Societal ideas of masculinity leads men to disconnect from their emotional experience

Mahesh Natarajan

When we talk of mental health, we see the focus fall squarely on vulnerable populations. Women, queer people, people with disability, disadvantaged communities and other minority populations are especially vulnerable to mental health issues, with many studies reporting incidences of mental health issues being two to ten times that of men.

Barring organic causes of mental health issues, much of the mental health concerns stem from having to cope with an oppressive society, which is patriarchal and divisive with the dice loaded in favor of the Man. Roles and rewards are very particular, with the Man on top, with far greater control over resources and opportunities, and reaping significantly higher rewards. Working through and often against such a system is tough, and leaves vulnerable populations exhausted, scared, anxious, depressed. This is where mental health issues stem from.


The idea of ‘Man’
The mythical Man in these arguments is cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, educated, and is from a majoritarian community. But even without some of these identities, the idea of the Man as the oppressor is a strong narrative.

Men are not immune to mental health issues, even though the social norms are in their favor. This is because often they are struggling to meet the high expectations of patriarchy, and in that process, cannot be true to their own individuality.    

In recent years, the idea of ‘alpha’ men and the others, the 'beta’ men has gained traction, notably after incidents of violent terror attacks. Commentary has centered around how the beta men, feeling invalidated and oppressed by the system that rewards only the alpha, find themselves extraordinarily deprived, especially of sexual partners and opportunities. This frustration, coupled with poor coping skills and access to means of violence, creates spaces where the continued experiences of rejection and ensuing feelings of powerlessness can become a murderous rage. Even for the so-called alpha men, expectations of ongoing perfection, perception of competition and a constant need for appreciation sets them up for their own mental health issues.

There are no winners in patriarchy
While patriarchy does affect the women, queer and others disproportionally, men aren’t spared either. The idea of the Man is quite rigid, and comes with rigorous, unspoken rules, especially when it comes to mental health.

There is hardly any patriarchal society that does not have the following rules, among so many more darker rules:

  • Don’t be vulnerable, being 'strong’ is the epitome of being manly
  • Men don’t cry: Being emotionally expressive is unmanly; Men are allowed only their anger
  • Do it: Action makes the man. Men must be logical, cool and rational
  • Men don’t share: Talking about their feelings is unmanly
  • Don’t be loving: Being cold, distant is being strong

To fit in with all these unspoken rules, men are socialized to deny their own feelings and desires, subvert their feelings of affection and love into cold, cultivated patterns of extended work and hard habits, develop a façade of strength that masks genuine feelings, leaving a hollow and harsh machismo.


Bullying is often machismo defending its fragility

This cultivated machismo doesn’t do well under situations of confrontation. Any situation that threatens to break through that sliver of fragile and shallow machismo, and expose the reality of the vulnerable, desiring and needing man, results in explosively violent defence. Bullying of women, transpersons and liberals could all be seen from this lens.

Threats by other representations of masculinity, such as by more gentle men or gay men, are also often met with such violence. A Singaporean study, for example, found that kids told to ‘man up’ were four times as likely to become a bully. This is to portray themselves as being strong, which creates a vicious pyramid of bullies.

Bullying by the uber macho men is often a result of such a threat to their machismo, be it the school ground bully who shakes down the ‘geek’ and the ‘nerd,’ to the homophobic man, who is violent towards trans and gay people.

Should there be spaces and means where people could explore their own fragilities, would bullying to shore up one’s own masculinity happen as much? Would bullying still be as prevalent?

Mental health issues as a weakness

A tragedy arising from this valuing of a rigid patriarchy is the denial of the reality of mental health issues of men, especially those seeking to shroud themselves in the machismo to project their alpha credentials. The idea of masculinity leads men to disconnect from their emotional experience. While others may more freely confront their anxieties, moods and thoughts, men seeking their uber masculinity would see acknowledging it as a weakness, and work hard to mask it, deny or overcome it.

Consequently, more men are violent because only anger is seen as manly. More men kill themselves because failure is not an option, and because they see themselves as solely responsible for their circle of influence. More men live and suffer in their own private mental hell, without ever reaching out for help.

What if we lived in a gender-free world?

With the awareness of the ills of patriarchy, liberal societies around the world are doing a lot more to break down gender stereotypes, invest in social education of gender equality, empathy across identities, values of compassion and understanding. School systems in Europe, Canada and elsewhere in particular, are investing in early education along these lines to dismantle patriarchy from early on, starting with primary education. Legal systems in these countries too have moved towards equality and non-discrimination, with more and more laws becoming gender neutral as well.

Early results do show that among youngsters, the wide gap in mental health issues between genders and communities does reduce, with much less reported bullying and aggression that continue well beyond the time of such interventions.

A more radical approach would be to try and dismantle gender altogether in social circles and identity formation. What if people did not care about gender as much? What if there were no gender coding at all in societies – no pink/blue segregation, no clothing/makeup differences, no hairstyle/footwear mores? What if there were no barriers to communication of feeling or thought or behavior?

Would a society where the idea of gender was utterly fluid and inconsequential to identity formation have far fewer mental health issues? Would there be far fewer social issues such as sexual violence, gang-related issues etc?

In recent times, some societies are experimenting with the idea of taking away the concept of gender as a core aspect of identity formation altogether. In some Scandinavian countries, there is a movement to gender-neutral terminologies, naming and schooling. Whether it would really change how people identify themselves in the gender spectrum, and whether it would really breakdown the gender walls and dismantle systemic issues that directly correlate with mental health issues – that remains to be seen.

References:

  1. The Alpha-Beta hierarchy propaganda: http://tobealpha.com/what-is-a-beta-male/         
  2. Rules of Patriarchy: http://www.christoscenter.com/14-rules-of-the-dark-patriarchy/
  3. Bullying as learning masculinity: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/boys-told-to-man-up-by-peers-are-4-times-more-likely-to-bully-others-survey
  4. Men’s suicides in india: https://thewire.in/culture/reporters-diary-male-suicides-india         
  5. Empathy and patriarchy: https://medium.com/gender-theory/the-importance-of-empathy-4af141e53983         
  6. Gender free schooling experiments:  https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/no-more-gender-a-look-into-swedens-social-experiment/