"The hegemonic masculinity that these men grew up recognising does not command the respect it once did"pixabay.com

In 2016, around three-quarters of all suicide victims in the UK were male, according to the Office for National Statistics. This figure is becoming increasingly familiar, as is its most prevalent explanation: what social scientists call a ‘hegemonic masculinity’ that is characterised by complete emotional control and the absence of vulnerability. Hegemonic masculinity is the form of masculinity that is most respected (and usually most dominant) in a particular social context. This kind of model can foster a lack of respect for emotional intelligence and lead to men being far less likely to acknowledge mental illness.

“Deeply entrenched gender stereotypes that so many are reacting against are not simply disappearing”

This notion of masculinity is changing, and the emerging male ideal is progressive, emotionally intelligent and compassionate. Of course, we should encourage alternative masculinities as far as possible, not only because of their beneficial influence on men’s mental health, but also because of their indirect effect on the perception of women. If men stop understanding femininity and masculinity as being straightforwardly oppositional (women are emotional and passive so men are physical and aggressive), they might be more likely to accept powerful conceptions of femininity.

However, the deeply entrenched gender stereotypes that so many are reacting against are not simply disappearing. A research report titled ‘Men, Suicide and Society’ produced in 2012 by the suicide prevention charity Samaritans refers to the ‘buffer generation’: men who are currently middle-aged and who are “caught between the traditional, silent, strong, austere masculinity of their fathers and the more progressive, open and individualistic generation of their sons.” The hegemonic masculinity that these men grew up recognising (and so many of them modelled themselves on) does not command the respect it once did, and the emerging masculine ideal expects an emotional intelligence from them that they have not been encouraged to cultivate.

“The real challenge is how to encourage more positive and varied conceptions of masculinity”

Obviously this problem is far more pronounced for older generations, but plenty of young men confront this clash of ideals – during their transition to university, for instance. Recognising that it is unhealthy to ignore your feelings and actually revealing your emotional vulnerabilities to someone else are two very different things. Sociologist Dr Amy Chandler of the University of Edinburgh also suggests that alternative forms of masculinity are much easier for affluent men to embrace: “developing more positive masculine identities in the face of economic hardship, lack of skills, family breakdown and deeply entrenched images of ‘strong and silent’ masculinity may be more difficult.” Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that suicide rates are highest among middle-aged men and the impoverished.

It is easy to alienate those who are affected most by toxic masculinity in the way that we talk about progressive alternatives. For some, we could be doing more harm than good. The real challenge is how to encourage more positive and varied conceptions of masculinity in a way that is not at odds with the traditional male social identity. A study of men’s accounts of depression conducted in 2006 found that a common strategy that aided many men in their recovery was to “incorporate values associated with hegemonic masculinity into narratives (being ‘one of the boys’, re-establishing control, and responsibility to others)”. Many men negatively associate therapy with dependence and helplessness, so Dr Chandler proposes that mental health professionals adopt a similar strategy of masculinisation: help-seeking should be framed as a way of maintaining independence or taking control of a situation.


Mountain View

Can boys be boys?

These strategies of masculinising emotional awareness are not new. In fact, this is exactly how Macduff expresses his devastation upon hearing about the death of his family in Macbeth. Malcolm tells him to “dispute it like a man”, but Macduff responds: “I shall do so: but I must also feel it as a man”. Strategies of masculinisation certainly will not work for everyone, and it is essential that our language adapts to the individual, but toxic masculinity is never going to disappear unless we communicate with men on their own terms