© Sam Taylor-Johnson, Steve Buscemi, from the series Crying Men.
Excerpts from the article Masculinity Is Killing Men: The Roots of Men and Trauma, by Kali Holloway, fully available @ alternet.org:
If we are honest with ourselves, we have long known that masculinity kills men, in ways both myriad and measurable. While social constructions of femininity demand that women be thin, beautiful, accommodating, and some unattainable balance of virginal and fuckable, social constructions of masculinity demand that men constantly prove and re-prove the very fact that they are, well, men.
Both ideas are poisonous and potentially destructive, but statistically speaking, the number of addicted and afflicted men and their comparatively shorter lifespans proves masculinity is actually the more effective killer, getting the job done faster and in greater numbers. Masculinity’s death tolls are attributed to its more specific manifestations: alcoholism, workaholism and violence. Even when it does not literally kill, it causes a sort of spiritual death, leaving many men traumatized, dissociated and often unknowingly depressed. (These issues are heightened by race, class, sexuality and other marginalizing factors, but here let’s focus on early childhood and adolescent socialization overall.) To quote poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “tis not in death that men die most.” And for many men, the process begins long before manhood.
© Sam Taylor-Johnson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, from the series Crying Men, 2004.
It is impossible to downplay the concurrent influence of images and messages about masculinity embedded in our media. TV shows and movies inform kids — and all of us, really — not so much about who men (and women) are, but who they should be. While much of the scholarship about gender depictions in media has come from feminists deconstructing the endless damaging representations of women, there’s been far less research specifically about media-perpetuated constructions of masculinity. But certainly, we all recognize the traits that are valued among men in film, television, videogames, comic books, and more: strength, valor, independence, the ability to provide and protect.
While depictions of men have grown more complicated, nuanced and human over time (we’re long past the days of “Father Knows Best” and “Superman” archetypes), certain “masculine” qualities remain valued over others. As Amanda D. Lotz writes in her 2014 book, Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century, though depictions of men in media have become more diverse, “storytelling has nevertheless performed significant ideological work by consistently supporting…male characters it constructs as heroic or admirable, while denigrating others. So although television series may have displayed a range of men and masculinities, they also circumscribed a ‘preferred’ or ‘best’ masculinity through attributes that were consistently idealized.”
We are all familiar with these recurring characters. They are fearless action heroes; prostitute-fucking psychopaths in Grand Theft Auto; shlubby, housework-averse sitcom dads with inexplicably beautiful wives; bumbling stoner twentysomethings who still manage to “nail” the hot girl in the end; and still, the impenetrable Superman. Even sensitive, loveable everyguy Paul Rudd somehow “mans up” before the credits roll in his films. Here, it seems important to mention a National Coalition on Television Violence study which finds that on average, 18-year-old American males have already witnessed some 26,000 murders on television, “almost all of them committed by men.” Couple those numbers with violence in film and other media, and the numbers are likely astronomical.
The result of all this—the early denial of boy’s feelings, and our collective insistence that they follow suit—is that boys are effectively cut off from their feelings and emotions, their deepest and most vulnerable selves. Historian Stephanie Coontz has labeled this effect the “masculine mystique.” It leaves little boys, and later, men, emotionally disembodied, afraid to show weakness and often unable to fully access, recognize or cope with their feelings.
© Sam Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, from the series Crying Men, 2003.
James Gilligan, former director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School, has written numerous books on the subject of male violence and its source. In a 2013 interview with MenAlive, a men’s health blog, Gilligan spoke of his study findings, stating, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo that ‘loss of face’—no matter how severe the punishment, even if it includes death.”
Too often, men who are suffering do so alone, believing that revealing their personal pain is tantamount to failing at their masculinity. “As a society, we have more respect for the walking wounded,” Terry Real writes, “those who deny their difficulties, than we have for those who ‘let’ their conditions ‘get to them.'” And yet, the cost, both human and in real dollars, of not recognizing men’s trauma is far greater than attending to those wounds, or avoiding creating them in the first place. It’s critical that we begin taking more seriously what we do to little boys, how we do it, and the high emotional cost exacted by masculinity, which turns emotionally whole little boys into emotionally debilitated adult men.
When masculinity is defined by absence, when it sits, as it does, on the absurd and fallacious idea that the only way to be a man is to not acknowledge a key part of yourself, the consequences are both vicious and soul crushing. The resulting displacement and dissociation leaves men yet more vulnerable, susceptible, and in need of crutches to help allay the pain created by our demands of manliness. As Terry Real writes, “A depressed woman’s internalization of pain weakens her and hampers her capacity for direct communication. A depressed man’s tendency to extrude pain…may render him psychologically dangerous.”
We have set an unfair and unachievable standard, and in trying to live up to it, many men are slowly killing themselves. We have to move far beyond our outdated ideas of masculinity, and get past our very ideas about what being a man is. We have to start seeing men as innately so, with no need to prove who they are, to themselves or anyone else.
© Sam Taylor-Johnson, Robin Williams, from the series Crying Men, 2004.