Opinion: “Man-up” – The need for feminists to tackle the crisis in masculinity

The new wave of feminism in the UK needs to pay attention to the increasing crisis in masculinity, argues Siobhan Bligh.

Siobhan Bligh is interested in social equality, and volunteers with LGBT rights groups in Sheffield. She is a feminist and civil-rights campaigner.

The new wave of feminism in the UK needs to pay attention to the increasing crisis in masculinity. It should not only pay attention to this crisis, but make efforts to combat problems men face with masculinity in society and culture. This is because feminism, and the egalitarian goals it seeks, will benefit from a healthier cultural attitude towards men and masculinity.

This is not to say that feminists focusing on the institutional and structural oppression of women should simply shift their gaze from female to male oppression. But, feminists should offer support for groups and organisations that aim to construct a psychologically and socially healthy masculinity for men to work within. A healthy masculinity is one which is not based upon the belittlement of femininity and women.

Whilst femininity is a construct that many women do not relate to, it bears an intimate relationship with attitudes towards women, and thus affects attitudes towards women. It is true to say that when femininity is respected by both men and women then feminism will be closer to its goal of gender equality.

Whilst “men’s rights” groups perpetuate misogyny and male power, feminists can help both genders, by shifting a small amount of focus to men. This crisis in masculinity manifests itself in several ways. Initially one can look at the cold hard statistics surrounding men’s lives in modern Britain. According to a 2012 report from the Office For National Statistics, men in Britain are more likely to be involved in substance abuse, be homeless, commit suicide, or have broken and shallow relationships.

Some men’s rights groups have linked this to an increase in women’s rights and the feminist movement, but this is an argument which is as poor as it is absurd. Men are not suffering because women are facing less oppression. Rather, men are suffering from a rigid, gendered world, in which an unachievable masculine identity is constantly reinforced to men from a young age. This ideal is one on which physical strength, emotional stoicism, wealth and power are idolised. Importantly for feminist, this masculine ideal also ridicules feminity, and thus contributes to women’s oppression. The MP Diane Abbott is right to say that in Britain there is a:

“culture of hyper-masculinity – a culture that exaggerates masculinity in the face of a perceived threat to it. At its worst, it’s a celebration of heartlessness; a lack of respect for women’s autonomy; and the normalisation of homophobia.”

To understand the importance of combating the crisis in masculinity, we must look at the role of cultural prescriptions of gender, and how it tailors men to act in our society. This affects the way that men act, the way they think about themselves, their identities, and it affects the way they relate to women. The more we look at societal expectations and demands of men, the more we realise that these ideals must be relaxed, and that cultural representations and expectations of men must change.

Men are constantly told from a young age to “man-up”. This means to remain strong, emotionless, cruel and often self-serving. As the American psychologist Judy Chu argues, young men will often be confused and alienated from both themselves and their loved ones, by an ideal that ridicules any form of feminity and emotions. What we must aim for is a healthy masculinity, in much the same way feminists would want women to have a healthy femininity. Whilst these ideals may be social constructions, they still guide people in the way they see themselves and others, and therefore it is imperative to promote a healthy gender culture for both men and women.

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