What We Talk About When We Talk About Men: The Top 12 Issues Men Face Today
Men’s roles are changing almost faster than we can keep up with the change. Here are twelve reasons the conversation about men is so incredibly important.
1) Unrealistic and Stereotypical Portrayals of Men in the Media and the Culture
Tired of seeing dumb and deadbeat dads? Sick of every man on TV being a sex-obsessed womanizer? So are men. Men are often seen as incompetent, misogynistic, brutish slobs who only think about sex, beer, and sports and have few other redeeming qualities. On the other end of the spectrum, however, is the superhero — -the man who is financially successful, in perfect shape, rich, handsome, brilliant, athletic — -the gold standard, and an almost impossible ideal.
These two extremes are but two of the false choices of manhood — -society constantly asks men to choose between being sensitive ninnies or hyper-aggressive bullies, financial providers for their families or absent fathers, “men of the house” or “pussy-whipped.” And so the “man-box” begins — -the ways in which “being a man” is acceptable by our culture is narrow and limiting.
Where are the portrayals of the many men who are complex, kind, communicative, nurturing? The men who are able to be both warriors and poets as needed, able to love deeply and for the long-term, with multi-dimensional abilities about a whole host of things? Oh, hey, — -that’s almost every guy we know at The Good Men Project.
2) Combatting Racism, Sexism, Homophobia and The Man-Box
All of these seemingly different social issues stem from society’s views of masculinity. Racism comes directly from men being told their role is to “provide and protect”. Most of systemic racism comes from white supremacists seeking to gain economic advantage. A man is not a man unless he is a financial success (so the old stereotype goes). And racism has long been used as a way to leverage financial success for a small group of people at the top. Sexism comes directly from the idea that women are “less than” men. It’s part economics, part control, part access to sex. Homophobia is a way of marginalizing other men — -as well as cutting men off from platonic touch (“No homo”) and emotional intelligence. All of this leads to the “Man-Box” — — the idea that there is one “right” way to be a man while marginalizing others who are different than that idealized man. There’s a reason oppressed groups are oppressed.
We’re fighting all of that.
3) Relationships of Every Kind
When people think of men and relationships, the first thing that often comes to mind is sexual relationships. But the truth is, men are just as interested in and committed to a host of other kinds of relationships. Male friendships, fathers and their sons and daughter, sons and their fathers and mothers. Familial relationships of all kinds. Long-term committed relationships between loving partners. Platonic friendships. Work relationships. Online relationships. Meeting new people. Friendships between gay and straight men that go beyond stereotypes. Men loving their children with their whole heart and soul, and making conscious decisions to love differently than their own parents. ALL of those relationships are part of the psyche of today’s man, and all are relationships that should be celebrated by our society and culture. After all, a loving relationship with any other human being is a sign of strength.
4) The Disposability of Men & Boys
Men have historically been the first to war, the first into a burning building, the last to exit a sinking ship. Men are seen as the champions of economic progress and the ones who are there to put into place the infrastructure that drives our transportation and communication systems. But there are hidden costs — -every year thousands of men die in the coal mines, railroads, sewers, satellite towers and other dangerous workplaces that are too often taken for granted. From the invisibility of boys who are being sex trafficked to men who are being exploited as cheap manual labor, there is something in our collective consciousness that treats men and boys as disposable. Even in the world of sports and entertainment, this is true — -read any one of our countless articles on CTE in the NFL, for examples. Showcase someone as a hero — -but when they get catastrophically injured, there is always someone next in line.
What we think of as “progress” often comes with an enormous price tag for men and boys. A clear example of this is in the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong. Cruise ships, ocean liners, freighters get pulled up on a beach and the most impoverished men and boys in the surrounding community break them down with mallets and bats. This is where ships go to die; it’s where men and boys do, too.
Men and boys are also invisible victims of rape and sexual assault. There is no clear language, few outlets for them to talk about it, and an often society-driven reluctance for them to come forward.
5) Parenting, Stay-At-Home Dads and Paternity Leave
While times are changing and stereotypes along with them, there are many places where moms are still seen as the default parent, the one who is more “natural” at the act of parenting and caring for children. Dads are clearly present in the lives of their children, but Stay-At-Home-Dads are (still) all too often seen as slackers or losers when nothing could be further from the truth. They are there for their children because they want to be a part of their children’s lives. And yet, men are not supported in learning about their roles of becoming a father in the same way that women are taught about becoming mothers. This starts early — -boys don’t play with dolls. And then goes all the way to the workplace: men — -even men with money and status and privilege — -often cannot take paternity leave without it being questioned. Men also find enormous difficulties when it comes to divorce and custody. The role of active, engaged fathers should be coveted. That is not going to happen if men are only seen as financial providers who are incapable of nurturing.
6) The LGBT Movement and the Expansion of Gender and Sexuality
For all the strides that the LGBT movement has made, it’s still difficult to be a man and to fall outside the gender and sexual norms. There is still real homophobia, transphobia, and gay-bashing. Why? What is it about the perception of what a “real” man is that allows those to occur? On the flip side, men of all kinds are becoming more vocal and more supportive of the entire gender spectrum. How long will it take for all types of gender and sexual expression to be seen as “normal?” Should we even divide people into man and female, or should we simply work towards an all-genders world? We are now seeing many stories of same-sex families with grown children who seem to have turned out just fine, thank you. We are heartened by the speed at which LGBT rights have made progress, but the work is far from over.
