Of all the pieces of advice I received while growing up, none confused me more than the admonishment of ‘boys don’t cry!’ (variations include ‘take it like a man,’ ‘man up,’ or ‘suck it up’). I vividly remember the first time I contravened this principle – during my first viewing of Mufasa’s harrowing death scene in the original Lion King – as well as the inner turmoil that ensued. To my young mind, displaying emotion was antithetical to what it meant to be a real man and I felt deeply ashamed for succumbing to my ‘weaknesses.’ The memories of being mocked by my friends for crying at a film are still seared into my brain, marking my first encounter with destructive ideas of masculinity.
I am sure many people can relate to this experience because I, like many men and young boys across the country, was taught to repress my emotions and that true masculinity can only be attained by being strong and tough, playing the role of ‘breadwinner,’ having multiple partners and stoically weathering the vicissitudes of life. To exhibit even an iota of emotion is a sign of weakness and those who are weak are susceptible to being dominated – and men should never, ever, be dominated.
These characteristics are embedded within men from a very young age and are presented as the ‘natural’ way in which men are supposed to act. However, there is not one universal masculinity, but many masculinities. These are not fixed character types, rather, masculinities are ‘configurations of practice’ that are enacted through actions in the social world and can vary based on the specific social milieu. Masculinities are therefore socially constructed ideas of what it means to be a man and multiple masculinities (and femininities) exist and operate in relation to each other.
However, one type of masculinity is often held up as the most desirable within a society or group. This is known has the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and is not necessarily a question of head counts, but a question of which form of masculinity is culturally dominant. For instance, the type of masculinity that predominates in the corporate offices of Sandton might be very different to the hegemonic masculinity present on the Cape Flats.
Despite being relatively unattainable for most men in a particular setting, hegemonic masculinities are nevertheless considered the ideal configurations of practice for ‘being a man’ and subordinates women and other men who fall short of this ideal or who embody alternative constructions of masculinity. This pursuit of an idealised version of masculinity – like the one described above, which emphasises strength, domination, and a detachment from one’s emotions – confers upon men immense power over others. However, this power comes at a grave cost for men themselves.
To some, this may seem like a contradiction – how is it possible for men’s own power and privilege to be the source of a lot of their hardship? But it is important to bear in mind that systems of power are complex and multidimensional in their impact, with the potential to erode the humanity of both the oppressed and the oppressor. As such, in addition to the pain inflicted upon victims, destructive conceptions of masculinity wreak havoc in the lives of men, which manifests in the form of compromised physical and mental health, restricted intimacy, and shallow friendships, amongst others.
The dissonance between the authentic needs of men and the unattainable tenets of hegemonic masculinities often results in destructive consequences for the mental wellbeing of men, and the evidence is damning. The World Health Organisation reports that South African men are four times more likely to die of suicide than women. Research also shows that men are less likely to seek help when faced with mental health issues, because of being socialised into believing that to feel pain – physical or emotional – is to fail to be a “real man.”
Due to these harmful hegemonic masculinities, many boys and men have an inability to relate with and articulate their feelings and emotions, which often serves as a precursor to suicidal ideation. Indeed, several studies have shown that conformity to traditional masculine norms increases the risk of men’s suicidal behaviour.
Alcohol abuse has often served as a coping mechanism for many South African men, which has had adverse effects on their physical and mental wellbeing, increasing the risk of disease, injury, and death. It has also been shown that suicidal ideation increases when men are unable to fulfil the traditional role of ‘breadwinner.’ The failure to live up to this and other ideals of hegemonic masculinities cultivates a feeling of worthlessness and isolation within men, compounded by the ridicule and scorn they often have to endure from family and friends for not being a ‘real man.’
Uncertainties regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have heightened men’s vulnerability to the tentacles of depression, alienation, anxiety, and further threatened their socially perceived role as primary financial providers.
Thus, rigid, and harmful masculinities have profoundly negative effects on the mental health of men. These masculine norms inscribe a version of manhood that is predicated on strength, domination, and emotional repression, while viewing anyone who steps outside of these boundaries as an aberration from the norm. Phrases like ‘boys don’t cry,’ ‘take it like a man,’ ‘man up,’ or ‘suck it up’ are hurled at men and boys to keep them within the narrow confines of destructive hegemonic masculinities, thereby denuding their ability to appropriately manage their mental health.
It is time to promote healthier forms of masculinity that view men as wholistic human beings who are able to express a wide range of emotions and treat others, and themselves, with kindness, dignity and respect.