, loss of control) coalesce and spiral, men embark on risk-taking behaviours such as drugs or alcohol intake. And some, sadly, decide to end their lives.
How then to square the circle – allow men to break out of the stereotype without them feeling diminished or anxious?
At the Being A Man festival in London, these ideas are coming under scrutiny with key professionals, policy makers and experts brought in to discuss how being a man influences social life. Guests from think tanks and charities, industry, government and community initiatives discuss topics ranging from suicide rates and parental leave to young offenders and new leadership models.
One of its speakers is rapper and documentary film maker Professor Green who says: “The world’s changed, and these days a man has to be everything. You can’t just be hard, you can’t just be understanding, you have to bend and remould to each scenario.”
This fluidity in masculinity is where the future lies. Perhaps it is easier to relinquish this sense of control if we accept that we are evolving, and that the change is not yet complete. Indeed we have the power to control and describe how masculinity will look in centuries hence.
The control we have of creating a hopeful and exciting future must surely outweigh the individual and limiting control that old-school maleness afforded. Being A Man is still a work in progress.