Thirteen Men

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I don’t usually like to split things up along gender lines. I think the trouble with gender is that we don’t have the right words – everything’s too loaded. Everything ends up stereotyping everyone.

I know ‘feminine’ men (and I don’t mean effeminate men here, different thing altogether) and I know ‘masculine’ women; ‘tomboys’ who turned into fashionistas and school yard ‘cissies’ who turned into tough men. I know guys who are turning into their mothers and girls who are just like their fathers.   

In fact, in families, a lot of families, I think gender characteristics can swim about quite fluidly in the gene pool. So many of us possess a blend of our mothers’ and fathers’ personalities (with a great big chunk, the biggest bit, that’s just us, ours alone).

So all this Venus and Mars stuff, all continually pointing out the differences between men and women, when we surely, as human beings, have more in common than points of difference, seems divisive, unconstructive.

But then you look at the stats.

Ah yes, of course, the stats. The lifeblood of content. No wonder then, when it comes to gender difference, so many stats are so alarmingly different as to demand attention (the gender pay gap anyone?).

And this one: today, in the UK, statistically speaking, sixteen people will take their own lives.

Thirteen of them will be men.

In my last post, I pondered the subject of the ‘Warrior’ gene, present in 30% of men and representing a biologically-driven challenge in processing emotion, and whether this might have a bearing on the truly frightening statistics that, if you’re a man under 45, you’re more likely to die by your own hand than any other cause (the number of men committing suicide in their 40s and 50s is also soaring).

The night I posted I saw a trailer for a BBC documentary with British Rap Artist Professor Green, covering his own father’s suicide (and last night I watched it).

It was a raw, incredibly brave, compelling, heart-wrenching film. One of those documentaries you watch that leave you feeling a little stunned and almost slightly winded at the end; proving the power of the explicitly personal, universally human narrative to punch the consciousness and make you think about others’ lives, so similar and so different to our own.

Watching, listening to all the stats and facts and academic opinion, it’s hard to deny this reactive suicide epidemic (not too dramatic a word when you think no other disease or disaster eats up more young men) is a male problem.

And, like all male problems, we don’t like to talk about it. And that’s the problem.

In so many forms, Green (aka Stephen Manderson) exposed the recurring narrative hook, a fundamental truth of male identity, that is the belief you mustn’t be, and must fight to not appear to be, in any way vulnerable, or to voice any vulnerability (a challenge Manderson himself, understandably, faced throughout the filming).

There was talk that perhaps the male youth of today are developing healthier identities. That these forty something suicides were the result of the ‘buffer’ generation, squeezed between the post-war traditional ideas of male identity as lived by their fathers and the metrosexual modernity of their millennial sons (for a long time I’ve conjectured that Generation X is the truly lost generation, but that’s a whole other story).

Then Manderson visited a family who had recently lost their son, a guy who seemed to have it all, who, unexpectedly, at twenty six, had killed himself – and you couldn’t help feeling that it might be too soon to be too optimistic about the robustness of Gen Y and Millennial men.

Are Gen X fathers raising their sons to be better at accepting their vulnerabilities, dealing with setbacks or failure; are their Gen X mothers? Are we, as a society, a culture?

Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think there are many platforms where men share their own vulnerabilities – and surely this would be the way to assure their sons it’s okay to feel the same.

A couple of years ago, I saw a great keynote speech at the end of a conference from a CEO who spoke about the power of admitting to vulnerabilities as a leader. People respect people who admit they don’t know it all. They like people who can show they have good self-knowledge, it makes them easier to work with (you can get better at predicting their responses for a start, which always helps with timing – and timing, as we know, is everything).

It was a really powerful speech, really inspiring. It came from a woman.

So what are we going to do about this? I see more crises in male identity ahead – from campus rape culture to Insta-induced body dysmorphia (did you know, the ‘typical’ customer of health food store Holland and Barrett isn’t mung-bean-soaking middle-aged hippies, it’s young guys, buying protein powers to pump up – and look good for that selfie).

Mike Buchanan, the leader of political party Justice for Men and Boys (and the women who love them), produces a weighty argument against the state for creating this crisis, but fails to mention the most startling fact of all – the laws and systems that he says are assaulting the human rights of men and boys are also, overwhelmingly, designed and run by men too.

Which brings me to work culture – and hope.

Working cultures really can, I believe, lead the way. I’m not saying they are leading the way – in many workplaces, acting out the warrior or psycho boss is almost in the job description. Vulnerability results in a P45. People hide their tears in cubicles. But it can. We can have that dialogue at work. We can balance up the dialogue, admit we’re all vulnerable and find the power in that.

Many working environments certainly need to be healthier places for women to go – but they should be healthier, more productive places for everyone. Ultimately, it’s a commercial imperative. A societal one too: burning people up and out scorches many more people than just the person who dies.

We really need to think about workplace exits too. Women don’t tend to kill themselves when they lose their jobs. Lots of men do. And what employer wants someone’s life on their hands.

If more men like Stephen Manderson can show us the way, show us it’s okay to be a bit F’d up and crack people open to TALK about that, seriously talk about it, we might make some headway.

If more enlightened leaders can show us greatness comes even when you have some vulnerabilities (Churchill, anyone?), we might make some headway. We need to. This is scary.

The same day I posted my last post and saw the Professor Green trailer, Twitter was full of @manwhohasitall, the account parodying the inane barrage of advice working women can be subjected to in the media.

I guess it makes a good point about how condescending (and unrealistic) a lot of this advice can be, but I looked at it another way. Women have this content, advice, these dialogues, to consume or spit out as they decide. Men don’t.

There might be a lot of dross among it, but there must be something in it – looking at those stats, women are coping with 21st century life far better than men. They talk. They discuss things. 

What do men do? Laugh it off. Spoof it. Bottle it up. Repeat the pattern. Rationalise it away. Be ‘typical’ men.

And some, too many, go and kill themselves believing there’s no way out.

Perhaps if we did have some channels, some outlets for men to express SOMETHING, ANYTHING about how they feel about, and are (or aren’t), managing their lives – without fear of ridicule – less than thirteen men today would feel they’re worth so little as to not exist at all.   

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