In February I went to see a trans-activist and spoken word poet perform. Alok Vaid-Menon, presenting and identifying as neither female or male, said stuff that made me feel a lot of things.
Anger. Confusion. Shame.
The contempt they showed for cisgender feminists seemed over the top and gratuitous. It was hard to stick to their grammatically troubling gender pronouns – them and their. And, of course, the anger against white, cisgender males – like yours truly – made me very uncomfortable.
Obviously, this was their goal. To leave their audience slightly less sure of themselves than when they arrived. Which is not generally the goal of identity politics. In many circles, you need to be certain of your pronouns and adjectives in order to feel comfortable.
Alok subverted that trope.
They succinctly exposed the damage we can do to each other by placing expectations on who they are supposed to be. And there was one group in particular, against whom a subtle violence is perpetrated every single day, simply by reinforcing gender binaries:
Masculinity does not only endanger women
Their point was that, while women and sensitive men are typically considered the victims of what becomes toxic masculinity, we forget about what it does to the masculine man.
Many of us envy the man who fits into the masculine ideal. He does not have to question who he is. He faces no discrimination due to his gender. And, in much of the world, he has access to far more opportunities than the rest of us.
But masculinity is also a prison. And we see that no more clearly than when it comes to mental illness.
Mental illness is man’s biggest threat
Almost twice as many women are diagnosed with depression as men. In South Africa, psychiatric clinics have a ratio of about 4 women for every 1 man in depression and bipolar wards.
However, men are twice as likely to commit suicide. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.
Why don’t the numbers match up?
There are a few reasons for this, including the fact that men are likelier to use deadlier weapons than women and therefore have a higher success rate. But the main reason should be pretty clear:
While more women are diagnosed with depression, as many men suffer in silence.
There is much less of a stigma for a woman to seek out help for depression and they therefore get treated for it.
However, the problem starts at an earlier stage.
Femininity encourages speaking about emotions. Masculinity all but demands the opposite. Because men don’t acknowledge their emotions, they become toxic and turn into depression.
We need to break down gender norms
Alok was spot on about what masculinity does to the masculine man. But, while they advocate for the abolition of gender entirely, I’m not going to go that far. It’s not that I don’t agree with them, necessarily (I might! but it’s a topic for another day). I just don’t think we need to go that far in order to confront this problem.
Maybe we can keep separating boys and girls into sports teams and have gender-specific bathrooms. But the binaries have to be weakened. Boys need to know that emotions are not weakness. They need to feel comfortable talking about them, and share the burden when life gets too difficult to handle alone.
In that way, they can manage their emotions before they become toxic. They can get help when they suffer from depression.
Weaker gender norms will lead to less men feeling they have no other option than to take their lives.
Masculinity is, in some ways, a violence perpetrated against men. It is time we stop perpetuating its artifice.