This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.
Feminist movements are thriving, reacting to an increasingly misogynistic society in which gender stereotyping is commonplace. And rightly so; individuals shouldn’t be limited by presumptions and attitudes towards their gender, and many men have realised this, now becoming an important part of the feminist movement. Yet male concerns about gender stereotyping shouldn’t stop at liberation for women – strict gender norms can affect men in equally damaging ways. Perhaps a new movement is needed to confront the oppression men face, to coin a term; ‘meninism’.
Society is inflicting gender roles on both men and women. Routinely, women face critique of their appearance, pressure to start family life and expectations to occupy a generally subordinate role to men. Fortunately, feminism’s great work is confronting these sexist attitudes. Men face similar narrow conceptions on how they should behave; an expectation to be ambitious, to provide for a family financially but not affectionately and to hide their emotions. The difference is that men still lack a voice.
Consider mental illness, and how we deal with emotion. While women are encouraged to ‘open up’ and discuss issues with friends, men are told to ‘man up,’ and to hide their emotions. According to the mental health charity Mind, the consequence of this is that men ‘are often discouraged from expressing ‘softer’ emotions’ leading to ‘barriers to good mental health’. Mind also suggests that the public are ‘more prejudiced against men with mental health problems than women.’ Considering the difficulties that gender stereotyping presents to men, the statistic that men are 3-4 times more likely to commit suicide than women no longer seems so surprising.
Men also face social pressure in attitudes towards their career and family. To be fully male is to act as the breadwinner of the family and so to be anything other than financially ambitious is scorned. This burden leads to disparities in the attitudes of men and women towards their career, with men all too often feeling inadequate or worthless if they are not traditionally earning enough to ‘provide’ for their family. Indeed, reports show that men are disproportionately more affected psychologically as a result of unemployment in comparison with women.
And it goes beyond losing a job. A recent survey revealed that 82% of fathers want to spend more time with their families than their job allows, highlighting how society’s gendered expectations are failing both men and women. Thankfully the situation is changing – a growing number of men are staying at home to look after children, but fathers still make up only 10% of stay-at-home parents. It is clear that more needs to be done if men are to be free to choose a lifestyle which is best for them.
Body image – often understood as the preserve of women – also plays an integral role in how men identify with their gender. We are told men should be fit and strong – a sentiment that tries to label some men as less ‘masculine’ than others. This attitude has real consequences – one survey revealed that 63% of men expressed worries that ‘they were not muscular enough’. These fears arise from the absurd belief that ‘real men’ are strong and have a particular body shape, another sign that gender stereotypes in media and advertising are causing men harm.
Gender stereotypes even encroach on our most intimate relationships. A warped perception of masculinity has led to bizarre attitudes towards sexual orientation and the widespread belief that there is something ‘unmanly’ about being gay. Being a real, fully-functioning man is synonymous with being in a sexual relationship with a woman for no reason other than prejudice. The result of this is that male members of the LGBTQ community are perceived as unmanly or effeminate. Perhaps the most obvious consequence of this is the discrimination shown towards the LGBTQ community; 99% of school students regularly hear homophobic language being used and 41% of gay people have considered committing suicide as a result of bullying. Is this really a surprise considering the societal attitudes that rip away someone’s whole gender identity as soon as they identify as anything that isn’t heterosexual?
Likewise, for heterosexual men, our society’s lad culture dictates how individuals must act in order to be ‘real men’ – just read the routine misogynistic banter from websites such as Uni Lad. Men are seen as abnormal if they refuse to ‘rate’ girls out of ten, and face accusations of ‘being whipped’ if they become too caring or considerate. There is apparently something weird about not laughing along to a joke about sexual assault, or not gawping at girls in the street.
However, lad culture is not the sole culprit of these damaging perceptions. Too many women blissfully propagate gender stereotypes in their day to day lives with seemingly harmless dating games such as playing hard to get reinforcing the idea that men must strive, chase and earn the ‘prize’ of a girlfriend. Not only do these gender roles aid the objectification of women but they lead to unhappiness for men who find themselves not fitting into the narrow conceptions of stereotypical gendered behaviour.
All of these issues have a common cause; the idea of masculinity and how we have defined what being a man is. Just as feminists point to the limitations of an effeminate personality, we must highlight the injustices of the inflexible masculine mould that we are expected to fill. It is not about granting men the freedom to adopt an effeminate personality if they wish, it’s about having the sense to realise that a gender can’t have a personality. That to tie a gender to a personality trait is no less ridiculous than associating a personality trait to an ethnicity, sexual orientation or nationality.
You may think that ‘meninism’ is a ridiculous concept, especially when considering history. Women have suffered, and continue to suffer, from a patriarchal society which disproportionately grants privilege and power to men. But it seems clear that men suffer too. You may also argue that feminism already campaigns for men’s issues, yet groups regularly focus exclusively on the oppression of women. Visit the website for campaign group UK Feminista for instance, where every statistic exclusively highlights oppression against women. Men’s issues are being forgotten by the very people who are campaigning for an end to gender stereotypes.
Feminists must remember what liberation means – it is not just equal opportunity to be financially independent or to hold positions of authority. Liberation is about much more – it’s the freedom to be yourself regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, class or gender. As soon as we assign stereotypes to any identity we create expectations of how individuals should behave, guidelines of what people should want, and most importantly, limitations on who we can be. This is as true for men as anyone else.
So let’s reclaim the words ‘man,’ ‘masculine’ and ‘lad’. Let’s dissociate them from misogyny, banter and an inability to discuss emotional problems. Let’s remember what these words should be used for – to describe the gender of a person. And only their gender.