Miriam Rayman
Jul 6, 2018

We need to talk about men

Masculinity needs an urgent update.

Axe asks: Is it ok for guys?
Axe asks: Is it ok for guys?

As #metoo continues to reverberate around the globe, a quieter revolution is also taking hold, around what it means to be a man.

This isn’t new. The definition of masculinity has been periodically reassessed from the new man of the '80s to the metrosexual of the '00s to the quieter, authentic, bearded masculinity of recent times. What’s different today is that the reassessment comes with an added sense of urgency.

Whilst shifting gender politics and #metoo have spiked the issue, it’s the consequent polarization of masculinity which is causing concern. Not all men are feeling liberated and free to dress as they choose or make the most of the new service-oriented economies where brute force doesn’t count for much anymore. Rates of depression and suicide amongst men are rising and reactionary masculinity is gaining traction primarily via the web, within the manosphere and extreme groups such as Incels. In countries like China, where women long enjoyed equality, feminist voices are now being silenced online (on Weibo for example) for their association with political unrest. The web is fuelling a form of toxic masculinity that needs to be addressed.  

So whilst some have little sympathy for men struggling with the power shift, this is no longer just a male problem, it’s now become everyone’s problem. If society is to seize the opportunity that #metoo has set in motion, to make further progress, it must once again open up the discussion of masculinity. Without this, the campaign #metoo will only take us so far.

“How many men think Harvey Weinstein or Trump represent them?" asks Martin Raymond, founder of the Future Laboratory, which has just collaborated with London-based director IGGYLDN on a film called New Masculinity. "Men are looking at themselves saying, now let’s talk about masculinity, it’s time to go looking and exploring again.”

What they’ve found is a younger generation of men side-stepping the shackles of binary gender. “It’s not a battle of the sexes," Raymond says. "Now there are more than two and less than 10 that we know of. Soon we could have more.”

And the data backs this up, over a third of Gen Z respondents (aged 13 to 20) in a recent JWT Innovation Group survey on attitudes to gender, said they ‘strongly agreed that gender did not define a person as much as it used to.’ This survey was US-specific, but a look to the gender fluid aesthetic of K-pop boy bands or the contestants on China’s cult talent series, Idol Producer, suggests this attitude is taking root in Asia too.

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However, there are still those men who aren’t shifting their attitudes quite so fast, the remaining 2/3rds in the JWT survey for example. Do we need to worry about them? Perhaps they will adapt their views as social acceptability increases, but might we have a time bomb on our hands if we just wait for perception to change?

With The EveryMAN Project, photographer Tarik Carroll confronts notions of maasculinity in re-imagined '90s fashion ads.

“The abandonment or gradual replacement of a 20th-century model of male identity is experienced as profoundly challenging by large numbers of people,” says Jay McCauley Bowstead, author of The Menswear Revolution, which documents contemporary masculinity through the lens of fashion and the male body. “Most men don't conform to an idealised model of manhood, but they don't necessarily have a language to own this non-conformity or to question societal norms.”

In the absence of the vocabulary to critic the limitations of gender definitions, they end up going back to the set ideals of what a man should be. It also just happens that this masculinity, marked by dominance, decisiveness, competitively, physical strength, economic prowess and a stoic inexpressive character, continues to be celebrated and idealised in much mainstream culture. And for that reason it feels easier and more reassuring in the short run to revert to this, even if it may lead to mental health issues down the line. A recent meta analysis for example from Indiana University Bloomington and Nanyang Technological University found that men who exhibit certain behaviours that are stereotypically masculine—homophobia, risk taking, and exercising power over women were among them—had worse mental health, and were more likely to reject the idea of getting help for mental health.

As McCauley Bowstead explains: “A lot of things we associate with femininity which are around caring, nurturing, openness and sociability are not feminine qualities per se. They’re human qualities, and if you suppress those qualities, you’re going to be quite unhappy.” And as we saw with the Incel-attributed Toronto van attack in April, that unhappiness, a sense of inferiority and fear of weakness, can lead men to do terrible things.

What’s needed is the promotion of multiple identities, not just made up of your biological sex, but relating to your lifestage, if you are a parent, your socio-economic class, your job, your ethnicity, your passions, all the things that make you a complex human being.

This is what’s behind the latest campaign from MenXP, India’s leading online male lifestyle publication, entitled “Welcome to the Newhood.” They encourage men to choose the man they want to be, beyond the alpha, macho, hero or leader. Likewise Lynx/Axe has continued to address this issue in global campaigns since its successful 'Find your magic' repositioning. Their #isitokfor guys work exposes the emotional minefield young men find themselves in now that the rules are being done away with and masculinity is up for grabs.

Lynx/Axe is a standout example, well worth the credit in these standout times. However, successful and sensitive campaigns such as this are in the minority. Quite often the topic is addressed in a way that leaves the viewer cold or feeling awkward. As Raymond laments, “The brands aren’t debating gender as the consumers are doing it, they’re just rehashing an antiquated view of masculinity or using a tokenistic man in a skirt.”

The problem is we are approaching yet another shift in the economic system set to further threaten traditional notions of masculinity. The rise of automation is set to eradicate jobs where men over-index. Described as the 4Ds, these jobs are the ones that are difficult, dangerous, dirty and dull.

So the clock is ticking to do something. Advertising, Hollywood, gaming and other media must work harder now to get up to speed. They must tell compelling stories that celebrate multiple masculinities and model men who find purpose and meaning beyond the limits of the traditional gender stereotypes.

London-based Miriam Rayman is a freelance cultural strategist and co-founder of Family Affair, an independent think tank researching how the family is changing. 

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series


Campaign Asia

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