Are Footballers the new Gladiators? (International Men’s Day 2016)

It’s November 19th 2016, which means that, amongst other things, it’s International Men’s Day. Before you all chime in with your jokes about White History Month and Straight Pride, consider this- I already made these exact same jokes, exactly a year ago.

“Happy Mens Day everyone! God, its great to finally get a chance to talk about mens issues and how hard it is to be a man. Men men men.”
- Me, on Facebook exactly one year ago today

So 1) you’re not being that funny and 2) you’ve been early-birded. By a teenager on the internet.

This year, I have some (hopefully) slightly more insightful thoughts about men; in particular, I want to think about the role that men have come to play in a society that no longer depends on the the things that have traditionally defined them- physical strength, aggression, competitiveness- and how those traits are expressed and channelled in the modern era.

But first, a treat. Some eye candy.

Don’t say I’m not good to you

That’s enough of that.

Ever since the beginning of the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions midway through the 18th century, the need for manual labour of the sort historically performed by men has fallen drastically. Instead, they sit in cubicles, at desks, in meetings- they are “knowledge workers”, a term coined in 1969 to distinguish a growing segment of the workforce from the more traditional manual labourers. It’s possible to make the argument that some of the classically male traits- competitiveness or aggression, for example- still confer some kind of advantage in modern society, but in general it seems that there is an ever-diminishing need for the characteristics that, once upon a time, were what it meant to be a Man.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing. But I think it’s a fact that there is a tendency in the times in which we live to think of all progress as a Good Thing, without actually thinking carefully about the knock-on effects. I’ll get to that later.

Given this historical collapse in the male dynamic, do we in the present day idolise a different kind of fellow? Does a modern day Ideal Man have a Dad Bod? Do we idolise men who have huge brains, who are effective collaborators, who may as well be floating clouds of plasma with voices? Well, no, no, and especially no.

Our so-called Ordinary Man, and I’m generalising here but stay with me, goes to work every day. He sits in his cubicle, he compromises, empathises he communicates- all traits that for a long time were considered to be Female. (Again, I’m not expressing an opinion on whether that’s right or wrong.)

And then our Man goes home, and watches Captain America. A big, beefy, soldier who pretty much single-handedly shoulders the responsibility of looking after the world and goes at it with single-minded determination bordering on pigheadedness.

He watches well-chiselled men scythe their way through fields of corn, sweat dripping off unreasonably chiselled and taut muscles while women swoon and flush.

And, perhaps most commonly of all, he watches young men at the peak of their physical primes battle for trophies that have no meaning beyond that which we ascribe to them, push their bodies to the extreme in a clear-cut binary feast of winners and losers. Sound familiar?

It should. I’m talking about football, but I could just easily be referring to- Tortured Metaphor incoming- gladiators. Wikipedia (who said writing was hard?) reckons that gladiators became much less prominent from around the end of the 5th century, but I don’t think so. We as a society seem to have an in-built need to watch our young men go off and fight, to send them off into arenas of battle, to roar them on and see them win. All that changed was the format- less bulls and more balls in the modern day, perhaps, but the basic idea has remained fairly consistent.

Of course I know I’m speaking in generalisations. Of course I know that not all men idolise footballers and action heroes, and of course I know that men can, should be and are valued for things that have nothing to do with their maleness.

But I’m still interested in the discrepancy that’s arisen, the ever-growing divergence between the life of an average male and the hypermasculine ideal that seems to dominate our media and our culture. We work ever more collaboratively, but even our most cerebral male heroes- Sherlock, House- are lone wolves who forge ahead of everyone else to solve problems. Schools increasingly hold non-competitive sports days, even though boys are already disproportionately let down by the school system compared to their female counterparts, even though so many of our children’s role models are athletes.

It’s easy to dismiss concerns like these as “male tears” (and fun, too). ‘Boohoo! I hear you cry, ‘Poor men have to act like grown ups, they can’t fight in the playground any more, they have to share the toys.’ And I agree, most of the time. The very definition of civilisation is acting in a way that is different to what our caveman instincts would tell us; “boys will be boys” is an unacceptable but sadly all too common explanation of sexual assault.

But on International Men’s Day, let’s take a brief pause to think about the pressures that the gap I’ve described places on men. The hypermasculinity that we hold in such esteem is causing vast increases in self-image problems among adolescent men. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50.

And there are other problems too, problems I’ve discussed before that come from people feeling alienated, left behind, like they have no place in a modern world. A kind of hopeless nostalgia for a time gone by, when “men were men”, is common to a lot of the anti-establishment voters we’ve seen coming flooding out of the woodwork in recent times; if only men voted, it’s estimated that Donald Trump would have won 350 electoral college votes, and Hillary Clinton would have scored 188.

I don’t, I think, have a particularly strong point that I want you to take away from this piece. I don’t think (obviously) that men are the only people who are harmed by society’s idea of what they are meant to be.

I just think it’s useful to think about the gap between who we evolved to be in the past, who we are in the present, and who we yearn to be in the future. And what that gap does to us.