[Written by Corah Griton]
[Image Credit: Gilette, Proctor and Gamble]
Quick to pick up on the debate surrounding masculinity and modern notions of it, several marketing and media campaigns have focused on this issue. Gillette’s recent commercial sparked controversy; they redefined their most influential slogan—‘The Best A Man Can Get’—by questioning how men have treated women and others regarding sexual assault and violence. This call for introspection yielded both hostility and some empathy, but it did little to question the underlying causes of such issues. Indeed, whilst it was an ad campaign that resonated with a certain audience, the backlash demonstrated an inability to reach across the aisle. In fact, modern notions of male identity are seemingly held within a singular and strict discourse that limits the possibilities of the individual within a collective mass.
Masculinity is a complex topic and by reducing its complexities we do little but engage in a presumptuous erasure of what it could become in the future. Traditional masculine traits such as ‘strength’, ‘independence’ and ‘courage’ are increasingly held under the spotlight, acknowledged as an issue for the mental health of men, and in need of appropriate policy response. These norms are not inherently harmful to society. Indeed, observed in men and women they remain key skills in navigating the world of work and one’s private life. However, these traits become harmful when they are treated as isolated emotions; separated from compassion and kindness, they can quickly become amorphous and difficult traits to define one’s identity against. Indeed, the volatility of these values inwardly affect individuals and may be demonstrated by the loss in 2017 of 4,694 men to suicide in Britain (Samaritans, 2018).
Within the UK a cycle of masculine normativity has not been properly challenged by public policy; instead, policy is a passive participant in its reproduction. Whilst the House of Commons in 2018 reported ‘the total spend on mental health in 2017/18 was planned to be £11.9 billion, compared with £11.6 billion in 2016/17’, the issue has been dealt with at surface level. The Centre for Mental Health’s report suggests ‘that there is still a long way to go before equality of funding and service provision is achieved.’ Having an open dialogue is important, as is the case for many issues. However, to demonstrate a willingness and emphasise the importance for change there often needs to be a follow up in government funding, initiatives, and care that is specifically tailored towards dealing with mental health. Globally, an open debate about mental health has been raging on, yet funding and persistently high suicide rates in the UK reflects how little this has resonated with government as an area of priority. The lack of government attention for such a pressing issue reiterates ideologically bound beliefs of what masculinity is, and how it will continue to go unchallenged by governing bodies.
The reinforcement of the view that white masculinity is less hostile in comparison to other forms of male identity has inevitably been reflected in the wider political context. For example, in Charlottesville on August 12th 2017, a mass group of enraged white men forming under the banner of ‘Unite the Right’ engaged in behaviour akin to a terrorist faction. The results were tangible, with the death of one protester and the injury of nineteen. In what was supposedly an expression of civil protest, this behaviour certainly did not encapsulate the notion. Government officials trivialized the violence, with Donald Trump stating that violence was “on many sides”. It would be far too narrow to scrutinize masculinity for all white men, yet if the roles were reversed—with Black or Asian men enforcing repressive values through violence—the government, media and broader society would approach the matter in a very different way.
The manifestations of masculinity are subject to change due to factors such as culture, class, and race. In particular, racial prejudice can often contrive a negative image of non-white masculinity and the level of threat it poses. Evaluated through an educational lens, the treatment of male BAME pupils by teachers is often different from white male pupils. McLean and Demie’s report ‘Black Caribbean Underachievement in Schools in England’ (2017), highlights how teachers’ lowered expectation of students can have long term impacts on how students are later perceived in wider society. By internalising notions like ‘troublesome’ and ‘intimidating’, they engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy with debilitating consequences.
The educational sphere is perfectly placed as a domain in which values relating to masculinity are reified. A significant proportion of young people’s social development and formation of self-perception takes place during their time in the educational system. Crucially, the relationship and interactions pupils have with teachers is likely to shape how they perceive the world around them. Lipsky argues that teachers are ‘street level bureaucrats’; they are responsible for the implementation and not creation of policy. Nevertheless, they are provided with a freedom to enforce aspects of the curriculum that resonate with their values. In fact, ideological bias can permeate into the discourse surrounding sex education, and how emotion is framed in a gendered binary.
Therefore, teachers as policy makers are responsible for their actions having an impact on the development of the conceptualisation of male identity and what it stands for. There is no real way of monitoring teachers’ own behavioural attitudes towards female and male students, but what we can learn is that the bias of teachers may stem from societal definitions of masculinity. The perennial cycle of who controls the reigning definition of masculinity—whether it’s held by the populace or shaped by the government and media—is likely to result in the carving out of a distinctive narrative. How policy responds to this—from approaching educational reform, to tackling racial prejudices—will be of key significance in the years to come.