7) Men, Money, and the Pressure to be a Financial Success
It’s good, of course, to have enough money to pay your bills and live within your means. And in a family unit, it has long been assumed that men would be the one to provide for their family. Even in cases where there is a husband and wife and the wife is working — -it’s still assumed that the husband is someone going to be *responsible* for making sure the family is financially OK.
The pressures to be a financial success lead some men to abuse the system. And others to feel like a failure, for not being able to live up to society’s expectation of them. All of this is made even more difficult by a world that is changing even faster than most of us can keep up with it. There are fewer career jobs that have built-in security and that you can retire from with a pension. Robots, technology, and automation really does mean there are fewer jobs out there. For a high percentage of families, a $1,000 unexpected expense would be catastrophic.
It is up to use to co-create a future where everyone really does have access to financial security and it is not tied so inextricably to being a man.
8) Sports as a Lens of Culture and Masculinity
Sports has typically been the domain of men — -not that women aren’t wonderful athletes and fierce competitors, but it’s inarguable that men on average have been faster, stronger, more powerful. Sports highlight so many positive aspects of traditional masculinity — -strength and power, after all, are wonderful qualities when used for good. Sports icons have historically been our heroes; they are beautiful, golden boys, idolized. But all sides of masculinity come out in the world of sports — -bullying, power struggles, homophobia, and sexual abuse. The difficulties of parenting (or taking paternity leave) when you have a high-profile, high-paying job — -and people depend on you for their sports fix. The high incidence of concussions in the NFL leads to discussions about mental health. Covering up sexual abuse so that sports heroes can keep playing affects everyone. And what about men who simply have no interest in sports, particularly competitive sports. Why must they feel ostracized? Shouldn’t sports be an option for a fully realized life, but not a requirement? The conversation about men and sports ends up being a conversation about both the best and the worst of men and masculinity.
9) The Young and the Old, the Strong and the Weak
Men who are old and men who are young don’t fit into the two biggest parameters of idealized masculinity — — older men are seen as weak and feeble while younger men are not yet financially successful.
But beyond age, there are other forms of societally defined weakness that keep men out of the traditional man-box. If you are not able-bodied — -i.e. if you are disabled in some way, weakened by injury or disease, or suffering from mental illness — -you are told to “man up” and “take it like a man.” Or worse, you are outwardly marginalized, shamed, bullied, rendered invisible, somehow excluded from the boys club. It may be reasons why body-image problems are becoming increasingly in the realm of the masculine. A quest for perfection of the physical body is a way to prove strength and prove manhood. But is that the direction we really want to go?
Granting men permission to be whatever they are — -young, old, weak, strong, able, physically challenged, happy, depressed — -is not a just part of manhood. It’s a part of life in the 21st century.
10) Men Need to Step Up, and Everyone Needs to Step Up for Men: The Climate Emergency and the Prison Industrial Complex
Climate change not only *could* destroy life as we know it — -it already IS destroying life as we know it. And when people are literally fighting for resources — -waging all-out wars — -men will be the ones on the battlefield. Shouldn’t we figure it out before that?
Meanwhile — -the prison system affects men disproportionately, and we don’t talk about it nearly enough. There is no shortage of questions. Does the prison system work to create people who are better humans than they were before they went in? How does a man change while inside? Are men and women given equal sentences for equal crimes? What role does mental illness play in those who commit crimes and are imprisoned? What about race? What it is like for kids who have a parent in prison? How difficult is it for guys who are trying to parent their children from prison? What impact is the school-to-prison pipeline having on our nation’s boys? And how do we work toward a better understanding of how violence and aggression lead to the most horrific of crimes so we can prevent them from occurring? The answers to questions like these will bring about change, and change is needed to solve the societal impact of crime and punishment in the 21st century and its effect on men.
11) Raising Boys Today
Boys have unique challenges. In the past, the two ways of raising boys were to either dismiss bad behavior with “boys will be boys” or to admonish boys for showing signs of weakness, particularly emotional weakness, with the phrase “be a man.” Where is the recognition that boys are complex creatures, with a range of needs, and that to grow into a man is not a one-size-fits-all proposition?
Whether you are raising boys as a parent, as an educator, or as a role model — -or just care about boys today — -there are few resources and agreed-upon methods. How can we teach boys to respect not only women but also other boys and themselves? How do we help boys affected by racism? Talk to boys about #MeToo and sexual consent? And how do we have conversations with boys that let them know they can be victims of sexual assaults, a seldom talked about topic? What about boys who are growing up outside the socially accepted gender spectrum? Trans children? LGBTQ? What to do when boys are falling behind in school? Are boys being over-diagnosed with ADHD? How do we address violence and aggression — -how do we prevent things like bullying and school shootings? Do boys who are being raised by single moms or by two gay dads need more support than boys in traditional households? If so, what does that look like?
12) Helping to Solve the Bigger Problems of the World Today
Racism, Sexism, Homophobia. White supremacy. Environmental Issues, Climate Change and Climate Activism. The negativity, polarization and abuse in politics. War. Sexual Violence. Economic instability and inequality of wealth.
Yes, men want to help solve all of those.
This post was previously published on The Good Men Project.